2007 NFL Draft: Prospects to watch

For Draftniks, it's never too early to talk about the NFL Draft. .NET's Draft Guru Ryan Rigmaiden will have a recurring column on prospects that fans can keep an eye on during the college football season in areas where the team may be looking to add some youth and talent.

The NFL Draft isn't exactly on the horizon, but with college football already rolling, it's time to take a look at some prospects for next year's Draft.

Seattle's post Super Bowl run hasn't even begun yet, but I see three positions of concern already - Wide Receiver, Tight End and Safety.

As of press time, Darrell Jackson has just completed his first practice since the Super Bowl after two off-season knee surgeries. Jackson's knee is said to be degenerative, meaning it's only going to get worse. Questions about his contract have also raised concerns about his long-term status with the team.

Veteran WR Bobby Engram has done everything the Seahawks have asked of him throughout his career in the Emerald City, but he's on the wrong side of 30 and it'd be a mistake to count on him after this season. Nate Burleson will be a nice fit for the offense, but he's learning a new system and is a better fit as a number two wideout.

D.J. Hackett impresses every time he's on the field, but the nagging injuries that plagued him in college have followed him to the NFL. His health will always remain and issue and banking on him could be a huge mistake for the franchise.

The current speculation of trading for New England's Deion Branch is only further evidence that the front office isn't sold on the unit's future. For the cap numbers that are being thrown around surrounding the possible Branch deal, GM Tim Ruskell isn't thinking of Branch as being a short-term fix.

Seattle's offense has been near the top of the NFL in virtually every statistical category the past three years despite missing the presence of a true number one receiver. However, with serious questions surrounding Jackson, Engram and Hackett, the time might be right to add a premier receiver to the mix. Even if that player isn't a true number one, adding additional talent to the squad will probably be near the top of Seattle's off-season priorities.

The following is a list of players who might fit that need:

1. Ted Ginn, WR Ohio State 6-0,175 Junior

Isn't as big as you'd like for Mike Holmgren's system, but he's been the most electrifying wide receiver in college for the past two years. He was a disappointment last year, but Ohio State's quarterback issues didn't help either. Ginn's strength is his deep speed and is often compared to former Buckeye and Seahawk Joey Galloway. Those descriptions are dead on. He's an amazing kick/punt return man and can take any catch the distance. He could have a career like Carolina's Steve Smith or Washington's Santana Moss, meaning he might play special teams while honing his route-running skills and overall game before he's truly ready to be special. But as we've seen with Smith and Moss, the wait could be worth it.

Current Draft Projection: Top 10

2. Sidney Rice, WR South Carolina 6-3,190 Junior

Rice has the potential to be the number one wideout on the board come April. Had a terrific year under new coach Steve Spurrier, hauling in 70 catches, for an average of 16 yards a catch and also posted 13 touchdowns. Like most underclassmen, Rice needs to work on his routes, but has the separation and explosion that translates to the NFL.

Current Draft Projection: Round 1

3. Calvin Johnson, WR Georgia Tech 6-4,210 Junior

Has great hands and body control. Uses his size to shield defenders and makes catches across the middle. However, I'm not as high on him as I once was. While his size, physical skills and production are impressive, his lack of separation will be a problem in the NFL. His ability to snatch the ball at its highest point and make the circus catch will give him tremendous publicity, but it'll be much harder for him to do it at the next level. With more work on route running and separation, he could be like Detroit's Roy Williams or, if he's unable to improve, he could be like Jacksonville's Reggie Williams. The lack of success that some recent NFL Draft prospects that share Johnson's build (Houston's Andre Johnson, Jacksonville's Reggie Williams, Detroit's Mike Williams) may hurt Johnson on Draft day.

Current Draft Projection: Top 15

4. Jeff Samardzija, WR Notre Dame 6-4,210 Senior

Like Johnson, Samardzija has impressive size and the body control to make the acrobatic catch look routine. Absolutely blew up last year and never looked back. Has great hands and runs good routes despite his tall frame. Is a great athlete and has a legitimate baseball career in front of him if he chooses to go that route. The guaranteed contracts that major league baseball teams will offer him this summer will give teams cause for concern and that might hurt his stock. However, with two seasons under former NFL coach Charlie Weis and the size, hands and production Samardzija has, he'll be at the top of many teams' boards next year. Reminds people of Joe Jurevicious, but with better speed.

Current Draft Projection: Round 1

5. Jason Hill, WR Washington State 6-1,200 Senior

Nice size, speed and production. Doesn't have the elite explosion to be a true number one, but could be a solid number two. Averaged over 17 yards per catch last year and posted 13 touchdowns as well. Hill thought about leaving last year, but didn't because he wouldn't have been a first round pick. Needs to have a great season, personal workout and combine to be in the first round mix next year.

