7 Points: Crisis Looming

Is a crisis looming in New England? Should Panthers WR Steve Smith demand a trade? Could Penn State DT Jared Odrick make a more immediate impact than Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy? Draft prospect updates, why 7th round picks shouldn't be overlooked--and more in Ed Thompson's 7 points.

Point No. 1:  The Patriots have a talent crisis looming at the running back position. 

At first glance, you'd think that a team with well-known players such as Lawrence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris on its depth chart at running back would be planning to stand pat during this year's NFL Draft and focus on other positions. After all, the running-back-by-committee approach helped the Patriots finish a respectable 12th in average rushing yards per game (120.1), fifth in percentage of runs for 4-plus yards (45.5), fifth in 3rd-down-and-1 conversions (76.5 percent), and tied for sixth in rushing touchdowns (19).

But all four running backs are in the final year of their contracts. To make matters worse, Maroney appeared to be in head coach Bill Belichick's doghouse at the end of last season due to some poorly-timed fumbles. And while he got nearly half of the team's carries last year, his 3.9 yards-per-rush average was the worst mark among the four backs. Meanwhile, the other three running backs are waging a battle against time at a young man's position in the NFL--they'll all be 33 or 34 years old before the start of this year's training camp.

As a result of that mess, the Patriots need to bring in a starter-quality running back and at least one strong reserve out of this year's pool of young draft prospects. Sources have told me that two candidates that fit the bill are currently being evaluated by the team.

The team has scheduled a private workout with Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer, a versatile, tough runner who could be the feature back that the team thought they were getting when they drafted Maroney a few years ago. But to be certain that they get the 2008 ACC Player of the Year, the Patriots would likely have to use their second pick in the first round at No. 22 overall. The Chargers, who have the No. 28 pick in the first round and the No. 8 pick in the second round have shown quite a bit of interest in Dwyer. So if the Patriots decide to roll the dice and wait to snag him with their 12th selection in the second round, there's a strong chance that could be off the board. 

I was told by another source that the Patriots hosted LSU running back Charles Scott for an official visit this past week. The 5-foot-11, 232-pound back is a terrific inside-the-tackles runner who logged 32 rushing touchdowns during his collegiate career. He would undoubtedly be an immediate asset to New England's short-yardage and goal-line situations.

If the Patriots face reality and move forward with adding two fresh faces to the depth chart--be it Dwyer and Scott or two other talented backs--it'll be interesting to see who the odd-men-out will be by the start of the 2010 season. My early guess is Morris and Taylor unless Belichick is still disgruntled with Maroney.

Point No. 2: As teams continue to work on their draft boards, they need to wake up and realize the value of having three highly-skilled wide receivers on their roster. 

Last year, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning racked-up 3,485 of his 4,500 passing yards while working out of a three-wide-receiver set. He completed 68.7 percent of his 438 pass attempts out of that formation with Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon split out wide while either rookie wide receiver Austin Collie or tight end Dallas Clark lined up in the slot. 

Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Both Wayne and Clark finished the season with exactly 100 catches and ten touchdowns while rolling up 1,264 yards and 1,106 yards receiving, respectively. Collie grabbed 60 balls for 676 yards and seven scores while Garcon snagged 47 passes for 765 yards and four touchdowns. The talent balance kept opponents off balance and helped propel the Colts into the Super Bowl for the second time this decade.

The Vikings' Brett Favre, the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, the Cowboys' Tony Romo, and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers were the only other quarterbacks who finished the year with at least 2,000 passing yards out of the three-wide-receiver formation. And all but one--Roethlisberger--ended up in the playoffs. 

Point No. 3: Penn State's Jared Odrick is the most NFL-ready defensive tackle in this draft.

Don't get me wrong. Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy should both be picked earlier in the first round of the draft than Odrick. But the 6-foot-5, 304-pound lineman is special in his own right, and will likely make the transition to the pro game faster than the other two.

