NFL Nation: 2011 Draft Analysis NFC

NFC West draft analysis

April, 30, 2011
4/30/11
7:54
PM ET
NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With Sam Bradford in place, the St. Louis Rams could sit back during the 2011 NFL draft and watch at least a dozen teams sweat over the available quarterbacks.

Counter to conventional wisdom, the rest of the division followed suit -- despite obvious, immediate and critical needs at the position.

The San Francisco 49ers were the only team in the division to target a potential starting quarterback, but they waited until the second round. Even then, Colin Kaepernick was only the sixth quarterback taken. The 49ers chose Missouri outside linebacker Aldon Smith seventh overall when Jake Locker (eighth to Tennessee), Blaine Gabbert (10th to Jacksonville), Christian Ponder (12th to Minnesota) and Andy Dalton (35th to Cincinnati) were available.

The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks turned their backs on available quarterbacks round after round. The Cardinals took a running back in the second round, a pick no one saw coming. The Seahawks traded out of the second round entirely.

Hey, who needs a quarterback prospect when John Skelton and Charlie Whitehurst are under contract?

Of course, Skelton and Whitehurst might be better than the quarterbacks other teams drafted.

The Cardinals and Seahawks had too many needs to draft sketchy quarterbacks just because they needed players at the position. Everyone knows drafting quarterbacks is a risky proposition. Everyone also knows it's tough to develop a top quarterback without risking an early selection on one, at some point.

The Cardinals, Seahawks and 49ers will take their chances in free agency and/or through the trade market. San Francisco has a longer-term option in Kaepernick. The quarterbacks Arizona and Seattle passed up will have a fair amount to say about whether those teams come out looking good in the end.

BEST MOVE

The Cardinals didn't get cute when they were on the clock at No. 5 and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson was staring at them.

Arizona needed a quarterback and could have taken any of the three passers who came off the board between the eighth and 12th picks. They could have gotten cute and tried to trade back, adding picks to help patch holes elsewhere in the roster.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesPatrick Peterson was considered by some analysts to be the best player in the 2011 draft class.
But in selecting Peterson, the Cardinals landed the player some analysts ranked as the most talented in the draft. Peterson will start right away at cornerback. He should liven up the return game as well. He is the type of prospect teams should select early without reservation.

Arizona's division rivals didn't do much, if anything, to improve immediately at quarterback. They did not add dynamic receivers in the early rounds. The Cardinals should be in position to control opposing passing games to a greater degree. Peterson gives them the potential to field one of the better secondaries in the league, provided Adrian Wilson returns to health and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie bounces back from a down season.

Seattle's big receiver, Mike Williams, caught 22 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown in two victories against Arizona last season. It's a big upset if a secondary featuring Peterson and Rodgers-Cromartie allows that kind of production in the near future.

RISKIEST MOVE

The 49ers passed over the available quarterbacks at No. 7 and selected pass-rush help instead.

Smith might become a good player, but if the available quarterbacks become significantly better than Kaepernick, the 49ers will be vulnerable to criticism.

The 49ers weren't blind to their need at quarterback. They traded up nine spots to select Kaepernick with the 36th overall selection. Second-round quarterbacks have a rough track record in recent seasons. Kaepernick faces a transition period as he adapts from a pistol scheme that doesn't resemble NFL offenses.

The selection of Kaepernick wasn't careless or ill-advised. Far from it. It's just that all quarterbacks carry heightened risk, and the 49ers passed over quarterbacks other teams saw as top-10 values.

The 49ers selected Kaepernick early enough to make him the heir apparent to whichever veteran they acquire, most likely. Kaepernick has the talent to reward the 49ers for the selection, particularly if coach Jim Harbaugh delivers on expectations that he can develop quarterbacks.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Cardinals ran away with this one when they used a second-round choice for Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the Cardinals had Williams ranked 15th on their draft board. They drafted him with the 38th pick.

