NFC West: combine 2010

Double Coverage: Bradford and SuhUS PresswireThe Rams' decision with the No. 1 pick could come down to Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Fifty days separate the Rams from selecting Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford or some mystery candidate with the first overall choice in the 2010 NFL draft.

General manager Billy Devaney included Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen in the discussion when asked whether the team was focusing on those candidates. The team could always trade the pick. But prevailing opinion says Suh, McCoy and Bradford are the strong favorites.

The primary question, of course, is whether the Rams should scratch their QB itch with Bradford or continue addressing holes throughout the rest of their roster. The gains Bradford made in weight and overall physical appearance made him a winner at the NFL combine, even though Bradford will not work out until his pro day March 26.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. joined me to discuss the Rams' options.

Mike Sando: Bradford is gaining ground in the discussion. The Rams definitely need a franchise quarterback. Bradford looks the part.

Matt Williamson: I have a hard time. They are terrible, they need help everywhere, they need impact players at close to every position. From where they sit in their rebuilding process, I have a hard time straying from the notion that they should take the best player in the draft regardless of position. These defensive tackles are the best two players in the draft. We know that. It’s a high-impact position. It’s not like they are an outside linebacker or running back or something that is easy to find. They are building blocks for what could be an excellent defense. Steve Spagnuolo, the reason he is there is because he was excellent on defense with the Giants. They get Adam Carriker back, Chris Long is emerging and with one of these tackles, they have the makings of one of the best defensive lines in the league with some similarities of what he had to work with in his heyday with the Giants. I strongly think you take one of those two, whoever you like better. Live to fight another day at the quarterback position because the Rams are going to be picking in the top five again next year, and that draft appears much more top-heavy with quarterbacks.

Mike Sando: Live to fight another day? That's going to be easier if Spagnuolo has a franchise quarterback in place. Drafting one could buy needed time for the Rams' current leadership. The team could have a new owner by the summer. The Rams have gone from 3-13 to 2-14 to 1-15 over the last three seasons. Having a quarterback in place creates a more positive outlook in the absence of on-field results. And let's face it, this team is still going to struggle some. The point about defensive tackle being a high-impact position is debatable. The Redskins shelled out lots of cash for Albert Haynesworth last offseason. The investment bought them another disappointing season. I saw this coming to an extent when I broke down the highest-paid defensive tackles for a blog entry last offseason. Quite a few of them played for losing teams. We all know the NFL is a quarterback-driven league.

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Mel Kiper had nose tackle Dan Williams to Arizona with the 26th overall choice in his pre-combine Insider mock draft.

I'm revisiting the pre-combine item making sense of first-round choices for NFC West teams, adding post-combine thoughts, concluding with the Cardinals:

26. Arizona Cardinals

Mel's pick: Dan Williams, DT, Tennessee

My pre-combine thoughts: This pick would make a great deal of sense. Veteran Bryan Robinson has exceeded expectations as the Cardinals' nose tackle, but he'll be 36 in June. The Cardinals have committed more fully to a Steelers-style defense, and that makes nose tackles more valuable. No complaints with this pick.

My post-combine followup: Williams made a positive impression at the combine and it's fair to wonder if another team running a 3-4 defense might select him somewhere among the top 25 choices. Arizona used the 33rd choice of the 2007 draft for nose tackle Alan Branch, with disappointing results (Branch has appeared more comfortable at end). That's one reason why the Williams choice would make sense. Another: The Cardinals might lose linebacker Karlos Dansby in free agency. They expect young linebackers Will Davis and Cody Brown to play more and possibly start in 2010. Those guys will need protection in front of them and a nose tackle with Williams' credentials could certainly help. The Cardinals would look good on paper with Darnell Dockett, Williams and Calais Campbell across the defensive line. I could also see the Cardinals strengthening their offensive line in the first round. Idaho guard Mike Iupati looked the part at the combine. He carries 331 pounds very well and his size might help Arizona continue building its ground game.
Mel Kiper had defensive end Everson Griffen heading to Seattle with the 14th overall choice in his pre-combine Insider mock draft.

