As four teams prepare to play for the right to play in this year's Super Bowl, the remaining 28 franchises have turned their attention to the offseason and, most importantly, April's NFL draft.
The addition of several highly rated underclassmen, including LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Arkansas defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson, Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch and Ohio State wide receiver/return man Ted Ginn Jr. could lead to teams hustling back to campuses all over the country to review their game films.
As many as seven underclassmen could be taken off the board in the top 10 to 12 picks, but the most interesting battle as far as draft position still should come down to whether four-year starter Brady Quinn of Notre Dame can stave off the hard-charging Russell, who outplayed Quinn in the Sugar Bowl.
We are heading into the weekend of the East-West Shrine Game, which is followed by the NFL's unofficial yearly convention at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. However, rather than wait to see how each player performs and how teams address their current needs in free agency, here is our first look at how the top 10 picks could play out in the April 28-29 draft.
1. Oakland Raiders – JaMarcus Russell, quarterback, LSU. Russell will head into next month's NFL combine as the player on the highest rise of anyone in the draft class. He has a unique blend of size, arm strength and ability to become a franchise QB. Teams not only will have to decide how Russell will handle the pressure of dealing with being a top draft choice but also how quickly he can assimilate his game to the NFL. Russell is far less experienced than Brady Quinn but showed up big in crucial wins over Tennessee and then again against Notre Dame. The ability to keep his eyes focused downfield, a rifle arm and eye-opening size would make him a perfect fit for a Raiders team that lacks firepower and punch in their offense.
2. Detroit Lions – Jamaal Anderson, defensive end, Arkansas. The Lions have a lot of decisions to make, starting with quarterback, running back, wide receiver and front seven, because they have injuries, aging veterans and underachievers throughout those positions. The popular vote from fans likely will go to Brady Quinn, but the front office and coaching staff may not have time to develop a young QB when veteran Jon Kitna played well enough at most points of last season to win games. While Calvin Johnson might be the most talented player on the board, a quick glance at Detroit's depth chart shows the Lions truly could use an impact defensive lineman. That would make Anderson highly attractive. The Lions are the team most others will look toward to make a deal because one of the two top-rated quarterbacks will be available at this pick.
(A coin flip at the NFL combine will decide the No. 3 and No. 4 picks between Cleveland and Tampa Bay.)
3/4. Cleveland Browns – Alan Branch, defensive tackle, Michigan. Winning the coin flip next month will offer either the Browns or Buccaneers the chance to find a top-notch prospect when they're on the clock. Cleveland has a series of issues, starting with the offensive line, but the Browns also need a game-breaking running back and help along both lines. General manager Phil Savage will have the chance to review the idea of handing the offensive reins to Brady Quinn or finding a run stuffer to upgrade the defense's 3-4 scheme. Branch entered the season as an interesting defender with great size and ability but just an average motor. Failing to overwhelm scouts consistently enough on most game tapes, Branch changed that opinion among the majority of scouts who watched his junior campaign. He would fill a major void for the Browns, clogging the middle while opening up lanes for their outside pass rushers and young linebackers, Kamerion Wimberly and D'Qwell Jackson. Cleveland paid close attention to the interior line position leading up to last year's draft but opted to take the pass rusher, and addressing the spot this year should come as no surprise.
3/4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Calvin Johnson, wide receiver, Georgia Tech. Should the Bucs lose the coin toss, they still would choose Johnson. Tampa Bay's offense, although it suffered through a number of injuries, could not put together a consistent game plan of attack from one week to the next. The healthy return of quarterback Chris Simms, running back Carnell Williams and wide receiver Michael Clayton will help, but having a playmaker on the outside like Johnson lining up across from speedy veteran Joey Galloway would open up the running game and provide the Bucs' quarterback with the type of rare pass-catcher who can make plays anywhere on the field. Clayton has yet to rebound to his rookie-year production, so Johnson's vertical speed, leaping skills and ability to draw constant double teams greatly would aid their offense. Tampa Bay has needs on the defensive side of the ball that likely will be addressed through the draft, but a receiver like Johnson is too good to pass up here.
5. Arizona Cardinals – Joe Thomas, offensive tackle, Wisconsin. The Cardinals have turned to Ken Whisenhunt as their new head coach. The former Steelers offensive coordinator has a lot of weapons to work with, but he also has one glaring weakness: offensive line. The pending loss of tackle Leonard Davis in free agency will create a further void, paving the way for Thomas to head west on draft day. Thomas has fully recovered from a knee injury he suffered more than a year ago, and he returned to his dominating style during a strong senior campaign. Thomas offers a terrific building block to the O-line, which has been a sore spot over the past five years. Arizona has other areas to address on the defensive side, but finding a tackle who can lock down and anchor the line for the next 10 years is a primary need heading into the offseason. The Steelers have made it a habit of dominating the line of scrimmage during Whisenhunt's time in Pittsburgh, and it is something he will stress now that he is with the desert birds.
