DRAFT STRATEGY -- The Seahawks are hamstrung entering this draft because they don't have a first-round draft choice. The team traded its pick, which would up being 24th overall, to the Patriots for Deion Branch. Seattle holds picks in every other round, including an additional sixth-round compensatory pick. Without any glaring needs, the reigning three-time NFC West champs have some flexibility. In a perfect world, the Seahawks would bolster their offensive and defensive lines while adding depth at tight end somewhere along the way.
The team would also like to trade veteran receiver Darrell Jackson, a good player who doesn't seem to fit in Tim Ruskell's world. Ruskell, entering his third season as Seahawks president, would like to get a first-day pick in return for his most productive wideout. Jackson has had some injury concerns in recent seasons, but he has remained productive most of the time. He had some contract-related issues with the organization that predated Ruskell. The sides have been unable to work out their differences.
As a result, Jackson hasn't participated fully in the team's off-season program, and he hasn't shown up for voluntary portions of minicamps. Ruskell wants full participation on those fronts, particularly from top players -- one reason Jackson might not be back.
The Seahawks would like to add a starting-caliber guard on the first day. Justin Blalock and Arron Sears figure to be gone by the time Seattle is on the clock with the 55th overall pick. Hawaii's Samson Satele might make sense in that spot if available. Adding a tight end in the second round seems unrealistic given that the top three prospects will probably be off the board, and there's a big drop to the next level of players at the position. The Seahawks would have to consider Arizona State's Zach Miller if he slips to them unexpectedly, but coach Mike Holmgren has said he expects 40 or 50 catches from 35-year-old veteran Marcus Pollard.
Like a lot of teams, the Seahawks would like to add a run-stuffing defensive tackle. That could be easier said than done. The very good ones are usually gone in the top half of the first round. And the ones that slip tend to carry baggage that could make them less attractive, particularly to a stickler such as Ruskell. The Seahawks would probably pounce if Tennessee's Justin Harrell somehow slipped to them at No. 55. But that seems unlikely in a draft without many top players at the position.
Seattle could also use a defensive end after releasing Grant Wistrom and letting Joe Tafoya leave in free agency. Michigan's LaMarr Woodley could be an intriguing option if available in the second round. That might allow the Seahawks to find an offensive lineman in the third, where Boston College's Josh Beekman could be an option.
The Seahawks have shown a willingness to wheel and deal on draft day. They moved up in the second round to take Lofa Tatupu in 2005. They lack enough ammo to realistically move into the first round, but with Jackson available, Seattle could be on the phones quite a bit.
--The free-agent recruiting process was unlike anything Patrick Kerney experienced at the college level. There's a good reason, too. Kerney wasn't recruited to play football out of high school. He was a lacrosse player who earned a football scholarship the hard way. "The lacrosse team didn't get a chance to get me down there for an official visit," Kerney said. "It was an easy sell at the University of Virginia. They offered me at the beginning of October and I said, 'Sold.' Everyone said (free agency) is like your official visits to college. I say, 'OK, what were those like?' "
--How much does recently signed TE Marcus Pollard have left? The Seahawks think it's a lot, and they'd better be right. The team is without additional proven pass-catchers at a position. "I'm excited about the possibilities and the opportunities in Seattle," the former Colts and Lions starter said. "I think I still have a lot left and the situation (in Detroit) wasn't right, wasn't a good fit for me, but thanks God that I got the opportunity to show my game and hopefully I get an opportunity out there in this offense."
--Safety Brian Russell has taken hard hits and given out a few, but nothing could compare to the staph infection that felled him last season. Russell, signed from Cleveland during free agency, says he's fully recovered after missing four games. "Those were the first four games I've ever missed and that was disappointing," Russell said. "I was playing with stitches in my arm for a while and they eventually split open and I got a staph infection in my elbow. I think I definitely could have played with it, but they just felt that I had to get on some heavy antibiotics and I had a little hospital stay and they just did the safe thing for me.
"I appreciate that, but I was frustrated missing the game. Going forward, there are no problems."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That is my trademark. I love to talk, I love to know exactly what the cornerbacks, what the linebackers are doing." -- Newly signed safety Deon Grant, signed to bring leadership and experience to the safety position.
DRAFT STRATEGY - The Cardinals will draft the best player on the board who fits their needs through the bulk of the draft, but with the fifth pick overall in the first round they will take the best player on the board, period. They've been very good about cherry-picking through their draft board and putting together drafts to improve their roster, particularly with their first-day picks.
But they'd be foolish to pass on, say, an Adrian Peterson at No. 5 even though their supply of running backs is deep, headed by Edgerrin James.
"The one thing you have to be careful about is if there is a player of that caliber available, you've got to look at him, especially a running back, guys who are going to touch the ball that much," said new Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. "It would be somebody you'd have to look at because he's a very talented guy. From interviewing him, he's a very sharp guy, a very focused guy."
