Five observations to start
I really like what Detroit did. In adding the best front-seven playmaker in college football (defensive tackle Nick Fairley) and two pieces to make Matthew Stafford's job easier -- a smurfy wideout with quick-strike ability, Boise State's Titus Young, and running back Mikel Leshoure -- Detroit not only got better, but also got three players who should have an impact their team on opening day. Which is going to be tough, obviously, in this current labor environment, because training camp could be very short, or nonexistent. And to get Fairley 13th and Young 44th and Leshoure 57th, when all could have gone significantly higher ... I mean, that's what I call a good omen for a franchise that needs one.
When I called Lions coach Jim Schwartz Saturday, he was already figuring what to do with his rotation at defensive tackle. With Ndamukong Suh (the 2010 defensive rookie of the year), Fairley and incumbent run-stuffer Corey Williams, Schwartz had visions of an unstoppable rotation dancing in his head. "It's tough to play defensive tackle,'' he said. "It's the only position in football where you're getting hit every single play, and maybe by more than one 300-pound guy. We're just going to try to rotate 'em in there and divide the snaps. If there's 65 defensive snaps a game, that means there's 130 defensive-tackle snaps -- so maybe 43 apiece for the three of 'em. That would be fine with me. Ndamukong played about 950 snaps last year, and it wouldn't be a bad idea, to keep him fresh, to play less.''
Forty-three snaps a game is 688 for the season. What'll be interesting, and very hard for offenses to stop, will be a diet of Suh and Fairley over the guards on passing downs. Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler already have visions of third-down dumpoffs to the hot receiver dancing in their heads. Detroit's going to be a tough defense to play on third down -- and quite possible on every down.
I'm getting a little tired of New England saving for a rainy day. A couple of disclaimers: No one works the draft and manages the draft like Bill Belichick. And a year ago, I was screaming for the Patriots to make a big deal and trade for Anquan Boldin. They scored 32 points a game without Boldin; so much for my sense of urgency at receiver.
But with their treasure trove of draft choices -- three in the top 33 when no other team had more than one, and five in the top 75 -- they had to upgrade a deficient pass-rush, and didn't do it. (Great stat from John Clayton of ESPN: When New England sent five rushers or more last season, opposing quarterbacks had a rating of 103.2. That was third-worst in the league. I'm amazed any team was worse than that, really. That's just awful. And New England allowed a 47-percent third-down conversion rate, which is not a winning defensive number. Not close.) The Patriots got cute. They set themselves up for the future, when they'll control the 2012 draft again with two first-round picks and two second-rounders. This is a draft New England needed to add pass-rush pieces, not just one. And they got none.
They passed on two good rush prospects -- Pitt's Jabaal Sheard and Arizona's Brooks Reed, who went 37 and 42 to Cleveland and Houston, respectively. New England got a good tackle at 17, Nate Solder, and you can't knock them for dealing the 28th pick to New Orleans for the Saints' first-rounder next year plus the 56th pick in this draft, which they used on Cal running back Shane Vereen. But at 33, with Sheard and Reed in play, Belichick took cornerback Ras-I Dowling of Virginia, continuing a borderline myopic trend with corners. Check out the recent activity with New England and cornerbacks in the draft and free agency:
New England's leading outside pass-rusher last year, Tully Banta-Cain, had five sacks last year. Not good enough.
In Cleveland, GM Tom Heckert didn't try to outthink himself. Nine out of 10 general managers in the league would have done what Heckert did in moving down 21 spots in the first round for five picks combined in the first four rounds of this and next year's draft. That allowed the Browns to take a defensive tackle for a weak line (Baylor's Phil Taylor), a big receiver (Greg Little of UNC) for a weak position group, and the most interesting fullback in the draft, the versatile Owen Marecic from Stanford. And Heckert used his own second-rounder for an edge rusher, Sheard. And the Browns are now one of two teams with two first-rounders next year.
The debate for the Browns -- and it wasn't much of one, really -- was whether they should take a very good receiving prospect (Julio Jones) or take five prime picks to re-shape the roster in the 4-3 defensive image and West Coast offensive image of the Mike Holmgren regime. So it wasn't hard to work out the details of the deal with Atlanta. "Everyone here was excited about the ability to add multiple players with high picks,'' Heckert said. "We have holes to fill, like all teams do, and where we're at as a franchise, we need players. Lots of players. Atlanta was in a different place than we were were.''
