NFL Nation: 2012 Draft Analysis

AFC South draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
8:12
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Despite talk of grabbing the best player available, it’s funny how often needs and picks seem to line up.

Of 31 picks, I count four that don’t technically qualify as addressing needs: Jaguars fifth-round linebacker Brandon Marshall, Titans fifth-round tight end Taylor Thompson, Jaguars sixth-round cornerback Mike Harris and Colts seventh-round quarterback Chandler Harnish.

We saw the Texans replenish at outside linebacker, on the offensive line and at kicker and add to their options at receiver. The Colts loaded up on help for No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck -- seven of their other nine picks bring offensive players to Indianapolis . Jacksonville addressed its big needs right out of the chute, then made a couple of odd selections. Tennessee didn’t take two players at the same position.

BEST MOVE

[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon
Al Bello/Getty ImagesJustin Blackmon is the premier playmaker the Jaguars' offense sorely needed.
The Jaguars came into the offseason in dire need of upgraded weaponry for Blaine Gabbert. They started last season with wide receiver Jason Hill as a starter, and he was cut before the season ended. Mike Thomas was miscast as a top-of-the-group guy when he should be a No. 3. Cecil Shorts showed he needs a lot of time to develop.

Mike Mularkey hired a solid receiver coach, Jerry Sullivan. He’s a tremendous upgrade from Johnny Cox, who was quickly fired after Jack Del Rio was dismissed during the 2011 season. Free agency brought Laurent Robinson, who should help, and Lee Evans, who’d be gravy if he can revive his career.

The Jaguars successfully sold pundits on the idea they’d be trading down, then only gave up a fourth-rounder to move up from No. 7 to No. 5 to draft Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon. He’s a dynamic receiver who can catch balls outside his frame and cause matchup problems.

Outside of Luck, no team in the division got a player who can cure an ill better than Blackmon can fix what ails the Jacksonville offense. Now it’s on Gabbert to show he can effectively get the ball to the new star receiver.

RISKIEST MOVE

The Titans didn’t touch a defensive end until Scott Solomon in the seventh round, and they didn’t add an offensive lineman at all. And pass rush and run blocking were two areas that qualified as weaknesses at the end of last season.

Tennessee hosted Scott Wells, Chris Myers, Jeff Saturday and Dan Koppen and saw all four sign elsewhere. On Saturday, coach Mike Munchak made those meetings sound like information-gathering get-togethers rather than courtships, a stance that’s pretty insulting to veterans who wouldn’t waste time making visits without the possibility of a contract.

The defense of incumbent starters on the interior -- Eugene Amano and Leroy Harris -- has entered a new round now. Munchak said the team felt no “dire need there” and that “we have guys we can win with.” Still, watch for a key undrafted addition or free agent or two.

The Titans added one big piece this offseason to its insufficient pass rush in the form of free-agent end Kamerion Wimbley, who was a cap casualty in Oakland. He may provide a big boost but also probably shouldn’t be on the field for every play. Tennessee’s only attempt to bolster itself on the edges came with the 211th pick, end Scott Solomon from Rice.

The Titans face a pretty good slate of quarterbacks this season. Those passers may have a lot of time to throw.

MOST SURPRISING PICK

We hit it hard Saturday night, but the Jaguars' selection of Bryan Anger in the third round was a baffler. Yes, the team will benefit from a big leg and stands to gain field position.

But Jacksonville overrated special teams’ impact by deciding to draft Anger so early rather than addressing other needs where it could have selected a player with a chance to play.

The Jaguars have a recent history of messing up at the position, and teams that struggle with stability at a spot are prone to overreach in an effort to correct it.

I believe that’s a good piece of what happened here. They could have gotten him or a punter who still would have been a big upgrade later.

The Jaguars found Terrance Knighton, Derek Cox and Will Rackley in the third round in Gene Smith’s previous three drafts. They are all starters who affect games more than a punter can.

They can rationalize this pick. And we can stridently disagree.

FILE IT AWAY

Six receivers came into the division -- Blackmon, Kendall Wright in Tennessee, T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill in Indianapolis and DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin in Houston. That’s two first-rounders, two third-rounders, a fourth-rounder and a sixth-rounder.