That's not just my opinion, it's a point that was solidified by former NFL defensive tackle John Thornton--who played the position from 1999 through 2008 for the Tennessee Titans and the Cincinnati Bengals. He's convinced that Odrick is poised to make an immediate impact as a rookie.

"He doesn't do much wrong. He comes off the line using his hands well and making pass-rush moves immediately, and you don't see that a lot out of college guys who play inside," Thornton said. "He's the most pro-ready with the little things. When I saw him at the Senior Bowl, this was the guy who I thought that if I was picking for a team, I'd be hoping that I would get him, because there's less risk there."

The veteran defensive lineman is also optimistic that Odrick will have a long and successful career in the NFL if he stays healthy.

"He doesn't have Suh's strength or McCoy's numbers, but he's a hidden gem, like (Steelers defensive end) Aaron Smith who has played for 12 years, who does it well and is still going," Thornton explained. "If Jared comes out and does it right, I think he can be one of those guys.

"He could play 3-4 defensive end, he could slide down on a 3-technique, you could throw him inside on a pass rush against the center. He's probably the most versatile guy of the bunch."

As for when the Penn State star will hear his name called during the first round, Thornton believes it'll be between the tenth and 20th overall pick. And he thinks that he's a steal at that point in the draft.

"If I'm looking for a value pick, based on where I think he'll be taken, it would be Jared Odrick," he said. "He's going to give you a lot of production, because he's really active." 

Point No. 4: Riley Cooper is getting plenty of interest, and he's pumped up about it.

The talented wide receiver out of Florida told me this week that he's already worked out for the Falcons, Patriots and the Vikings. So I asked him if it's hit him yet that he could soon be catching passes from future Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Brett Favre and Tom Brady.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

"No, not yet. I'm just trying to focus on getting picked. But that would be cool to be playing with one of those quarterbacks that I've been playing with on Madden--that would be pretty neat," he said with a laugh.

Cooper has already visited with the Baltimore Ravens, and he's heading to Cleveland early this week to visit the Browns. The two-time national champion is getting really positive feedback from the NFL teams that are taking a closer look at him.

"They've said that they love my speed and my size. I'm 6-foot-4 and I weighed in at 224 pounds, so they love how I use my big frame and my hands to my advantage," he said.

"They said they're really interested in me and they want me, which is what you want to hear, so I'm pumped for the 22nd and the 23rd."  

Point No. 5: Don't overlook the players drafted in the seventh round later this month.

Over the past five drafts, a number of players selected in the seventh round have become starters or highly-valued reserves for their teams. Here are just a few examples from recent drafts who will remind you that it's worth paying attention to those late-round picks:

  • Courtland Finnegan: The Titans cornerback has started 45 of the Titans' last 48 regular season games and has picked off five passes in each of the last two seasons.  
  • Ahmad Bradshaw: In a traditional 32-picks-per-round draft, the Giants running back wouldn't have been selected. New York grabbed him with a compensatory 40th pick in the final round of the 2007 NFL Draft, and he's rewarded them by posting a career rushing average of 5.2 yards.
  • Matt Cassel: The Chiefs' starting quarterback was the 16th pick in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL Draft by New England. He's passed for at least 2,900 yards in each of the last two seasons as a starter. 
  • Jay Ratliff: The Cowboys defensive tackle has started all but two contests over the past three seasons and has 13.5 sacks over the last two seasons. 
  • Marques Colston: Another compensatory draft pick, Colston was the 44th pick in the seventh round of the 2006 draft. He's logged at least 1,000 receiving yards in three out of the four seasons when he's started at least a dozen games. 
  • Julian Edelman: The Patriots receiver started seven games, appeared in 11 and caught 37 balls for 359 yards last year. With Wes Welker likely to miss at least a portion of the 2010 season, Edelman is the heir- apparent to the slot receiver position.

Point No. 6:  If the Panthers don't dramatically improve their wide receiver situation during this year's draft, veteran Steve Smith should request a trade.