I'm revisiting the pre-combine item making sense of first-round choices for NFC West teams, adding post-combine thoughts, continuing with the Seahawks:

14. Seattle Seahawks

Mel's pick: Everson Griffen, DE, USC

My pre-combine thoughts: The Seahawks will take criticism if they fail to draft an offensive lineman among the first two choices. They'll probably take criticism if coach Pete Carroll seems to be filling the Lawrence Jackson Scholarship with this selection. If the top tackles are gone, however, the Seahawks do need to consider other options. And Carroll's combination of NFL and college experience should give him a good feel for whether Griffen or anyone else from USC is ready for the next level. It was telling, I thought, when Carroll suggested several recent NFL choices from USC might have been overvalued. It's not like Carroll drafted Jackson, after all.

My post-combine followup: This might be a little early for Griffen even though he impressed at the combine with a 4.66-second time over 40 yards and 32 reps in the bench press. Seattle does need pass-rush help, though, and Griffen could be a good choice on those grounds. If the Seahawks do draft Griffen, I might consider it a good sign for the team because Carroll probably wouldn't tap into the USC talent pool without being pretty sure about that player's ability to produce. Making mistakes in the draft happens. Carroll will invite harsh criticism if he makes mistakes on players he recruited and coached. The Seahawks have enough needs to justify targeting just about any position in this slot.
Mel Kiper had running back C.J. Spiller landing in San Francisco as the 13th overall choice in his pre-combine Insider mock draft.

I'm revisiting the pre-combine item making sense of first-round choices for NFC West teams, adding post-combine thoughts, continuing with the 49ers:

13. San Francisco 49ers

Mel's pick: C.J. Spiller, RB, Clemson

My pre-combine thoughts: The 49ers do need a return specialist. They could use a change-of-pace running back, too. Spiller would fill those needs and let's face it, mock drafts are mostly about matching teams needs with the prospects available. But as the 49ers found out when Michael Crabtree fell to them unexpectedly, surprises happen. It's important for the 49ers to keep things in perspective here. It's way too early to write off Glen Coffee as Frank Gore's backup. A running back drafted in the first round needs to play, in most cases, and this selection would invite more questions about Gore's role in an offense that ignored him for stretches once Alex Smith became quarterback. It's possible to find return specialists later in the draft. Spiller should be the pick only if the value is there, not just to fill a couple needs.

My post-combine follow-up: Spiller's 40-yard time validated expectations for him. I still wonder whether the 49ers would find enough playing time for him to justify the choice this early. Perhaps that is a good problem to have. However, the top of this draft is more likely to see a run on offensive tackles than a run on running backs. How quickly the offensive tackles come off the board will likely influence the 49ers' thinking in this spot. If the best tackles are gone among the top 12 choices, it's probably a disappointment for the 49ers. General manager Scot McCloughan recently reiterated his belief in the NFL as a big man's game. That doesn't rule out Spiller, but I think the 49ers might prefer to use this pick to get more physical.
Mel Kiper had quarterback Sam Bradford heading to Seattle with the sixth overall choice in his pre-combine Insider mock draft.

I'm revisiting the pre-combine item making sense of first-round choices for NFC West teams, adding post-combine thoughts, continuing with the Seahawks:

6. Seattle Seahawks

Mel's pick: Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma

My pre-combine thoughts: If Bradford is good enough to go sixth overall, the Rams should take him at No. 1. A good quarterback beats a very good defensive tackle. The Seahawks are in better position to take a chance on a quarterback early because they have another pick in the first half of the round. The second pick provides some insurance. Matt Hasselbeck's recent injury history should force the Seahawks to address this issue in the near term. Bradford could spend a season or at least part of a season on the bench, depending upon his health, Hasselbeck's health and Hasselbeck's production.

My post-combine followup: Bradford could be moving on a trajectory that makes it tougher to envision him lasting until the sixth overall choice. This can still be a good spot for the Seahawks to find a quality player and perhaps a player ranked No. 1 at his position. The five teams picking ahead of Seattle will make tough decisions. If Bradford, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy are gone, as expected, the Seahawks could come away with one of the top offensive tackles. Offensive line coach Alex Gibbs might be able to work wonders with lesser talent on the line, but let's face facts. Any tackle the Seahawks draft will likely be in Seattle long after Gibbs moves on. And Seattle does need to upgrade its talent at tackle. Safety Eric Berry could be available, although his position works against him unless Seattle sees him as a Kenny Easley-type talent (Easley was more impressive physically at 6-foot-3, however).
Gerald McCoy's performance in the combine bench press -- 23 repetitions of 225 pounds -- was seen as a disappointment.