Taking a cornerback in the first round and a running back in the second meant the Cardinals would not use early choices to target primary needs at quarterback and outside linebacker. Selecting Peterson was easy, but taking a running back in the second round went against expectations.

Arizona already has a crowded backfield with Beanie Wells, Tim Hightower and LaRod Stephens-Howling. Wells has not yet met expectations. Hightower's contract status is in question pending a new labor agreement. Stephens-Howling has emerged as a player Whisenhunt likes to use more and more.

Where will Williams fit?

"I think basically when you talk about [Williams] versus a pass-rusher or other perceived needs, what are you basically talking about?" Whisenhunt said. "Are you talking about getting a very good football player that a lot of people had ranked very high, as opposed to a player that maybe is not as good of a football player? We're looking for players that can help make an impact. That’s what is important to us, and we feel like that’s what Ryan is."

FILE IT AWAY

The 49ers, Seahawks and Rams have all invested heavily in their offensive lines over the last few seasons.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, haven't used higher than a fifth-round pick for an offensive lineman over the last four drafts. Left guard Alan Faneca is nearing the end and could retire. Right guard Deuce Lutui is without a contract for 2011. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off a season-ending injury and still must prove himself as a long-term starter.

Arizona had the oldest offensive line in the NFL last season, including backups.

Meanwhile, the Rams have young bookend tackles in Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith. The 49ers have used first-round picks for left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis. The Seahawks have first-round tackles Russell Okung and James Carpenter, both acquired since Pete Carroll became head coach in 2010.

NFC East draft analysis

April, 30, 2011
4/30/11
7:46
PM ET
NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

To survive in the NFC East, you usually must have the "go-for-it’’ mentality.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder usually goes for it in free agency or trades. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is always willing to go for the home run. The Eagles are consistently aggressive. The Giants have a great flair for personnel.

But NFC East teams were safer, maybe smarter, in the 2011 draft. The Cowboys and Eagles took offensive linemen in the first round. Both were safe, solid picks. The Eagles, in fact, passed up the chance to gamble on Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith, who has off-the-field issues, for the safe selection of Baylor guard Danny Watkins. The Giants drafted to the ratings on their board instead of reaching for players at need positions.

If that wasn’t enough, the Redskins kept trading down and acquiring picks. The NFL may be struggling through the "Year of Living Dangerously" on the labor front, but the NFC East played it safe for three days.

BEST MOVES

The NFC East was starting to become Jurassic Park for offensive linemen. The Redskins and Cowboys let their offensive lines get too old and paid the price. The Giants are on the verge of doing the same. The Cowboys made the best moves, taking Tyron Smith, the 6-5, 307-pound offensive tackle from Southern Cal in the first round, and Missouri State guard David Arkin in the fourth. Smith’s selection was the best. Outsiders thought the Cowboys would jump at the chance to fix last year’s problems at cornerback, but Jones rightfully looked at 2010 as off seasons for talented cornerbacks Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick. Whether Dallas plays Smith at left tackle or right is irrelevant. The Cowboys are younger at tackle with Doug Free, their top priority for re-signing, and Smith. It also helps that offensive line coach Hudson Houck comes from USC and knows how to take young, talented blockers and turn them into stars. Kudos to Jones for not being cute and trading down for more picks.