I broke the trade down Friday morning but the one other point to make is the Falcons are getting old at some skill positions: tight end Tony Gonzalez is 35, running back Michael Turner and wideout Roddy White both 29. Where the Falcons will pick with Matt Ryan at quarterback is not high enough to get a premier talent like Jones -- if you believe he's a premier talent, which the Falcons surely do.
No relief in sight for Kevin Kolb. You've got to hand it to Kolb, who is being held hostage by the labor proceedings: He's still a team guy. When the Eagles picked guard Danny Watkins with the 23rd pick in the first round, coach Andy Reid looked down at his cell phone and saw a text message from Kolb, who knows Watkins: "You just got us a great player and person,'' the message read. (Reid also got a good text from Michael Vick.)
Point is, Kolb doesn't want to be in Philadelphia; he wants to have a chance to get a starting job somewhere else, and Reid has promised to try to make a deal if it benefits the Eagles. He already has an offer of a first-round pick in the 2012 draft from an unknown team. The window for the 2011 league year opened and closed quickly last week; players like Kolb, who want to be traded, and free agents who want to hit the market have to wait for the league year to open before moving. That could happen this week if the Eighth Circuit forces the NFL to open doors and end the lockout.
Asked how he stands with Kolb right now, Reid said: "We stand with Kevin in an Eagles uniform. We love Kevin. He's one of the great team guys we've had here. We had an idea who was interested in him entering the draft, and now we'll have to go back and look at it when they tell us we can make moves.''
Kolb's market closed in a few needy places over the weekend; you can't imagine the Titans, Jaguars, Vikings, Niners or Bengals dealing for a veteran quarterback after picking one a rookie QB in the top 36 picks. And Washington is likely not going to be interested in Kolb. That doesn't leave many teams. Arizona, Miami, Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo appear to be the only options in a thinning market.
Seattle's playing defense. On ESPN and in an interview with me Saturday night, analyst Trent Dilfer, the former Seattle quarterback, was highly critical of how the Seahawks are doing business. Dilfer said Seattle should have capitalized by now on the momentum of the playoff win over New Orleans and re-signed good friend Matt Hasselbeck, likely to leave in free agency. And he said he thinks the Seahawks over-drafted -- meaning they picked players too high -- several players, including first-round pick James Carpenter, a tackle from Alabama projected by many to be a second-rounder. Seattle chose him 25th overall. "Part of my heart lies in Seattle, and I have great respect for them,'' Dilfer said, "but I think the Seahawks had a very poor week.''
On Sunday night, GM John Schneider defended his scouts and his picks to me. "That was disappointing to hear, coming from a quality guy like Trent,'' said Schneider. "I have to tell you, I'm totally excited about our draft. So are our scouts, who've spent 11 months working and getting ready for this weekend, and quite honestly, we did what we wanted to do in this draft. As far as James Carpenter goes, we know Pittsburgh liked him, and we know Green Bay liked him, and then Buffalo at the top of the second round. We had Carpenter rated higher than [Wisconsin tackle] Gabe Carimi, based on his versatility. We think he can play four positions on the line. He's a legitimate left tackle who we expect to start at right tackle.'' The guard Seattle took in the third round, Wisconsin's John Moffitt, is a likely starter at right guard.
The one thing Seattle didn't do is get a quarterback; I've got a feeling the 'Hawks have a specific player in mind to go after once the league year opens. I asked a personnel man I respect a lot what he thought of Dilfer's criticism, and about Seattle's draft. "We weren't as high on Carpenter as they were, but he's a solid guy,'' the personnel man said. "I like Moffitt. Any lineman from Wisconsin usually can step in and play. And we were very interested in the receiver they took from Georgia, [Kris] Durham. Their draft was fine. Here's the thing about drafts: No one really knows. You've just got to let them play.''
Story of the Weekend.
His is just a name in the small type, like the other 253 draftees.
Round 7, overall pick 223: RB Shane Bannon, Yale.