The other elite defensive tackle in this draft class, Ndamukong Suh, cranked out 32 reps.

What do these reps mean?

Perhaps nothing.

The 49ers' Kentwan Balmer pumped out 33 reps as a defensive tackle at the 2008 combine. He has zero starts in two seasons.

Strength is important, but quickness and leverage can be essential.

Cortez Kennedy was a prime example. He went into the 1990 combine focused on keeping his weight down. He wasn't a weight-room freak. He was a natural football player. He recalled managing 23 reps in the bench press, which would match McCoy's total. Kennedy also recalled covering 40 yards in the 4.86- to 4.89-second range at more than 290 pounds. He played with tremendous leverage and quickness on his way to earning a spot on the all-decade team for the 1990s.
USC safety Taylor Mays covered 40 yards in 4.43 seconds, according to NFL Network.

Initial reports suggested Mays might have finished in only 4.24 seconds, creating quite a buzz. It's pretty amazing that a 4.43-second time for a safety can seem like a letdown.

Mays' time is topical here because at least three NFC West teams could be in the market for a safety in the draft.

The Seahawks have Deon Grant, who turns 31 this month, and the improving Jordan Babineaux. The Cardinals could lose Antrel Rolle. The 49ers could use a safety to pair with Dashon Goldson. Even the Rams could use help at the position, to the extent that they need athletes on defense.

Speed matters, particularly when it comes to evaluating safeties early in the draft. But some of the better players at the position -- Darren Sharper comes to mind -- use experience and moxie to anticipate plays. Athleticism is only part of the equation, particularly at that position.

Support for Suh as best prospect

March, 1, 2010
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Potential No. 1 overall choice Ndamukong Suh reportedly posted a 35.5-inch vertical jump at the combine.

NFL personnel people generally use terms such as "anchor" when describing what they want from interior defensive linemen, but the type of athleticism Suh showed is pretty striking for such a large man.

Consider: Running back Chris Johnson posted a 35-inch vertical at the combine two years ago.

The Rams do not yet appear to be leaning one way or another with that first overall choice, but if Suh was widely regarded as the best player when the college season ended, what has changed? Nothing, Rob Rang insists.

What could change? Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford could answer questions about his injured shoulder during pro day workouts. We've also heard increasing support for Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. A general manager, whose team does not hold a top-five selection, told me he thought McCoy was easily the best prospect.

Getting up: Assessing QB verticals

March, 1, 2010
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Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart posted a 37-inch vertical jump at his pro day workout in 2006.

That wasn't the reason Arizona selected him 10th overall in the draft.

Tim Tebow's 38.5-inch jump at the combine tied Josh McCown's record for a quarterback at the annual event, narrowly edging the combine marks Philadelphia's Michael Vick and Seattle's Seneca Wallace posted. But those vertical-jump marks aren't particularly relevant when teams size up quarterbacks -- or players at other positions, in a lot of cases.

The mark is one indicator of overall athleticism. I suppose an especially poor mark could raise concerns about players at some positions. But when you consider players with exceptional verticals in recent combines -- Gerald Sensabaugh, Cameron Wake, Chris McKenzie, Donald Washington and Chris Chambers were all at 45 inches or higher -- it's not as though they all became top players.

Seattle's Nate Burleson (42.5 inches) and San Francisco's Vernon Davis (42) are among the current NFC West player with excellent verticals at recent combines. Rams receiver Keenan Burton and Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie posted 39-inch verticals at the 2008 combine.

Combine programming note

February, 28, 2010
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The media access portion of the NFL combine ends Sunday.

I'll be boarding a flight back home and will be traveling much of the day.

The workout portion of the combine continues through Tuesday. We'll have plenty to discuss as those workout results become available.

On Boldin and Rams' draft plans

February, 28, 2010
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Scott from Oklahoma City writes: Considering the Rams seem to be wavering on the first pick, would it not make sense to trade down with Tampa Bay for the third pick and maybe a second, ending up with either Gerald McCoy or Sam Bradford at that spot?

Would Arizona or San Diego be willing to part with either one of their receivers for a second-round pick (assuming the trade down also obtained a second)?

