Friday, February 20, 2009

Pre-Combine NFL Mock Draft

The NFL draft is absolutely my favorite "non-sporting" sport event of the year.

I guess that is because I am a loyal fan of the Detroit Lions, who have pretty much been the worst team in pro football for the past decade.

When your favorite team has won only one playoff game in the last 50 years and become the first team in history to finish a season 0-16, draft day is kind of like your Super Bowl and Christmas all rolled up into one. It becomes even more exciting when you have the first pick in the entire draft, as well as two other picks in the first 33.

This year I intend to post three mock drafts, one before the NFL Scouting Combine, one shortly after the NFL Scouting Combine, and a final one on draft day.

I consider myself a draft researcher, not a prognosticator. I try to get as much information as possible from credible "inside" sources in determining what player and position a team will pick. I don't pretend to be a team's GM and substitute my own judgment for whom I think they should draft.

With that being said, I really don't start doing my homework until after the Combine, so my pre-Combine mock draft IS going to be my attempt to play GM and select the player that I think each team should take. My post Combine drafts will be more of an educated prediction based upon research that I perform.

I will begin my first mock draft with a detailed analysis of the #1 pick for the Detroit Lions, in part because they are my favorite team, and in part because my analysis of the Lions kind of summarizes how a team should develop it's draft strategy for value, need, and managing the salary cap.

1. Detroit Lions - Due to their poor record and a sweet deal in the Roy Williams trade, the Lions hold picks #1, #20 and #33 in this year's draft. While many draft guru's have the Lions taking a QB like Georgia's Matt Stafford with the #1 pick, I am of the firm belief that a team should never take a quarterback with a high first round draft pick. Here's why.

An extremely high number of first round quarterbacks have turned out to be busts, so drafting one is anything but a sure thing. When you are a poor team like the Detroit Lions that hasn't had a winning record in almost a decade and has a disenfranched fan base, you simply cannot afford to gamble on taking a quarterback high in the first round. This is especially true when you have the #1 overall pick.

While many NFL General Managers don't want to be known as the guy who passed up the next Peyton Manning, it is a much smarter strategy to avoid being the General Manager who drafted the next Ryan Leaf....unless of course you are actually looking for a player who can't play quarterback in the NFL, throws temper tantrums during routine media interviews, and runs and hides in a closet after mouthing off to the team strength and conditioning coach.

If you draft a quarterback early in the draft you essentially turn the fate of your franchise over to an unproven commodity. This is true because a top ten QB is going to sign a 4-5 year "rookie" contract, which carries with it a huge sum of guaranteed money even before that player ever takes a snap in an NFL game. Accordingly, if that quarterback is a bust like former quarterbacks that the Lions selected in the first round such as Joey Harrington, Andre Ware, or Chuck Long, the franchise will be unable to cut or trade him without taking a huge salary cap hit.

This causes upper management to force their coaches to no only keep, but play these highly drafted quarterbacks out of financial necessity and PR concerns, thereby locking a team into poor quarterback play for 4-5 years.

THAT my friends, is the quickest way to cripple a franchise. So if you are going to draft a quarterback high in the first round, you BETTER be drafting a sure thing, for which of course there is no such thing. The far safer choice is to draft a quarterback to develop in second through seventh rounds, or try to find a castoff QB from another franchise who was pushed aside in favor of a highly paid rookie or was simply in a bad offensive system.

With that being said, the Lions have a lot of needs. Many pundits have them taking a left tackle. I have no disagreement with that strategy in general, as I'd love to see them upgrade over Jeff Backus. However, this is a very deep draft at left tackle, and the Lions have already invested a great deal of salary cap space in last year's first rounder (RT - Gosder Cherilus) and their incumbent starter at LT (Backus), who is making "franchise player" money.

