The Rest of the NFC West: Draft Strategies

Taking a look at the needs of the 49ers' three rivals in the NFC West and how each is approaching the draft this weekend.

ARIZONA CARDINALS:

Three things are true in the desert: the Cardinals need better players, the Cardinals need better players and the Cardinals need better players.

Taking the last part of that first, the Cardinals came away from the 2004 draft with four quality starters with their first four picks. If they were to duplicate that, they'd be well on their way to reversing their fortunes.

Since Dennis Green's arrival, not only have they had one strong draft but they've had two decent offseasons of free agency signings.

While they've upgraded the overall talent base, they are far from having finished the task.

Their leading rusher last year, Emmitt Smith, retired, and their leading rusher from 2002 and 2003, Marcel Shipp, is attempting a comeback from a fractured leg that cost him all of 2004. He wasn't known as a speed demon before the injury.

So they need a running back, and with the eighth pick overall should be in position to take what's left among Cedric Benson of Texas, Ronnie Brown of Auburn or Carnell "Cadillac" Williams of Auburn.

Any of those three could waltz in and start for this team.

Or, the Cardinals might wait until draft day to trade for Travis Henry of Buffalo. Green no doubt would prefer an experienced ball carrier to an unproven rookie who has "can't-miss potential."

They would know what they have in Henry and then could use that No. 8 pick on a cornerback - Adam "Pac Man" Jones of West Virginia, Antrel Rolle of Miami or Carlos Rogers of Auburn.

There is a glaring need at corner with both of the starters having left. Duane Starks was traded to New England and Renaldo Hill signed with Oakland as a free agent.

According to Green, the Cardinals needs just happen to coincide with the strength of this draft.

"This is the draft of the running back and cornerback," Green said. "There are probably going to be three corners and three running backs who will be drafted in the top 10 picks.

"That means that six spots will be taken up by just two positions. That is very unusual. There still might also be two quarterbacks taken in there. I think each year the draft takes on a different perspective, and I think this year is definitely dominated by running backs and corners."

Green claims the team will take the best player on the board.

"What that means is that the draft is so deep that you can take a running back or a cornerback at No. 8, at No. 44, or No. 75 - those are our top three picks - and you'll get a very good player at any one of those picks," Green said.

If the Cardinals were to come away with Henry and one of the top three cornerbacks, they would be well on their way to upgrading their team.

A Henry deal likely won't be consummated until draft day, though. With such a high pick, the Cardinals might be in position to entertain a trade down with another team and still get a quality ball carrier or corner.

According to Green, the Henry trade "still has a heartbeat." The Cardinals would give up tackle L.J. Shelton. There could be swapping of picks in lower first-day rounds. The Bills want to swap second-round picks. The Cardinals haven't bit, but still could.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

If no man's land is where some teams reside on draft day, count the Rams in that group.

Sitting at No. 19 in the first round, it's become increasingly difficult to get a handle on what might be available at that spot, especially considering the team's needs.

Many first-round projections have the Rams selecting a right tackle, which certainly makes sense on some levels. However, the club's past philosophy has been to draft linemen later not sooner, especially considering the difficulty in stepping into the team's offense and being an immediate contributor.

With four of the first 81 choices in the draft, the Rams know there will be a solid tackle available for them after the first round. Certainly, they would grab Florida State's Alex Barron at 19 if he was available, but that is highly unlikely. It's a tossup as to whether they would pull the trigger on Wisconsin's Khalif Barnes or Oklahoma's Jammal Brown. Nebraska's Richie Incognito is a lineman the Rams could be eyeing in a later round.

The Rams have been studying closely the second- and third-tier groups of safeties, realizing that there aren't many top safeties available after Georgia's Thomas Davis. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Rams draft at least two safeties in the first four rounds, where they have six selections.

Which brings us to areas where there isn't a glaring need, but where the value could be with the 19th pick if the Rams don't trade up or down.

It appears quite likely that a defensive end or cornerback will be the top-rated player on the Rams' board when they are on the clock. There is increasing age at defensive end on the current roster with the exception of second-year man Anthony Hargrove and he can't yet be counted on as an every-down starter.

At cornerback, Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler are solid starters, but depth there would be welcome. DeJuan Groce hasn't shown he can remain healthy, while Kevin Garrett so far has been a disappointment.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

The Seahawks enter the draft needing to upgrade their defensive front seven more than other areas. They have 10 picks, including extra choices in the third and fourth rounds, leaving new president Tim Ruskell with plenty of ammunition should the right trade arise.

This is Ruskell's first go-round as the lead decision maker for an NFL organization. He previously worked under Rich McKay in Tampa Bay and briefly Atlanta.

Many expect Ruskell to draft for defense given the Bucs' track record during his tenure there, but Tampa Bay's defensive-minded head coach at the time, Tony Dungy, had a lot to do with those picks. Ruskell also believes in drafting for defense, but he has said publicly that Seattle won't reach for players.

"We've all gone overboard for need," Ruskell said. "Back in the Tampa days when we took Eric Curry, we really had to do something in terms of our defensive line and our front.

"We probably moved Eric up a grade or two and we were regretful of that afterward. After you make a mistake like that - Eric did some things but he wasn't what we had hoped or how we had graded him - you learn from that and try not to do it again."

The Seahawks ranked 26th on defense last season.

First and foremost, they could use a starting-caliber pass rusher after losing DE Chike Okeafor in free agency. Newly signed DE Bryce Fisher matched Okeafor with 8.5 sacks last season, but the Seahawks would be better off with Fisher as their third DE.

Linebacker is another glaring need, even after the signing of free-agent veteran Jamie Sharper. Anthony Simmons was released while another longtime starter, Chad Brown, appears to be on his way out after refusing to meet the team's demands for a pay cut.

This draft appears to have more starting-caliber defensive linemen than linebackers, so Seattle might have to strike early to find an impact linebacker. The team holds the 23rd overall pick.

Seattle wouldn't mind trading disgruntled RB Shaun Alexander. Finding a suitor could be difficult given Alexander's contract expectations, but a draft-day deal is possible.

Beyond DE and LB, the Seahawks can be expected to shore up depth at C, RB, CB and possibly WR. Ruskell called this draft class "inordinately strong" at the CB position, an area the Seahawks needed to address after losing CB Ken Lucas in free agency. The addition of RFA CB Kelly Herndon was a start.

Under Ruskell, the Seahawks will be far less inclined to remove players from the draft board based on size. Former vice president Ted Thompson, now GM in Green Bay, generally ruled out cornerbacks shorter than 5-feet-10, for example.

"We wouldn't have taken Warrick Dunn, we wouldn't have taken Anthony McFarland, Chuck Darby, Ronde Barber," Ruskell said, again alluding to his 17-year run in Tampa Bay. "There aren't enough players to go around. That doesn't measure the heart, that doesn't measure the instincts, that doesn't measure the hitting ability. You really kind of shoot yourself in the foot, in my opinion."

Most mock drafts have Seattle nabbing a defensive end early. Ruskell will surely go that route if the right player is available, but he didn't rule out drafting an offensive player in the first round.

"We have to not get so tied into a position (particularly with the first-round pick)," Ruskell said. "We have to be wide open to the whole gamut because there really isn't a guy we could bring in who couldn't challenge for a spot."


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