Thanks to labor unrest, NFL teams cannot bank on free agency, offseason programs, training camp or even the 2011 regular season.
The draft is one of the few certainties, with the first round set for April 28 -- whether or not the NFL and its players have a new collective bargaining agreement in place.
The NFC West is, once again, figuring prominently in the draft conversation.
With the division holding two of the top seven choices this year after St. Louis snagged Sam Bradford first overall in 2010, I checked in with Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. for the first of several conversations sizing up options for teams in the division.
Here we go ...
First-round position: Fifth overall
Top three needs: QB, OLB, OL
In the spotlight: Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
Mocking it up: Mel Kiper has the Cardinals taking Miller. Todd McShay has them taking Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Muench's thoughts: "If Gabbert is there, he is a great pick. Todd has Miller going third. You could easily flip those and then Von Miller makes a lot of sense. I think he might fit best as a 4-3 linebacker because of his size, but he knows the 3-4 position. He is athletic and he can drop into coverage. The value isn’t there for another outside linebacker that early. There are differences between each 3-4. The Pittsburgh-style that Arizona wants to run is a little more aggressive, whereas New England is more read and react. When you have a read-and-react defense, you want a guy who is taller, has longer arms and he has to be stout, able to lock out in a two-gap scheme and locate the ball. A guy in Pittsburgh’s scheme can beat you with speed. Miller is not perfect in terms of body and frame and size, but he has experience playing in that kind of system and he is going to get to the quarterback. That is why you can justify doing it. He is the best pass-rusher in the class."
Sando follow-up: The Cardinals need fresh talent at outside linebacker. Clark Haggans is 34. Joey Porter turns 34 next month. O'Brien Schofield and Will Davis have potential, but the Cardinals cannot bank on them. Cody Brown, a second-round choice in 2009, suffered a career-altering wrist injury as a rookie and has never played in a regular-season NFL game. He is off the roster. Arizona's new defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, keeps emphasizing how much pressure he plans to unleash on opposing offenses. He's going to need a talent upgrade to make that happen. Adding Miller, advertised as the best pass-rusher in the draft, would qualify as a good start. Drafting a quarterback this early amounts to betting the franchise, so Arizona would have to feel very good about the selection to go in that direction.
First-round position: Seventh overall
Top three needs: QB, CB, OLB
In the spotlight: Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
Mocking it up: Kiper and McShay have the 49ers taking Peterson.
Muench's thoughts: In terms of value, corner is going to be the best in that spot unless they trade. The Cam Newton situation is going to be very interesting to see how it unfolds. Based on the film, I am scared to death of the scheme he ran in college and I think his footwork needs a ton of work. The 49ers could take him at No. 7 if they fell in love with him. I just don’t see that happening. Jim Harbaugh, coming from Andrew Luck, isn't going to want as big a project as he’ll have in Cam Newton. As for the corners, we all have Peterson and Nebraska's Prince Amukamara high. Peterson is a little bit faster and gives you more in the return game, but I think both those guys are big, strong, fast corners with pretty good instincts. The other kid who is in the same category, to me, is Jimmy Smith from Colorado. Those three are very good values in the top half of the first round. I think that is their best bet, to be honest with you.
Sando follow-up: The 49ers' new defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, held the same job in Houston when the Texans drafted cornerback Dunta Robinson with the 10th choice in the 2004 draft. That decision worked out well. Also that year, Fangio's high opinion on pass-rusher Jason Babin fueled a push to trade up in the draft to select him 27th overall. That decision did not work out. Fangio wanted a cover corner and a rush linebacker to build that Houston defense, and he'll likely want the same in San Francisco. Peterson or one of the top corners would make sense. Fangio thought Babin might project in the Kevin Greene mold. He could be looking for that type of player for the 49ers in this draft.
First-round position: 14th overall
Top three needs: WR, OLB, DT
In the spotlight: Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
Mocking it up: Kiper has the Rams taking Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget. McShay projects Jones to the Rams.
Muench's thoughts: The Rams are in good position at No. 14. Julio Jones is a good value there. He doesn’t do a great job of sinking his hips and exploding away from man coverage, but he is strong and fast enough to produce after the catch. It is a good receiver class, so if they want to take care of that later, they could try to get someone like Jonathan Baldwin from Pitt. Two underclassmen in the second round are interesting -- Maryland's Torrey Smith and Indiana's Tandon Doss. Smith is a vertical threat who I expect to run really well at the combine. He is a raw route runner. Doss will not run as well as Smith, but he is two inches taller, has OK speed and is very quick. I love his hands. He makes some really remarkable catches.
Sando's follow-up: The Rams are picking late enough to make for some nervous moments as highly rated players slip further than anticipated. A year ago, the Seahawks were the ones hoping safety Earl Thomas would fall to them at No. 14. Thomas was there, Seattle drafted him and the move is panning out. The Rams could be in a similar situation with Jones if they wind up rating him as highly as anticipated. The need at receiver isn't great enough to force a selection, however. The team could use a front-line defensive talent as well. The Rams have used their first-round choices for offense both times since Steve Spagnuolo became head coach. The one early defensive selection, 2009 second-rounder James Laurinaitis, has been a hit. The Rams could do worse than giving Spagnuolo another piece to the defensive puzzle.
First-round position: 25th overall
Top three needs: QB, OL, DE
In the spotlight: Jake Locker, QB, Washington
Mocking it up: Kiper has Seattle drafting Florida interior offensive lineman Mike Pouncey. McShay is going with Locker.
Muench's thoughts: The quarterback class didn't shape up the way we thought it would heading into the season. We expected Luck to come out, Locker to take the next step and Ryan Mallett to have a stronger performance. Luck stayed while Locker and Mallett faltered, Locker more so than Mallett. Gabbert has been a pleasant surprise, but there are too many questions after him -- the biggest of which is, will Newton reach his awesome potential? The Seahawks have needs on their interior offensive line and Mallett doesn’t move well enough in the pocket to avoid trouble. When forced to move, his accuracy suffers. The story is going to be Locker, if he is there. Pete Carroll should have a feel for him from going against Locker in the Pac-10. If one of the top three quarterbacks is not available, I think it would be a mistake to take a quarterback at 25.
Sando's follow-up: Addressing the offensive line in this range could qualify as a relatively safe move. Even disappointing first-round selections along the offensive line tend to become at least serviceable starters. What about drafting a more complete defensive end to eventually succeed or augment pass-rusher Chris Clemons? Muench thought Robert Quinn would be ideally suited for the role, but he'll be long gone at No. 25, according to all the projections.