Top players have teams mixed up
There is little consensus about the NFL Draft this year beyond the general feeling of unease among teams as they approach their first pick. As with every year, there is talent at all levels, but there is an absence of a consensus at the top.
Quarterbacks will likely be chosen Nos. 1 and 2 overall, with some teams favoring Utah's Alex Smith, and others Cal's Aaron Rodgers. But most teams feel there's better value further down at that position because they are not convinced either quarterback is a franchise player.
It is reminiscent of the 1999 draft in which quarterbacks were taken with the first three picks but only one -- Donovan McNabb -- developed into an NFL-quality passer. The other two -- No. 1 pick Tim Couch and No. 3 Akili Smith -- were busts.
Most teams consider Michigan's Braylon Edwards the top-rated wide receiver and perhaps the best player on the board, but some favor the speed of South Carolina's Troy Williamson over Edwards, or the size and hands of Southern Cal's Mike Williams, despite his relative lack of speed.
If your need is an offensive lineman, who do you like, Florida State's Alex Barron or Oklahoma's Jammal Brown? Teams seem split on this, too, with some favoring Barron's athleticism, while others prefer Brown's toughness.
Running back is a three-man tossup between two Auburn ballcarriers, Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, and Texas's Cedric Benson.
Things are not much clearer on the other side of the ball. At cornerback, some like Miami's Antrel Rolle, while others prefer Adam "Pac-Man" Jones of West Virginia. Still other teams believe they'll get more value taking a corner or a safety (Brodney Pool of Oklahoma) later in the first round because they'll cost less and may be just as talented.
One position that remains deep is the defensive line, with tweener outside linebacker/defensive end types who can be used the way New England employs Willie McGinest, both as an outside pass rusher and as a stand-up linebacker. Even acclaimed linebacker Derrick Johnson of Texas is not favored by every team because some feel he runs around blocks and looks to make big hits without proper technique, often resulting in missed tackles.
Because of all that, once again trading is in the air. The Dolphins and Browns are prime candidates for making moves because new Miami coach Nick Saban and Cleveland general manager Phil Savage have studied past drafts and concluded the teams that have been most successful have been the ones with multiple picks in as many rounds as possible.
New England's Bill Belichick also believes in that strategy, knowing the draft is such a crapshoot that the wisest course is to accumulate as many extra picks as possible to increase the chances of hitting on enough players to stock a team in transition, as the Dolphins and Browns are.
In that regard, they would love to trade out of the No. 2 and 3 spots, respectively, to move down, believing they can still get a top-quality running back or defensive player even if they slide to No. 5 or No. 7, plus an additional pick so a team such as Tampa Bay can get up to grab the second of the two top-rated quarterbacks.
For the purpose of this draft, however, we will select based on the best information available, while noting possible trades and other options.
1. San Francisco
QB Aaron Rodgers, California
With so little that separates Rodgers and Smith, the 49ers are desperately trying to trade this pick, but their only option seems to be Tampa Bay. In the end, the Buccaneers may give up the additional second-round choice the Niners are demanding and take Smith here. That works for the 49ers, who could get Rodgers or one of the top defensive players at No. 5 for less money. Failing that, they stay put and go with Rodgers, the local boy they know they can sign, and hope he makes good.
QB Alex Smith, Utah
Saban is looking to trade, and will with Tampa if he can get the Buccaneers' second-round pick. Saban acquired a second already by dealing veteran cornerback Patrick Surtain to Kansas City, but he wants to stockpile picks, especially first-day ones. Saban is smart and cocky, so he has to believe he can coach the Dolphins back to .500 with the defense he has in place. If that's true, he'll never get his hands on a true franchise quarterback in the near future, and hence will be trying to beat Tom Brady, Chad Pennington, and a former first-round pick in Buffalo's J.P. Losman, with A.J. Feeley. That won't feel good, so he will forgo the running back he needs in favor of the franchise quarterback he'll only have one shot at.
