Behind enemy lines: NFC West draft review

Perhaps no division in the league had a stronger performance in the NFL draft over the weekend than the four teams from the NFC West. The 49ers nine-player haul was rated as one of the NFL's best by several analysts, and the Cardinals and Rams are near the top of many lists, too. Here's a detailed draft review complete with analysis on every individual selection of the 49ers' divisional rivals from Arizona, St. Louis and Seattle.


There had been late speculation that the man from Santa Claus might be coming to town. Santa Claus, Ind., is the hometown of Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler.

Instead, the real Santa Claus appears to have come for the Cardinals, who couldn't believe their good fortune in the draft. They wasted no time turning in the card with quarterback Matt Leinart's name on it with the 10th pick in the first round, initiating another draft in which they addressed all of their most pressing needs.

In Leinart, they have a potential franchise quarterback, something they have not drafted since Neil Lomax 25 years ago. Leinart is a Heisman Trophy winner, leader of a national championship team. He has star quality from Hollywood coming to a team moving into a new stadium and is on its way to shedding its image as an NFL backwater - the tag Simeon Rice once applied.

A bit plodding with the feet? Leinart knows how to get rid of the ball. A bit weak on the arm strength? He knows where to put the ball.

Leinart might not play for another year or two -- 34-year-old Kurt Warner just re-signed for three years in January -- and there were players who might have made a greater immediate impact. But the team couldn't have made a better pick for its long-range future -- unless it had been Cutler, for whom the quarterback-savvy Denver Broncos traded to get with the pick immediately behind the Cardinals at No. 11.

Time will prove which will be the better pro, but the Cardinals emerged from the draft giddy that they made the right choice.

"We are really excited and we really look at this like a gift," said Cardinals coach Dennis Green. "I have been fortunate enough to be with other teams when we had players ranked very high that were there when we picked. We consider that a gift."

Similarly, guard Taitusi "Deuce" Lutui, who was Leinart's teammate at USC -- and the left-hander's blind-side protector at right tackle the season Leinart won the Heisman and the Trojans won the national title -- was viewed as a gift, when the Mesa, Ariz., native was chosen by the Cardinals in the second round. Lutui will compete at left guard with Reggie Wells. There has been discussion of Wells moving to center, in which case Lutui would be the likely starter at left guard. Tight end Leonard Pope, at 6-7, was a steal in the third round, perhaps going so low with higher-rated talent because he is a junior who declared late.

Weaknesses at defensive tackle (Gabe Watson, Michigan, fourth round; Jonathan Lewis of Virginia Tech, sixth round) and weak-side linebacker (Brandon Johnson of Louisville, fifth round) also were addressed.

Watson had higher-round talent but fell to the fourth round over questions about his work ethic and attitude. Dominating on those downs and in those games that he chose to play, Watson also was known to take a few off.

But the future of the quarterback position, one close to Green's heart, and one in which he made his coaching reputation, left him beaming. Green made it clear that Warner remains the starter. Leinart initially will battle John Navarre, over whom Green has raved during two years of development, for the backup spot.

"What we would love to think is that we have the best quarterback situation possible," Green said. "A lot of people say that we have the potential to have the best wide receiver situation, and that is something to be proud of. A lot of people say that we have the best blitzing safety in the game in Adrian Wilson, and that is something to be proud of.

"But we think that now, adding Matt Leinart to MVP Kurt Warner and John Navarre, we have the potential to have the best quarterback situation. What that means is that it is your insurance against injuries, that it gives you a chance to keep the ball rolling and keep you winning regardless of what happens."

Since 2000, Warner has played all 16 games in a season only once, in 2001. He missed six games in each of the past two seasons, played in only seven games in 2003 and only two in 2002, and missed five in 2000.

Happy as the Cardinals are, it was a hard fall for Leinart, who came into draft season projected to go no lower than No. 3, a year after he passed up the opportunity to come out of college early and quite possibly be the first player chosen in 2005.

"The whole thing is, it's out of my hands," Leinart said. "There's no control in that. It's tough. You always want to get called as high as possible, but I think it's a great situation and I think everything happens for a reason."