Carolina has only drafted two wide receivers in the last five years, and that neglect has put them in a terrible position. The Panthers drafted Dwayne Jarrett with a second-round pick in 2007, but the underachieving receiver has just three starts, 33 receptions and 388 yards on his NFL resume to date. In the same year, the team also selected Ryne Robinson in the fourth round out of Miami (Ohio). He was a one-year-and-done roster addition who washed out after handling punt returns and kickoff return duties as a rookie.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Last year, while surrounded by a mediocre receiver corps and while chasing down erratic passes from declining veteran quarerback Jake Delhomme, Smith failed to break the 1,000-yard receiving yards mark for the first time since 2004--when an injury ended his season after the first game of the season. The bottom line is that the Panthers are wasting the incredible talent of the tenth-year veteran if they don't put enough talent on the field at the wide receiver position to force their opponents to distribute their pass coverage more evenly.

As it stands now, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound star shares the depth chart with Jarrett, fifth-year pro Wallace Wright--who was signed as a free agent from the Jets for his special teams coverage skills--and a trio of young, inexperienced receivers who have a grand total of seven career catches between the three of them. And Smith will likely be catching passes this year from Matt Moore, who made a promising showing during the final weeks of the 2009 season, but is still an unproven talent.

In 100 career starts, Smith has 574 catches and 50 touchdown passes--even though he hasn't had the benefit of a consistently strong cast of offensive players during his career. While it's unlikely that Carolina will make a change at the quarterback position this year, they owe it to Smith to bring in some talented receivers who will command some respect and divert some attention so that he can flourish again. Otherwise, they should show some class and allow the soon-to-be 31-year-old player to finish his career with a contender like the Chiefs did for tight end Tony Gonzalez prior to the 2009 season. 

Point No. 7:  I'm still hearing plenty of buzz about visits and workouts directly from draft prospects and my NFL sources. 

  • USC offensive tackle Charles Brown told me he met with the Ravens offensive line coach before his school's Pro Day, visited the Bills and the Lions this past week, and has a visit with the Buccaneers early this week. I asked him why he's been able to be so effective as a pass blocker, which is essential to an offensive lineman's success in the NFL. "Staying square to the line of scrimmage," he said. "And I've got long arms, so I'm able to get a good touch on my opponent before he can get close to me." Brown's been hearing good things from the NFL coaches he's been talking to over the last couple of months. "They like that I'm athletic and have good feet. And when they put me on the board, I'm able to draw up the plays that we've been talking about," he said. 
  • Oklahoma State offensive tackle Russell Okung and South Florida defensive end Jason Pierce-Paul were both up in Buffalo for a visit this past week. Both players are projected as first-round selections.
  • Ole Miss wide receiver/running back Dexter McCluster visited both the Redskins and the Broncos this past week. He finished his collegiate career ranked second in school history with 4,089 all-purpose yards and should be selected no later than the second round.
  • UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price has a busy month in progress with visits to the Chargers and Eagles and a workout for the Falcons already completed. He's scheduled to visit with the Patriots, Buccaneers and Falcons this week. The 6-foot-1, 303-pound defender has an explosive burst and awesome physical strength that helped him register 23.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in 2009.
  • Oregon's Ed Dickson told me that he's already visited the Lions and the Ravens, and has visits lined up this week with the 49ers and the Rams. He was the school's top all-time tight end with 124 receptions for 1,557 yards and 12 touchdowns. He'll should know which NFL team has sent his name to the podium no later than the third round.
  • UCF defensive tackle Torrell Troup is drawing interest from the Panthers and had a visit with the Falcons this past week. The Cleveland Browns have already worked him out, but have scheduled a follow-up official visit early this week. The 6-foot-3, 314-pound lineman has the physical size and skill to be a 3-4 nose tackle and will likely be selected during the second round of the draft.
  • University of Washington linebacker Donald Butler told me that has a visit with the Patriots early this week and a workout for the Raiders later in the week. One of the top inside linebacker prospects of this draft class, he deserves consideration as a second-round pick. 

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