NFC West: Derrick Brooks

INDIANAPOLIS -- Thirteen modern-era NFL players were finalists for enshrinement Saturday in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Only one was named offensive or defensive player of the year during his career.

That was the Seattle Seahawks' Cortez Kennedy. His eight Pro Bowls, all-1990s selection and overall dominance made my job as his presenter quite simple. State the facts and let Kennedy's career do the talking. Picking the final five out of 15 modern-era finalists is always tough, however, because it usually requires leaving off worthy candidates.

[+] EnlargeCortez Kennedy
US PresswireNo doubt, Seattle's Cortez Kennedy was one of the most dominant defensive players of his era.
The 43 other selectors and I met for more than seven hours before identifying Kennedy, Chris Doleman, Dermontti Dawson, Curtis Martin and Willie Roaf as the class of 2012. Jack Butler made it as a seniors candidate.

A few thoughts on the process and the results:

  • This class made it through at a good time. Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp, Bryant Young, John Lynch and Steve McNair become eligible for the first time in 2013. Shaun Alexander, Derrick Brooks, Marvin Harrison, Rodney Harrison, Tony Dungy and Mike Holmgren join the list in 2014. Isaac Bruce, Edgerrin James, Walter Jones, Junior Seau, Chris Samuels, Kurt Warner, Ty Law and Orlando Pace are among those eligible beginning in 2015.
  • Former St. Louis Rams
    and Arizona Cardinals
    cornerback Aeneas Williams should feel great about cracking the final 10 in his first year as a finalist. Williams had 55 career interceptions and scored nine touchdowns. He was a big-time playmaker for bad and good teams alike.
  • The situation at receiver remains a mess and it's not going to get easier with Harrison becoming eligible in a couple years. Voters are having a tough time deciding between Cris Carter and Andre Reed. Both made the final 10 this year. Reed made the final 10 last year as well. Having both crack the final 10 this year made it harder for one of them to break through. Voters were more likely to choose one wideout when forced to pick only five players.
  • Former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. did not make the reduction from 15 to 10. I think it's tougher for voters to quantify how owners and even coaches -- think Bill Parcells, who missed the cut from 10 to five -- contributed to their teams' success. The discussions for Parcells (55-plus minutes) and DeBartolo (42-plus minutes) were more than twice as long as the discussions for other candidates. Hall bylaws prevented voters from considering the legal troubles and suspension that preceded DeBartolo's exit from the game.
  • DeBartolo was a finalist in part because he hired Bill Walsh, promoted a winning culture, cared tremendously for his players and helped win five Super Bowls. He spent this weekend with former 49ers player Freddie Solomon, who is in the final days of a battle with cancer. The 49ers' renewed success this past season also reflected well on DeBartolo, who has become a tremendous resource for current team president Jed York, his nephew.
  • Electing one pass-rusher (Doleman, who spent part of his career with the 49ers) to the Hall could give former 49ers and Dallas Cowboys pass-rusher Charles Haley an easier time in the future. But with Strahan joining the conversation in 2013, Haley faces stiff competition again. Former Rams pass-rusher Kevin Greene did not make the final 10 despite 160 career sacks.

It's been a whirlwind day. Hall bylaws prevent me from sharing specifics about what was said in the room during the proceedings. The Hall also asked voters not to reveal their votes outright. I voted for five of the six players enshrined on the final cut and supported others. As always, however, reducing to only five in the end required leaving off candidates I hope will make it in the future.
 James LaurinaitisAP Photo/Jeff RobersonThe Rams' James Laurinaitis "is a star in the making," according to Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.
Selecting Ohio State middle linebacker James Laurinaitis in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft raised questions, initially, as to why the St. Louis Rams passed on a potentially more talented middle linebacker in Rey Maualuga.

Two years later, Laurinaitis has put to rest that question while raising another: Might the third-year Rams linebacker outperform the Seattle Seahawks' Aaron Curry, the undisputed top-ranked linebacker in the 2009 draft? Initial reviews suggest he might.

Fifty-three percent of the first 3,629 poll respondents singled out Laurinaitis as the highly drafted young NFC West linebacker with the brightest NFL future. Curry was second with 38 percent, followed by 2010 Arizona Cardinals second-round choice Daryl Washington with 8 percent. The San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis, already established as arguably the NFL's best linebacker, wasn't part of the survey.

"I think Laurinaitis is a star in the making," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "He is clearly the second-best linebacker in the division. He is going to be headed to Pro Bowls as soon as this upcoming year."

That will be easier said than done given Willis' perennial Pro Bowl status and the limited number of slots available for inside linebackers. But the broader point stands. The Rams found their quarterback on defense before anyone knew they would select an actual quarterback, Sam Bradford, first overall in 2010.

"Laurinaitis brings an attitude to the team," Williamson said. "He is really smart, he is an extension of coach Steve Spagnuolo on the field. He isn't really a banger -- he doesn't take on blocks as well -- but Fred Robbins does a great job keeping him clean and they will likely add another defensive tackle. Laurinaitis is a foundation for that football team."

Rams general manager Billy Devaney used the words smart, passionate and productive in describing Laurinaitis on draft day two years ago. At the time, Devaney said the team considered sacrificing one or more of those qualities in the quest for greater talent. Laurinaitis has proved to be sufficiently talented even if he'll never become a dominant sideline-to-sideline force along the lines of Willis or Ray Lewis.

Curry certainly has more raw physical talent, but Laurinaitis' superior feel for the game has become obvious to this point in their careers. That was expected, to a degree, because teams ask 4-3 middle linebackers to call out defensive adjustments based on what they see from offenses. Curry, as a strong-side linebacker, was never going to play that role, particularly on a defense already featuring Lofa Tatupu.

The Seahawks have toyed with ways to feature Curry in their defense. Curry has fared OK as a pass-rusher at times, but not well enough to supplant Chris Clemons or Raheem Brock as a primary outside rusher. Curry's physical strength has shown up against tight ends at the line of scrimmage, but only to those looking for it.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who inherited Curry from the team's previous leadership, said unrealistic expectations are making it tougher for fans to appreciate Curry.

[+] EnlargeAaron Curry
Kim Klement/US PresswireSeattle linebacker Aaron Curry is an improving player who has been subjected to unrealistic expectations as a former No. 4 overall draft pick, according to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
"He is a really talented, big, good-looking athlete and everybody on the outside expects him to be something different than what he is right now," Carroll said from the NFL owners meeting last month. "He hasn't dominated yet, but he is a player on the come and he is improving and working hard and figuring it out. He is a factor. He is a real positive factor for us. But it's all expectations. That screws everyone up."

High expectations are warranted when a team drafts a player fourth overall, even though Carroll wasn't part of that evaluation. It's not like the Seahawks were wrong when they saw a prospect with obvious physical attributes.

Williamson gave Curry a slight edge over even Willis in overall physical tools. So far, however, too much has been lost in translation.

A change in coaching staffs could explain some of the difficulties. Injuries to Tatupu, Red Bryant and others in the Seahawks' front seven have not helped. At a certain point, however, the fourth pick in the draft should transcend these sorts of factors.

"If we are having this conversation next year, then I think he doesn't live up to it," Williamson said. "He is the type of guy you should be accounting for every play. My sister should be in the stands going, 'Who is that guy? He is different from everybody else.' "

Laurinaitis has served as an every-down linebacker while starting each of his first 32 games. He has five sacks and three interceptions. Rams coaches credited Laurinaitis with seven passes defensed last season. Only cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher had more for the Rams, according to coaches' evaluations.

Curry has 28 starts, 5.5 sacks and no interceptions while coming off the field regularly, sometimes for stretches.

"If you take a look at how he plays and what he does and how he produces, he's getting a lot done," Carroll said of Curry, "but it doesn’t meet up to the expectations. You can almost misevaluate him because he is supposed to be whatever he is supposed to be. To me, he is a guy on the team who busts his ass and is working hard and we're trying to fit into situations and a role for him that is best."