The countermeasures?

Just two incoming cornerbacks -- Titans fourth-rounder Coty Sensabaugh and Jaguars sixth-rounder Harris.

Secondary depth could be severely tested by good quarterbacks and receivers, especially when the division faces the NFC North and the high-powered passing offenses of Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago.

The Colts have no proven corners beyond Jerraud Powers. The Texans lost Jason Allen, who played a reasonable amount. The Titans need to unearth a new nickelback now that Cortland Finnegan is gone. Only the Jaguars have fortified the spot, adding two-time Super Bowl winner Aaron Ross, presumably getting Cox and Rashean Mathis back healthy and drafting Harris.

The AFC South is a big running back division, but it’s become more equipped to sling it and may not have the people needed to cover offenses with a lot of downfield weapons.

“It tells you that this is a wide-open league, the offensive focus is on scoring points probably more than ever,” Titans general manager Ruston Webster said. “It’s becoming more of a quarterback-wide receiver league probably every day.”

AFC North draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
7:12
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The AFC North continued its momentum from last season, when it was the only division to send three teams to the playoffs. Each team made significant upgrades by sticking to a plan. Of course, some executed better than others.

The Cleveland Browns used their first three picks on an offense that ranked 30th in scoring last season. The Cincinnati Bengals took three defensive players in the first three rounds. The Baltimore Ravens addressed their two biggest needs by using three of their first four picks on outside linebacker and offensive line. And the Steelers grabbed two starters on the offensive line with their first two picks.

Let's break down the draft decisions made within the division over the past three days:

BEST MOVE

Few teams manipulate the draft like the Baltimore Ravens. You have to applaud how the Ravens got a first-round talent in Alabama outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw when they were the only team in division not to draft in the first round. It wasn't just the best move in the AFC North. It was among the biggest steals of the draft.

Baltimore traded the 29th overall pick to the Minnesota Vikings for an additional pick in the fourth round (which was used on Delaware's Gino Gradkowski, their center of the future) and still got its targeted player -- Upshaw -- despite dropping back six spots.

Upshaw was once considered a top-10 pick, but he slid down draft boards after struggling at the Senior Bowl and sitting out NFL combine drills because of tendinitis in his knee. His high motor and bulldog mentality make him a perfect fit in Baltimore's traditionally tough defense.

"When you talk about Courtney, there still is a game we call football and Courtney is a football player," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "I'm sure if you would have asked us back in October, November if Courtney would make it to the third pick in the second round, everybody would have said, 'Probably not.' "

Upshaw's impact will be felt in two areas. He should take over the thankless job of setting the edge against the run that has long been handled by Jarret Johnson, who signed with San Diego in free agency. In passing situations, Upshaw will team with Terrell Suggs to give the Ravens their best edge rushers since they had Suggs and Peter Boulware.

RISKIEST MOVE

The Browns removed all the risk early in the first round, when they traded three picks to guarantee they would get running back Trent Richardson. Then, Cleveland turned around and took a major gamble later in the first round, selecting Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden with the 22nd overall pick.

This isn't the riskiest move that the Browns could have made at quarterback in this draft. Cleveland did pass on Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill in the top five. But taking a 28-year-old rookie quarterback ignited a lot of second-guessing. Cleveland had the chance to take Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff or Stanford guard David DeCastro at No. 22, or could have traded back into the second round to get Weeden. He has the physical tools and maturity to become a starter in the NFL. But taking him that high in the draft was a reach.

[+] EnlargeOklahoma State's Brandon Weeden
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiBrandon Weeden would already be the second-oldest starter in the AFC North.
The one certainty is that Weeden upgrades the Browns' quarterback position. He has a much stronger arm than Colt McCoy and is far more accurate. But there's more pressure when you take a quarterback in the first round, and the clock is already ticking considering Weeden would already be the second-oldest starter in the division.

Cleveland played it safe for the rest of the draft, taking three players who were four-year starters (offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, linebacker James-Michael Johnson and guard Ryan Miller).

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

It was no surprise that the Steelers had the best draft in the AFC North. There was one move, however, that inspired a double take -- drafting Ohio State offensive tackle Mike Adams in the second round.