RISKIEST MOVE

[+] EnlargeJames Brewer
AJ Mast/Icon SMIDid the Giants wait too long to take an offensive tackle by drafting James Brewer in the fourth round?
The New York Giants' decision to wait until the fourth round to take their first offensive line prospect, tackle James Brewer from Indiana, is a big risk. Brewer isn’t a sure bet. He’ll take time. There is no faulting the decision to take cornerback Prince Amukamara in the first round. The Giants, according to sources, liked Colorado offensive tackle Nate Solder, who went two spots before their pick in the first round. They didn’t have grades on offensive tackles Anthony Castonzo and Gabe Carimi that matched the 19th pick. Amukamara was considered a top-11 prospect. In the second round, they got defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who had a low first-round grade. Teams shouldn’t go against their draft boards, but at some point, the Giants need to get an offensive lineman who will start as a rookie. We’ve seen this too often in the NFC East, and now the Giants might have to scramble in the free-agent market for help, and that will be tricky.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Redskins skipped the chance to draft a quarterback even though they are going to move Donovan McNabb and don’t have Rex Grossman signed to a contract. Here’s why: John Beck might be their quarterback in 2011 unless something opens up in free agency or a trade. That’s right, John Beck, the former second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins who is 0-4 as a starter in the NFL. When Beck came into the league in 2007, he was considered a Kurt Warner-type quarterback, but like Warner, he’s already well-traveled. (He's with his third team.) There is a belief in Redskins Park that they don't need to rush into a quarterback as they did last year in making the McNabb trade. Knowing they weren’t drafting a quarterback, the Redskins worked on getting bigger players to fit their 3-4 defense.

FILE IT AWAY

The Redskins made five draft trades that enabled them to increase their number of draft choices from eight to 12, an unusual strategy for a franchise that loves to go for splash and flash. So file away the names of the players acquired and watch whether they become valuable role players or potential starters down the line. Ryan Kerrigan (left outside linebacker) and Jarvis Jenkins (defensive end) could be starters in the 3-4 defense, and third-rounder Leonard Hankerson is an interesting receiving prospect. The key name to file away is halfback Roy Helu from Nebraska, a fourth-round pick whom the Redskins actually traded up to get. The other names to file away are safety Dejon Gomes, wide receiver Niles Paul, running back Evan Royster, wide receiver Aldrick Robinson, cornerback Brandyn Thompson, guard Maurice Hurt, defensive end Markus White and defensive tackle Christopher Neild

NFC North draft analysis

April, 30, 2011
4/30/11
6:30
PM ET
Normally the end of the draft provides an opportunity to reassess the NFC North teams and start assessing the division race. The task of roster building is largely complete. For the most part, we'll know which teams are stacked, which ones have big holes and who should be favored to win the title.

This year's lockout has turned that convention upside down. Draft weekend is a first step, not the last, in building rosters for the 2011 season. At some point, teams will have an opportunity to sign veteran free agents and collect a class of undrafted rookies. So we'll hold off on any prognosticating for now.

Instead, we'll just take this moment to pull some highlights -- and lowlights -- from the past three days:

BEST MOVE

The Minnesota Vikings had their choice of talented, game-changing players available to them when the No. 12 overall pick arrived. Nose tackle Nick Fairley, defensive end Robert Quinn and offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo all would have stepped in as immediate starters at positions where the Vikings needed help.

But in the NFL of 2011, no team is any better than its quarterback. And at that moment, the Vikings didn't have one. After an early run took the top three quarterbacks off the board, the Vikings -- based on their own evaluation -- were left to choose between Florida State's Christian Ponder or the likely prospect of leaving this draft without a quarterback they could build their future around.

They chose the former, a decision that one way or the other will define the tenures of personnel man Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier. There is widespread debate about Ponder's aptitude for future success, but in my view the Vikings are better off moving forward with him than sitting on their hands and hoping that a better option would present itself next month or next year or in 2013.

With Ponder in place, the Vikings can tailor their long-term offensive scheme and personnel to a tangible set of skills. And they have to trust their new coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson, to finish the job by developing and refining Ponder's game.

It wasn't an easy choice, and there are plenty of knowledgeable football people who considered it a reach or worse. But I credit the Vikings for recognizing that the "when" in this equation was just as important as the "who."

RISKIEST MOVE

No one can argue the value that Fairley, receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure will bring the Detroit Lions. But the Lions wrapped up an otherwise successful draft with the same roster holes they started it in. They didn't draft a cornerback and selected only one linebacker, Syracuse's Douglas Hogue, a converted running back, with the No. 157 overall pick.

