Behind enemy lines: NFCW draft plans & needs

With teams throughout the NFL making their final draft preparations with the college lottery looming this weekend, here's a rundown on the draft strategies and team needs of the 49ers' three divisional opponents in the NFC West.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

DRAFT STRATEGY

Coming off seasons of five wins in 2005 and six in 2004, there is not an overabundance of anything on the Cardinals roster. The biggest priorities, though, are offensive line, defensive tackle, cornerback, outside linebacker, free safety and tight end.

If a franchise-turning quarterback happens to still be on the board at No. 10 in the first round, the Cardinals would have to take a hard look at that, too.

"We always take the best player. We think that's the best way to operate," Coach Dennis Green said. "Free agency and trades are the best way to fill needs but what we really need (in the draft) is a good player. We need the best player that's there when we pick 10 and 42 and 71."

The Cardinals will be watching quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Vince Young carefully. Very likely one of them will be available at No. 10. While a player at another position could come in this fall and start and have a more immediate impact, a franchise quarterback who could serve them for five to 10 years might help them more over the long haul.

They will also be watching offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Winston Justice (both likely long gone by No. 10), cornerbacks Tye Hill and Jimmy Williams, defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Brodrick Bunkley, outside linebackers Chad Greenway or Ernie Sims, and even tight end Vernon Davis. Any could step in and start.

Green has waxed on about the potential of his third-year quarterback, John Navarre, who has been a third-stringer. Navarre may now become the backup with Josh McCown having moved on to Detroit in free agency.

McCown had performed admirably in extended starting duty the past three years when injuries felled starters. Given the uncertainty in depth and given starter Kurt Warner's age and recent injury history, the team would have to look hard if a strong QB miraculously remains on the board at No. 10, or if a good development prospect is there for them in the second or third round.

TEAM NEEDS

Offensive line: The Cardinals now have RB Edgerrin James and QB Kurt Warner to protect. They have some linemen on the roster who should be performing at a higher level -- Leonard Davis, Oliver Ross, Elton Brown, Alex Stepanovich. They upgraded at guard with the signing in free agency of Milford Brown. Injuries stymied Ross and Stepanovich, and Brown was a rookie. Davis hasn't emerged into a premier left tackle and could move back inside to guard. But the bottom line is the Cardinals need to improve not only the chemistry but also the talent in order to reverse a rushing game that couldn't convert on third-and-two, couldn't punch the ball into the end zone in goal-to-goal down and distance, and had the second-worst rushing statistics since the NFL-AFL merger.
Defensive tackle: The team quickly signed DT Kendrick Clancy in free agency but it needs more. Russell Davis, a longtime starter, left for Seattle as an unrestricted free agent. This is a team that can't have too many run stoppers. It has attempted to use quick, undersized players inside for years. Darnell Dockett has shown playmaking ability but might be better suited to play end. Depth became a critical issue at these spots when injuries took a toll as the season wore on.
Cornerback: The Cardinals haven't had a formidable pair in recent memory. Antrel Rolle, last season's first-round pick, missed 11 games to a knee injury. It remains to be seen if he is the player they believe he is. Fellow 2005 rookie Eric Green saw spot-starting duty, largely because other players were injured, but he, too, has upside to his game and could develop into a serviceable starter. The problem with both players is the "might" and "could." And while those same caveats might well be attached to any rookie that they would draft, name a team that has too many cover players.
Outside linebacker: A bookend to Karlos Dansby to play the weak side would serve this defense well. Dansby is rounding into a Pro Bowl caliber player on the strong side, but a patchwork of aging veterans including Orlando Huff and James Darling on the weak side, simply hasn't gotten the job done.
Free safety: With SS Adrian Wilson functioning essentially as the fourth linebacker and FS Robert Griffith going into his 13th season, the Cardinals need help with their last line of defense. A young, athletic centerfielder would enhance the unit.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

DRAFT STRATEGY

Had the Rams lost to the Dallas Cowboys on the final night of the regular season last January, they would be selecting eighth instead of 11th in the first round of the April 29 draft.

If that were the case, they would have a much better idea of what direction they will go with the choice, and it would give them a better chance of landing the impact player they want, like tight end Vernon Davis or linebacker A.J. Hawk.

Their presence at No. 11 is almost in no-man's land. While there are good players, there are questions whether the value they would get there is worthwhile. It's why the Rams are considering an aggressive approach to a possible trade that would perhaps land them in the top five.

The unknown is what the price would be to get as high as they need. With numerous indications the 49ers are targeting Davis in the sixth spot, the Rams would have to get to the fifth choice to land him. But it's also not out of the question that the Rams are considering a bold move to wind up with defensive end Mario Williams.

If the Rams prove unsuccessful in moving up and let the draft come to them, which is their usual approach, there have been rumblings they will not rule out taking a quarterback if Jay Cutler slips to No. 11.

While Marc Bulger is under contract for two more seasons, he has been affected by three shoulder injuries the last two seasons. Still, it seems a longshot that Linehan would go in that direction in his first draft.

The logical strategy would be to trade down, obviously if a viable partner can be found. That could have a better chance of occurring if Cutler or even Vince Young hasn't been selected.

Should the Rams end up picking at No. 11, they could go in several directions. Their best hope there is that Texas defensive back Michael Huff is available, which assumes Davis and Hawk are off the board.

While there is debate whether Huff will wind up at cornerback or safety, the reality with the Rams is they need both, which could make him an ideal fit. Fans shudder at the notion the Rams could add a defensive tackle like Haloti Ngata or Brodrick Bunkley, only because Damione Lewis and Jimmy Kennedy were each 12th overall picks and didn't live to that billing.

Kennedy still has a chance, but Lewis signed with Carolina in the early days of free agency. But the Rams need depth inside, making a first-round defensive tackle a possibility, along with a cornerback or linebacker.