The Steelers don't usually take players with character issues and have little patience with behavioral problems on the team (see: Santonio Holmes). General manager Kevin Colbert acknowledged that Adams was off Pittsburgh's board after he failed a drug test at the NFL combine and the reportedly lied to the team. The Steelers only considered him again after Adams met some stipulations, which included counseling.

Although Adams has the look of a prototypical left tackle, his issues caused him to slip to the 56th overall pick. He is the biggest question mark in a strong draft for the Steelers. Pittsburgh landed the best guard in the draft (David DeCastro), a future starting nose tackle (Alameda Ta'Amu) and an electric playmaking running back (Chris Rainey). Perhaps that's the reason why the Steelers thought they could take such a chance on Adams.

FILE IT AWAY

The only position of need the Cincinnati Bengals ignored in free agency was wide receiver. And the Bengals passed on taking a wide receiver early despite three picks in the first two rounds.

Cincinnati let two of its top three receivers leave in free agency (Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell). Now that the draft is over, it still has not answered the question of who will be its No. 2 wide receiver. It's uncertain whether the two wide receivers drafted by the Bengals -- Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu in the third round and California's Marvin Jones in the fifth round -- will contribute immediately. Sanu is more known for being the player that got a prank call about getting picked by the Bengals in the first round before getting drafted by Cincinnati a day later.

The Bengals had been linked to Baylor's Kendall Wright and Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill, but they chose cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and guard Kevin Zeitler in the first round instead. Cincinnati has one of the best young wide receivers in the NFL in A.J. Green and a productive tight end in Jermaine Gresham. At this point, even Andy Dalton has to wonder who the third option in the passing game will be.

AFC East draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
7:11
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The AFC East struggled mightily last year. Only the New England Patriots finished with a winning record. The New York Jets (8-8), Miami Dolphins (6-10) and Buffalo Bills (6-10) are all playing catch up this season.

The draft is the best way for the Jets, Dolphins and Bills to close the gap with the reigning AFC champs. It's also an opportunity for New England to get better, particularly on defense, in order to make another Super Bowl run.

Here are the highlights of the AFC East draft:

BEST MOVE

The best move was actually a series of moves by the Patriots. It was clear New England needed defensive help. The Patriots' defense was ranked 31st overall, and it was an issue on the final drive of the Super Bowl.

New England drafted six straight defensive players. Defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, both first-rounder, have a chance to make an immediate impact. New England moved up twice in the first round to pick Jones and Hightower.

"I felt like we got good value for them," coach Bill Belichick said. "[We] took Dont'a and Chandler, probably could have been in either order. But we felt like we would have a better chance to end up with both players if it went that way, not that we were sure we would get the second one, but we thought we might have a shot at it. Looking forward to working with both guys."

New England also took pass-rushing defensive end Jake Bequette in the third round. He could be a sleeper. The Patriots made one curious pick on defense in the second round that we will get to later.

The Patriots did a good job overall, but an individual move I really like is Miami's pick of former Stanford offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. I had the chance to watch Stanford several times, and I was really impressed. He moves well, has a good frame and is intelligent.

"He's used to playing with a very demanding quarterback with Andrew (Luck), and they trusted him to protect Andrew for three years," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said of Martin. "We're very happy with the pick."

Martin has to move from left tackle to right tackle, because Pro Bowler Jake Long is on Miami's roster. But that's an easier transition to make than going from right to left tackle.

The Buffalo Bills also made some solid picks, particularly first-round corner Stephon Gilmore and second-round offensive tackle Cordy Glenn. Buffalo had a safe draft that should help the team immediately next season.

RISKIEST MOVE

The New York Jets entered the offseason with a lot of questions. Can they fix their locker room issues? Can they handle the Tim Tebow phenomenon?

Instead of going safe, the Jets continued to roll the dice by taking risky prospects with their top two picks: defensive end Quinton Coples and receiver Stephen Hill. Both are boom-or-bust prospects the Jets plan to rely on next season.

New York needs help rushing the passer and hope Coples can provide it. He has all the physical tools, but there are big questions about his motivation. The Jets also need a big-play receiver, and Hill could be that player. He has all the measurables but wasn’t productive at Georgia Tech, which ran a triple-option offense. Hill caught just 28 passes last season but averaged an astounding 29.3 yards per reception.