General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz have both preached patience, saying their only goal in the draft was to enhance the talent of their roster. "There's a lot of time between now and when the season begins to worry about our needs," Schwartz told Detroit-area reporters.

The Lions made three great picks at the top of the draft. The risk, however, is that in doing so they considerably narrowed their options to fill their other needs. They'll now have to recruit another team's discards through free agency and/or a trade, or they'll have to hope one of the players on their roster makes a significant jump during a lockout that has thus far canceled all team-sponsored offseason programs.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeGabe Carimi
Patrick Green/Icon SMIDespite botching a trade with Baltimore, Chicago was still able to draft Gabe Carimi in the first round.
We spent plenty of time discussing the Chicago Bears good fortune Thursday night, when they were able to draft Wisconsin offensive lineman Gabe Carimi with the No. 29 overall pick even after botching a trade designed to secure him three picks earlier. But the episode revealed a mistake perhaps bigger than the Bears' failure to report the deal.

The trade wasn't necessary in the first place.

The Bears' "glitch," as general manager Jerry Angelo later referred to it, saved them from wasting a fourth-round pick. It saved them from themselves.

Why were the Bears trying to acquire the Baltimore Ravens' No. 26 overall pick? They were convinced that the Kansas City Chiefs planned to draft Carimi at No. 27. But as we saw, the Chiefs had no such plans. With Carimi on the board, the Chiefs surprised most everyone -- including the Bears -- by leap-frogging the Ravens to draft ... Pittsburgh receiver Jonathan Baldwin.

The Ravens followed by drafting Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith and the New Orleans Saints traded up to select Alabama running back Mark Ingram at No. 28. That left Carimi for the Bears at No. 29.

I'm sure it wouldn't have been the first time a team traded up, and surrendered a second pick, on the false premise of another team's interest. But in the chaos of the moment, I'm sure the Bears were as surprised as anyone that Carimi was available at No. 29.

FILE IT AWAY

Some considered outside linebacker the Green Bay Packers' biggest need entering the draft, but they didn't draft a linebacker of any type until selecting Appalachian State's D.J. Smith near the end of the sixth round (No. 186 overall). The Packers drafted Arizona linebacker Ricky Elmore 11 spots later, but I'm not sure we can project either as a possible starter.

We all know it's unlikely that general manager Ted Thompson will seek a starter via free agency, so the Packers most likely will need to find a starting right outside linebacker from an internal list of candidates. Speaking to Wisconsin reporters Saturday, defensive coordinator Dom Capers spoke highly of incumbent Frank Zombo.

"Frank Zombo played close to 600 snaps for us," Capers said, via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We have an awful lot more confidence in Frank than we did a year ago. He's another guy that got better as the season went on. I think he'll be head and shoulders where he was a year ago. I think we'll have good competition."

NFC South draft analysis

April, 30, 2011
4/30/11
5:00
PM ET
NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

As three division teams were winning 10 or more games last season, we often discussed the possibility that the NFC South is the best division in the NFL. That topic is always going to be open for debate.

But here’s one thing I think we can say with certainty. The NFC South had a more exciting and interesting 2011 draft than any other division. From the Carolina Panthers' decision to take Cam “Mr. Love Him or Hate Him" Newton to the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints making big trades to get Julio Jones and Mark Ingram to Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers tumbling to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second round, this draft was filled with huge storylines and intrigue all around the division.

Let’s take a look at the highlights of the NFC South draft:

BEST MOVE

The Saints played it safe with their first-round pick and took defensive end Cameron Jordan. That filled a big need that could become bigger if Will Smith eventually has to serve the four-game suspension that has been hung up in the legal system for a couple of years. But what the Saints did next was the real key to their draft.