"A guy who can change a game. That's the bottom line."
Whisenhunt is the wild card regarding what the Cardinals might do. It's his first draft with the club. There is no book on him. But Rod Graves, vice president of football operations, remains on the job and he has overseen the past five Cardinals drafts. So while Whisenhunt will have input, the Cardinals' draft strategy is unlikely to change radically.
The Cardinals have not traded up in the first round in recent memory, but they have moved down, and if they get a deal they that positions them to pick up an additional high quality player or players, it is possible that that they'd take it. In 2003 they came down from No. 10, where they could have taken hometown hero Terrell Suggs, who has gone on to become a Pro Bowl pass rusher, to Nos. 17 and 18, where they snagged receiver Bryant Johnson, a No. 3 man who is their speedster, and end-outside linebacker Calvin Pace, who started as a rookie but has been a rotation player since.
Was it worth it? Johnson and Pace play and contribute but not at the level one might expect of a first-round pick. Are the two of them combined worth one Terrell Suggs? A tough question. Pace isn't close to Suggs' equal as a pass rusher but every time Johnson gets behind a secondary for another big-yardage catch the temptation is to believe that the deal was worth it.
The mixed results may give the Cardinals pause about moving down, even if they believe that Penn State tackle Levi Brown isn't a giant step down from Wisconsin's Joe Thomas. "We're in a great spot at No. 5," Graves said. "There is some attractiveness in the fact that by moving down several spots we can still get an excellent football player and be in the position to possibly pick up a second-round pick or multiple picks."
The team has signed a mish-mash of mid-level veteran offensive linemen, headed by Mike Gandy, since starting left tackle Leonard Davis went to Dallas in free agency. But with Thomas, there would be the age-old questions: Should a team take a lineman this high and pay this kind of money to a player who doesn't touch the ball, or smother those who do? Is this one really a potential stud NFL left tackle?
"I think the way he moves out of his stance, the way he uses his hands in combination with his feet -- some of that is instinct, some of that is technique," Whisenhunt said of Thomas. "A lot of guys really have to work hard at it, and some guys are natural. I see a lot of the things that lead me to believe he's very natural at that position."
But then, so is Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams, another strong possibility to go at No. 5. The Cardinals' two starting defensive ends -- Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor -- while still strong pass rushers, have both reached age 30. Berry has been injury-prone the past two seasons following a Pro Bowl year. The thought of Adams coming off the edge to make a big late sack to save a game no doubt has the Cardinals drooling, as well.
With roughly $16 million in guaranteed money at stake at No. 5 overall in the draft, the Cardinals can't afford to miss. For the sake of their seemingly never-ending rebuilding they also can't afford to miss on the opportunity to land a high-quality impact player. That's why they take the best player on the board there, even if the player does not play a position of greatest need. They can select for need the remainder of the draft. Too much talent never has been one of the Cardinals' great concerns.
Along the way look for them to look for offensive linemen, cornerbacks, defensive linemen and outside linebackers.
--C Nick Leckey signed his one-year qualifying offer extended to him as a RFA. Leckey was the starter the final 11 games, including the Cardinals closing run in which they won four of their final seven games and Edgerrin James reached 1,000 rushing yards after a slow start. But Leckey may be displaced by free agent Al Johnson, signed from Dallas. Leckey was a sixth-round pick in 2004 from Kansas State.
--TE Troy Bienemann, who was with New Orleans as an undrafted rookie last year until suffering a preseason knee injury, was signed for one year. The team failed to land an established TE to pair with Leonard Pope, who goes into his second season. Bienemann played in college at Washington State.
--LT Qasim Mitchell a hulking (6-5, 347) veteran who has started 22 games since making it as an undrafted rookie five years ago, signed for one year. He'll be a potential depth player. He has started 16 games with the Chicago Bears.
--DE Joe Tafoya, who played in 13 games for Seattle last season, signed for one year. He's also a special teams player, which might be his ticket to a roster spot. Tafoya, who played in College at Arizona, was Tampa Bay's seventh-round pick in 2001.
--DE Rodney Bailey, who played in 12 games as a rotation player for Pittsburgh last season, signed for one year. He was the Steelers' sixth-round pick in 2001 from Ohio State.
