Cardinals Getting Defensive
Arizona Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt must feel extremely fortunate that Tennesee DT Dan Williams fell all the way to him at the 26th pick. Many draftniks had Williams going somewhere between the ninth and twelfth pick, in that Buffalo-Jacksonville-Miami-Denver cluster and indeed all of those teams had a need for a pocket-collapsing nosetackle. The Bills went with Clemson RB C.J. Spiller instead, the Dolphins and Broncos both traded down and the Jaguars actually took Cal DT Tyson Alualu over Williams. A real head-scratcher there.
Now, with Williams to line up alongside Darnell Dockett, the Cardinals will be a force to deal with up the middle, which makes the Mike Iupati pick loom even larger from the 49ers perspective. Who wins the NFC West may very well come down to who controls the line of scrimmage in that battle.
Getting OLB Daryl Washington from TCU in the second round was another steal for Arizona – he's every bit the athlete that Karlos Dansby was – and between him, the free agent signing of linebacker Joey Porter and the trade for safety Kerry Rhodes, the Cardinals seem to have done a good job of replacing the guys they've lost on defense. In fact, their front seven has a unique look, in that their strengths cover up their weaknesses both on the inside and on the edges. Williams and Dockett help to cover for their fairly pedestrian inside linebackers, while Porter and Washington will mask their plumbers at defensive end.
Third round pick receiver Andre Roberts isn't the biggest guy, and he certainly didn't play against the best competition at The Citadel, but he had a pretty good showing at the Senior Bowl and will compete with Early Doucet for the slot job.
There's no question that the biggest concern with Arizona, the thing that will ultimately make them or break them this year, will be the play of quarterback Matt Leinart, but fifth round pick John Skelton, a project from Fordham might have the strongest arm of anyone in this draft class and has prototypical size too. Could he be another Joe Flacco?
Meanwhile, on the free agency front, they added guard Alan Faneca, whom the Jets released to a low-risk one-year deal. For most of this decade Faneca's been one of the two best guards in the league. If he's got anything left in the tank, it would be a brilliant coup for Arizona. Justin Miller, another Jets castoff, could potentially give a real boost to their return game.
Christmas Came Early For Carroll
As if Arizona's draft wasn't troubling enough for the 49ers, the Seahawks had, by the analysts' consensus, the best haul of anyone. Even to the most biased Niners homer in the world, Seattle's top three picks are beyond reproach. Left tackle Walter Jones made his retirement official so they had to draft his replacement – which they did in Oklahoma State's Russell Okung. Until maybe a couple days leading up to the draft Okung was the top rated tackle on the board, until he was overtaken at the very end by Oklahoma's Trent Williams, who ended up going fourth to Washington. Of all the tackle prospects he's the only one where everyone's certain that he's good enough to play on the left side. Certainly he's coming into a difficult situation; not only does he have to replace a legend in Jones but Matt Hasselbeck, the quarterback whose blindside he'll be responsible for protecting is an absolute statue back there.
An even better pick – and one that caused some bitterness in 49ers second-round selection Taylor Mays – was Texas safety Earl Thomas at 14. Thomas is a classic ball-hawking centerfielder, and he had eight interceptions last year despite facing a slew of good quarterbacks in the Big 12. In fact, he's so good in coverage that not everyone is convinced he's a safety. Supposedly some teams think he can be converted into a corner, and at the least we can expect him to be lined across from the slot receiver in some packages. What Thomas is not is a big hitter, and it'll be interesting to see how he'll go about trying to haul down someone like Vernon Davis or a big back like Dallas' Marion Barber. Will he have the fortitude to stick his helmet in there or is he going to be the kind of guy who makes, as NFL Network's Deion Sanders puts it, "business decisions" on the field, diving at people's feet and hoping for the best?
That the Seahawks were able to get Notre Dame wideout Golden Tate in the third round too seems almost unfair. For my money Tate was no worse than the third best receiver in the country last year, and he wasn't some spread guy who'll have to be integrated into the pro offense. He should be ready to contribute right away. I wasn't thrilled by the rest of their picks, but the first three look like home runs from here.
Seattle also acquired a couple of backs in trades, and like most players in the market, questions surround them. Leon Washington (another Jet, what is it with them?) is a guy I really thought the 49ers should've pursued, a pro version of Spiller. He's a fabulous returner, a terrific receiver out of the backfield and a better change-of-pace runner than people think. He's been New York's not-so-secret weapon for years but because he suffered a horrible broken leg last year at Oakland, teams were wary of going after him. If he's even 80 percent of what he was, the Seahawks pulled off grand larceny for a fifth-round pick. LenDale White, meanwhile, was definitely a guy who needed a change of scenery. The emergence of Chris Johnson into a superstar pushed White more and more into the background at Tennessee and eventually he was in Coach Jeff Fisher's doghouse. If anyone can revive his career, it should be Pete Carroll, his coach at USC. Supposedly White has already lost a bunch of weight, and he'll be in the mix in Seattle's backfield along with Washington, Julius Jones and Justin Forsett.