The Cardinals, once on the clock, quickly turned in their card, deliberately attempting to send the message that they had no qualms about taking Leinart, who by then was on the verge of a draft free-fall.

"We want to send the right signals that we are happy to have him," said Rod Graves, Cardinals vice president of operations. "This is a great opportunity for our football team, and let's just hit the ground running. Let's send the right signal to Matt Leinart. Let's send the right signal to the rest of the NFL and to our fans that we are excited about this pick."

Green sees Leinart's situation being similar to that of Daunte Culpepper when Green was coaching the Minnesota Vikings.

"We drafted Daunte Culpepper and we had Randall Cunningham and Jeff George," Green said. "You have to win. That is the idea. Randall got hurt and Jeff stepped in and finished the year. The next year, Daunte took over. We need the depth.

"Most quarterbacks should sit and wait for a while. There are very few quarterbacks who can come in and play right away. They learn on the job. I think that is what Matt Leinart is going to do. He is going to love the system because it is a very successful system throughout the league. I think everything is going to be there for him to learn the game and he is going to learn it from a great guy and we are going to win. That is the key thing."

In Lutui, the Cardinals drafted what Green calls "a load player -- a guy with a wide body, very powerful legs, very powerful upper body -- and I think he will complement and really challenge to get out on the field at guard."

It continues the rebuilding of an offensive line that was the team's weakest unit, part of a running game that statistically was second-worst since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Lutui is expected to back up Wells on the left side. At right guard, free-agent signee Milton Brown will start, with 2005 fourth-round pick Elton Brown backing up. At center, Alex Stepanovich and Nick Leckey, 2004 draft picks, will battle, but Wells might move over in front of both. It appears that tackles Leonard Davis on the left and Oliver Ross on the right will retain their spots, though both were regarded as underachievers last season.

But Green said of the beleaguered unit, "I think we have created some good, old-fashioned competition. I think we have created a situation where guys really have to work to get themselves into a starting role and I think it will be a big plus for us."

Pope, taken in the third round, likely will ease out Adam Bergen, who played on passing downs, and Eric Edwards, who played on running downs. The team also will make more use of two-tight-end sets with Pope.

There had been speculation that with his frame and the potential to add weight that Pope might even be a tackle of the future.

"I hope not," Green said. "We want him to be a big blocking tight end. His routes are excellent, and his catching and running after the catch are very good. What he has to work on, like most of those guys you saw like Jeremy Trueblood, a big 6-8 guy, and Marcus McNeil, a big 6-8 guy, is on bending the knees, because they are so tall and they need to get underneath guys. I think he will be a 270- or 275-pound player who ran a 4.65 (40-yard dash) at the combine. With his long arms, I think he is going to be a very talented player."

BEST PICK: QB Matt Leinart, USC, first round. The Cardinals have whiffed so many times with high first-round picks. The future of the franchise now depends on them having gotten one right with QB Matt Leinart. Playing behind Kurt Warner, Leinart should feel no pressure to rush his development. He is not expected to be the man this year. But he certainly could be the man for many years to come. A Heisman Trophy, a national championship and a gaudy won-lost record at USC do not ensure that, but they lead one to believe that the Cardinals have a better chance with him than with so many who preceded him and became busts. They had to get a quarterback of the future somewhere.

COULD SURPRISE: DT Gabe Watson, Michigan, fourth round. Watson was as dominating a defensive tackle as there was in college football -- when he felt like it. Coming from a Michigan pedigree, one would think that his "on" days far outnumbered his off days, but not necessarily. When he chose to play, though, nobody could score on him in goal-line defense and he frequently blew up plays to make tackles for loss. That is the dominating player the Cardinals hope to motivate into their nose tackle replacement for Russell Davis, who went to Seattle in free agency.

