NFC West: Draft Need Evaluation

With the big free-agent spending spree over, attention now turns to April's NFL Draft. It will be the final opportunity for teams to fill their remaining holes -- or begin addressing them if they sat on the sidelines while teams threw gobs of money around last week.

According to ratings by NFLDraftScout.com, teams seeking wide receivers, defensive ends and offensive linemen should be able to find some immediate help from the collegiate ranks. But key positions like tight end and linebacker are frightfully thin when it comes to this draft class.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seahawks traded their first-round pick to New England for veteran wide receiver Deion Branch, leaving the team with picks in the second through seventh rounds. Seattle's needs are primarily on offense. The team made a hard initial push in free agency but was unable to land Chargers guard Kris Dielman or Patriots tight end Daniel Graham. Those near-misses left the Seahawks thin at two positions that weakened the team last season.

The Seahawks responded by throwing their 2007 free-agent dollars into the defense.

Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney and Jaguars free safety Deon Grant signed six-year deals. Both are vocal leaders and proven players. Kerney comes with injury concerns following surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, but he is two months ahead of schedule. Kerney said he'll be full strength in time for the regular season.

The Seahawks were also pursuing free-agent safety Brian Russell. Adding Grant and Russell would give Seattle four veteran safeties with starting experience. Mike Green and Michael Boulware are the others. The Seahawks could then bypass safety as a position to target in the draft.

The increased flexibility at safety would allow Jordan Babineaux to focus on cornerback. He has the skills to be a physical nickel corner. Kelly Jennings and Marcus Trufant are expected to start at the position.

Guard, tight end and defensive tackle are positions the Seahawks might address on draft day. The team still might sign a free-agent offensive lineman to address that first need, but drafting at those positions makes sense anyway.

Seattle's defensive line lacks bulk. A healthy Marcus Tubbs would change that, but he's coming off microfracture knee surgery, putting his long-term future in question. Team president Tim Ruskell has been known to find productive defensive role players later in free agency, signing Chuck Darby and Bryce Fisher in recent seasons. A repeat performance would help the front seven.

Tight end remains a question mark. Starter Jerramy Stevens is a free agent. The team hasn't shown a great deal of interest in re-signing him. Graham was the player Seattle badly wanted, but Denver wasn't going to be outbid after losing Kerney to the Seahawks in another bidding war. Will Heller, Leonard Stephens and Ben Joppru are the only tight ends on the roster.

Drafting a tight end would make sense if the player had enough ability to challenge for playing time. Stephens and Joppru already fall into the developmental category. Another player in that mold wouldn't make much impact.

TEAM NEEDS:

1. Guard:
The Seahawks still haven't recovered from losing Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson to the Vikings a year ago. Rob Sims looks like a keeper, but the team still needs another starting guard. Chris Gray is one option, but he turns 37 this offseason. Seattle wanted Kris Dielman but he didn't want them. Guard is a position the Seahawks could address on the first day of the draft. Auburn's Ben Grubbs is regarded as the best guard in the draft, but he may very well be gone by the time Seattle picks. Other options include Akron's Andy Alleman and Mansfield Wrotto of Georgia Tech.

2. Tight end: Jerramy Stevens and Itula Mili have been the starters during Mike Holmgren's tenure in Seattle. Stevens is a free agent who might not return. Mili was contemplating retirement following his release last season. Will Heller is back, but there isn't a proven receiving option at the position anywhere on the roster. An under-the-radar possibility is Michael Allan of Division III Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. Allan put himself on the map with a stellar Combine performance and should be selected in the early second day of the draft.

3. Defensive tackle: Marcus Tubbs is coming off microfracture knee surgery. Craig Terrill is a restricted free agent coming off a knee injury. Chuck Darby and Russell Davis return, but depth could be a concern. Seattle is small on defense. The team could use a 320-pounder in Tubbs' mold to anchor against the run. Cal's Brandon Mebane weighs in ten pounds lighter than that, but he is a prototype run-stuffer.

DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY

The Seahawks do not have a first-round draft choice in 2007. They do not have enough ammunition in terms of other picks to move into the first round. The team could add a pick somewhere along the way by trading receiver Darrell Jackson. Until that happens, the Seahawks lack the leverage to be major players in draft-day maneuvering.

Seattle has generally adhered to the best-player-available mantra early in the draft, using a 2005 first-round choice on Chris Spencer even though center wasn't an immediate need. There will be options at guard in particular when Seattle chooses in the second round. The top defensive tackles will be gone by then, and few tight ends appear worthy of second-round status.

The release of Grant Wistrom means the Seahawks could always use their second-round pick on a defensive end for the second consecutive season. Virginia Tech's Darryl Tapp was the choice there last season.