"I feel great. Especially now, I'm in more of an offense where I can catch the ball a little bit more," Hill said. "And you know, catching the ball from [quarterback] Mark Sanchez is great. I'm going to make sure I get with him as soon as possible and we both try to get this roll on."

Both players have the potential to start as soon as next season.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeTavon Wilson
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMINew England surprised some by selecting Illinois defensive back Tavon Wilson in the second round.
Belichick has some explaining to do. The Patriots took a player in the second round who wasn’t invited to the NFL combine or any pre-draft all-star games.

Patriots second-round pick Tavon Wilson caught everyone completely by surprise. The defensive back wasn’t on anyone’s radar, especially in the second round. But New England liked him enough to take Wilson No. 48 overall.

"He played plenty. You can see him plenty at Illinois," Belichick said. "You can see him against whoever you want to see him against: All the Big Ten schools, Arizona State, teams that throw the ball. He’s playing corner, he’s playing safety, he’s playing the inside positions, the nickel position, the dime position."

Belichick is known to go off the radar in the draft at times. He continues to defend the Wilson pick.

"Similar situation with [Sebastian] Vollmer a couple of years ago. We drafted guys -- I think one year, didn't we draft like three of four guys that were non-combine guys?" Belichick said. "Some guys play in all-star games, some guys don't. I don't know who picks all those all-star teams. In all honesty, I don't know who picks the combine for that matter."

New England needs immediate help in the secondary. Wilson has experience in college at cornerback and safety and will get a chance to show what he can do in New England.

FILE IT AWAY

This is the perfect category for Miami first-round selection and rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. You can probably file this pick away until 2013.

Tannehill will begin the season third on Miami's depth chart behind incumbent starter Matt Moore and free-agent signing David Garrard. The odds that the rookie will jump two veteran quarterbacks before Week 1 are long. But Tannehill isn't resigning himself to holding a clipboard.

"I'm a football player and I'm a competitor," Tannehill said Saturday. "I want to be on the field and I want to compete. But I also realize that I'm coming in and there's veteran quarterbacks on this team that I can learn from."

The race for the No. 2 quarterback in the AFC East behind Tom Brady is wide open. Tannehill has the potential to fill that void in two or three years. But the Dolphins have to do the right things to nurture the young quarterback, despite very high expectations.

Tannehill is the first quarterback taken in the first round by Miami since Hall of Famer Dan Marino in 1983.

"I didn't take him as the eighth pick in the draft to be a backup quarterback," Ireland said. "I picked him to be a starting quarterback in this league at some point, to have an impact on this football team, to help us win football games and championships. That's the expectation that I have going down the line."

NFC East draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
6:57
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The only NFC East team that didn't trade up in the first round is the one that just won the Super Bowl. That gives you a sense of how hungry the division's other three teams are to catch the New York Giants and take their shot at the Lombardi Trophy they were holding up in Indianapolis a few months ago.

The Washington Redskins made their trade-up a month early, dealing away three first-round picks and this year's second-rounder in order to secure the man they believe will be their franchise quarterback. The Dallas Cowboys made theirs Thursday night, when they decided it was worth spending their first- and second-round picks this year to secure the best defensive player in the draft. And the Eagles made theirs a short time later, when the defensive tackle they wanted, Fletcher Cox, fell further than they expected him to fall and the price to move up and get him became reasonable.

But after the top half of the first round, the NFC East teams' drafts went very different ways. The Cowboys, in need of 2012 help at various places on the roster, oddly began picking project players and unknown safeties. The Redskins made some head-scratchers in the middle rounds before getting workmanlike about their offensive line late. And the Eagles had one of those drafts where everything seemed to be falling their way. Time will tell, of course, and there's no way right now to know how any of these players will perform. But here are some thoughts on how it looks in the very early post-draft light.

BEST MOVE

[+] EnlargeFletcher Cox
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireThe Eagles were able to move up to get their target, Fletcher Cox, without surrendering high draft picks.
Washington's trade to get quarterback Robert Griffin III and Dallas' trade to get Morris Claiborne were the headline-grabbers, and I believe that each team will be happy with its first-round pick. But the four high picks the Redskins gave up and the two high picks the Cowboys gave up keep me from labeling either of these the division's "best move" from this year's draft. Washington doesn't have another first-rounder until 2015. And Dallas, which needed help at multiple positions, spent its first two picks on a position they'd already addressed at great cost in free agency. Not enough value in either deal for it to be called a shrewd move.