The Cardinals' Washington hasn't played long enough to evaluate in the same manner, but he did make a positive impression while starting 11 games as a rookie. Washington finished the season with one sack, one interception and six tackles for loss. He was the first Cardinals rookie since Antrel Rolle in 2005 to start a season opener.

"I didn't think he was a wonderful fit in the 3-4," Williamson said. "He was more the Derrick Brooks run-and-hit type, but he acclimated himself well. They have a good defensive line. If they can keep him clean, he can be a playmaker. He has a lot of potential, a lot of range."

While Curry is still finding his way and Washington is only getting started, Laurinaitis is exactly what the Rams thought they were getting -- a sure bet.

"I think he is going to be one of the better linebackers in the NFL for the next 10 years," Williamson said.

On the bright side: Arizona Cardinals

January, 21, 2011
1/21/11
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The premise: We spend much of the offseason focusing on teams' problems. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. and I discussed some of those Friday during a wide-ranging conversation on the NFC West, but there were also some positives. I'll break out one for each team, starting with the Arizona Cardinals.

Arizona Cardinals

Matt Williamson: Dan Williams was very good for them down the stretch. I think he lived up to that first-round billing. He ate space in the middle, he was a penetrator, he was a typical nose tackle -- exactly what you want at that position. It takes two guys to move him. He can protect those inside linebackers. He has a little quick twitch to him and he can get into the backfield. I think he was a really good first-round pick who took a while to surface, but in the end, he looks like a find.

Mike Sando: Sounds like the type of guy Arizona needs to help maximize its investment in linebacker Daryl Washington, a second-round pick.

Matt Williamson: That is a good point. Washington is a nice player, but not a great fit in a 3-4 defense. I thought he was more of a run-and-hit 'Will' linebacker, a Derrick Brooks type (in style, not necessarily substance) who doesn't take on a ton of blocks. He is built on speed and agility. He absolutely needs a big, big body in front of him to be protected. He absolutely needs the big nose tackle in front of him to do those run-and-hit type of things.

Mike Sando: So, you don't buy the talk that Arizona should abandon the 3-4 for a 4-3?

Matt Williamson: I would stick with a 3-4 and bring in two outside linebackers, preferably a blue-chip guy among them. One would go a really long way. I think you add a pass-rusher off the edge, another essential piece in a 3-4, and now you are talking.
John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan MarinoUS PresswireJohn Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino are a part of a draft class that may be the best in NFL history.
The 1983 NFL draft might have been the best of the modern era even without Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly or Dan Marino.

It was that good.

"I think if you asked each guy to a man, in particular the Hall of Fame guys, there has always been a pride about our class," said cornerback Darrell Green, the 28th overall choice in 1983 and a Hall of Famer. "Without ever discussing it, we knew we were a pretty special class of athletes."

The class produced six Hall of Famers –- Elway, Kelly, Marino, Green, Eric Dickerson and Bruce Matthews -– in addition to recent Hall finalists Richard Dent and Roger Craig. Of the 335 players drafted, 41 combined for 142 Pro Bowl appearances.

No other draft class has produced more than 34 Pro Bowl players since the NFL and AFL combined for a common draft in 1967, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That year served as the starting point for this project ranking the five best draft classes. The 1996, 1981, 1969 and 1985 drafts also made the cut.

Not that making the cut was good enough for some.

"If you took the defensive players in our draft and put them on the field against any class, we would shut them out," said Ronnie Lott, one of the more decorated members of a 1981 class featuring Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Rickey Jackson, Howie Long and Kenny Easley.

The project was biased against recent classes because their players haven’t had time to achieve in ways that set apart the older classes. The 2001 class has already produced 33 Pro Bowlers, same as the 1996 class and more than every other class but 1983, 1987 and 1988. But the best players from that class aren't finished achieving.

The biggest challenge, at least to me, was settling on the right criteria. ESPN Stats & Information provided an updated version of the spreadsheet used to identify elite draft classes for a previous project Insider. The spreadsheet awarded points to players based on:

  • Hall of Fame enshrinement (15 points)
  • MVP awards (8)
  • Player of the year awards (6)
  • All-Pro first-team awards (4)
  • All-Pro second-team awards (3)
  • Super Bowl victories (3)
  • Pro Bowls (2)
  • Rookie of the year awards (2)
  • Super Bowl defeats (1)

I used the spreadsheet as a starting point.

From there, I assigned 15 points to current or recently retired players likely destined for Canton. The players I singled out were: Troy Polamalu, Dwight Freeney, Ed Reed, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Brian Urlacher, Tom Brady, Champ Bailey, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Taylor, Jonathan Ogden, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, Derrick Brooks, Marshall Faulk, Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Brett Favre, Junior Seau and Deion Sanders.

I added five points for Hall of Fame finalists not yet enshrined -- Cortez Kennedy, Shannon Sharpe, etc. These changes allowed the rich to get richer, of course, because all those players already had lots of Pro Bowls on their resumés. But if it was important to recognize current Hall of Famers -- and it was, I thought -- then it was important to acknowledge the strongest candidates not yet enshrined.

Another thing I noticed: These changes didn't significantly alter results, which were predicated mostly on Pro Bowl appearances, a statistical correlation revealed.

The next challenge was making sure the formula didn't acknowledge great players at the expense of good ones. ESPN's John Clayton and Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. felt the formula should take special care in this area. I wasn't as adamant.

"You love the Hall of Famers," Horton said, "but I like the class where the guy plays at a high level for a long time. I love those third-round picks that just play and play. We shouldn’t make a mistake at the first pick. That guy should be a great player."

Clayton used approximate-value ratings from Pro Football Reference to produce averages for each draft class. The 1993 class produced the highest average, followed by the 1996, 1983, 1975 and 1971 classes. Clayton also plugged in total games played. The 1983 class edged the 1993 class for the most, followed by the 1990, 1976 and 1988 classes.

A few key variables changed along the way.

Teams drafted at least 442 players annually from 1967 to 1976. They drafted more than 330 players each year from 1977 through 1992. The 1993 class featured only 224 players, fewer than any class under consideration. The first 224 players drafted in 1969 had much higher average approximate-value ratings than the 1993 class, for example. More recent draft classes also benefited from league expansion, which opened roster spots and opportunities for additional players.

NFL regular seasons also grew in length from 14 to 16 games beginning in 1978.

My focus was more on what the draft classes produced and less on extenuating circumstances.

The 1993 class is among those deserving honorable mention. Do the most decorated members of that class -- Strahan, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, John Lynch, Jerome Bettis and Drew Bledsoe among them -- hold up to the best from other years?

Take a look at my top five classes and decide for yourself.


[+] EnlargeDarrell Green
US PresswireDarrell Green was the last pick of the first round in the 1983 draft.
1983

Why it's the best: No other class came close using the point system from ESPN Stats & Information. The 1983 class finished in a virtual tie with the 1996 and 1981 classes even when I removed from consideration the three Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly. No class had more combined Pro Bowls from its top-10 picks (42) or more combined Pro Bowls from players drafted later than the 200th overall choice (26). Five of the six Hall of Famers played their entire NFL careers with one team for 83 combined seasons, or 16.6 on average.

Hall of Famers: Elway (Broncos), Kelly (Bills), Marino (Dolphins), Green (Redskins), Dickerson (Rams), Matthews (Oilers)

Hall of Fame finalists: Richard Dent (Bears), Roger Craig (49ers)

Other big names: Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos), Joey Browner (Vikings), Chris Hinton (Broncos), Charles Mann (Redskins), Dave Duerson (Bears), Leonard Marshall (Giants), Albert Lewis (Chiefs), Curt Warner (Seahawks), Jimbo Covert (Bears), Henry Ellard (Rams), Mark Clayton (Dolphins), Tim Krumrie (Bengals), Greg Townsend (Raiders), Gill Byrd (Chargers), Don Mosebar (Raiders), Darryl Talley (Bills).

Late-round steals: Mecklenburg was the 310th overall choice. Dent went 203rd overall. Clayton went 223rd. They combined for 15 Pro Bowls.