--CB Ralph Brown, who started four games and played in all 16 last year for Cleveland, signed for one year. Brown made 37 tackles and defenses nine passes for the Browns in 2006. He was the New York Giants fifth-round pick in 2000 from Nebraska.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "For an old sage like me it's nice to get a new wrinkle to work on so you don't get into the regular grind. It's refreshing and it's good. We are students of the game, and once you play a position for eight, nine years, you kind of get into an area where you're searching for ways to get better. Going to a whole new position, getting a job that deals with a lot more coverages ... that brings that new element into it and a lot more involvement. If you don't use it, you lose it. I'm a speed athlete. If I'm always doing power stuff and I'm not using my quickness as much, eventually I'm going to start losing that. So it's just good to get back in the quickness drills so I can stay on top of that." -- Chike Okeafor, on moving from DE to OLB as the team implements more 3-4 schemes during mini-camp.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
DRAFT STRATEGY -- In the minds of most, it seems a fait accompli that the Rams will draft for defense when the 13th selection in the first round comes around April 28. Defensive tackle, especially nose tackle, is a position that needs reinforcement. Despite the acquisition of defensive end James Hall on March 2, youth is also needed there thanks to the fact that Hall is 30 and left end Leonard Little will be 33 in October.
The departure of Travis Fisher in free agency also could lead to the selection of a cornerback in the first round, even though cornerback Tye Hill was the team's opening-round choice last year. Yes, despite the obvious need for defense, the Rams seem infatuated with Ohio State wide receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. For good reason. Ginn can be a game-changer in the return game, an area where the Rams have been deficient for several years.
But what about improving the run defense?
"I promise you, if a player like Ted Ginn or any other player creates field position, or changes the scoreboard and makes it a 14-point lead for the Rams, our run defense is going to get a lot better," coach Scott Linehan said. "Because the team we're playing is going to be throwing. To me that's a logical way of looking at it. "I really feel the accumulation of talent, and making the team incrementally better regardless of what side of the ball you're on, is going to make us a much better team. It's going to directly impact our ability to play better in every phase, whether it's the run defense or whatever it is."
Ginn is not totally healthy after injuring his foot in the national championship game against Florida. He recently worked out at Ohio State, and the Rams sent five members of the organization to watch. Ginn was in St. Louis Friday (April 20), so doctors could further examine his foot. Asked about the possibility of selecting Ginn, Linehan said, "I can tell you this, he's a high consideration for us. ... There's a guy that potentially can impact a game."
Of course, Linehan sent out signals last year that the team was seriously considering selecting quarterback Jay Cutler. When it came time for the Rams' 11th pick, they traded down with Denver to No. 15 and also acquired a third-round selection. The Broncos took Cutler, and the Rams ended up with Hill. When asked about the popular notion that the team should go defense, Linehan said, "Not necessarily. I know there's a groundswell for that. And I understand it. There's still - how many days left till the draft? There's some scenarios that could happen. Trade ..."
That seemed to open the door for the possibility that Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins could still wind up in St. Louis. While not talking about specific trade discussions, Linehan said of Jenkins, "I can acknowledge that we'd be interested in making our team better in that area - with him or anybody."
--The Rams have a new punter, thanks to Miami's decision not to match a five-year offer sheet signed by Donnie Jones, who was a restricted free agent. The Dolphins will receive the Rams' own seventh-round pick (225th overall) in next week's draft. "It's something we felt very strongly about," coach Scott Linehan said. "We appreciate Matt (Turk) and thought Matt did a great job for us. I wish him the best. But my concern is that we were going to be sitting here with the same issue on draft day.
"He had a Pro Bowl-type year the year (2005) I was in Miami. He's a young player with a big leg and a lot of upside."
--The Rams will consider a defensive tackle in the first round, but it doesn't seem coach Scott Linehan believes someone that fits will be there with the 13th pick in the first round. The team needs a nose tackle, and while Linehan believes Amobi Okoye could play on the nose, he also said, "He really showed up as a '3-technique' in the Senior Bowl when he dropped his weight a little bit. He really looked like a special '3-technique.' Excellent pass-rush ability."
Asked about Alan Branch, Linehan said, "He's the best looking guy for the position. And doesn't always play the way he looks. ... And this is not a criticism, but you'd like to see a little more production out of the position."
--After missing the first few weeks of the team's off-season program, guard Claude Terrell arrived to work out before heading back to Texas to take care of some family issues. Said coach Scott Linehan, "It's a good sign. I was kind of worried about him, where he was, to be honest with you. He says he's raring to go."
--Coach Scott Linehan said he would have interest in running back Ricky Williams if he is reinstated by the NFL and the Dolphins don't want him back. Linehan was Miami's offensive coordinator in 2005 when Williams came back from his announced retirement. "Based on how he played and the kind of person he was to be around, and the professional he was, I would certainly consider it," Linehan said.
