With the playoffs looming, majority of teams turn their attention to draft
Between now and the end of business Sunday, the phrase "fourteen teams for 12 playoff spots" will be repeated more often than lines from Caddyshack. It's the nature of the beast to focus on the front-runners; look at how many people have jumped on the New England Patriots' bandwagon. Of course, an 11-game winning streak has that effect on people.
But what about the 20 teams that will begin all-out draft preparations Sunday night? In particular, San Diego -- which holds the No. 1 pick as Week 17 kicks off. So can you spell R-o-e-t-h-l-i-s-b-e-r-g-e-r, as in Ben Roethlisberger? Is there any doubt training camp competition for Drew Brees should be the Chargers' top priority? Perhaps Larry Fitzgerald, if he declares for the draft. Then again, the Bolts' defense is No. 29, so a defensive stud wouldn't be the worst choice.
Arizona is at No. 2, while Oakland, Cleveland and Detroit round out the top five. The Cardinals probably won't go QB with Josh McCown on hand, so Roethlisberger or Eli Manning will fall to the Raiders. 'Zona addressed its WR needs last year, and Marcel Shipp should be the go-to back in '04, so defense may be the pick; the Cards are 25th in total D, and Tommie Harris, Vince Wilfork, Will Smith or Randy Starks would improve their front four.
Oakland must address its QB situation. Rich Gannon, like many of the Raiders' frontliners, is not getting any younger. Marcus Tuiasosopo remains an unproven commodity and will be coming off a season-ending injury, while Rick Mirer, Rob Johnson and Tee Martin are either a) has-beens, b) never-wases or c) never-will-bes.
Cleveland has spent 55 percent of its draft picks (26 of 47) since 1999 on defensive players, including two No. 1s (2000-01). Considering the Browns' 28th-ranked offense, it may seem likely that side of the ball would get some attention. Don't forget, if RB William Green falls from favor, Lee Suggs is ready to step into the backfield mix. Fitzgerald is the more logical choice if the Browns do not trade down for extra picks to solidify the O-line.
Detroit will have its pick among running backs, a position that must be at the top of the Lions' wish list: Steven Jackson, Kevin Jones, Greg Jones, Cedric Benson, Michael Turner, Chris Perry ... just choose one -- and send James Stewart, Olandis Gary and Shawn Bryson packing.
Nos. 6-10 include Atlanta, the Giants, Jacksonville, Washington and Houston. Each team could use help on both sides of the ball (hey, that's why they are drafting in the top 10), and unfortunately, there isn't an impact linebacker awaiting the Falcons at the six spot, but an O-lineman -- Shawn Andrews or Robert Gallery? -- isn't out of the question. Then again, perhaps, a trade down for more picks may be on the horizon. The G-Men could begin rebuilding their maligned O-line, too, while the Jags may land receiver Roy Williams.
As for the Skins, free agency will play a large role in how they approach the draft. If Champ Bailey hits the open market, filling his corner spot would put all eyes on Derrick Strait, Chris Gamble or DeAngelo Hall. The Texans' defense has failed to produce too many times this season, so infusing it with the likes of safety Sean Taylor would be a step forward.
As of today, only one team has two first-round draft picks. Yep, it's those same best-record-in-the-NFL Patriots, who picked up Baltimore's No. 1 in last year's draft-day deal that enabled the Ravens to choose Kyle Boller. ... It just cannot get any better for New England, that is unless Cincinnati wins the AFC North and locks Baltimore into no worse than the 20th pick. Remember, for each playoff game the Ravens win, that first-round pick has the potential to inch lower and lower.
Still, even if the Patriots and Ravens meet in the AFC Championship Game, New England is assured of doing better than Oakland, which made it to the Super Bowl against Tampa Bay and ended up with the Nos. 31 and 32 picks as a result of losing the title game after getting the Bucs' No. 1 in the Jon Gruden swap.
Do you get the feeling this is the Patriots' year? They just can't lose for winning -- literally.
B. Duane Cross is a senior producer for SI.com.