No matter what happens in the first round, the Rams are expected to come out of the first day with three players from four potential positions: tight end, linebacker, defensive lineman and defensive back.

TEAM NEEDS

Tight end:
Brandon Manumaleuna's salary has increased to $1.325 million this season and there is no other proven depth on the roster. Manumaleuna is decent as an in-line blocker, but is not a threat as a receiver. Under former coach Mike Martz, the tight end was often an afterthought in the passing game, but new coach Scott Linehan appears to have a different philosophy. There is a need because a playmaker would help the offense, especially in the red zone.
Linebacker: The two free agents signed last season, Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley, were disappointments. Claiborne has already been released, while Coakley is expected back from a broken leg he suffered during the season. However, he is slated to be a backup. The Rams moved quickly and signed Will Witherspoon, and said he will play middle linebacker. A strong-side linebacker is still needed, though the recently signed Raonall Smith will compete.
Guard: Adam Timmerman is getting up in years and while there is some hope for Blaine Saipaia, he is an unknown. Timmerman did not participate in the team's minicamp this weekend. Claude Terrell played as a rookie last season, and needs an off-season in the weight room to build strength and stamina. Some competitive depth is necessary.
Defensive line: The loss of Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis has left the Rams perilously thin on the inside of their defensive line. La'Roi Glover was signed after being released by the Cowboys, while Jimmy Kennedy, the 12th overall pick in 2003, has yet to live up to his first-round status and currently is considered the starter at nose tackle. The only depth is Brian Howard and Jeremy Calahan. At end, Anthony Hargrove has been slow to develop and Leonard Little enters the season in the final year of his contract.
Defensive back: The Rams hope starters Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler are able to return from injuries that affected them in 2005. Butler missed the entire season, while Fisher tried playing through a groin injury and finally shut it down for the final seven games of the season. Fakhir Brown was added, but more help could be arriving. At strong safety, Corey Chavous was signed to replace Adam Archuleta, but free safety also needs upgrading.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

DRAFT STRATEGY

The Seahawks hope the best cornerback available is also the best player available, but there can be no assurances for a team holding the 31st overall pick in the draft.

And Seattle, having already surrendered its third-round pick to land WR Nate Burleson, can pretty much forget about trading up in the first round.

Cornerback, safety and defensive end are the primary needs for the defending NFC champions. The crop of defensive backs is particularly deep this year, giving Seattle hope that one of the better corners will still be on the board when Seattle exercises the 31st overall pick.

Miami's Kelly Jennings is a player who could conceivably slip to Seattle amid concerns about his size. If he is there at No. 31, the Seahawks could certainly do worse.

Teams generally do not take safeties in the first round, but Tennessee's Jason Allen would probably appeal to Seattle if he somehow slipped into the latter stages of the round. Allen could be gone in the first 20 picks, however.

Defensive end has been a draft need for years. The best ones are generally gone in the top dozen or so picks. Seattle hasn't drafted that high since passing on defensive end Andre Carter for a shot at wide receiver Koren Robinson. Neither player has justified his draft standing. Seattle has solid starters in Bryce Fisher and Grant Wistrom, but neither player is dominant and depth is a concern.

The draft goes longer than one round, of course. Seattle had outstanding success in the second and third rounds a year ago.

Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu (45th overall) and linebacker Leroy Hill (98th) became impact players as rookies, with Tatupu even earning a Pro Bowl berth.

"We didn't think we were going to get Leroy Hill," team president Tim Ruskell said. "We thought he would be gone in the second round. He was there. That was real good."

While first-round pick Chris Spencer might become the long-term solution at center, his impact was not felt in 2005.

Seattle would like to get more immediate bang for its first-round buck this year, raising an interesting question: What if the best player available is a guard or a tight end?

"We went into last year saying, 'We would like to add some players to the defense,' so what we did was we went and took a center," Ruskell quipped. "You have to stay honest to your grades. There might be some secondary or defensive line that we would like to add but having said that, it may not fall that way because everyone is saying there may be a run on the corners and there are not enough safeties.

"So, that defensive player just may not be there. But we would like to go that way if we could."

TEAM NEEDS

Cornerback:
Ruskell likes the cornerback depth in this draft. Seattle should be able to find one in the 31st spot. Miami CB Kelly Jennings would be a good fit for the Seattle defense. He's a little undersized but that never bothered Ruskell when he was part of the group that drafted CB Ronde Barber and others in Tampa Bay. Jennings also has a wealth of experience, having played 40 games in four seasons of college ball. Seattle is positioned to take a cornerback early in the draft after releasing CB Andre Dyson and failing to make an offer for veteran CB Ty Law.
Safety: This is definitely a need position but the extent of that need is open to debate. The team could be in good shape if FS Ken Hamlin returns from serious head injuries. He is on track to participate in minicamps. The team might also move CB Jordan Babineaux to free safety. Babineaux played safety in college. He has proven to be a playmaker when given opportunities. Even if Hamlin and Babineaux work out at the position, Seattle could use another safety to groom behind them. The team should be able to find one on the first day of the draft. FS Jason Allen of Tennessee will probably be gone when Seattle chooses with the 31st pick, but he would be a logical choice if still available.
Defensive end: Remember 1999 first-round pick Lamar King? The Seahawks would rather not, for King symbolizes their recent inability to draft an impact defensive end. The problem has hurt the franchise for years, forcing the team to sign Bryce Fisher and Grant Wistrom in free agency. Fisher and Wistrom and good players and solid starters, but Seattle needs someone to push them for playing time. Grambling's Jason Hatcher might not be a bad fit if he's available. He's bigger than the prototypical speed rusher Seattle has favored recently, but a little more size might not be a bad thing.


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