"He's proven himself with me. I know there would a certain amount of risk involved on that. I would have to look into it a little bit more." Williams rushed for 743 yards with a 4.4-yard average that year, sharing time with then-rookie Ronnie Brown. He has applied for reinstatement, and would be eligible to return April 26 if the league reinstates him.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He stood in front of teammates who still wanted a piece of him from the year before; I'll never forget those guys. He walked in and as a man, he went up and basically took all the responsibility for what he did. He didn't make excuses. He said, 'I'm sorry, and I know what happened.'" - Coach Scott Linehan on RB Ricky Williams addressing his teammates after he retired and missed the 2004 season.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
DRAFT STRATEGY -- Niners vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan divulged the club has 20 players rated as first-round picks on their draft board. One of the 49ers' goals for the draft is to obtain two of those selections after starting the draft with their top two selections coming at Nos. 11 and 42. The 49ers have plenty of ammunition to move up from their second-round pick. The club has eight selections in the first four rounds.
A year ago, the 49ers had 17 players ranked as first-round values, and traded up for the No. 22 pick to land linebacker Manny Lawson, whom joined tight end Vernon Davis as first-round picks on their draft board they were able to land. With 10 picks overall, the 49ers are not focusing on need as much as they are taking good players, 49ers coach Mike Nolan said.
"We're not at the point where we just need one specific thing," Nolan said. "That will be a nice spot to get into at some point, but we certainly don't think that way today.
"If you get caught into that at some degree, you can shove someone who's a lesser-value player above someone whether it was a need or not. What you end up having is a lot of backup players on your roster. I would rather pick out a current starter with a starter at the same position and get better than to create two backups at a position where I don't have any depth."
The 49ers could select linebacker Patrick Willis of Mississippi with the No. 11 overall selection, if he is still available. The team will also keep an eye on improving its offensive and defensive lines, as well as its receiving corps. Although the 49ers currently have Brandon Moore and veteran Derek Smith slated to start at inside linebacker, Willis' exceptional playmaking abilities would likely bump one of those players out of the starting lineup.
If Willis is not there -- and no player expected to go earlier in the draft slides to them -- the 49ers could look at receiver Robert Meachem of Tennessee or defensive end Adam Carriker of Nebraska.
Many mock drafts have the 49ers selecting defensive tackle Alan Branch of Michigan, but he does not appear to be the kind of selection the 49ers would seriously consider at that spot because of the risk-reward factor. The most popular national projections have the 49ers selecting Branch, Carriker or Willis.
"They all have a unique aspect of their game that makes them an NFL-quality player from the standpoint of speed, size, toughness and work ethic," McCloughan said. "No matter at the right price you stake those guys, you know they're going to be solid. Now, will one or two of those guys ever be Pro Bowl-caliber? Probably not, but there's an aspect about each of those guys you feel good about when you take them."
The offensive line is a spot that could warrant consideration from the 49ers on the first day of the draft. Guards Justin Smiley and Larry Allen, and tackle Kwame Harris are entering the final seasons of their contracts. All of those players are starters. Smiley and Harris could find themselves on the trade block, depending on what the 49ers are able to gain in the draft. The team could look at such offensive linemen as Ben Grubbs of Auburn, Arron Sears of Tennessee and Tony Ugoh of Arkansas with their second draft pick. The 49ers are familiar with each of those players, having coached them on the South squad at the Senior Bowl.
--Coach Nolan said the 49ers have held contract negotiations with offensive linemen Justin Smiley and Kwame Harris. Both players are entering the final seasons of their contracts, and the 49ers would like to sign them to long-term deals. But if the 49ers do not believe they can re-sign them, they might look to beef up their line in the draft and dangle Smiley and/or Harris as trade bait. "They are two guys we like on our football team, but everybody has a cost," Nolan said. "So we'll see where that goes."
--Running back Maurice Hicks did not sign an offer sheet as a restricted free agent and is expected to return to the 49ers after signing a one-year tender. Although Hicks looked as if he might attract attention around the league, it appeared that teams were unwilling to sign him to a deal that the 49ers would have no problem matching. The 49ers are $13.5 million under the salary cap.
--Coach Nolan was sporting glasses when he appeared at the team's pre-draft media conference. When asked about the new look, he said his wife pointed out the positives of better eyesight. "She said, now fourth-and-inches will look like fourth-and-inches, and not fourth-and-a-yard," Nolan quipped. Nolan was referring to his controversial decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-an-inch late in a game against the Rams. The kick gave the 49ers a four-point lead, but they lost when the Rams scored a touchdown in the closing seconds.
--Quarterback Alex Smith spoke at the California State Capitol on behalf of a set of reforms designed to give foster young financial and other supports needed to attend college. The legislation helps current and former foster youth prepare for college and supports them once they get there through housing priority and grants. The bill also expands public-private partnerships such as "Guardian Scholars" programs that provide foster youth with comprehensive financial aid packages, year-round housing, mentoring and other personalized attention to ensure that they don't fall through the cracks. The Alex Smith Foundation focuses on helping foster youth transition to adulthood.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's better than the alternative, yes." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan when asked if it's beneficial to have a deep draft at receiver and defensive end.