Mike Sando: The Rams aren't wavering so much as they are assessing the situation as part of the usual process teams go through at the combine. They do not have to make a decision today.

Trading down could indeed make sense for the Rams, but why would the Bucs consider moving up? And if the Rams did value Bradford high enough to take him first or third, they should absolutely take him first because he's a quarterback and quarterbacks valued among the top three picks should, in theory, make a far greater impact than players at other positions.

Arizona would take a second-round choice for Anquan Boldin, in my view, but I question whether they could get that for him. What team would use a second-round choice for a soon-to-be 30-year-old receiver with injury concerns and one year remaining on his contract, particularly with a lockout potentially looming in 2011? It wouldn't make sense.

If the Cardinals can get a second-rounder for Boldin, they should make that move. It's not like they're going to franchise him after the 2010 season. He is almost surely entering his final season with the Cardinals. Get value for him now, if possible.

A suggestion for 49ers in first round

February, 28, 2010
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Kevin from Sylmar, Calif., writes: Hey Sando, you talk about how scouts do not project Mike Iupati to transition from guard to right tackle. Do you think that it is possible that the Niners could select someone like Trent Williams with the 13th pick and Lupati at No. 17?

That way you could move David Bass to a backup role if he is re-signed. It would be similar to what the Jets did a few years ago with D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold.

Mike Sando: I like the Jets comparison because the 49ers have wanted to become a power running team as well. As the Jets' site notes, their selection of Ferguson and Mangold marked the first time since 1975 that an NFL team selected two offensive linemen in the first round of the same draft. The Rams did it with Dennis Harrah and Doug France in 1975.

Your thinking is sound in theory, but the reality is that the values San Francisco places on players in this draft could make it difficult or even impossible for them to justify going that route at the expense of any higher-rated players available to them in the round. It's impossible to know right now which players will be available. It just seems unlikely that the value would justify going that route based on all the other potential scenarios.

I do like your thinking in theory, except that the ideal scenario would be to find effective starting offensive linemen later in the draft, saving the higher picks for positions of greater impact. The 49ers would be addressing an area where a team can't have enough quality depth among the nine offensive linemen that typically earn 53-man roster spots.

Williams unofficially ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.8-second range, pretty remarkable for an offensive tackle. The 49ers will value size over speed as they look for a right tackle, and Williams has that, too (6-foot-5 and 315 pounds). Even though the 49ers have wanted to become a physical running team, it's important for their right tackle to hold up well in pass protection. I think it's an absolute must if they seriously consider drafting a right tackle among the first 17 picks.

Cardinals: In Whisenhunt they trust

February, 27, 2010
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Ken WhisenhuntScott Boehm/Getty ImagesKen Whisenhunt has turned the Arizona Cardinals into a playoff contender under his watch.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt is now one of the NFL's highest-paid head coaches.

"There's no question he is in the upper portion of the league," team president Michael Bidwill said Saturday from the NFL combine.

Whisenhunt's extension through 2013 marked the first time the Cardinals extended a head coach's contract since the team moved to Arizona in 1988. It's a significant step because Whisenhunt, an ascending coach with a 4-2 postseason record, wouldn't have agreed to a new deal without knowing the organization would arm him with sufficient resources.

"The ability of an organization to have a plan, stick to that plan and have success certainly makes (the job) attractive," Whisenhunt said. "There were a lot of questions about Arizona that have been answered about certainly with a new stadium, could they win if they had a plan? And I think we've shown that to a degree."

Although labor uncertainty will affect plans across the league in the short term, I would expect the Cardinals to eventually grow their 16-man coaching staff (the other NFC West teams have at least 20). Whisenhunt will have more control over hiring his coaches and more control over the roster, another perk successful coaches tend to enjoy. Building an indoor practice facility should be another expectation.

These are the long-term investments a team can make to weather a down season or two. The Cardinals have gone 8-8, 9-7 and 10-6 under Whisenhunt, a trajectory they'll have a hard time maintaining in 2010.

With quarterback Kurt Warner and pass-rusher Bertrand Berry retiring, free safety Antrel Rolle likely hitting the market and linebacker Karlos Dansby all but gone, the Cardinals will rely heavily on their college scouting department to find players and Whisenhunt's staff to coach them up.