Ah, the memories: Green grew up in Houston rooting for the Oilers, but his hometown team wasn't very accommodating on draft day. His family didn't have cable TV, so they couldn't watch the draft on ESPN. They had heard the Oilers would be showing it at their facility, or at least providing real-time updates, but Green was turned away.

"They sent my little behind on out of there," Green said. "That is the way that went. What is funny, I’m a Houstonian, I played 20 years in the NFL, started 18 years and I never played in Houston but one time, so I couldn’t stick it to them. ... But you always love your hometown. I was a Luv Ya Blue, Bum Phillips, Kenny Burrough, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini fan."

Green was used to the cold shoulder. Tim Lewis, drafted 11th overall by Green Bay, was supposed to be the superstar cornerback that year. Looking back, Green liked going one spot after Marino. Green also values being a bookend to a first round featuring Elway on the other side.

"[Redskins general manager] Bobby Beathard told me if I was there, he would take me," Green said. "I'd always been told by pro players, 'Hey, don’t believe anything they say.' As an adult, I know why. Things change. But the man told me. We got down to Dan Marino at 27 and I knew I wouldn't be 27. Then when we got to 28, the last pick of the first round, now I’ve got nothing else to do but believe it. I was extremely excited he maintained his word."


Ray Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Lewis could be one of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL.
1996

Why it's No. 2: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis arguably rank among the three best players at their positions in NFL history. Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens arguably rank among the 10 greatest receivers. Between four and seven members from this class have strong credentials for Canton. Only the 1983 class produced more total Pro Bowl appearances. Unlike some other classes -- 1988 comes to mind -- this one provided star power deep into the draft.

Hall of Famers: none yet.

Hall of Fame finalists: none yet.

Strongest Hall credentials: Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), Marvin Harrison (Colts), Ray Lewis (Ravens), Brian Dawkins (Eagles), Terrell Owens (49ers), Zach Thomas (Dolphins), La'Roi Glover (Raiders).

Other big names: Mike Alstott (Bucs), Willie Anderson (Bengals), Simeon Rice (Bucs), Lawyer Milloy (Patriots), Tedy Bruschi (Patriots), Eddie George (Titans), Jeff Hartings (Lions), Keyshawn Johnson (Jets), Donnie Edwards (Chiefs), Jon Runyan (Oilers), Amani Toomer (Giants), Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers), Stephen Davis (Redskins), Joe Horn (Chiefs), Marco Rivera (Packers).

Late-round steals: Fifth-rounders Thomas, Glover and Horn combined for 17 Pro Bowls. Another fifth-rounder, Jermaine Lewis, added two more. No other fifth round produced more total Pro Bowls during the period in question. Although expansion added additional picks to more recent fifth rounds, those picks were also later in the draft. Thomas and Glover should get strong Hall of Fame consideration.

Ah, the memories: Glover was the 16th defensive tackle drafted in 1996. He wasn't even invited to the combine initially, and when he did get the call, there wasn't enough time to prepare for the specialized events. Glover, who weighed about 265 pounds at San Diego State, was in trouble and he knew it.

"It's funny to me now, but it wasn't funny then," Glover said. "I got a call maybe a week before the combine, so I wasn’t prepared. I was out there doing my long-distance conditioning training and I wasn’t doing speed-type training. I may have ran like a 5.1 or 5.2, a very bad time."

Glover performed much better at his personal workout, dropping those times into the low 4.9s. Oakland made him the 166th player chosen that year.

"I just remember feeling goosebumps and I started sweating -- the dream is coming true," Glover said. "And then I was put on the phone with Mr. Al Davis. He asked me a very specific question: 'How would you like to be an Oakland Raider?' And I damn near lost it. I didn’t cry or anything. I kept my composure over the phone. As soon as I hung up and saw my name come on the ticker -- I lived in a tiny 2-3 bedroom home -- the place just erupted. All the women were crying and all the men were asking for tickets."


[+] EnlargeLT
US PresswireLawrence Taylor helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowls.
1981

Why it's No. 3: This was arguably the greatest defensive draft under consideration, particularly near the top. The NFL's best athletes typically played offense, but 1981 draftees Taylor, Lott and Easley helped change the dynamics. This draft wasn't as strong as some throughout, but its star power on defense set it apart. Key players from this draft helped the 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Bears and Raiders dominate at times during the decade. Only the 1986 draft produced more Super Bowl winners.

Hall of Famers: Taylor (Giants), Lott (49ers), Mike Singletary (Bears), Howie Long (Raiders), Rickey Jackson (Saints), Russ Grimm (Redskins).

Hall of Fame finalists: none.

Other big names: Easley, Eric Wright (49ers), Dennis Smith (Broncos), Cris Collinsworth (Bengals), Hanford Dixon (Browns), Freeman McNeil (Jets), James Brooks (Chargers), Brian Holloway (Patriots), Hugh Green (Bucs), Carlton Williamson (49ers), Neil Lomax (Cardinals), Dexter Manley (Redskins), Mark May (Redskins), E.J. Junior (Cardinals).

Late-round steals: Charlie Brown, chosen 201st overall by the Redskins, caught 16 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, earning Pro Bowl honors both years. Wade Wilson, chosen 210th, played 19 seasons and earned one Pro Bowl berth, in 1988.

Ah, the memories: Once the 49ers drafted Lott eighth overall, the USC safety headed to the airport to use a ticket the team had held for him. Easley, chosen sixth by the Seahawks, was the other great safety in that draft class and the two were so closely linked that the person behind the airline counter mixed up Lott's destination.

"You are going to Seattle?"

"No, San Francisco," Lott replied.

Lott often looks back on how things might have been different if the Saints had drafted Taylor instead of George Rogers first overall. That wasn't going to happen because the Saints wanted a running back to help them control the clock, and they were especially particular about character in that draft -- their first with Bum Phillips as head coach.

"Lawrence Taylor, I didn't realize he was going to be that type of player, but Rickey Jackson did turn out to be the player we needed [in the second round]," Phillips said. "We needed a great player and a great individual. We needed some leadership and we needed the right kind of character to be leaders."

The 49ers needed a new secondary. They used that 1981 draft to select Lott, Wright and Williamson.

"I talked to Bill Walsh and his statement was, 'If I see it on film once, then my coaches should be able to get it out of a guy,'" said Horton, the Scouts Inc. founder and veteran NFL talent evaluator. "That always stuck with me. He was amazing at seeing things on tape. That '81 draft was a smart draft. You could look at that draft and you could see what teams were thinking."


Joe Greene
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireJoe Greene is one of five Hall of Fame inductees from the 1969 draft class.
1969

Why it's No. 4: Roger Wehrli's 2007 Hall of Fame enshrinement gave this class five inductees. Only three other classes managed more combined Pro Bowl appearances. Some of the names in this class won't resonate with recent generations, and that is understandable. But this was still a strong class and one worthy of our consideration.

Hall of Famers: Joe Greene (Steelers), Ted Hendricks (Raiders), O.J. Simpson (Bills), Wehrli (Cardinals), Charlie Joiner (Oilers).

Hall of Fame finalists: L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), Bob Kuechenberg (Eagles).

Other big names: George Kunz (Falcons), Bill Bergey (Bengals), Bill Stanfill (Dolphins), Calvin Hill (Cowboys), Ed White (Vikings), Gene Washington (49ers), Jack Rudnay (Chiefs), Bill Bradley (Eagles), Ted Kwalick (49ers), Jim Marsalis (Chiefs), Ron Johnson (Browns), Fred Dryer (Giants).

Late-round steals: Greenwood was a six-time Pro Bowl choice and was the 238th overall pick. The Falcons found five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Van Note with the 262nd choice. Larry Brown, chosen 191st overall, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Ah, the memories: There was no scouting combine back then. Wehrli couldn't remember seeing a pro scout, even at Missouri practices. He had never even run a 40-yard dash until a Cardinals scout asked him to run one at the Hula Bowl all-star game in Hawaii.

Wehrli agreed to run on the spot even though he was wearing pads, the playing surface was natural grass and the stakes were higher than he realized.