WR Braylon Edwards, Michigan
The Browns could go with defense here or try to trade, but if new coach Romeo Crennel can add Edwards to complement tight end Kellen Winslow, Cleveland's top pick of a year ago, he'll have some semblance of an offense. Put the two of them on the field and even newly acquired quarterback Trent Dilfer will be able to make some plays, something Cleveland could not do a year ago.
RB Carnell Williams, Auburn
Many teams prefer Williams's college teammate, Brown, but the Bears have both Williams and Benson rated ahead of him. The Bears were 25th in rushing a year ago and coach Lovie Smith and GM Jerry Angelo both know if they intend to win enough games to keep their jobs, they have to be able to run the ball.
5. Tampa Bay
RB Ronnie Brown, Auburn
Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden would love to move up to get Smith, and that may happen if he agrees to sweeten the pot with his second choice and not a third-rounder. If it doesn't, Gruden will opt for a back who can catch the ball and tote it as well as anyone in this draft.
CB Antrel Rolle, Miami
Edwards would be tempting here but it's not likely he'll still be available. The Titans, however, have too many holes to plug on defense even if he is. They replace departed Samari Rolle with Antrel and save money on a jersey.
WR Troy Williamson, South Carolina
This pick came in the Randy Moss trade, so it better turn into something big. The Vikings may go defense, but Williamson gives them the same kind of secondary-shattering speed as Moss, and will be difficult to pass up. Fastest receiver in this draft is asked to replace best receiver in the league. Williamson is doomed to comparisons throughout his career, but they have no choice.
RB Cedric Benson, Texas
Cardinals coach Dennis Green is the kind of guy who doesn't worry that Benson may be a clone of Ricky Williams. Benson shaved off his dreadlocks in the hope teams would not fear taking him because he and the mercurial Williams are friends. The Cardinals need an explosive back to go with third-down runner Marcel Shipp, and Benson is the best one left on the board. This changes to the best offensive tackle, or corner Carlos Rogers, if Arizona pulls the trigger on a deal with Buffalo for running back Travis Henry. The Bills also want to swap second-round positions, but the Cardinals are balking.
CB Adam Jones, West Virginia
He's not Champ Bailey, and maybe not even Fred Smoot, but the Redskins need some young blood in the secondary. Jones is tough against the run, solid in coverage, and a dangerous return man. That's value.
LB Derrick Johnson, Texas
The best linebacker in the draft and the best player available if he falls this far. After four years of drafting offense, the Lions need to beef up the defense, and Johnson is a playmaker, which the Lions lack.
LB Shawne Merriman, Maryland
Bill Parcells wants to get two players for his front seven and Merriman is the kind of 3-4 linebacker who fits the McGinest mold. Merriman can play up or down and is a versatile rush linebacker with size, which Parcells has always favored.
12. San Diego
WR Mike Williams, Southern Cal
The Chargers' wide receiving corps is ordinary and they like Williams's production. They could also opt for a speed receiver such as Mark Clayton, but the thought of a big target such as Williams, along with tight end Antonio Gates and running back LaDainian Tomlinson all available to Drew Brees in the red zone, makes Marty Schottenheimer break out in a touchdown dance.
LB Demarcus Ware, Troy
If Ware or Merriman is on the board, the Texans will grab him to give themselves a legitimate pass rusher to team with last year's No. 1, Jason Babin. Coach Dom Capers wants to build his defense into a unit that can pressure the quarterback, and Ware would help. They could also go for Erasmus James or Marcus Spears or shift to offense and take tackle Alex Barron.
T Alex Barron, Florida State
Mike Williams is a possibility, if he's still on the board, as a replacement for Muhsin Muhammad, but the Panthers love to run the ball and Barron would solidify their line in two slots, allowing Mike Wahle to move back to guard.
15. Kansas City
CB Carlos Rogers, Auburn
Rogers is the best value pick left on the board, so the Chiefs go with him to shore up a secondary that has killed them the last two years. Despite trading yesterday for Surtain, the Chiefs aren't out of the cornerback lottery because they had Rogers rated as the best one available. Another possibility is a pass-rushing linebacker.