"We are a football team that I think is positioned correctly to withstand transition, whether we are losing Karlos Dansby or whether we lose Kurt Warner," general manager Rod Graves said. "I just feel like Ken has done a tremendous job of instilling the right qualities and setting the proper standards for our football team. If we lose players from time to time, I feel like we can keep going."

The Cardinals have gone into quite a few offseasons with relatively few players under contact, and that is the case as free agency approaches on March 5. Some of that reflects questionable planning (see Rolle's rookie deal) and some reflects the team's confidence -- so far rewarded -- in the personnel department's ability to find replacement parts. Whisenhunt's unsolicited reference to college scouting director Steve Keim during his media session Saturday was appropriate.

Much like Whisenhunt's former organization, the Steelers, Arizona has succeeded in using the draft to replace key veterans lost in free agency. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, running back Beanie Wells, defensive end Calais Campbell, running back Tim Hightower and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling made significant contributions beginning as rookies.

Outside linebacker Will Davis, outside linebacker Cody Brown, cornerback Greg Toler and offensive lineman Herman Johnson could emerge this season.

Most of them will be needed.

"What we've been trying to do is build the depth on our team and we feel like we have done that to a great degree," Whisenhunt said.

Matt Leinart is the only quarterback signed for 2010, but his price tag beyond this season becomes untenable unless Leinart enjoys a breakout season. I would expect the Cardinals to pursue Chad Pennington or another veteran to compete with Leinart and probably back him up.

Warner made that depth look a lot better.

Whisenhunt has already pulled off the near-impossible by turning the Cardinals into a playoff contender with front-office stability and a long-term plan.

They'll need his best coaching job yet in 2010.

Arizona-to-Miami pipeline about to gush?

February, 27, 2010
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Editor's note: This item first appeared on the AFC East blog.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves made some comments at the NFL scouting combine that should catch the attention of Dolfans.

Graves spoke about three Cardinals the Miami Dolphins could use: receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle.

Boldin is under contract, but the Cardinals could trade him.

Graves fielded offers for Boldin last year, but wasn't motivated to deal him. This offseason should be different. Boldin is entering the final year of his contract and practically has begged the Cardinals to trade him for a year.

"Our approach with Anquan is really the same as it was last year," Graves said. "We will look at all the options and exploring and ultimately doing what is best for the team. From our perspective, nothing has changed. We still view Anquan as a valuable member of our football team, and we will weigh the options through the offseason and do what is best for our team."

As for Rolle, the Cardinals are hoping to work out a new contract. He's due a $4 million roster bonus next week with a base salary of $8.1 million. They might release him instead.

"We're going to try hard to get a contract in place with him before we have to make a decision about his contract," Graves said. "If not, we will continue to work with him and treat him as if he is a free agent we are pursuing.

"We've always been under the impression Antrel wanted to remain an Arizona Cardinal," Graves said. "We have been able to develop him and we have seen him develop into an outstanding player and we want to keep that relationship going.

"We're not looking to lose quality players, but again, all of those decisions have to make sense to us from a team standpoint. Obviously, he is a top priority."

Dansby's situation is much different. He will hit free agency on Friday.

Dansby would fill one of the Dolphins' primary needs at inside linebacker and listed the Dolphins among the handful of teams he would like to play for. He led the Cardinals with 113 tackles and recorded one sack, five tackles for losses, one interception and one forced fumble.

Graves sounded resigned to the fact Dansby would be playing elsewhere in 2010.

"We'd like to have Karlos back as a member of our football team, but it has to be a situation that makes sense for us," Graves said. "We have a lot of areas to address, and it has to be a situation that fits for us. We can't keep them all.

"Obviously we will come in with 53 players. I don't mean to be short about that, but we hope to replace him with equal quality or better."

Suh holds up under spotlight

February, 27, 2010
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Potential No. 1 overall draft choice Ndamukong Suh is taking his turn with reporters at the NFL combine. The question he's getting most frequently from the media -- and from NFL teams -- concerns how well he might function as a pass-rusher after focusing more on team defense at Nebraska.

Suh said he has not yet spoken with the Rams, but there is obviously still time for that. He is handling the media spotlight comfortably even though he said the intensity of interest stood out as the biggest surprise of his combine experience to this point.

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