"At the time, I didn’t know it was a Cardinals scout," Wehrli said. "I ran the 40, came back and he said, 'Man, we didn’t realize you were that fast.' Later, he told me that timing moved me up to a first-round draft choice [from the third round]."

Wehrli had clocked in the 4.5-second range. He would run 4.4s on Astroturf later in the pros.

"You never really trained for it back then," he said.


[+] EnlargeJerry Rice
US PresswireJerry Rice, the best receiver in NFL history, helped San Francisco win three Super Bowls.
1985

Why it's No. 5: Just as the 1983 class featured more than quarterbacks, the 1985 version offered much more than the most prolific receiver in NFL history. Yes, Jerry Rice was the 16th overall choice, helping set apart this class from some others. But the supporting cast featured elite talent, from Bruce Smith to Chris Doleman and beyond.

Hall of Famers: Rice (49ers), Smith (Bills).

Hall of Fame finalists: Andre Reed (Bills).

Other big names: Lomas Brown (Lions), Steve Tasker (Oilers), Ray Childress (Oilers), Kevin Greene (Rams), Jay Novacek (Cardinals), Bill Fralic (Falcons), Jerry Gray (Rams), Randall Cunningham (Eagles), Ron Wolfley (Cardinals), Al Toon (Jets), Jim Lachey (Chargers), Kevin Glover (Lions), Mark Bavaro (Giants), Herschel Walker (Cowboys), Duane Bickett (Colts), Doug Flutie (Rams), Jack Del Rio (Saints).

Late-round steals: Tasker became a seven-time Pro Bowl choice on special teams as the 226th overall choice (albeit with Buffalo, after the Oilers waived him). Greene was a fifth-rounder, Novacek was a sixth-rounder and Bavaro, one of the toughest tight ends, provided excellent value in the fourth round.

Ah, the memories: Bill Polian was a little-known pro personnel director with USFL roots when Bills general manager Terry Bledsoe suffered a heart attack two months before the draft. The Bills had already landed their franchise quarterback in Kelly two years earlier, but his two-year detour through the USFL had set back the organization. Buffalo held the No. 1 overall pick, and the stakes were high.

Polian took over GM duties. Norm Pollom, a holdover from the Chuck Knox years, headed up the college scouting side.

The Bills were in great hands. Although some fans hoped the team would draft Flutie, Polian and Pollom found building blocks.

Aggressive wheeling and dealing allowed Buffalo to land cornerback Derrick Burroughs with the 14th choice, acquired from Green Bay, even after drafting Smith first overall. Reed was a steal in the fourth round. The decision to draft Smith over Ray Childress was the right one even though Childress became a five-time Pro Bowl choice for the Oilers.
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee assesses the 49ers' running backs. He wonders whether Glen Coffee might ultimately play a bigger role in the offense than Michael Crabtree. Frank Gore might have something to say about that. Coffee would need a highly impressive preseason to siphon many carries from Gore at this point, in my view.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider defends his position that the 49ers would be better off running a West Coast offense in the tradition of Bill Walsh.

David Fucillo of Niners Nation sees an 11-5 record as a best-case scenario for the 49ers.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat explains what Mike Singletary might have meant when he said the 49ers should aspire to being "physical with an 'f' ". Maiocco: "What it boils down to, I believe, is the letter 'F' is a lot more forceful than the soft-looking and passive 'Ph.' After all, why does a man like Singletary need two letters to form one sound? That's what it's all about. A physical, tough-minded team -- that is how offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye describes what he wants to see from his unit -- does not need two when one should suffice."

Scott McKillop of the 49ers files a 49ers.com diary featuring information about his girlfriend. McKillop: "It's important that I spend time with Allison. We've been together seven and a half years. We were high school sweethearts and have been together since the end of our sophomore year. As you can probably tell she's very important to me. We had homeroom together in high school and that's where we first met. We were also voted the best male and female athletes of our school. I guess in a way, it's a storybook relationship."

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says Kurt Warner and Dick Vermeil remain close friends. Warner: "He saw something special in me that no one else saw," Warner said. "And he continually let me know that he believed in me. When everyone else doubted and questioned me, he encouraged me and gave me the confidence to play the way I was gifted to play and not worry about anything else."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic provides a heads up on an NFL Films feature showcasing receivers with the best hands. Larry Fitzgerald was fourth, one spot behind Steve Largent.

Also from Somers: The Cardinals knew what they could expect from Edgerrin James and Terrelle Smith. The same cannot be said for their replacements.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat explains what Mike Singletary might have meant when he said the 49ers should aspire to being "physical with an 'f' ". Maiocco: "What it boils down to, I believe, is the letter 'F' is a lot more forceful than the soft-looking and passive 'Ph.' After all, why does a man like Singletary need two letters to form one sound? That's what it's all about. A physical, tough-minded team -- that is how offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye describes what he wants to see from his unit -- does not need two when one should suffice."

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says Kurt Warner and Dick Vermeil remain close friends. Warner: "He saw something special in me that no one else saw," Warner said. "And he continually let me know that he believed in me. When everyone else doubted and questioned me, he encouraged me and gave me the confidence to play the way I was gifted to play and not worry about anything else."

Scott McKillop of the 49ers files a 49ers.com diary featuring information about his girlfriend. McKillop: "It's important that I spend time with Allison. We've been together seven and a half years. We were high school sweethearts and have been together since the end of our sophomore year. As you can probably tell she's very important to me. We had homeroom together in high school and that's where we first met. We were also voted the best male and female athletes of our school. I guess in a way, it's a storybook relationship."

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider defends his position that the 49ers would be better off running a West Coast offense in the tradition of Bill Walsh.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee assesses the 49ers' running backs. He wonders whether Glen Coffee might ultimately play a bigger role in the offense than Michael Crabtree. Frank Gore might have something to say about that.

David Fucillo of Niners Nation sees an 11-5 record as a best-case scenario for the 49ers.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic provides a heads up on an NFL Films feature showcasing receivers with the best hands. Larry Fitzgerald was fourth, one spot behind Steve Largent.

Also from Somers: The Cardinals knew what they could expect from Edgerrin James and Terrelle Smith. The same cannot be said for their replacements.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com takes a peek at "Madden 10" screenshots featuring the Cardinals.

Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind places Jerheme Urban and Sean Morey "on the bubble" in his look at the Cardinals' wide receivers.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recalls the Rams' 1999 championship season under Vermeil in a series of remembrances.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams broug
ht in a couple of players for tryouts without offering contracts. Coats: "Former Mizzou wide receiver Tommy Saunders and return man Terrance Sanders, an Eastern Illinois U. product who plays for the Boise Burn of the af2 indoor football league, had tryouts with the St. Louis Rams."

Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com checks in with linebacker Leroy Hill. Farnsworth: "The role the coaches envision for Hill is similar to the one Derrick Brooks used to fill with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Lance Briggs plays for the Chicago Bears. Each was voted to the Pro Bowl last season -- Brooks for the 11th time and Briggs the fourth."

Also from Farnsworth: Cory Redding's versatility is key for Seattle.

Brian McIntyre of scout.com says long-snapper Kevin Houser, signed Thursday by Seattle, became available after the Saints released him. McIntyre notes that Houser "had encouraged several current and former Saints players and coaches, including head coach Sean Payton and Archie Manning, to invest in a tax credit program that had lost about $2 million."

John Morgan of Field Gulls revisits Mansfield Wrotto's 2008 season with the Seahawks. In case you'd forgotten, Wrotto was the player Seattle drafted with the choice acquired from San Francisco in the Darrell Jackson trade. Wrotto has improved, but not enough to project as a starter at this point.
 
  ESPN.com Illustration
  Best of the best: Michael Strahan, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Randy Moss.

 Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Ranking the 25 best NFL players of the decade seemed easy.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson sent an initial list to me for review. The list appeared strong. I suggested a couple minor tweaks.

All-Decade Honors
Monday: Defense
Tuesday: Offense
Wednesday: Moments
Thursday: Team, coach, MVP | Rankings
Friday: Top players | Special teams

Related Content

• Karabell: Decade's top fantasy players
• Rank 'Em: Players of the decade
• Football Outsiders: Most overrated
• Football Outsiders: Most underrated

The hard part came when we considered those who fell just short of the list.