Seattle talked to Alabama outside linebacker Juwan Simpson at the 2007 Scouting Combine about a possible switch to strong safety, but the signings of Grant and Russell may negate that proposition. However, SS Michael Boulware, the 2004 second-round pick who played OLB at Florida State, might be the odd man out as Seattle's defense continues to be redefined - Boulware was demoted for several games in the 2006 season. In that case, the Seahawks might indeed take another shot at a linebacker-to-safety prospect. NFLDraftScout.com has Simpson projected as a second-day pick.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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With the fifth pick overall, the Cardinals need to score a player who can change a game. Kendrick Clancy was plugged in at defensive tackle as a free-agent pickup last year and the Cardinals defense took a major tumble, from the league top 10 in 2005 to the lower quarter in 2006.

While not Clancy's fault alone -- the secondary reeked with the exception of Adrian Wilson and the linebackers were average at best -- there's no doubting that a stud up front with the size (6-6, 324) and skill of Michigan's Alan Branch would be a run-stopping upgrade. Recall Eric Swann in his early, healthy years. The caveat on taking Branch this high is that he's coming out early. A young man in a big-man's body.

The team addressed one of its major needs by signing back unrestricted free agent running back Marcel Shipp, who will be the backup to Edgerrin James. Shipp is a banger, a good short-yardage and goal-line runner, and a fine complement to James.

It also has signed free-agent free safety Terrence Holt to a five-year contract from Detroit. He is a former college teammate of Wilson, the Cardinals' Pro Bowl strong safety. Holt will compete with Aaron Francisco to replace aging unrestricted agent Robert Griffith as the starter.

Also, center Al Johnson was signed from Dallas to a four-year contract to compete for the starting job with Nick Leckey, a restricted free agent who received a tender offer form the Cardinals.
The Cardinals may make a play for a tight end in free agency or in the draft. Coach Ken Whisenhunt wants another one to pair with Leonard Pope and have the capability of playing two-tight-end sets. Whisenhunt also wants a mauling, lead-blocking fullback or tight-end-convert in front of Edgerrin James in some sets.

TEAM NEEDS:

1. Cornerback: 2005 first-round pick Antrel Rolle has been disappointing thus far and it has been an embarrassingly bad tag team opposite him. The Cardinals did not get an interception from a starting corner until Game 12.

2. Left tackle:
Although quarterback Matt Leinart is a lefty, making the right tackle his blind-side protector, left tackle remains a critical position after starter Leonard Davis, a career underachiever, went to Dallas as an unrestricted free agent. Six years into his career, Davis, the second pick overall in 2001, has yet to make the Pro Bowl.

3. Defensive end: With former Pro Bowler Bertrand Berry working from the right side and team sacks leader Chike Okeafor from the left, this wouldn't on the surface appear to be a key need. But Berry, 30, has played only 18 games the past two seasons after his 14.5-sack Pro Bowl season in 2004. He had 12 sacks in those 18 games in 2005 and 2006 but his ability to get through a season now becomes a concern. Okeafor also is 30, although he tied his career high with 8.5 sacks. Depth is an issue.

DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY

If the Cardinals do not select defensive tackle Alan Branch of Michigan No. 5 in the first round, they couldn't go wrong selecting Penn State tackle Levi Brown as a replacement to the departed Leonard Davis, who is now a Dallas Cowboy. The team needs to find a starting left tackle somewhere, although it is expected to move Oliver Ross into the job from the right side. And, of course, if Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas unexpectedly remains on the board at No. 5 -- he's not likely to make it past No. 3 -- then the team should grab him.

The Cardinals also could make a strong case for drafting Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams. While they have a fine pair of starting defensive ends in Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor, both are 30 and both are showing signs of aging and becoming injury-prone.

Look for the Cardinals to address cornerback very high in the draft, perhaps snagging Marcus McCauley of Fresno State in the second round, whose 6-foot-1-inch frame stands out in a field full of 5-10 corners. There are some lower first-round prospects at this position, but none worthy of consideration as high as No. 5, where the Cardinals sit.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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The Rams opened free agency quickly with a trade that landed defensive end James Hall and the signing of wide receiver Drew Bennett to replace Kevin Curtis as the third receiver. Miami's release of tight end Randy McMichael dropped him into the Rams' lap, while depth and special teams were helped with the addition of safety Todd Johnson and running back Travis Minor.

Rookie Joe Klopfenstein, a second-round pick, started all 16 games at tight end last season, but third-round choice Dominique Byrd was slow developing and now has off-field concerns. McMichael instantly makes the offense better, and will allow Klopfenstein to concentrate on improving as a receiver.

Johnson will compete with Jerome Carter for the third safety spot, while Minor hopes to be in the mix behind starter Steven Jackson. However, the run defense still needs to be addressed, especially on the interior of the defensive line at nose tackle. The free-agent crop there is extremely limited, but space eaters on the line rarely arrive in the first round. The Rams will hope to land a nose tackle prospect later in the draft.

The arrival of Hall doesn't lessen the need for a young pass rusher. Hall is 30, and left end Leonard Little turns 33 during the 2007 season. Victor Adeyanju, a fourth-round pick last year, is solid against the run, but is not a threat off the edge.