So I'm giving this to the Eagles' deal to move up and get Cox. Philadelphia arrived at the draft Thursday convinced Cox was the player they wanted, and they believed they might have to move up to No. 6 or 7 to get him. To do that, they likely would have had to surrender at least one of their second-round picks, and they didn't want to pay either of those or their third. Once Cox fell to No. 12, the Eagles were able to move up by surrendering their first-rounder, a fourth-rounder and a seventh-rounder, securing the player they felt was their top target without giving up the picks they wanted to preserve. So while, yes, of course, I consider Griffin and Claiborne better players, I think the Eagles made the best first-round move of any NFC East team -- getting a player who can make a difference for them in the short-term as well as the long-term without handicapping themselves for the draft's second night.

On Friday, the Eagles converted their two second-round picks into a speedy outside linebacker (Mychal Kendricks) and a pass-rushing defensive end (Vinny Curry) and took the quarterback prospect they wanted (Nick Foles) in the third round. That Day 2 haul, compared with what the Cowboys and Redskins were able to get with their Day 2 picks, is what made the Eagles' trade-up the best overall move of the draft in the NFC East.

RISKIEST MOVE

This is a close contest between the two moves that lost out in the first category. It'd be easy to say Griffin, because he cost so much more. But I'm giving this to the Cowboys' trade-up to get Claiborne. It's a tough call, because I think Claiborne may be the best player any NFC East team got in this draft (barely, if at all, ahead of Griffin) and he cost less than Griffin did. But I'm basing this call on the circumstances specific to each team.

The Redskins are taking a big risk, sure, by picking a kid to be their franchise quarterback and telling him they don't have a first-round pick in either of the next two years with which to build around him. But the Redskins had no choice. Their need for Griffin was overwhelming, and they were right to let it overwhelm their priority list for this draft and the next two. Washington hasn't had a franchise quarterback in 20 years, and once they were convinced Griffin could be one, this was a risk worth taking for them.

I do not think, however, that Dallas' need for Claiborne was nearly as great as Washington's need for Griffin. Yes, the Cowboys' secondary was the obvious weak spot of their team last year -- the main reason they fell one game short of the Giants in the division race. But they'd already spent their big free-agent bucks on Brandon Carr and had Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick at cornerback. Does Claiborne have a good chance to be better than any of them? Yes. Could that happen as early as this year? You betcha. But with needs at safety, linebacker, defensive line and offensive line, the Cowboys should have conserved their picks to address multiple needs. They weren't one great cornerback away from being a championship team in 2012, and by trading their top two picks for Claiborne, and then picking project players and reaches the rest of the way, they decided to operate as though that were the case. It's a big risk, and if lingering weaknesses at those other spots do them in this season, they could regret it.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

Without a doubt, it was the Redskins' selection of Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins with the seventh pick of the fourth round Saturday. It was Washington's third pick of the draft and the second that had been used on a quarterback. Their reasoning is that quarterback is a vitally important position at which it's impossible to be too deep, and as long as they make it clear to the players involved and to their fan base that Griffin is the starter and Cousins is the backup, it can work. They can develop Cousins in the backup role, have a player they like in reserve in case Griffin gets hurt and perhaps eventually trade him for something of great value in a league in which quarterbacks are the most prized commodities.

FILE IT AWAY

Nobody in this division does the draft better than the Giants, and it'll be worth remembering that the wide receiver (LSU's Rueben Randle) they picked at the end of the second round was a player they considered taking at the end of the first. Randle is a dynamic talent who now gets a chance to develop behind brilliant and selfless starting wideouts Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz and with the help of quarterback Eli Manning, who has an outstanding record of getting the best out of his receiving targets. Randle could not have been drafted into a better spot for his own development, and he could potentially be an immediate asset for the Giants in the passing game, because he can play the outside spot vacated by free-agent defector Mario Manningham and allow Cruz to stay in the slot position from which he exploded onto the scene in 2011. The Giants managed to combine need picks and value picks at almost every turn in this draft, and their second-rounder may turn out to be their biggest prize.