Guard Alan Faneca has gone to eight Pro Bowls this decade. John Lynch and Will Shields went to seven. Brian Dawkins, La'Roi Glover, Kevin Mawae, Olin Kreutz, Matt Birk, Larry Allen, Chris Samuels and Zach Thomas went to six. Ronde Barber, Keith Brooking, Al Wilson, Julian Peterson, Donovan McNabb, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Chad Ochocinco were among those with five.

None of them made the top 25 list. Had all of them made it, only six spots would have remained for the 25 players you see in the chart.

We settled on five quarterbacks, four receivers, four offensive linemen, three linebackers, three defensive ends, two running backs, two safeties, one cornerback, one tight end and zero defensive tackles (few dominated consistently for extended periods).

Seven of 10 league MVPs this decade made the top 25. Marshall Faulk, Rich Gannon and 2003 co-MVP Steve McNair were the exceptions.

Ben Roethlisberger made the list despite only one career Pro Bowl appearance. It's not his fault Manning and Brady play in the same conference.

2
ESPN.com's Top 25 Players of the Decade
Rk Player Pos. Team Pro Bowls This Decade Analysis
1
Tom Brady
QB NE 4 The NFL's Horatio Alger hero in cleats was drafted in the sixth round and became one of the greatest quarterbacks of a generation. The four-time Pro Bowler played in four Super Bowls this decade, winning three and being named MVP of two. (TG)

Peyton Manning
QB IND 8 The three-time MVP made eight Pro Bowls, was first-team All-Pro four times and won a Super Bowl this decade. Widely regarded as the league's most irreplaceable player. (PK)
3
LaDainian Tomlinson
RB SD 5 Without a doubt, Tomlinson is the best non-quarterback to play in this decade. He has gained at least 1,000 yards in each of his eight NFL seasons. One of the most consistent running backs ever to play. (BW)
4
Walter Jones
T SEA 8 Mike Holmgren called Jones the best offensive player he ever coached. That's saying something. (MS)
5
Jason Taylor
DE MIA 6 Few defenders can match Taylor's résumé. The NFL's active career sacks leader was chosen for six Pro Bowls this decade. Taylor was named the league's defensive player of the year in 2006 and the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2007 for his community service. (TG)
6
Champ Bailey
CB DEN 8 The gold standard of cornerbacks this decade. Bailey is a complete player who shut down the left side of the field nearly all decade. (BW)
7
Marvin Harrison
WR IND 7 Seven straight Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro selections and a Super Bowl win this decade. His 143 receptions in 2002 stand as the single-season record and he's got a 20-catch cushion on the next closest player. (PK)
8
Michael Strahan
DE NYG 4 One of the most prolific pass-rushers in history of the league. He was relentless and he helped lead the way to a world title in 2007. (MM)
9
Ray Lewis
LB BAL 7 Lewis is the top-rated linebacker of this decade with a Super Bowl victory and seven Pro Bowls since 2000. But No. 9 still seems a little low for the future Hall of Famer and one of the most dominant defenders ever to play the game. (JW)
10
Tony Gonzalez
TE ATL 9 The best receiving tight end ever to play in the NFL. If you don't think so, look at the top of every important receiving record for NFL tight ends. You'll see Gonzalez's name on every list. (BW)
11
Jonathan Ogden
T BAL 8 As the most consistent player on Baltimore's usually inconsistent offense, Ogden will probably never get as much credit as he deserved. But his football journey will land him in Canton soon. (JW)
12
Ed Reed
S BAL 5 In a decade when mostly hard-hitting safeties ruled the NFL, Reed brought "ball-hawking" back to the position. His hands, anticipation and knack for the spectacular play are as good as any safety in NFL history. (JW)
13
Torry Holt
WR JAC 7 Seven Pro Bowls, one first-team All-Pro selection, two Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl win this decade with the St. Louis Rams. A major component of an out-of-nowhere team that became "The Greatest Show on Turf." (PK)
14
Randy Moss
WR NE 4 He was edged out by Torry Holt for the all-decade team, but Moss is one of the league's all-time greats. He has gone to four Pro Bowls this decade, averaging 77 catches for 1,164 yards and 12 touchdowns. (TG)
15
Derrick Brooks
LB TB 8 Best player in Tampa Bay's history. Most important building block in Bucs going from laughingstock to Super Bowl champions. Brooks was a leader on the field and in the community. (PY)
16
Orlando Pace
T CHI 6 At the height of his career, Pace was the most dominant left tackle in the game. No one could get around him as the St. Louis Rams set a series of offensive records. Injuries have slowed him down recently, but he hopes to finish his career strongly in Chicago. (KS)
17
Kurt Warner
QB ARI 3 Took two franchises to the Super Bowl this decade and had three total appearances (one following the 1999 season). Still going strong. (MS)
18
Shaun Alexander
RB SEA 3 The only player in NFL history to score 15 touchdowns in five consecutive seasons. Averaged 1,501 yards rushing and 17.4 rushing touchdowns per season over a five-year period. (MS)
19
Troy Polamalu
S PIT 5 Polamalu is just approaching his prime, but already has two Super Bowl wins and five Pro Bowls in six seasons. He has the potential to make the next decade's list as well. (JW)
20
Richard Seymour
DE NE 5 The Patriots defensive end has been All-Pro three times and a Pro Bowler five times. He's strong against the run and can create havoc in the pocket, collecting 39 sacks in eight seasons. (TG)
21
Ben Roethlisberger
QB PIT 1 "Big Ben" joins Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls in this decade. Despite joining the NFL in 2004, that was enough for Roethlisberger to make the cut. (JW)
22
Steve Hutchinson
G MIN 6 Considered the best guard in the game since shortly after Seattle drafted him in 2001. Has helped Minnesota rank in the NFL's top five in rushing twice in three seasons with the Vikings. (KS)
23
Brett Favre
QB -- 5 Finished last season atop the NFL's list for all-time passing yardage and touchdowns. (Interceptions, too.) Named to his 10th Pro Bowl at age 39. (KS)
24
Terrell Owens
WR BUF 6 He has put up Hall of Fame-worthy numbers and he continues to be a dangerous receiver into his mid-30s. (MM)
25
Brian Urlacher
LB CHI 6 The NFL's best defensive rookie in 2000, the best defensive player in 2005 and the captain of a team that went to the Super Bowl in 2006. A quasi-defensive back in college, Urlacher is a perfect fit for the Tampa 2 scheme that requires the middle linebacker to cover the deep third of the field. (KS)

Glossary
TG -- Tim Graham (AFC East); JW -- James Walker (AFC North); PK -- Paul Kuharsky (AFC South); BW -- Bill Williamson (AFC West); MM -- Matt Mosley (NFC East); KS -- Kevin Seifert (NFC North); PY -- Pat Yasinskas (NFC South); MS -- Mike Sando (NFC West)

 
  ESPN.com Illustration
  The ESPN.com all-decade defense is stacked with Pro Bowlers.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

All-Decade Defense
DE: Michael Strahan, N.Y. Giants,
DT: Warren Sapp, Tampa Bay/Oakland
DT: Kris Jenkins, Carolina/N.Y. Jets
DE: Jason Taylor, Miami/Washington
LB: Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay
LB: Ray Lewis, Baltimore
LB: Brian Urlacher, Chicago
CB: Champ Bailey, Washington/Denver
CB: Troy Vincent: Phil./Mia./Buff./Wash.
S: Ed Reed, Baltimore
S: Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh

All-Decade Honors

Monday: Defense
Tuesday: Offense
Wednesday: Moments
Thursday: Team, coach, MVP | Rankings
Friday: Top players | Special teams

Related Content

• Karabell: Decade's top fantasy players
• Rank 'Em: Players of the decade
• Football Outsiders: Most overrated
• Football Outsiders: Most underrated
• Pasquarelli: Brooks wants to play on

The choice between Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor was simple when ESPN.com selected its all-decade defense.