"But it's amazing,'' said Shane Bannon's agent, Joe Linta. "This kid wasn't even on the map 30 days ago.''
Well, 40, to be fair. No one knew who he was until a small-college pro day, in a workout facility in tiny Tolland, Conn., was wedged into the NFL schedule, early in the morning on March 23, before the regularly scheduled UConn event that day.
Bannon is 6-2 and 265 pounds. He never carried the ball last year in a game, and he had 13 catches. He got picked by the Chiefs in the seventh round Saturday night because he's a great blocker and can be a tempo-setter on special teams. "He would kill people,'' said Ross Tucker, my buddy and a broadcaster who did an Ivy League game of the week last year for the YES Network. "But I had no idea he was a prospect. Shane Bannon got drafted? I never figured that.''
Credit Linta, who also got the lightly regarded Tucker a pro tryout with the Redskins after his Princeton career, a tryout that led to a seven-year NFL career. Pro GMs like Scott Pioli of the Chiefs respect Linta more than many agents because he's a former coach, and because he's brought them solid prospects before.
"He really helped me,'' said Bannon, who will graduate from Yale later this month. "I'm not your classic football prospect. I didn't even play football until my sophomore year in high school, and then, I never dreamed of this as a possibility.'' Then Linta saw some tape of Bannon, thought he should be in an NFL camp as a special-teamer and blocking back, and began spreading the word. "I was going to work like a crazy man to spread the word on him once I saw the film,'' Linta said.
He got Bannon in front of some NFL teams -- New England, Seattle, Kansas City, Chicago. Five others came to his pro day. And when he ran a 4.7 40-yard dash, suddenly he wasn't just a lumbering lug. He was a prospect. "I felt if I worked hard and Joe did what he does well, I might have a chance," said Bannon. "At the end of the year, no one knew who I was. I went from being completely unknown to, in the last month, being on a few teams' radar.''
Said Pioli: "I've done a lot of business with Joe. The scouting system is far from perfect. We miss guys sometimes. It's an inexact science. That's where Joe can help sometimes. He knows players.''
So now the lone Ivy Leaguer to hear his name called over the weekend in the draft has a shot. Underdogs everywhere will be watching.
Now a word about draft grades.
I have nothing against my peers grading drafts. It's harmless fun. Like mock drafts, grading drafts has become a spring tradition that fills space and, I suppose, generates good talk show fodder. There's a difference in the two, though. When you do a mock draft, you're predicting who each team is going to pick ... presumably based on some knowledge you've gleaned though some people you know in different organizations. But when you grade a draft, at least when I graded drafts in the past, I always felt I wasn't qualified in any way to do so, because I just didn't know the players beyond the top ones well at all.
I looked back Sunday night to the 2006 draft, and the grades handed out in the days after the draft. I always considered two writers to be the best, and the toughest, at this: our own Paul Zimmerman and Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. And after the 2006 draft, Dr. Z and Goose gave A grades to Arizona, praising the drafting of Matt Leinart, Deuce Lutui, Gabe Watson and Leonard Pope. It's five years later. Leinart was a disaster, Pope barely passable for three seasons, Watson a part-time starter. The only player sure to be on the Cards now, five seasons later, is starting guard Lutui.
Gosselin spends three months learning these players and getting the scoop on 300 of them every winter and spring. He's the best. I just don't think it's very easy, or very logical, to grade teams before players have had their first practice with their new teams.
In my column Tuesday ...
I'd hope to write longer today, but with the events of Sunday night, and with my Sports Illustrated assignment this week on the draft, I had to hold some stuff I'd hoped to address. Log on Tuesday to SI.com to read:
1. What I found on my time with the 49ers over the weekend, including observations on the early days of the Baalke-Harbaugh marriage and what I make of the Colin Kaepernick pick.
2. Cincinnati nailing it for once in the draft.
3. Gabe Feldman, the Tulane Law School sports/law expert, on the near future of the scourge of all of our lives, the legal brawl between players and owners.
4. The unfortunate draft case of Mark Herzlich.
5. The findings of the Dave Duerson brain study, to be announced later today in Boston.
6. Your email, of course.
Thanks for understanding on a wild weekend.
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