6. Washington Redskins – Gaines Adams, defensive end, Clemson. The Redskins took a major step backward on defense this season, failing to produce enough pressure on quarterbacks and create turnovers. Adams is one of the top defenders in the draft and provides the best set of pass-rush skills to boost a Washington defense that clearly is lacking in that area. Adams started off slowly as a senior before turning up his game through the second half of the season. He has impressive quickness and agility for a 260-pound pass rusher and has tried to increase his bulk/strength at the point of attack. While not a complete player, Adams does possess the primary asset of harassing the quarterback, creating pressure and forcing throws. Those qualities would give the 'Skins an improved pass defense and likely force opponents into more turnovers in 2007. The scenario makes perfect sense when you review Washington's depth chart, but do not be surprised if owner Daniel Snyder shows interest in a flashy guy such as Ted Ginn Jr.
7. Minnesota Vikings – Reggie Nelson, defensive back, Florida. The Vikings seemingly have spent the past three to five offseasons trying to rebuild or create the right combination of defenders to stave off another mid- to late-season slide, but things have not gone according to plan. This season, a secondary that included underachieving cornerback Fred Smoot gave up way too many big plays over the top, allowing opposing offensive coordinators to create highlight tapes on a weekly basis. Smoot's days with the team may be limited, but either way, Nelson is an ideal defender who can help against both the run and pass thanks to his combination of ball skills, range and instincts. He also has the cover skills to man-up against slot receivers and has keen awareness when called on to blitz. It may seem out of the question for Nelson to come off the board this early, but come draft day, he will have the type of meteoric rise that saw Donte Whitner shoot into the top 10 last year.
8. Houston Texans – Marshawn Lynch, running back, California. Head coach Gary Kubiak and GM Rick Smith will work together for the first time in the war room, although they spent plenty of years in a similar capacity while both were with the Broncos. Veteran leadership along the offensive line should be taken care of through free agency, but answering questions at the skill positions is much more difficult. A year ago, the Texans passed on taking a franchise quarterback or running back in order to upgrade the defense's front seven. They were able to find linebacker DeMeco Ryans, the Defensive Rookie of the Year, in the second round, but a sputtering offense kept them from competing in far too many contests. If the draft follows this form, Houston would be on the clock with a top-rated signal caller and a pair of workhorse backs still available. It seems like the Texans are content with giving David Carr one last chance as their starting QB to see how or what he has absorbed after playing one season in Kubiak's system, but rotating faces in the backfield has to stop. Lynch is just too good to pass up here, as he can run, catch and provide the big-play ability that only a handful of backs in the NFL possess. Adrian Peterson's name has often come up or been associated with this pick, but Lynch is a far better fit for the Texans' scheme because of his above-average hands. Also, both Kubiak and Smith saw the type of instant impact a rookie back brought to divisional rivals Jacksonville and Indianapolis last season.
9. Miami Dolphins – Brady Quinn, quarterback, Notre Dame. The Dolphins still are without a head coach, and rumors have swirled that they might change the front office once again as well. One move that would make sense no matter what is for Miami finally to get a long-term answer at quarterback. Enter Quinn, who could slide down a few picks more than expected similar to Matt Leinart's drop a year ago. And remember the last time the Dolphins found a franchise QB through the draft? He also was an experienced college quarterback who fell down the draft board for various reasons: Dan Marino. Quinn would start the season as a backup to either Daunte Culpepper or Joey Harrington and would be ready to step into the starting role as early as 2008. The potential for Quinn to slide comes from his ineffectiveness in big games, the number of juniors entering the draft and the need for several teams in front of the Dolphins to find a quick-fix player. Miami was a close evaluator of Jay Cutler leading up to last year's draft and now again sits in prime position to solidify the quarterback position. The Dolphins' needs along the offensive line are likely to be addressed in free agency, as are their needs at defensive tackle and safety. Quinn is a good fit for their marketplace, too, because he has a big name but the type of maturity and character to handle the South Beach lifestyle.
10. Atlanta Falcons – Ted Ginn Jr., wide receiver/returner, Ohio State. The addition of new head coach Bobby Petrino and several of his staff members should result in a more wide-open offense. Petrino has been successful at every stop along the way, using a variety of schemes, formations and, most importantly, playmakers in a number of roles. Ginn would provide the Falcons with an impact special teams player and someone with the ability to get the ball via the pass, run and even reverses. Ginn also has been outspoken with his desire to play some cornerback. In any event, Atlanta would add another elite playmaker to a team that already features corner DeAngelo Hall, running backs Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood and quarterback Michael Vick. The Falcons certainly have greater "need" issues, such as depth at defensive end because John Abraham cannot seem to stay healthy for a full season, but, as teams have seen with guys like Devin Hester, a player who can change the game with one touch of the ball is too important to pass up.