A Cross-Country Convo with Sobo and M-Lo

Brent Sobleski, whose background includes stints coaching college football and working for NFL Scouting Services, joins SD Bolt Report publisher Michael Lombardo for a cross-country conversation that covers the San Diego Chargers, the Cleveland Browns, the NFL Draft and much, much more.

Michael Lombardo: The NFL Draft is just over two months away and figures to be a pivotal one for the San Diego Chargers and Cleveland Browns, albeit for very different reasons. San Diego is trying to break through and win a title before its window of opportunity slams shut, while Cleveland is looking to climb out of the basement in a ridiculously tough AFC North. 

Come to think of it, I'm not sure which fan-base has it worse. Is it better to be the Chargers, a team that always raises expectations but fails to meet them? Or the Browns, a team that hasn't been expected to do anything significant since its reincarnation? 

I think I'd rather stay home in January than watch my team be "Sanchized" in front of a national audience. Thoughts?   

Brent Sobleski: When looking at the two franchises we have both covered extensively, Cleveland fans would kill to have the successes San Diego has seen in recent years.   This is a very proud fan base that holds very tightly to the deep and rich history of their beloved Browns.  In fact, they fought for that history in a court of law.  The fans have survived Red Right 88, the Drive, the Fumble, the Move, Bottlegate, and we could go on and on.    Yet as a group, everyone continues to show up each and every week while promising themselves, "maybe next year."  In a city that so obviously pines for a winner, Cleveland has not claimed a championship since 1964 when Jim Brown still graced its hallowed halls. 

So taking all of this into account, it is much better to be a San Diego Charger fan in recent years in light of the abysmal rebirth of a once proud and iconic Cleveland Browns franchise.

When looking at your Chargers, there are lights at the end of the tunnel:  a franchise quarterback, an exciting passing attack, and a once dynamic defense that will be getting healthy. None of those things exist in Cleveland.   

But what we can say looking at the immediate future is that the Chargers should be counting their blessings in regards to the upcoming uncapped season moreso than any other team in the league. They now have much better chances of retaining the rights of Shawne Merrimen, Darren Sproles, Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill.  This all plays in their favor.  It is just one more thing to build upon if GM A.J. Smith does things correctly this offseason.

In fact, I could argue San Diego is set up as nicely as any other team heading into the draft according to their needs and where they sit currently. But that branches us into another conversation altogether.

CB Antonio Cromartie
Doug Pensinger/Getty
Michael Lombardo: Well, the conversation it brings us to is the NFL Draft, because even though the Chargers and Browns are in very different places as franchises, they both have some similar needs. Both teams could use another running back, another pass rusher and an upgrade at right tackle. The Chargers would also join the Browns in the market for a cornerback if Smith decides to move Antonio Cromartie this offseason. 

Say, wouldn't the Browns love a cornerback with Cromartie's athleticism and playmaking ability? Just think how good he would look lined up across from Eric Wright. And you can have him for the low price of first- and third-round draft picks. OK, we'll settle for just your first rounder. Fine, your second rounder. Well, do you want this guy or not? 

What else are you going to do, draft Joe Haden in the first round? 

And speaking of the first round, if you guys really want to jump-start the rebuilding process, we'd be glad to send you our first-round pick. Just send us your second-round pick and playmaker Josh Cribbs and we have a deal!

I'd ask for ILB D'Qwell Jackson to be thrown in the trade, since people think San Diego needs an inside linebacker, but I'm one of the few people remaining with two feet squarely on the Stephen Cooper bandwagon. 

Brent Sobleski: The Cromartie situation is definitely interesting. I do not know all the ins and outs, but he is the type of talent that would seem hard to move from a home-team perspective.   I realize San Diego's secondary was a little underwhelming last season, but it is simply hard to see a team dump a 6-foot-2, 203-pound, 25-year-old talent of that caliber unless he is Terrell Owens or Brandon Marshall problematic in the locker room. 

Whereas in Cleveland, Joe Haden certainly does seem to be the frontrunner for that selection at No. 7 overall.  There are basically four elite talents, all defensive, in this draft.   By most projections, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Eric Berry are off the board. 