A closer look at the Cardinals' picks:

Round 1/10 -- Matt Leinart, QB, 6-4, 224, Southern California: The inclination would be to do cartwheels, and that's what team officials did when this former Heisman Trophy winner fell into their laps at No. 10. But the giddiness has to be tempered by questions such as these: Is his arm strength detrimental? Why would teams ahead in the order that need quarterbacks -- Tennessee, New York Jets, Oakland, Detroit -- pass on him or take someone else? Vince Young, who went to the Titans, is more athletic and also won a national title. Jay Cutler who went right behind Leinart to Denver, which traded up to get him, did more with less and has a bigger arm. Leinart is regarded as the most ready to play in the NFL right now, but Leinart won't be asked to play right away. Leinart is accustomed to big-time pressure in big games, winning a national title and going to venues like Notre Dame Stadium. He is smart. He knows where to go with the ball. He'll have the advantage of learning the pro game under Kurt Warner, who has done everything on the pro level that Leinart did as a collegian. He is left-handed, which could cause some adjusting up front for protections. The Cardinals certainly needed a young potential franchise quarterback to develop, and if Leinart becomes that, they'll have made the right pick. Only time will tell.
Round 2/41 -- Taitusi "Deuce" Lutui, G, 6-4, 334, Southern California: A popular choice in the Phoenix area -- he's a Mesa, Ariz., product at a position of great need. He was Leinart's college teammate and spent one national title season, the year Leinart won the Heisman, as his blind-side protector at right tackle (Leinart is left-handed) before moving inside to guard last year. The knock is that Lutui has average at best feet. Yet he was no stranger to the downfield block at USC. His forte, though, is at the point of attack, where he routinely threw key blocks that resulted in touchdowns and rarely allowed a pass rusher to soil Leinart's jersey. Played his highest-graded game on the biggest stage, 91 percent against Texas in the national title game. Lutui fills a need on this team. If LG starter Reggie Wells moves to C as expected, Lutui is the likely starter at LG.
Round 3/72 -- Leonard Pope, TE, 6-7, 256, Georgia: If the Cards reached for their second-round pick, they once again had good fortune fall into their lap with this one to get a talent who was projected to go no lower than the middle of the second round. He may have fallen because he is a junior who came out late. A big target for Kurt Warner -- or Matt Leinart -- to run up the middle and complement the Cardinals' Pro Bowl outside receivers. He runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. Most eye-popping, though, is that at 6-7 he has a 37 1/2-inch vertical leap. That creates all sorts of possibilities for him as a receiver, especially on the goal line. A decent blocker whose slim frame has the potential to add 15 pounds, which would then create a monster. A tremendous value at this draft position.
Round 4/107 -- Gabe Watson, DT, 6-3, 335, Michigan: No issues on size, strength or talent. The latter is commensurate with a low first-round pick. The issue is attitude and work ethic. Watson often did not play to potential on every play in every game. Will he go belly-up if he is frustrated by pro double-teams when he's over center? Or will he use his tools and dominate? He is a stud physically. He can take on double teams, playing a vital role to free others. He can push and makes a high percentage of tackles for loss. He has a chance to come in and start where Russell Davis, who left via free agency, played for years. Don't forget that the Cardinals two years ago took another talented defensive tackle with attitude issues, Darnell Dockett, motivated him, and made him a two-year starter. Dennis Green and staff have been down this road before, successfully.
Round 5/142 -- Brandon Johnson, OLB, 6-5, 227, Louisville: Big, quick (4.4-second 40-yard dash), versatile. Could be answer at weakside linebacker. Might even play nickel DB. Special teams player, as well. Scored touchdowns on interception, blocked punt and fumble recovery. Blocked five kicks, scored on two of them. Yet the knock on him is that he is not explosive or instinctive. He is a fine athletic package who is going to be something of a project for the coaching staff to bring out that potential.
Round 6/177 -- Jonathan Lewis, DT, 6-1, 304, Virginia Tech: A stud who showed he could handle and beat double teams to make tackles for loss and get to the quarterback comes to a team that needs just that along its defensive front. With his size, he possesses surprising athleticism (4.95-second 40-yard dash, 34-inch vertical leap). Tough to block with his low center of gravity.
Round 7/218 -- Todd Watkins, WR, 6-2, 191, Brigham Young: A burner on a team loaded with Pro Bowl possession receivers. Could find a niche as the fourth wideout to stretch a defense. More strength and more consistency will give him a better chance to succeed with his raw tools, which are impressive. Has posted a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and a 38-inch vertical leap. Appears to be strong candidate for the practice squad.