So, since this draft is so deep at LT, wouldn't it be more wise to wait until pick #33 and take one of the less heralded but equally talented LT's with the first pick in the second round? That way, instead of committing another $7 million per year (as the #1 pick in the draft will receive) to the tackle position, you could still get a replacement for Backus (and move Backus to guard in order to fill another need) for about $5 million less per year than you would have at the #1 pick.

The Lions also have needs at MLB and OLB. Jordon Dizon, last year's second round pick, could potentially fill either one of those starting positions. So with Rey Malaualuga, James Laurinitis, AND Aaron Curry all projected as solid first rounders, this COULD be the position that the Lions look at with the first pick of the draft.

However, we must once again look at value, in that there is a reasonable chance that one of the three aforementioned linebackers will still be available when the Lions draft at #20 with the pick they obtained from Dallas in the Roy Williams trade. Accordingly, I'd refrain from drafting a LB at #1 unless there simply is not a talent at any other position that warrants the #1 pick, in which case I'd take Curry.

The Lions definitely need one, if not TWO starting cornerbacks. However, I do not see any corners coming into the draft who are worthy of the #1 pick. Taking a corner at #20 and/or #33 is a definite possibility. However, if I was running the Lions I think I'd try to find a bargain or two at at the cornerback position with their two third round picks, or at least fill one of those voids with free agents like former Lion Dre Bly or Drayton Florence through free agency.

Defensive line is another big priority for the Lions. While they have an abundance of defensive ends, they do not have a clear cut superstar who can rush the passer.

However, instead of investing at that position early in this year's draft (giving them five defensive ends in a rookie first rounder, former second rounder Ikaika Alama-Francis, last year's leading sacker Dewayne White, steady back-up Jared DeVries, and quickly developing Cliff Avril), they may want to wait a year and see if Avril can step up and handle the pass rush responsibilities on the ever so important left side. This would allow Dewayne White to move back to his more natural position on the right.

Unless the Lions switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive front, I just can't see them taking another defensive end unless someone like Brian Orakpo of Texas REALLY stands out at the Combine as a talent worthy of the #1 pick.

If no defensive end distinguishes himself at the Combine, the Lions could still look to bolster their defensive line by taking a defensive tackle. B.J. Raji of Boston College could be that guy. Scouts have generally raved about his overall performance and practices at this year's Senior Bowl. Since no other top interior linemen are available in this year's draft, there will be a huge talent drop off from Raji to the next best available option, meaning that the Lions might not have the ability to adequately address their hole at DT with one of their many picks later in the draft.

By all accounts, the Lions are going to identify about three potential picks for the #1 slot and begin negotiating with all three in hopes of getting the "best deal" signed before the draft. With that being said, IF Raji doesn't demand the money that the #1 pick would traditionally command (which would be a bad move on his part because he could fall to as far as #6 to Cincinnati if the Lions don't draft him), I think he really just might end up being the Lion's guy. Especially since they desperately need somebody to help them against the run after trading gifted defensive tackle Shawn Rogers to Cleveland last year.

2. St. Louis Rams - Andre Davis - T, University of Alabama; The Rams need a tackle to compliment and then replace the aging Orlando Pace.

3. Kansas City Chiefs - Brian Orakpo - DE, Texas; After trading DE Jared Allen to Minnesota last season, the Chiefs former Defensive Coordinator talked about how much Allen was missed. Accordingly, the Chiefs go with the draft's best available defensive end, who's value could explode after the Combine.

4. Seattle Seahawks - Aaron Maybin - DE, Penn St.; With Orakpo off the board, the Seahawks go for a pure pass rusher to compliment OLB Julian Peterson.

5. Cleveland Browns - Malcolm Jenkins - CB, Ohio State; If the Browns don't address their need for a cornerback in free agency, they could look in-state and take the best cover corner in the draft.

6. Cincinnati Bengals - Jason Smith - OT, Baylor; The Bengals have needed a DT for years. They would love for Detroit to pass on Raji. Unfortanately they don't, so the Bengals go with a stud tackle to sure-up their offensive line and help re-establish a running game.