  You list multiple holes the Browns need to address, but that only scratches the surface.   Despite finishing the season on a four-game win streak, the team still finished in the bottom two in the league both offensively and defensively.   So adding a talent that has the potential to be an elite player, in particular a shutdown cornerback, to pair with a pretty solid young talent in Eric Wright is very intriguing.    Especially considering defensive coordinator's Rob Ryan's familial penchant for blitzing and leaving his secondary on the island. 

To touch upon Joshua Cribbs and his contract issues of late, rumors are now swirling around Lake Erie he is close to finishing a deal.   So despite his whirlwind national tour begging for a new contract, the front office still seems willing to get it done sooner rather than later.

And I certainly feel your pain on supporting a player that most of the fanbase has seemingly given up on already.   In your case, Stephen Cooper is the apple of your eye.   For me, it is D'Qwell Jackson.    You have no clue how many times I have heard, "He's too small to play the position," or, "It's easy to be one of the top tacklers in the league when you chasing down guys four or five yards downfield."    

Yet when watching Jackson closely, he clearly has a nose for the football.   He is the leader of the defense.   And he is a natural linebacker that plays the position with technical saavy.  If you look at NFL.com, those who have led the league in tackles since the statistic has been enacted on that particular forum are far from chopped liver.   In fact, they include Pro Bowlers and a few future Hall of Famers.

Regarding my thoughts in San Diego, I see two pressing needs:  nose tackle and running back.   Both can be had and present value in Round Two.   So, it may serve them best to trade out of that late first-round pick, where movement is generally pretty regular as evidenced by previous years.

Ironically, the one name in Cleveland which has been bandied about quite a bit for trade heading into this offseason is multiple Pro Bowler Shaun Rogers.

Michael Lombardo: Since we both have needs at nose tackle and running back, let's focus on those. You talk about the talent in the second round; which second rounders do you like at those two positions? Anyone you feel is capable of stepping in as an opening-day starter and making a positive contribution? 

Also, what's the trade market for your boy Shaun Rogers? Is it possible to offer the Browns half a second-round pick, since Rogers is a sure bet to show up for only half the games? 

Brent Sobleski: This year's draft class is enticing because of the heavy influx of underclassmen.  While the number never reached the amount predicted, the quality of prospects is still very deep well into Round Three.  Looking at the running back and nose tackle positions in particular, they are not necessarily deep but can be had in the range previously discussed. 

The running back conversation should start to heat up late in Round One.  How far will C.J. Spiller of Clemson fall due to a lack of positional value?  Is Ryan Matthews or Jonathan Dwyer worth a late first-round pick?   Personally, I believe Matthews would be a very nice fit in San Diego.   He is a natural runner that will have a similar rise to Donald Brown of a year ago.  Dwyer is a little different simply because the system will play a lot into his standing.   He has not run from an NFL-style rushing attack for three years.  Both could potentially be there at the top of the second round if a team decides to slide down slightly.  But as you go into Round Two and Three, names like:  Jahvid Best (Cal), Montario Hardesty (Tennessee), Toby Gerhart (Stanford), Ben Tate (Stanford) and Joe McKnight (USC) should all be available.

Nose tackle is a thinner crop.  As I have personally stated over the years, a true nose tackle is the absolute hardest to position to find in all of football.  There are only so many men on this planet that can actually fill the size and athleticism requirements.  Three names automatically pop to mind:  Dan Williams (Tennessee), Terrence Cody (Alabama) and Cam Thomas (North Carolina).  These are your three true zero-techniques that should be able to fit in and provide repititions immediately.    Williams will be off the board by the time the Chargers pick initially (I have him currently slotted to Miami just outside of the top ten). Cody will be there in Round Two, but his weight and technique issues can be worrisome.   Thomas is a late riser much in the mold of a Ron Brace from a year ago. Then you start projecting names such as Torrell Troup (UCF), Jeff Owens (Georgia), Andre Neblett (Temple) and Ekom Udofia (Stanford).