16. New Orleans
LB Thomas Davis, Georgia
Linebacker remains an area of need. The Saints hoped to get one of the top two a year ago but missed on both. They can't afford to do so again, so they go out on a bit of a limb and grab a safety who is being projected as an NFL linebacker.
DE Erasmus James, Wisconson
James would have been a top-five pick except for injuries. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis still needs a playmaker on his defensive front, so he'll take a small chance on a big talent.
DE Marcus Spears, Louisiana State
Spears is seen by some teams as the best defensive end available and is in the top 15 overall on most boards. He could go higher but won't slip much further.
19. St. Louis
T Jammal Brown, Oklahoma
With Orlando Pace on one side of the line, the Rams can put the rookie at right tackle and let him use his long arms and power blocking to upgrade the protection for battered quarterback Marc Bulger, and open some holes for Steven Jackson.
LB David Pollack, Georgia
This gives Dallas a remade defensive front seven in the Parcells mold. Merriman and Pollack are athletic linebackers who can also be edge rushers. Dallas could also go for a receiver such as Roddy White, who is in the top 30 on many teams' boards.
T Khalif Barnes, Washington
Big and powerful, Barnes will give quarterback Byron Leftwich some much needed protection. The Jaguars will also consider Pollack or Clayton if either is available.
WR Mark Clayton, Oklahoma
He's the smallest of the top-rated receivers but may be the most productive. Runs a 4.4 40 and amassed 220 catches and 31 touchdowns for the Sooners. The Ravens also like Jammal Brown and might try to move up to grab him ahead of the Rams.
DT Travis Johnson, Florida State
The Seahawks have done a lot in free agency to shore up their defense, but still would like to add youth. They'll take the highest-rated defensive player left on their board among Johnson, a corner such as Justin Miller, Marlin Jackson, or Fabian Washington, or defensive end Matt Roth.
24. Green Bay
QB Jason Campbell, Auburn
The Packers will be needing a quarterback to replace You-Know-Who in the not-to-distant future. They'll take Miller if he's available.
WR Roddy White, UAB
White has speed and the Redskins can use it to aid young quarterback Patrick Ramsey. They could go defense with this pick or trade it, but don't believe the rumors about going after Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell. Why would Joe Gibbs do that when he isn't likely to be around by the time Campbell is ready to play?
CB Fabian Washington, Nebraska
Washington ran a 4.28 40 at the combine. The other possibility is Clemson corner Justin Miller. With either guy the Raiders add speed to replace Philip Buchanon, as well as some insurance in case unhappy Charles Woodson also ends up heading out of town.
DE Shaun Cody, Southern Cal
Cody is a bit small to play tackle but he fits the Falcons' scheme and seems a logical choice. Roth is another possibility.
28. San Diego
S Brodney Pool, Oklahoma
If Chargers go for defense with their first pick, they'll go for a receiver here. Other possibility is defensive end Roth.
DT Mike Patterson, Southern Cal
Patterson would fit perfectly into Tony Dungy's defense with his quickness and productivity. The Colts could also take a chance on an inside linebacker such as Odell Thurman, or Pool if he's still available.
TE Heath Miller, Virginia
The Steelers like Miller, and second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needs a big, reliable target in the short zones. They grab an offensive lineman such as Marcus Johnson if Miller is gone early.
G Marcus Johnson, Mississippi
The best guard in the draft goes to a team that likes to mash people with its offensive line. Johnson fits that job description and he won't have to play immediately. Because the Eagles have so much depth, they could gamble on quarterback-turned-wide receiver Matt Jones out of Arkansas.
32. New England
CB Marlin Jackson, Michigan
Jackson is a solid player, although he lacks great speed. He could be used in a lot of situations, which Belichick likes. Fabian Washington is another possibility, but Nebraska corners have not been historically successful in the NFL. Other possibilities are inside linebackers Barrett Ruud, Channing Crowder, or Thurman. New England could opt for an inside linebacker first, figuring all three will be gone by the time the Patriots select again. If so, Ruud is the choice.