7. Oakland Raiders - Jeremy Maclin, WR - Missouri; The Raiders need a wide receiver, and Al Davis LOVES speed. Seems like the perfect fit.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars - Eugene Monroe, OT - Virginia; Sadly, The Jags could use another receiver, but they simply cannot waste another pick on that position since R.J. Soward, Reggie Williams, and Matt Jones were all busts or disappointments. Even Jerry Porter, their big free agent signing at that position last season did not work out and was released after the season. In spite of their wide reciever woes, what really devastated this team last year was injuries to the offensive line, which ended up killing their signature running attack. Eugene Monroe just might be the best tackle in this year's draft.

9. Green Bay Packers - Everett Brown, DE - Fla. St.; Brown is a highly rated pass rusher who probably fits best in a 3-4 defensive scheme, which conveniently the Packers are switching to this season.

10. San Francisco 49'ers - Michael Crabtree, WR - Texas Tech; The 49'ers are badly in need of a WR. Isaac Bruce doesn't have much left in the tank, and rumors are already floating that they will cut ties with Bryan Johnson. If Crabtree falls this far, he will certainly be a 49'er next year.

11. Buffalo Bills - Brandon Pettigrew, TE - Oklahoma State; The experts already seem to have this pick locked in, even though I HATE drafting tight ends in the first round given that they rarely change games the way teams envision when they draft them.

12. Denver Broncos - Aaron Curry, OLB - Wake Forrest; Denver desperately needs to upgrade their defense after underachieving last season and making salary cap cuts this off season. Curry would be a steal at the #12 spot, as he just might be the best defensive player in draft.

13. Washington Redskins - Micheael Oher, OT - Ole Miss; Washington's offensive line is aging and seems to experience a season ending injury to a key player every season. Youth and depth prevail as the 'Skins go with the last top tier tackle on the board.

Also, while we're at it, many people consider the team name "Redskins" to be offensive to Native Americans. Without going into the merits of that debate, I think I have a solution that would not only preserve the history of the franchise, but at the same time would show some respect to Native Americans.

Since the early to mid 1980's, Washington's offensive line has affectionately been dubbed "The Hogs." In fact, many of their fans dress up in pig noses and masks much like Cleveland fans dress in dog costumes to salute the section of their stadium known as "the dog pound."

So, why doesn't Washington just change their team name to the Pigskins? That way they can still call themselves the "'Skins," their new team name would refer to some classic football terminology, it would fit in with the franchise's history, and it would serve as a tribute to their fans.

Plus they could come up with a cool new logo for marketing purposes. It seems to me like this would be a win win situation. I'd definitely be interested in buying some "Pigskin" merchandise.

14. New Orleans Saints -Vontae Davis, CB - Illinois; Even if Mike McKenzie is healthy, the Saints are in dire need of another lock down corner without excess salary cap room to sign even a mid-level free agent. Vontae Davis would be be a big upgrade to their secondary at a relatively inexpensive price compared to other options.

15. Houston Texans -Larry English, DE/OLB - Northern Illinois.; By all accounts the Texans want a pass rusher to compliment Mario Wiliams. English makes sense in a "3-4" scheme as the pass rushing OLB.

16. San Diego Chargers - Rey Malaualuga, MLB - USC; The thought of Rey Malaualuga and a healthy Shawn Merriman playing together is downright frightening. The Chargers could also go RB, but only if they cut Ladainlian Tomlinson given that they just committed franchise player money to Darren Sproles for the upcoming season.

17. New York Jets - Matt Stafford, QB - Georgia; With Brett Favre retiring, they need to bring in a quarterback to compete with Kellen Clemens. With Detroit passing of Stafford he ends up with the Jets, who likely have to trade up to take him.

18. Chicago Bears - Percy Harvin, WR - Florida; The Bears need a playmaker at WR. Enter Harvin to take some of the pressure off of Devin Hester, who is more of a playmaker than a true receiver.