Sam the Man at St. Louis
I know Oklahoma's Sam Bradford wasn't the best or most talented prospect in this draft class. I know he's anything but a sure thing. And I know that the Rams were fielding trade offers for the number one pick. But let's make something crystal clear: The Rams had to take Bradford. Had to.
Times are not good over there. The team has gone 3-13, 2-14 and 1-15 the past three years. They rarely ever sell out their games. The ownership is in flux and columnists are openly wondering if the team will relocate. Tackle Jason Smith and defensive end Chris Long, their top-5 picks from the past two drafts have both been underwhelming so far, to say the least.
The fact of the matter is the franchise had to do something to stir up the fanbase, and drafting another lineman – no matter how good Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh is – wasn't going to do it. No matter how earnest a team is in its rebuilding efforts and no matter how much they value the guys in the trenches, coaches can only ignore the 800 pound elephant in the room for so long. Without a franchise quarterback to instill hope, teams are like ostriches sticking their heads in the sand, just hoping no one will notice them. In a situation as dire as the Rams were in, they needed to take drastic measures. Bradford might just be their lottery ticket to better days ahead and at least now the fans can see a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel.
As for their other picks, I thought Indiana tackle Rodger Saffold was good value at 33 and Cincinnati wideout Mardy Gilyard – another guy I was hoping the Niners would get – should start for them right away. South Florida corner Jerome Murphy, however, I thought was a reach as the first pick of the third round and the rest of their day three picks were similarly uninspiring.
Other Draft Thoughts
Outside of the division I thought the Detroit Lions helped themselves out tremendously with Suh and Cal running back Jahvid Best. They're building a quality offense there, piece-by-piece, but their offensive line still has a ways to go. Baltimore picked up a couple more pieces for their front seven in Alabama's Terrence "Mount" Cody and Texas' Sergio Kindle, and a pair of interesting tight ends in BYU's Dennis Pitta and Oregon's Ed Dickson. Tampa Bay got two starting defensive tackles in Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy and UCLA's Brian Price, and a couple of enigmatic receiving prospects in Illinois' Arrelious Benn and Syracuse's Mike Williams. The Philadelphia Eagles got the best pass rusher I thought in Michican's Brandon Graham, and a real solid safety in USF's Nate Allen.
As for the clunkers, the Jaguars have to lead the list for taking Alualu at least twenty spots higher than they could've, and then another defensive tackle in D'Anthony Smith from Louisiana Tech. Honestly, I hadn't heard of any of their guys except for Alualu. I admit that I don't watch as much college football as most people, but that can't be a good sign. The Redskins, as usual, dealt away most of their picks long ago, so they had Okung and precious little else to show for their draft weekend. Finally, I don't get what the Denver Broncos did at all. They were in position to take Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen and Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant and instead took Florida's Tim Tebow and Georgia Tech's Demaryius Thomas, two raw guys who won't be ready for the pro game for quite a while.
Niners Lock Up Willis
In their most prescient off-season move to date, the 49ers signed All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis to a five-year, $50 million contract extension that will make him the highest paid inside 'backer in the NFL. Though he had two years left on his rookie year, it's smart for the team to take care of Willis now, since they have no idea what the cap situation will be like in the league in 2011.
"I'm just so thankful that Pat got done," said coach Mike Singletary, adding, "I think the most important message that management sent today is for those guys that go out there and perform, we're going to take care of our guys. Pat is a tremendous example of that."
Willis, who was the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007 and is a two-time All Pro, became the first 49ers defender since Hall-of-Fame safety Ronnie Lott to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. He led the league with 152 tackles last year and also had four sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles.
"It means a lot," he said. "It shows that they really wanted me here. It shows what they want and what I want are the same things and that's to win, to embody a great organization, to get this organization back to where it used to be and even better."
For anyone concerned that a new contract will make Willis complacent or somewhat less ferocious, the 49ers captain insists that those fears are misplaced. "I feel like what I've done the last three years is only the tip of the iceberg," he said.
"People think they've seen the best I've had to offer and they haven't by far. We can go in there right now and put on film and coach can show you and I can see myself where, 'Pat, you need to get better in this area, you have to get better in this.' There so much more improvement in my game that I have to get to and I'm willing to work every day to get to that point, but the best is yet to be seen, by myself or my teammates or this team in general."
The thought of an improved Willis is scary, but more so for opposing players, coaches and general managers I imagine.