The Browns situation is very different in this particular case.   Why?  Shaun Rogers may or may not be moved, but they have a very good young nose tackle developing by the name of Ahtyba Rubin.  The defense this year actually improved when Rubin took over for an injured Rogers.   Rogers is what he is.   An unreal physical talent who can and will freelance from time to time.    And his efforts in Cleveland have never really been questioned like in Detroit.   He simply can do things that I have never seen from a defensive lineman.  He is that talented physically.  But he has butted heads with Eric Mangini.   He is a 350-pound man coming off a broken ankle this past season.   And he hit that magical age of 30 this season.  So if some team presents legitimate value for a dominating nose tackle who has made multiple Pro Bowls, then yes, I could see him being moved.

DL Cam Thomas
Shana Siler/Scout.com
Michael Lombardo: Aging nose tackles like Rogers and Jamal Williams put GMs in a bind. As you mentioned, there are only so many people on the planet who can play nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, so teams are understandably reluctant to brush aside a proven commodity. But, the beatings these guys take on the inside make them age faster than most. 

I just talked with Cam Thomas about this a couple days ago. He summed it up nicely: "You take a lot of abuse [as a nose tackle], so you have to be a man to play that position." 

You also brought up some interesting candidates at running back. One of the biggest names on the list is Toby Gerhart, more because of what he did in college than what he's expected to do in the NFL. What is your take on this guy?  Can he be a starting running back? Who would you compare him to? 

Brent Sobleski: It really is amazing.   Because of the value and rarity of true nose tackles, they often play well past their prime despite the beating they take on a weekly basis.   Names such as Ted Washington and Keith Traylor are perfect examples.   Grady Jackson and Pat Williams are still starting in the league and playing relatively well despite their advanced age.  Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton, Miami's Jason Ferguson and San Diego's own Jamal Williams will all be 33 years or older this season.   Even former Green Bay Packer Gilbert Brown was given multiple chances in the league despite weight and injury issues over the years. 

What also sets them apart is something you bring up in the Cam Thomas interview.   It is not just about size, athleticism, skill and toughness.   It is a rare mental attitude.   You will never find a glory hound playing nose tackle.   The old cliche read, "Offensive linemen are often overlooked and do all the dirty work."   It is easily arguable that a nose tackle receives even less recognition.  At least left tackle has developed into a glamour position over the past 20 years.   Nose tackles might get the big paydays, but they do not get the respect deserved outside of the locker room.

   The attitude in which they approach the game is astounding.   They look across the line of scrimmage every single play believing unconditionally they are better than the man lined up across from them. While they simply demand, by force of will, double or triple teams.  Saying the entire time, "You will NOT move me from this spot." All in an effort for a linebacker or safety to make a play behind them while getting all the credit.

Now moving to a position which certainly reaps a large amount of the glory, running back.  In this particular case, a Heisman Trophy finalist.  Toby Gerhart is probably viewed more positively by fans than by NFL decision-makers.   He was fantastic at Stanford.   Frankly, he was fun to watch.   But you simply cannot overlook his shortcomings.   His speed and explosiveness are questionable.  He is purely an inside-the-tackles runner.  He was rarely used in the passing attack.  And he runs a little upright at times, thus taking a pounding in his thighs and core.  He could start in the right system, but it would have to be a pure downhill power system.  Otherwise, he is going to make his living as a short-yardage or change-of-pace back. 

Being around Browns fans quite a bit, the comparison most often heard is that of former Stanford great, "Touchdown" Tommy Vardell.   More recent and probably more apt examples would include names like Najeh Davenport, Earnest Graham or even Brian Leonard. Gerhart should fall in the third-round range (unless he smokes the track at the Combine). 

Michael Lombardo: Alright, as this conversation winds down the home stretch, let's switch gears from specific players and positions to the draft at large. 

What are the strengths of this year's draft? Which positions are the deepest and which rounds present the best value? 

Also, who are some the players you are highest on right now? Which players do you like as possible day-two steals? 

Open-forum time here, Sobo. Whataya got for me? 