They traded back into the first round to take Ingram. The cost was steep. The Saints gave up their second-round pick this year and their first-round choice in 2012. But next year’s first-round pick could be deep in the 20s or 30s if things work out the way the Saints envision.

They already had a trio of role-playing running backs in Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. Each of those players has certain things he can do well, but none of them is really a complete back. There also are durability concerns because all three were hurt at different parts of the past season, and the Saints ran out of running backs in their playoff loss to Seattle.

Ingram is a do-it-all back and history has shown that, unlike rookie quarterbacks and wide receivers, first-year running backs usually can step right in and make an impact from the start. Ingram already is drawing comparisons to former New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister, and I don’t disagree at all.

RISKIEST MOVE

Although I knew for about a month that the Panthers were pretty much set on Newton, I had my doubts that general manager Marty Hurney actually would pull the trigger when it came right down to it. Hurney and the Panthers have a long history of playing it safe and have taken the conservative approach for the past decade.

There’s nothing conservative about choosing Newton. He’s the classic boom-or-bust prospect. There were character and background questions, but the Panthers looked into that and didn’t see anything that made them back off Newton. There also are questions about Newton being able to adapt to an NFL offense after playing only one year at Auburn in an offense that’s nothing close to a pro-style scheme.

Even the Panthers aren’t sure how Newton will adjust to the pro game. But they’re so sold on the athletic ability and Newton’s upside that they were willing to step totally out of character and take a leap. If Newton is what the Panthers hope, they’ll be able to compete again in the NFC South. If not, this is the kind of move that can get a general manager, who survived a 2-14 season, fired a few years down the road.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesJulio Jones had 2,653 yards on 179 catches with 15 touchdowns in three seasons at Alabama.
The rumors started flying a few days before the draft that the Falcons were looking to jump into the top 10 and get a receiver. But most people, myself included, kind of dismissed that notion because moving that far up from No. 27 would be too expensive.

The cost was incredibly high, but the Falcons did it because they wanted an explosive receiver like Jones. They gave up their first-round pick this year, along with their second- and fourth-round picks. They also had to include their first- and fourth-round picks in 2012. That got them to No. 6, where they gladly took Jones.

The stunner here was the cost. But it appears the Falcons are going for broke, which isn’t a bad move when you’re coming off a 13-3 season. Atlanta added Jones to a passing attack with Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Matt Ryan, and Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas as role players. By the way, the Falcons also traded up in the fifth round for Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers. He’s the kind of speed back the Falcons need to pair with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling. I don’t see how this offense can add much more to get better.

Go out and get a pass-rushing defensive end in free agency, and the Falcons truly could be a Super Bowl contender.

FILE IT AWAY

Of all the later-round picks, I think Tampa Bay’s selection of Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker (the Bucs traded up to get him in the fourth round) is the one that could have the most impact. On the surface, the Bucs have a very good tight end in Kellen Winslow. He’s got knee issues, and the Bucs do a nice job of resting him most of the week and getting him on the field on Sundays. But there’s not a lot of depth behind him.

Jerramy Stevens was released last season after his latest off-field incident, and role player John Gilmore probably will depart as a free agent. That means Stocker has a chance to get some playing time pretty quickly. He’s not the receiving threat Winslow is, but Stocker can catch some passes. More important, he’s a strong blocker.

His presence should allow the Bucs to pick and choose their spots for putting Winslow on the field. Stocker can handle some of the obvious running downs and could even prompt the Bucs to use more two-tight end sets, which could add another dimension to the passing game for Josh Freeman.

More than anything, Stocker provides a nice insurance policy in case Winslow’s knees really flare up. He’s a guy who can do a little bit of everything that a tight end should. Yes, the early part of this draft was about defense and that was the correct move for the Bucs. But this franchise is built around Freeman, and this is another example of the Bucs doing everything they can to make sure their young quarterback has a strong supporting cast.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFL SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 10/23
Sunday, 10/26
Monday, 10/27
WEEKLY LEADERS