We took both.

Warren Sapp and Kris Jenkins prevailed at defensive tackle. Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher made the cut at linebacker, edging Zach Thomas.

Champ Bailey was an easy choice opposite Troy Vincent at cornerback. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu beat out a strong field of safeties.

"It's a great group to be associated with," Taylor told ESPN.com's Tim Graham. "Derrick Brooks, Mr. Consistency and Class. Ray Lewis, everybody fears. And Urlacher came in and took the game to another level at that position.

"The two big guys inside -- Jenkins doesn't get a whole lot of credit, but we all know what kind of player he is. Sapp is Sapp. We know he's good. He knows he's good. He's going to tell you he's good.

"And to be associated with 'Stray,' he's the best of our generation."

Taylor, back with Miami after a season with the Redskins, and Strahan combined for 189.5 sacks over the first eight years of the decade. Strahan, who retired in 2008 after a 15-year career with the Giants, had 22.5 in 2001. Taylor had 18.5 in 2002.

"No. 1, [Strahan] really loved playing the game," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "No. 2, he's well known for rushing the passer, but he's one of the best run-playing defensive ends of all time."

Taylor and Strahan combined for 10 Pro Bowl appearances this decade. Overall, our 11-man squad combined for 60 Pro Bowl appearances in the first nine years of the decade. They wouldn't need much coaching.

"I'd probably tell them, 'Take care of yourself, give me a call during the week at some point so I know you're alive and I'll see you Sunday,'" Taylor said. "Then just turn them loose."

With training camps beginning next month for the final year of the decade, we thought we had sufficient evidence to determine our all-decade teams. ESPN.com began the evaluation process by ranking players according to most Pro Bowl appearances since the 2000 season (tight end Tony Gonzalez was the only player with nine).

General managers, scouts, coaches and players shaped the selections from that list. I consulted with several of them on background while selecting the defensive line and linebackers. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert did the same in selecting cornerbacks. NFC East blogger Matt Mosley handled the safeties.

Brooks, Lewis and Bailey were consensus choices. Lewis' ferocity gives this defense a menacing edge.

"Ray deserves this honor, without a doubt," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "There is no question that he plays at a Hall of Fame level year in and year out. He's as smart and as instinctive a defensive player as I've ever seen. He plays hard eve
ry play -- every single play."

Newsome was new to the Ravens in 1996 when he asked the team's then-coach, Ted Marchibroda, what he wanted from a player.

"Ted said, 'Give me a player with a 'football temperament,' meaning a player who loves every part of the game -- the preparation, the practices, the long offseason workouts, the physicality, the games," Newsome said. "Ray embodies that definition. There is no player who enjoys preparing, competing and playing as much as Ray. There is only one Ray Lewis, and the Ravens have the good fortune of having him for his entire career."

Taylor felt strongly that his longtime teammate, Thomas, deserved inclusion.

And one veteran offensive lineman I consulted said he would "line up against Sapp every day before I'd go against La'Roi Glover" simply because Glover could beat an opponent in more ways.

"Sapp had one move and he was good at it," the lineman said. "He lined up so wide and it was so much different than all the other three-technique guys. Glover would butt you in the chin and run over your ass, but he was so quick, he could take a side-angle on you. He had a move and a counter and a counter off that one."

Thomas, Glover (who announced his retirement Monday) and other victims of this high-stakes numbers game could fill out a dominant defense of their own. The list of near-misses also includes Richard Seymour, Dwight Freeney, Julius Peppers, Bryant Young, Kevin Williams, Casey Hampton, Keith Brooking, Ty Law, Ronde Barber, Brian Dawkins and John Lynch. Seymour seemed particularly worthy, but not at the expense of Taylor or Strahan.

Only Bailey and Brooks have more Pro Bowl appearances this decade -- eight apiece -- than Lynch (seven) among defensive players. Six defensive players have six Pro Bowl appearances in the decade. Three of them -- Dawkins, Thomas and Glover -- fell just short.

A position-by-position look at the all-decade defense:

 Strahan
 Taylor

Defensive ends Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor: "Stray's a left end and I'm a right end, so it works perfect," Taylor said. "You let the two big boys do what they want inside. Let's hit it and get it."

Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates was with the Dolphins during Taylor's most dominant years.

"The biggest thing that has made Jason special over the years is to not only have God-given ability, but intelligence," Bates said. "He did a great job studying the opponent. He was very effective with several different moves he used on his pass rush. He's not only fast, but he's explosive. When he put together the power move with his speed, he had it all."

 Jenkins
 Sapp

Defensive tackles Kris Jenkins and Warren Sapp: No players dominated at the position for the full period in question.

Jenkins, at his best, disrupted opposing offensive lines to a degree that might have exceeded the problems his peers created. I had a hard time leaving off Glover based on what offensive linemen told me, but Sapp enjoyed broad support and was also worthy.

Linebackers Derrick Brooks, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher: Brooks has started 16 games in each of the last 13 seasons. He has 17

 Brooks
 Lewis
 Urlacher
interceptions this decade. Brooks, released by Tampa Bay in the offseason, brought exceptional quickness to the position even late in his career.

Lewis and Chicago's Urlacher are sluggers by comparison.

At his best, the 260-pound Urlacher was athletic enough to play the deep middle in coverage, yet strong enough to punish receivers and running backs on underneath plays.

 Bailey
 Vincent

Cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Troy Vincent: Shutdown cover corners with height are a rarity, but Vincent and the Broncos' Bailey qualify.

Smarts, range and playmaking ability set them apart from Barber and other candidates, although the Raiders' Nnamdi Asomugha is making a strong run late in the decade.

"You want to talk about an all-around corner, that's Troy Vincent," said former Eagles secondary coach Leslie Frazier, now the Vikings' defensive coordinator, told Seifert. "He could cover as well as any guy out there in the league, but he wasn't one-dimensional by any means. He could hit. He could support the run. He was a sure tackler. Total package, as far as I'm concerned."

Vincent played for the Eagles, Bills and Redskins during this decade.

 Polamalu
 Reed

Safeties Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed: Lynch (seven) and Dawkins (six) have more Pro Bowls this decade, but the Steelers' Polamalu and Ravens' Reed stood apart in overall athletic ability and their flair for the spectacular play.

"I love watching [Polamalu] play," Cowboys Ring of Honor member Cliff Harris told Mosley. "They give him a lot of freedom and he's able to make a lot of plays. I think I'd love playing in that defense -- even though it's the Steelers. I'm biased, but I still think it's one of the most important positions on the field. And no one can match Reed and Polamalu right now."

Reed's production -- 43 interceptions in seven NFL seasons, compared to 34 picks in 13 seasons for Dawkins -- separates him from all challengers.

Lynch spent four seasons with Denver and four with Tampa this decade. And while he kept racking up Pro Bowl appearances, his best years were probably with the Bucs.

The Colts' Bob Sanders might have challenged if injuries hadn't limited him to two seasons with more than six games played.

Tim Hasselbeck and Michael Smith break down the all-decade defense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Ryan from Phoenix writes via Facebook: Some of the talk radio guys were saying there's a chance that boldin will hold out to get a new contract. Have you heard anything about that and do you think that the fact no one came out and offered much for Boldin during the draft that plays in favor for the Cards saving some money?

Mike Sando: The Cardinals said from the beginning they weren't shopping Anquan Boldin. They were willing to listen if teams wanted to initiate talks. It's tough for the Cardinals to know what they could really get for Boldin -- his ultimate value to another team -- without the Cardinals actively trying to find out what they could really get for Boldin. In that respect, the process worked against Boldin. He comes out of this looking like a guy no one wants seriously to acquire. And that diminishes his leverage in future negotiations with the Cardinals.

The deck is stacked against Boldin right now. He has two years left on his deal, he'll be 30 when it expires and Larry Fitzgerald has supplanted him as the Cardinals' best receiver. The team is coming off a Super Bowl season. The head coach is highly popular. The Cardinals were generally effective without Boldin last season, so there's no pressure on management to move quickly.