Brent Sobleski: Fans of every NFL team should be excited as this process continues to play out.  In regards to overall talent, this is definitely the best class since 2004.   Some around the league believe it is the best in recent memory.  There are truly elite talents available at the top (unlike a some recent years).  Starting-caliber talents should be available all the way into Round Three or Four. And with the large influx of underclassmen, quality players will get pushed down the pipe.  

Positionally, three units pop off the page.  

Defensive line is frighteningly deep.  Looking past the top two prospects in the draft in Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, the names begin to rattle off.   Just look at the players in the first-round discussion:  Jason Pierre-Paul (DE USF), Derrick Morgan (DE Georgia Tech), Dan Williams (DT Tennessee), Brian Price (DT UCLA), Jared Odrick (DT Penn St.), Everson Griffen (DE USC), Carlos Dunlap (DE Florida), Brandon Graham (DE Michigan), Jerry Hughes (DE TCU) and Ricky Sapp (DE Clemson).  One difference with this group as opposed to last year, most of the defensive line prospects from a year ago seemed to transition fluidly between the 4-3 and the 3-4.   This year is certainly more of a solid line between the two. 

We have yet to name:  Terrence Cody (NT Alabama), Tyson Alualu (DE Cal), Alex Carrington (DE Arkansas St.), Cam Thomas (DT North Carolina) and a few more who will go in the next group and should contribute as rookies.  

Past said point, there are plenty of physically talented prospects with upside with potential in both predominant defensive schemes (admittedly, the 3-4 down linemen crop is thinner as a whole).

Offensive tackle is very similar at the top of their respective class.  Potentially, six blindside protectors could be selected in the first round, with a guard and center thrown into the mix as well.   If you take those two numbers discussed, 18 of the first 32 selections could be in the trenches this year.   That number will almost undoubtedly be slightly lower, but it is a mindboggling figure to say the least.

Now we should move to the secondary.  Two of the elite four prospects in this draft play either safety or cornerback in Tennesse' Eric Berry and Florida's Joe Haden.  There is a significant dropoff from both prospects, but the overall depth of the positions are more than solid.  A run on the secondary should be seen early in Round Two meshing into the early stages of Round Three. 

Teams such as New England, Kansas City, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Cleveland -- each of whom has five selections in the top 110 picks -- have set themselves up tremendously.

Looking towards individuals prospects, a few names automatically pop to mind in regards to whom I personally am higher on than you will see elsewhere.   

Offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga is a perfect example.   He is my No. 1 rated prospect on the board at his position.   Watching the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2008, it was obvious he has the potential to be an elite blindside protector. I once heard an NFL decision-maker state, "You can spot an elite NFL left tackle by only watching one series of plays."  And that has always rung true with me.   Bulaga struggled coming off a thyroid condition earlier in the year, but his play late, especially in the Orange Bowl, was fantastic.   He plays with a combination of leverage, technique and strength that is unparalleled among his contemporaries.   Medicals will be very important to where Bulaga finally lands. I believe he is tailor-made to play left tackle for Seattle in offensive line guru Alex Gibbs' blocking scheme.

When I look at others down the board slightly and those I know I am personally higher on than others,  names such as Colin Peek (TE Alabama), Mike Kafka (QB Northwestern), Kavell Conner (LB Clemson), Montario Hardesty (RB Tennessee), T.J. Ward (S Oregon), Marshall Newhouse (OT TCU), and Joique Bell (RB Wayne State) all rush to the front of the line.

As I have become rather long winded and this should be winding its way down, all in all the NFL Draft should be a very exciting event, as it is every year.   With this year in particular, no one is quite sure what to expect taking into account the high talent quotient and Commissioner Roger Goddell's new three-day format.   Late April certainly cannot come soon enough, but there is still a Combine to cover this week!

Over the past eight years, Brent Sobleski has worked his way through multiple levels of the football industry. Starting as a high school assistant coach, he then moved on to the collegiate level. Making stops at the University of Akron and Walsh University, Brent concentrated his time on line play. He has also contributed his efforts as a journalist for Scout.com, TFY Draft/DraftInsider.net, the Bleacher Report, the Harrison News Herald and SportsIllustrated.com. This past year, he spent time working with NFL Scouting Services as he phases into his next level of football coverage.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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