The Rams entered the draft hoping to continue to fill needs on defense and at tight end, and coach Scott Linehan considered his mission accomplished.

Sandwiched around tight ends Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd, the Rams selected cornerback Tye Hill in the first round and defensive tackle Claude Wroten and safety/linebacker Jon Alston in the third round. The second day brought defensive end Victor Adeyanju and linebacker Tim McGarigle.

"I think the first thing we were able to do is add high-quality players," Linehan said

. He obviously believes cornerback Tye Hill is one of those quality players, despite being under 5-10. The Rams considered taking Hill with their pick at 11th in the first round, but traded down with Denver and still got Hill at No. 15.

Asked about Hill's size, Linehan said, "You wish he was taller, but when you're watching him against some of the bigger receivers they play against in college you could see he has the ability to be able to play big."

The Rams return injured starters Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler, but Fisher might be traded.

When asked whether the selection of Hill reflects on the current secondary, Linehan said, "I think it reflects more (that) we're accumulating players in a position that we want to improve. I think not just the organization, but the coaches and the players understand we have to improve on our ability to stop the pass on defense. That is part of it. Any addition to our defense will improve our defense in some shape or form, but it certainly adds another player in the mix to give us someone to look at playing in that first game against Denver."

The trade with the Broncos also resulted in the team's most controversial pick of the draft. With the third-round pick acquired in the deal, the Rams selected defensive tackle Claude Wroten.

After an outstanding career at LSU, Wroten was arrested in early January for felony possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. The charges were subsequently dropped because of legal technicalities, but he then failed a drug test at the combine.

However, Linehan said, "I think the risk based on what I know about him is way outweighed over the positives of this young man."

Meanwhile, the selection of Klopfenstein and Byrd led to the second-day trade of tight end Brandon Manumaleuna to the Chargers, a move that left the Rams with little experience at the position.

BEST PICK: TE Joe Klopfenstein, Colorado, second round. New coach Scott Linehan likes to use a tight end in his offense, and Klopfenstein will have a great opportunity to be an integral part of the offense, even with the presence of wide receivers Torry holt, Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis. In the red zone, where the Rams' offense has struggled the last two seasons, Klopfenstein should be able to take advantage of his height (6-5).

COULD SURPRISE: WR Marques Hagans, Virginia, fifth round. The Virginia quarterback could be the next "slash" to make a difference. That's slash as in PR/KR/WR/RB/QB/CB. Hagans will begin as a punt returner, then kickoff returner, and the Rams will figure out how to use him after that. It is envisioned that he can be used on third down in the slot as a receiver or a running back coming out of the backfield, even throwing a pass. The Rams wouldn't count out his availability as an emergency cornerback.

A closer look at the Rams' picks:

Round 1/15 -- Tye Hill, CB, 5-10, 185, Clemson: The Rams considered Hill the best cover corner in the draft, and despite being a shade under 5-10, they believe his long arms and leaping ability will make up for any height deficiency. He is also a sure tackler, and impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl with his technique against some top receivers.
Round 2/46 -- Joe Klopfenstein, TE, 6-5, 251, Colorado: Caught 33 passes each of his last two seasons, averaging 12.7 and 14.2 yards per catch. Klopfenstein has excellent speed, and coach Scott Linehan cited his "unbelievable measureables." Linehan added, "He is a very productive player, he has very natural hands and is an excellent blocker."
Round 3/68 -- Claude Wroten, DT, 6-2, 292, Louisiana State: A big risk for the Rams on a player with first-round talent, but who was arrested on drug charges in early January, then tested positive at the scouting combine. Wroten insists he has learned his lesson, and convinced the Rams he was worth the risk.
Round 3/77 -- Jon Alston, LB, 6-0, 218, Stanford: Might end up as a safety, as the Rams plan to possibly use him at both safety and linebacker in sub-packages. Linehan said working out as a safety at the combine, he looked better than most of the safeties in drills. Linehan called Alston an "extremely fast, explosive player" and believes he will have an immediate impact on special teams.
Round 3/93 -- Dominique Byrd, TE, 6-2, 260, Southern Cal: Injuries during his college career helped drop Byrd into the third round, and the Rams liked him enough to move up from the fourth round to take him. While his speed isn't great, Linehan said, "He is not a guy that will wow you with a big-time 40 time, he is one of those guys that plays faster than his 40 time."
Round 4/113 -- Victor Adeyanju, DE, 6-4, 268, Indiana: He was 215 pounds as a freshman and grew to become a 268-pound defensive end. Said Linehan, "He has speed and size. He is a little raw, but he is very willing, excellent character, and he's a bright kid. What he does have you can't coach, that size and that bulk, and we needed to address that a bit at the defensive end spot. We really feel very good about getting to third down with our ends right now, and we feel very comfortable on first down."
Round 5/144 -- Marques Hagans, WR/PR, 5-10, 209, Virginia: Linehan was most excited about adding Hagans because of his versatility and ability to return punts and kickoffs. "He gives you one of those toys on offense," Linehan said. "You can put him in there and he plays something one play and something else the other play. Maybe throw a ball once in awhile. I am pretty excited about this pick. I have been excited about all of them, but this one I have kind of had my eye on since the very start of the second day."
Round 7/221 -- Tim McGarigle, LB, 6-0, 240, Northwestern: A pure middle linebacker, McGarigle begins as a backup to free agent Will Witherspoon, but if he turns into a player, it could eventually lead to Witherspoon being moved outside down the road. A very solid run-stopper with 545 tackles in college, the Rams like his productivity. Said Linehan, "This is the type of guy that goes from tackle to tackle and stuffs the middle. The one thing that showed up well with Tim is that he had very good measurables in those linebacker-type drills at the combine. That is why he stood out with me. Change of direction, those in the box drill, that I think are very good for a Mike 'backer. He was a very productive player."
Round 7/242 -- Mark Setterstrom, G, 6-4, 314, Minnesota: Linehan got some first-hand looks at Setterstrom when he coached the Vikings and saw him play in person on several occasions. He started every game during his career, and Linehan said, "Mark was one of those guys that never missed a practice, never missed a game, one of those guys that you just really root for, one heck of a player, a big part of what they did in that run game. You're talking about an offensive line that pretty much dominated college football during his time span, as far as being able to run the ball. He was a big reason why those backs that played there had such success."
Round 7/243 -- Tony Palmer, G, 6-2, 330, Missouri: Bench-pressed 225 pounds 41 times at his pro day and was known for his knockdown blocks at Mkissouri. Said Linehan, "He's a very powerful, large man and has a lot of mass, a guy that is the true definition of a road-grader."


The Seahawks addressed two of their most glaring needs on the first day of the draft when they selected Miami CB Kelly Jennings (No. 31 overall) and Virginia Tech DE Darryl Tapp (No. 63). The big question is whether their physical limitations will inhibit their ability to take the next step.

Jennings is slight of frame at 178 pounds. Tapp is only 6-foot-1, on the short side for an end.

The natural inclination would be to criticize Seahawks president Tim Ruskell for using first-day picks on players with obvious deficiencies in key measurables. But Ruskell gets the benefit of the doubt because he took the same approach in drafting undersized MLB Lofa Tatupu last year in the second round, much earlier than expected.

Tatupu became a Pro Bowl player as a rookie. He is an undisputed team leader and the long-sought quarterback of the defense. The Seahawks would not have been a Super Bowl team without Tatupu last season. The former Southern California star is not quite six feet tall and a bit light at 238 pounds. And yet he emerged as an instant starter and one of the best linebackers in the league.

Ruskell has vowed to stock the roster with high-character, high-effort players who may or may not possess prototypical physical attributes. It was no surprise, then, that their fourth-round pick, Ohio State G Rob Sims, was in church when coach Mike Holmgren called to inform him of the selection. Sims, chosen 128th overall, could provide some depth after Seattle lost LG Steve Hutchinson in free agency.