If Boldin holds out and the Cardinals open quickly while playing three of their first four at home, then what?

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The expected and long-anticipated additions of cornerback Ken Lucas and fullback Justin Griffith, as noted by Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times, make sense after Seattle did not address either position in the draft.

 Griffith
 Lucas

Whether the Seahawks consider former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks next could hinge on what happens with Leroy Hill, who became a free agent when Seattle withdrew the franchise player designation from him. The market for Hill could be a tough one this late in the process. Enough teams have salary-cap flexibility to consider him, but most have already made plans at linebacker. This is not the time to be looking for work in the NFL.

Lucas gives Seattle needed size and experience at cornerback. Josh Wilson will give him a tough run for the starting job, but Wilson has the makeup to defend the slot in nickel situations. The flexibility Lucas provides should help Seattle hold up better against bigger NFC West receivers such as, hmmm, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree? We shall see.

Griffith steps into the void left when Seattle decided against bringing back Leonard Weaver. Griffith is more of a blocking fullback than Weaver, obviously, and he knows Greg Knapp's offense from their days together in Oakland.

The Lucas and Griffith additions would qualify as logical moves for the Seahawks. These moves would also make it easier to justify the decision to rescind Hill's offer. General manager Tim Ruskell and the Seahawks can turn this into a home run by getting a deal done with Hill despite any hard feelings that might linger from the decision to rescind the franchise tag.

Update: The Seahawks have announced these signings.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Arizona: The Cardinals did not draft a tight end. They waited until the 167th choice to draft an offensive lineman. Finding value at tight end appeared difficult given the need to find a running back early. Tight end wouldn't have been a value choice at No. 31 under the circumstances. Arizona appears relatively unconcerned about addressing the offensive line. Continuity was a strength for the line last season.

Seattle: The Seahawks did not draft a running back or add a pass rusher. They did not draft an offensive tackle. They did not find value in a safety early. Seattle didn't see the need for a tackle or running back, counter to some outside analyses. Teams didn't value most of the pass rushers high enough to take one early. The Seahawks could use a taller cornerback. Ken Lucas is an option. They might have a need at linebacker if Leroy Hill departs. Derrick Brooks could be an option given his ties to Seattle executives and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

St. Louis: The Rams didn't draft a receiver until taking Brooks Foster from North Carolina with the 160th choice. The team did address needs at tackle and linebacker early. The Rams had too many needs to address all at once. In a perfect world, they might have added a receiver and defensive tackle earlier. But the needs they addressed early were also real.

San Francisco: The 49ers did not address either of their two perceived primary needs heading into the draft (offensive tackle, pass rusher). Coach Mike Singletary did not apologize for that. He pointed to receiver Michael Crabtree and said the 49ers went for quality.

Singletary to reporters: "I'm not going to talk about what we don't get. It's obvious that most [teams] that drafted aren't going to get what they want and we're certainly on that list, but I think that [GM] Scot McCloughan and our personnel department did an outstanding job along with the scouts of producing the draft that we had. ... We wanted to add quality and that's what we did."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

RENTON, Wash. -- The Seahawks withdrew the franchise tag from linebacker Leroy Hill because they felt the tag wasn't helping them reach a long-term deal. The team always had reservations about using the tag on Hill.

That was the word from Seahawks president Tim Ruskell during his post-draft news conference Sunday night. Coach Jim Mora said he spoke with Hill on Sunday morning. He thought Hill possibly seemed "shook up" and "disappointed" but not angry after Seattle withdrew the tag. Mora said he hoped to get something done with Hill in time for the linebacker to attend the post-draft minicamp.

The Seahawks' decision to withdraw the tag made Hill free to negotiate with other teams. Ruskell said he'll have a better feel about possibly re-signing Hill after speaking with Hill's agent, Todd France, later Sunday night. The sides have not come close to reaching an agreement.

Drafting Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry with the fourth overall choice was the driving force behind the decision to withdraw the tag, Ruskell said. The team also wanted the $8.3 million in salary-cap relief to gain flexibility for pursuing free agents. Without the cap relief, the Seahawks couldn't do "anything else" in free agency, Ruskell said.

Ruskell did not mention cornerback Ken Lucas or linebacker Derrick Brooks, but the Seahawks definitely have interest in Lucas. They brought him in for a visit last month. While discussing the secondary, Mora even made an unsolicited reference to considering options in free agency.

Draft Rd. Pick Ruskell's Team Linebacker College Conference
1995 1 28
Bucs Derrick Brooks
Florida St.
ACC
1993
2 34 Bucs Demetrius DuBose
Notre Dame
Independent
2005
2 45 Seahawks Lofa Tatupu
USC Pac-10
1998
3 84 Bucs Jamie Duncan
Vanderbilt SEC
2000
3 90 Bucs Nate Webster
Miami ACC
2005
3 98 Seahawks Leroy Hill
Clemson ACC
2004
4 101 Falcons Demorrio Williams Nebraska Big 12
1997
4 128 Bucs Al Singleton Temple MAC
1992
6 148 Bucs James Malone
UCLA Pac-10
2007
5 161 Seahawks Will Herring
Auburn SEC
1994
6 165 Bucs Bernard Carter
E.Carolina C-USA
1995
6 179 Bucs Wardell Rouse
Clemson ACC
2005
7 235 Seahawks Cornelius Wortham
Alabama SEC
1992
10 254 Bucs Elijah Alexander
Kansas St.
Big 12

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The premise: I'm a sucker for those true-crime shows where profilers develop rich character sketches to help identify and apprehend unknown suspects. Couldn't we use similar tactics, though vastly simplified, to predict how NFL teams might view college prospects? With your help, I think we can do some amateur profiling of teams and their general managers.

In focus: Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell and the linebackers his teams have drafted since 1992.

Would the Seahawks consider drafting Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry with the fourth overall choice this year? The answer would seem to be yes, but in looking at the chart, we see Ruskell's teams have never drafted a linebacker higher than 28th overall.

The chart shows every linebacker Ruskell's teams have drafted since 1992, ranked by how early the linebackers were selected. One thing jumps out right away: Four of the top five players listed were middle linebackers. Derrick Brooks was the exception. Seattle already has its middle linebacker in Lofa Tatupu. Curry would play on the outside.

Ruskell's teams have enjoyed solid success drafting at this position. Brooks is a likely Hall of Famer. Tatupu has played in three Pro Bowls. Leroy Hill has become a solid starter. Jamie Duncan was a three-year starter. Demorrio Williams became a starter. Al Singleton started. Even Elijah Alexander, a 10th-round pick in 1992, became a starter elsewhere.

Demetrius DuBose, chosen 34th overall in 1993, stands out as the only significant bust. His career flamed out after only four seasons and he died in 1999 when police shot him during an apparent robbery attempt.

When you look at the chart, which college linebackers seem to fit the profile?

Note College conference listings in the chart reflect current affiliations.

Mailbag: Replacing Julian Peterson

March, 30, 2009
3/30/09
11:45
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Brett from Anacortes, Wash., writes: Hey Mike, long time follower from the TNT days. I was wondering if you foresee the Hawks bringing in a veteran backer like Derrick Brooks to fill Julian Peterson's shoes?

I think competition between D.D. Lewis, Will Herring, David Hawthorne and Lance Laury for that starting spot could be healthy and good for the team in the long run. Of course, we could address the need in the draft, depending on how the chips fall, but I don't necessarily think investing a lot of money in Aaron Curry would be wise unless the team doesn't feel a long-term deal with Leroy Hill is imminent.

Is it realistic to think with our draft position, we should be able to bring in 3 quality starters for the 2009 season? The answer to that may hinge on whether we pull the trigger to a Hasselbeck replacement in the first round, who would obviously have to hold a clipboard for a few years. But if you do feel it is realistic, which three positions could you see a young player coming in and challenging for a starting spot right away?

Mike Sando: I wouldn't expect the Seahawks to consider Brooks until after the draft, if at all. The team will most likely try to find a young prospect in the draft. As you know, the Seahawks have done pretty well drafting linebackers in the second and third rounds. If the team can find another one, Brooks presumably would not be on the radar -- even though the Seahawks' personnel people hold Brooks in very high regard.