19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers -Mark Sanchez, QB - USC; With Jeff Garcia seemingly out after this season, and with Tampa cutting ties with former quarterback of the future Chris Simms after last season, the Bucs take the other top QB in this year's draft.

20. Detroit Lions (from Dallas Cowboys) - James Laurinaitis, MLB - Ohio State; The Lions grab the last of the top three linebackers in the draft at #20 spot with little or not drop off in talent, but a significantly cheaper contract than they would have been stuck with had they taken Aaron Curry with the #1 pick.

21. Philadelphia Eagles - LeSean (Shady) McCoy, RB - Pitt; The best way for the Eagles to improve their team is to improve their goal line running game. Not only will McCoy be able to take on some of Bryan Westbrook's work load so the Eagles' primary playmaker stays healthy, but he very well might be the best running back who comes out of this year's draft.

22. Minnesota Vikings - Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR - Maryland; Minnesota has a solid defense, a great offensive line, and the best running back in the league. The only things they are lacking are a reliable quarterback and impact receivers. Josh Freeman, the QB out of Kansas State could also be a possibility if they decide to go with their other position of need.

23. New England Patriots - D.J. Moore, CB - Vanderbilt; New England finally fills the huge hole in their secondary that was left when Assante Samuel went to Philadelphia in free agency after last season.

24. Atlanta Falcons - Jared Cook, TE - South Carolina; Atlanta would like to give QB Matt Ryan a weapon at tight end to throw to. Cook is a freak in terms of size, speed and hands. He may be a reach at #24, but a TE of his caliber will not be around when Atlanta picks in the second round.

25. Miami Dolphins - Paul Kruger, DE - Utah; Miami could use a DE to make up for the loss of Jason Taylor after his trade to Washington last year.

26. Baltimore Ravens - Brian Cushing, OLB - USC; With three linebackers either free agents or under the franchise tag, Baltimore could certainly stand to re-stock at that position. If they are able to sign even two of their three free agent linebackers before the draft, a cornerback like Wake Forrest's Alfonso Smith could be a nice value at pick #26 and fill another big need.

27. Indianapolis Colts - Peria Jerry, DT - Ole Miss; Jerry would be a nice start to bolstering a defense that really struggled against the run last season.

28. Philadelphia Eagles (from Carolina Panthers) - Tyson Jackson, DE - LSU; After filling a big need with a "between the tackles" runner with their first pick in round one, they use their bonus pick in the first round to add some firepower to their pass rush.

29. New York Giants - Hackeem Nicks, WR - North Carolina; With Plaxico Burress' future in doubt after shooting himself in the leg (literally), the Giants desperately need to develop a big time receiver in order to get back to being a Super Bowl caliber team.

30. Tennessee Titans - Micheal Johsnon, DE - Georgia Tech; Too good to pass up if he is available at #30. He could shoot up to the top half of the first round with a good Combine. If Albert Haynesworth leaves in free agency, the Titans will be desperately searching for a defensive tackle with this pick.

31. Arizona Cardinals - Knowshon Moreno, RB - Georgia: Arizona's offense was explosive last year even without a consistent running game. A back like Knowshon Moreno or Shonn Greene of Iowa would represent an improvement over "Edge" James, who hasn't run hard in years. Offensive tackle could also be a consideration.

32. Pittsburgh Steelers - Phil Loadholt, T-G - Oklahoma; Best name for an offensive lineman ever. The Steelers got away with taking skilled position players in Reshard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed (neither of whom made an effective contributin to the team last year) over the guard they needed heading into last year's draft. This year they can take Loadholt and insert him at guard, and in the process improve their goal line running game while grooming him as their right tackle of the future.

Alphonso Smith would also meet a need and be tough to pass up as a value if he were still available at this point, with the Steelers still being able to address the interior of their offensive line in the second round. Max Unger of Oregon could also be on the board, so the Steelers should have plenty of choices with the last pick of the first round.

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