Despite the addition of Bennett, the Rams could eye a wide receiver on the first day that can also return kicks. Bennett will be 29 in August and joins a 30-something receiving corps that includes Torry Holt (31 in June) and Isaac Bruce (35 in November).

This year's draft is deep among defensive ends and wide receivers, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see one of each on the first day. Don't count out a cornerback since starter Fakhir Browns will soon be 30.

TEAM NEEDS:

1. Defensive tackle:
The Rams have been trying to get this right for several years. Jimmy Kennedy was only adequate at nose tackle last season after Ryan Pickett left in free agency for Green Bay. His backup, Jason Fisk, is expected to retire and was only a stopgap anyway. Kennedy doesn't seem cut out to play on the nose, so an upgrade there is necessary.

2. Defensive end: This area was helped with the acquisition of James Hall, but he won't be healthy until training camp because of a shoulder problem and he is 30 years old. Even with a healthy Hall, the Rams have to add more quickness to their pass rush, and the draft this year is deep with quality defensive ends.

3. Wide receiver/cornerback: The front-line players at these positions are fine, but some age is creeping in, especially at wide receiver. The Rams selected cornerback Tye Hill with their first-round pick last season, and it would not be a surprise to see them dip into that area again in the opening round.

DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY

With the 13th pick in the first round, there are a variety of directions the Rams could head. In 2006, they were slated to pick 11th, ended up trading down four spots with Denver, and were still able to add cornerback Tye Hill, so it's highly possible a similar scenario could develop this year.

It would be difficult for the Rams to bypass a receiver/kick returner like Ted Ginn Jr. if he is still available at 13. Likewise, Jamaal Anderson would fit what the Rams need out of a young, pass-rushing defensive end.

But, this draft is filled with quality at both those positions, so a trade down could still yield the player the Rams want, while gathering extra picks for later in the draft that can be used on a second-level defensive tackle.

However it unfolds, the Rams need to come out of the first four rounds with two defensive linemen, a receiver and cornerback.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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The 49ers signed five free agents at positions in which they had their most dire needs heading into next season. Now, the team has the luxury of selecting the best players in the draft. The 49ers can still grab two or three defensive starters in the draft, as they expect to own eight picks in the first four rounds, including two compensatory picks. The 49ers invested a lot into improving their offense the past two years, with the additions of quarterback Alex Smith, tight end Vernon Davis, running back Frank Gore and a revamped offensive line.

The focus for this offseason is the defense.

Because the 49ers signed cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain in the first five days of free agency, the 49ers do not feel pressured into making defense the overwhelming priority in the draft.

The 49ers ranked 26th last season on offense and defense. While the offense is comprised mostly of young players who should be improving, the nucleus of the defense was on the downhill side.
Perhaps with the activity early in free agency, the 49ers brought the defense more in line with the offense. Now, the 49ers can take the best player without being concerned about filling holes.

The 49ers signed receiver Ashley Lelie, but they already had a void in the starting lineup after cutting Antonio Bryant. The 49ers hope Lelie can bring a deep element to the team. But they still need help at wideout, and they are certain to take a receiver in the first few rounds who has a chance to compete for significant playing time.

Coach Mike Nolan has stated that it will always be a priority to bolster the team's offensive line, so they will not pass up an opportunity to add a strong tackle.

TEAM NEEDS:

1. Wide receiver:
Even with the addition of Lelie, the 49ers find themselves back where they started. Lelie is a starter, along with Arnaz Battle, who many believe is best-suited to be a No. 3. The 49ers' third wideout last season was Bryan Gilmore, who caught just eight passes the entire season. The 49ers need to be able to put more threats on the field on third downs.

2. Defensive end: The 49ers need more depth at this spot so they don't have to use 14-year vet Bryant Young every down. In going to a 3-4 defense, the 49ers have to do a better job of selecting players who fit their scheme.

3. Inside linebacker:
The 49ers got good production from Brandon Moore after he was moved into the starting lineup last season. At the other spot, the 49ers need to get a more athletic player on the field who is adept in coverage.

DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY

With the No. 11 pick, the 49ers could look in a lot of different directions. Some might consider Patrick Willis a reach with the No. 11 overall pick, but Willis would likely make a huge impact on the 49ers as an immediate starter. Willis has sideline-to-sideline range and the kind of athleticism the 49ers need in the middle of their defense.

Willis would likely supplant veteran Derek Smith in the starting lineup. There is some uncertainty surrounding Smith, who underwent surgery in the offseason to correct a problem with a muscle that controls movement of his left eye. The 49ers' coaching staff was blown away with Willis while coaching the South squad at the Senior Bowl. Coach Mike Nolan said he had a more impressive week than DeMeco Ryans had the previous season, when the 49ers also coached the game. Ryans was the league's defensive rookie of the year with the Texans.

The 49ers could also look for a pass-rusher at defensive end, such as Nebraska's Adam Carriker, or a wide receiver such as Tennessee's Robert Meachem.


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