Seattle should get two rookie starters out of the draft. Three would be outstanding. Running back would be one position where the Seahawks could conceivably find a starter or at least a part-time starter. Linebacker would be another now that Peterson is in Detroit. The linebacker candidates you mentioned -- those already on the roster -- don't stand out as difference-makers. If the Seahawks drafted Michael Crabtree, I think he would probably start right away, even if it were from a three-receiver personnel grouping.


Nick from Kansas City writes: Sando! Im a huge Rams fan. I just wanted to ask your opinion on talent. See, I think that most players at the NFL level must be pretty athletic and have a high degree of talent. Do you think that coaching and chemistry are the biggest x-factors for success, or is it mostly the players on the field?

My old high school football coach said "you can't make chicken salad with chicken [you know what]!" I see that point but I'm not sure that is true at the NFL level. It seems like the system and the atmosphere make a better salad in the NFL. I see the Rams poised to be much better next year, despite all the "holes". Your thoughts.

Mike Sando: Coaches play a critical role in getting the most from the available talent. Great coaching by itself isn't going to overcome horrible talent at quarterback or in other critical positions. But I agree with your premise.

In 2007, I thought the Dolphins were a six- or seven-win team that won only one game. Last season, the Rams were a five- or six-win team that won only two games. Once things fall apart in the NFL, not every coach can pull things together, particularly if he's working within a flawed organization. I think that was the case for Jim Haslett in St. Louis last season.

The fresh start in St. Louis should help the Rams win more games in 2009. This could be a five- or six-win team that wins five or seven games. We'll have a better idea after the draft. I still have questions about the talent and even the coaching. The Rams have first-year coordinators and a first-year head coach. They have much to prove.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says the 49ers could have interest in Torry Holt. Lynch: "But if Holt signs, does that mean [Isaac] Bruce will retire? And can Holt be as good as Bruce was last year? Holt and Bruce are friends, but those who know the Rams said Bruce wasn't thrilled when Holt surpassed him as the Rams' top option." Is Ricky Proehl in shape?

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says he hears the 49ers are "very wary" of Holt's knee issues.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Jonas Jennings, Mark Roman and Bruce are not expected to attend the team's upcoming minicamp. Jennings could be released. Roman has been given permission to seek a trade. Bruce hasn't announced plans for 2009.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sizes up the Rams' new-look secondary. The corner spot opposite Ron Bartell is "wide open" heading into the 2009 season, coach Steve Spagnuolo said. Coats: "Tye Hill, the Rams' first-round draft pick in 2006, probably is the top candidate among the incumbent corners. He started 10 games as a rookie but has played in just nine games over the past two seasons because of injuries."

VanRam of Turf Show Times says Holt's departure will hit Rams fans again once the receiver signs with another team. VanRam: "Where could Holt end up? Strangely enough more teams have declared that they're not interested in the former Ram. The Giants and Jets have both declared themselves not interested; Carolina and Minnesota, too. Potential landing spots include Baltimore, Chicago, Tennessee, San Fran and Jacksonville."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com checks in with new passing game coordinator Mike Miller, who is mindful of the relationship Kurt Warner had with former coordinator Todd Haley. Miller: "I'm not trying to have a relationship that he and Todd had or that he and coach [Ken Whisenhunt] have. I am going to be myself, and I want to have the best relationship I can have with Kurt. That said, I think I have a good relationship with Kurt. With the way we do our pass game and how we install in the season, it was the three of us [with Haley], we all exchanged ideas."

Also from Urban: No, Miller wasn't playing video games when Urban snapped a photo of him.

Revenge of the Birds' Andrew602 looks at tight end Brandon Pettigrew as a potential draft choice for the Cardinals. The team could definitely use stability at tight end.

Aaron Weinberg of Next Season Sports explains why Michael Crabtree could be the choice for Seattle with the fourth overall choice. Weinberg: "Draft experts who don't follow the Seahawks might be perplexed by the selection after the Seahawks signed WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh as their new no. 1 receiver. But, at 32 this September, and an aging Deion Branch, 29, Crabtree should help the Seahawks build for the future at a position that hasn't made it to the Pro Bowl in nearly 20 years."

Steve Wyche of NFL.com examines how the Julian Peterson trade could affect the first round of the draft. He also thinks Seattle could consider Crabtree.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Peterson trade was all about the Seahawks gaining flexibility on the field and in the draft. O'Neil: "Redding can't compare to Peterson in terms of popularity around the league. He has never been chosen to a Pro Bowl. Redding doesn't measure up in terms of pass-rush production, either. ... But Redding's arrival adds depth to a defensive line that had become the shallow end of the pool on Seattle's defense. The Seahawks did not re-sign Rocky Bernard and Howard Green in free agency, and while they added nose tackle Colin Cole, he has started only eight games in his NFL career."

Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks' linebacking trio was never able to make Seattle's defense among the best in the league. Brewer: "No matter how many Pro Bowl berths Tatupu and Peterson earned, no matter how physically marvelous Hill was, the defense lacked the balance that great defenses possess. So, as is custom in professional sports, it's time to try something different. On Saturday, that meant saying goodbye to Peterson, a congenial, big-play presence for three seasons."

John Morgan of Field Gulls is giving the Peterson trade a chance even though Seattle lost a potentially "irreplaceable" player. Morgan: "Seattle is stockpiling a specific type of defensive tackle. Players that are quick off the snap, hybrid single-gap/two-gap, that are stout against the run and hustle pass rushers. That type can be as good as Brandon Mebane or as bad as Howard Green. In totality, it should be very good against the run. Seattle almost must be a top 10 rush defense to justify this move."

Chris Sullivan of Seahawk Addicts says Seattle quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor attended Josh Freeman's workout at Kansas State.

Michael Steffes of Seahawk Addicts isn't convinced Aaron Curry makes sense for Seattle in the first round of the draft. Steffes: "I think the Hawks probably would prefer not to take Curry with the No. 4 pick. That would immediately revive the problem of putting too much money into one position. Signing Derrick Brooks to a modest deal to help bridge the gap to Herring or another draft pick is a possibility. The team will probably re-sign D.D. Lewis ASAP to ensure that they can make due in case the draft doesn't shake out the way they want. They will then hope to find a good linebacker in the middle rounds. They didn't take one last year, so they may have been planning this move over a year in advance." Lewis has agreed on a new deal.

How ties can bind in NFL free agency

February, 25, 2009
2/25/09
1:54
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

NFL teams routinely sign players with ties to their organizations. Those ties become more difficult to track this time of year because so many coaches and personnel people have changed teams recently. But we'll make an initial attempt here.

The Bucs' decision to release Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Joey Galloway and Cato June raises questions about the Seahawks' potential interest. Seahawks president Tim Ruskell and vice president Ruston Webster were with the Bucs when the team drafted Brooks and Dunn. New Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was with all four released players last season.

The Raiders' recent moves -- releasing Gibril Wilson, Kalimba Edwards, Ronald Curry, Justin Griffith and Kwame Harris -- raise questions about the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers. Wilson played for new Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo with the Giants.

  • The Rams have quite a bit invested in free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, making it unlikely they would invest heavily in Wilson. But the ties between Spagnuolo and Wilson are still worth mentioning.
  • Harris played for the 49ers before signing with the Raiders. San Francisco is looking to upgrade its depth on the offensive line. The team also needs a starting right tackle. Harris would not be the answer as a starter.
  • Curry played for new Seahawks offensive coordinator Greg Knapp in Oakland last season. The Seahawks will be looking to improve their depth at receiver. I do not know what Knapp thinks of Curry, but he would be familiar with him.

The Panthers' decision to release receiver D.J. Hackett makes available a familiar name for the Seahawks. Seattle appeared lukewarm in retaining Hackett last offseason. The interest might be cooler given changes to the Seahawks' staff. Mike Holmgren and his coaches knew Hackett, but the offense will be different under Knapp.

These are a few connections to keep in mind. Please offer up others if you have them.

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