Seattle failed to land a potential impact safety in this draft, a mild disappointment for the team but hardly a fatal one.

The Seahawks entered this draft with some limitations.

Ruskell had sent a third-round pick to Minnesota as compensation for signing WR Nate Burleson. The Seahawks also traded their sixth-round choice to Chicago for veteran FS Mike Green, a player Ruskell referred to as "insurance" for on-the-mend FS Ken Hamlin. Neither player counts officially as a Seattle draft choice, but they need to be included in any analysis of the Seahawks' draft.

All in all, Seattle accomplished its goals in this draft. Now it's just a matter of waiting to see if Jennings and Tapp justify the approach Ruskell implemented so effectively a year ago.

BEST PICK: DE Darryl Tapp, Virginia Tech, second round. This is a good pick because the Seahawks don't need Tapp to emerge as a starter right away. There are obviously risks given Tapp's short stature and relative lack of speed, but he has the motor to fit in with a group that already includes DE Bryce Fisher and DE Grant Wistrom. Seattle's defense is predicated on all-out effort more than raw talent, with promising results (the team led the league in sacks last season without a dominant pass rusher). That's why Tapp has a chance to succeed as the third member of this rotation.

COULD SURPRISE: G Rob Sims, Ohio State, fourth round. There are few players to consider for this distinction given the absence of third- and sixth-round picks. Sims did show promise for the Buckeyes after moving from tackle to guard for the final 12 starts of a 40-start college career. Players have an easier time succeeding at guard in the NFL, and Sims won't be asked to challenge right away. But he could find his way into the lineup earlier than expected given the injury problems that have kept LG Floyd Womack and OL Wayne Hunter off the field.

A closer look at the Seahawks' picks:

Round 1/31 -- Kelly Jennings, CB, 5-11, 178, Miami: The Seahawks wanted to get a cornerback and Jennings was atop Ruskell's short list. The team passed on CB Jimmy Williams, who had been rated higher by many. Ruskell liked the consistency Jennings showed.
Round 2/63 -- Darryl Tapp, DE, 6-1, 265, Virginia Tech: Another classic Ruskell pick. Undersized and underestimated, Tapp nonetheless collected two sacks against Virginia LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson during the Senior Bowl. That kind of production led the Seahawks to overlook the measurables. Tapp weighed 252 at the combine in an effort to improve his 40 time. He's back into the 260s and that is where he would like to stay.
Round 4/128 -- Rob Sims, G, Ohio State, 6-2, 307: Sims' father, Mickey, was a fourth-round pick of the Browns in 1977. The elder Sims got out of shape and lacked the fire to stick around longer than a couple of years. The younger Sims said he has learned from his father's experience. Scouts still would like to see Rob Sims get a better handle on his conditioning.
Round 5/163 -- David Kirtman, FB, USC, 5-11, 232: Kirtman grew up next door to Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren on ritzy Mercer Island, not far from Seattle (his parents still live there). Holmgren is also a USC alumnus. This pick transcended such connections because Holmgren views Kirtman as the kind of traditional blocking fullback that is harder and harder to find. Kirtman also has the receiving skills Holmgren wants at the position. He has a chance to beat out FB Leonard Weaver for the No. 2 job behind Pro Bowl FB Mack Strong, who turns 35 this year.
Round 7/239 -- Ryan Plackemeier, P, Wake Forest: Seattle hasn't had much stability at the position since unwisely letting veteran P Jeff Feagles leave a few years ago. Tom Rouen remains an option, but Plackemeier will be given every chance to win the job. He led the ACC in punting over the last three years and probably had the strongest leg among any punter in the country. But at 250 pounds, he isn't the most athletic guy adjusting to the ball.
Round 7/249 -- Ben Obomanu, WR, Auburn: The Seahawks need to "grow the pile" at receiver, as Holmgren would put it. Obomanu has the size and speed to succeed. He just hasn't been consistent enough to take the next step. The Seahawks will bring him to camp and give him a shot. Obomanu has the look of a practice-squad player.

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