Current Draft Projection: Round 2

Others to Watch:

Dwayne Jarrett, WR USC (underclassman)
Paul Williams, WR Fresno State
Andre Caldwell, WR Florida (underclassman)
Steve Breaston, WR Michigan

Starting TE Jerramy Stevens had a terrific season last year (Super Bowl aside) and looked to be on the verge elite status looking unstoppable during the season and seemingly open constantly. However, much like the rest of Seattle's roster, Stevens had off-season surgery and re-injured the knee last in training camp. He's also a free agent after this season and he's not a lock to be re-signed.

Backup Itula Mili had a decent career until a virus knocked him out of last season, ultimately opening up the door for Stevens' success. With Stevens on the sidelines for the better part of two months, Mili was slated to be the starter again, but even he's battling nagging injuries and Seattle probably won't bring him back next year.

That leaves Will Heller as Seattle's starting TE for their opener at Detroit. Heller's specialty is blocking, so expect the game plan to lack a focus on the tight end position.

One could assume that Stevens, a player with many off-field troubles coming out of the University of Washington, may give the Seahawks the so-called "home town discount" when it comes to him re-signing next year. Holmgren rolled the dice on him in 2002 despite a ton of public criticism for selecting a player with such a sketchy background. Stevens has been a solid citizen since and although he's battled injuries, he's extremely productive when given the chance. But we all know that free agency and the often heard of, but rarely employed "home town discount" is no lock.

Mili's chances of being on the roster next year are slim to none, leaving Heller the lone player at the position that has a solid chance of being on the team in 2007. Adding another tight end that can be a factor in the passing game is a definite need.

Here are some players to keep an eye on this fall:

1. Zach Miller, Arizona State 6-5,250 Junior

Often compared to Todd Heap, but every so-called Draft expert says that about players playing the same positions as former alumni. Miller's put up huge numbers since he was a freshman and is a good tight end, but not at Heap's level yet. Miller catches the ball away from his body and can make every catch. He makes plays after the catch and has the talent to start in the NFL as a rookie.

Current Draft Projection: Round 1

2. Greg Olsen, TE Miami 6-2,250 Junior

A fantastic athlete with great hands, Olsen continues the Miami tradition of producing NFL-quality tight ends. He could go even higher than Zach Miller if the Hurricanes get good quarterback play this year. Needs to work on his blocking, but hasn't been asked to do it much.

Current Draft Projection: Round 1

3. Joe Newton, TE Oregon State 6-7,255 Senior

Best all-around tight end in the class. Doesn't have the athleticism of some of the elite prospects or the blocking skills of the bigger ones, but Newton's a nice compilation of both. Missed all of 2005 with a leg injury. Looks like a late second or early third round pick right now.

Current Draft Projection: Round 2 or 3

On paper, the Seahawks seem to be set at Safety.

Ken Hamlin looks like he's completely healthy after suffering massive head trauma last season. Michael Boulware had offseason surgery, but looks solid so far and Mike Green, had he not gotten hurt, looked like a starter subbing in for Boulware in training camp.

However, Hamlin is a free agent and is not a lock to be re-signed next year. I mentioned the "home town discount" already and it could again be brought up with Hamlin. The team chose to pay Hamlin last year when they didn't have to, especially considering the nature of the incident. Hamlin also had some off-field problems when he left Arkansas, but until last year's night club drama, he's been a solid citizen and a fan favorite.

Boulware, another fan favorite, is a decent safety, but has breakdowns from time-to-time and needs to be more consistent. In no way do I think he's in danger of losing his job, but Green stepped in and the defense didn't miss a beat. If Hamlin is not re-signed, the Seahawks will be forced to take a safety in the Draft or get one in Free Agency next year.

Let's take a look at the top safety prospects in college this fall:

1. LaRon Landry, S LSU 6-1,200 Senior

Could've left last year and would've been a first-rounder. Is fearless and sacrifices his body vs. the run and lights up receivers crossing the middle. Is a good athlete and has the instincts to start as a rookie. Has the size to play either free or strong safety in the NFL, but is probably a better fit as a free safety.

Current Draft Projection: Round 1

2. Brandon Merriweather, S Miami 6-0,190 Senior

Another in a long line of great Miami safeties. Decent athlete, but has tremendous instincts. Plays well in man and zone schemes. Isn't very big, but rarely misses tackles. Needs to show better speed during or after the season to get into the first round.

Current Draft Projection: Round 1

3. Michael Griffin, S Texas 6-0,200 Senior

Takes over for Michael Huff and Cedric Griffin as leader of the Longhorns' secondary. Tremendous range and good athleticism. Tackles well (238 career tackles) and makes plays all over the field.

Others to watch:

Tom Zbikowski, S Notre Dame
Aaron Rouse, S Virginia Tech
Josh Gattis, S Wake Forest

As usual, any questions or comments can be sent to rlrigmaiden@hotmail.com. Thanks for taking the time to write in.

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