NFC North draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
6:51
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The 2012 NFL draft is in the books. Our silly little arguments on left tackles and injured receivers seem so long ago. Oh, the memories….

In a few years, we'll be able to evaluate this draft with a measure of accuracy. For now, let's just consider some immediate highlights and lowlights.

BEST MOVE

The Green Bay Packers fielded arguably the best offense in franchise history last season. Their defense, on the other hand, allowed more passing yards (4,796) than any NFL team that has ever played. So let's award the "Best Move" title to the Packers' decision to deeply supplement their defensive personnel in this draft.

The Packers selected six consecutive defensive players to open this affair, the result of unprecedented maneuvering by general manager Ted Thompson -- who traded up as many times in this draft (three) as he had in his six previous drafts combined. Speaking to reporters in Green Bay, Thompson joked that he is "ashamed" and it was "pathetic" to have given up three of his 11 picks in those trade-ups, but to me that spoke to how seriously the Packers took their defensive slide last season.

Thompson insisted that there was "no intent to do it that way," but that would make for one heck of a coincidence, wouldn't it? Regardless of why it happened, the Packers came away with a pair of pass-rushers/disruptors in linebacker Nick Perry (No. 28 overall) and defensive lineman Jerel Worthy (No. 51) and two defensive backs -- cornerback Casey Hayward (No. 62) and safety Jerron McMillian (No. 133) -- who will have opportunities to compete for immediate playing time.

Worthy, Hayward and linebacker Terrell Manning (No. 163) were the three players Thompson traded up for, giving you an idea of how strongly he must have felt about them. Will this group stabilize the Packers' defense in 2012? It's impossible to predict individual performances, but generally speaking I'll go with this theory: The more the merrier.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeRyan Broyles
AP Photo/Alonzo J. AdamsDespite depth at the position and an injury history, the Detroit Lions drafted Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles.
The Detroit Lions had already used their first-round pick on a future need, Iowa tackle Riley Reiff, when they grabbed Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles in the second round. Not only did the Lions already have a deep set of pass catchers, but Broyles is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last November.

So yes, it was initially surprising to see a match between the Lions and Broyles, even though it was easy to understand how the Lions made the decision. As we discussed at the time, the Lions follow their board in as tightly wrapped-up of a vacuum as any team in the NFL. Although they had significant need at cornerback and safety, they had Broyles rated higher and that was that.

Hopefully, those of you who were angry and didn't buy that explanation were assuaged by the latter stages of the Lions' draft. They chose three cornerbacks -- Louisiana-Lafayette's Dwight Bentley at No. 85, Albion's Chris Greenwood at No. 148 and New Mexico State's Jonte Green at No. 196 -- over their next five selections and finished with six consecutive defensive picks overall.

RISKIEST MOVE

The riskiest move in this draft was one that actually didn't happen. The Chicago Bears did nothing to address their personnel along the offensive line, first in free agency and now the draft.

It's true that a pair of 2011 starters who suffered season-ending injuries, tackle Gabe Carimi and guard Chris Williams, will return in 2012. And the promotion of Mike Tice to offensive coordinator should provide linemen with more help and less one-on-one responsibility than they had in the previous two seasons.

But the bottom line is the Bears have been forced to undergo multiple rounds of midseason patchwork in each of the past two seasons to lessen the punishment on quarterback Jay Cutler. When coach Lovie Smith said last month that he was confident in his current lineup, many of us wondered if he was just covering the Bears' draft plans.

He wasn't, which means the Bears are setting themselves up for another choppy season of personnel changes if their confidence proves unfounded.

FILE IT AWAY

We noted before the draft that the NFC North stood on the precipice of transition from the Black and Blue to the Air and Space division. You could make an argument that all four NFC North teams had a need at running back, especially the Packers and Lions. But as the NFL continues to move toward the passing game, it was reasonable to wonder whether anyone would act on those needs.

They did not. In fact, not a single running back was drafted in this division through the first six rounds. The Packers declined to take one in spite of a thin backfield led by injury-prone James Starks. The Lions, meanwhile, didn't deem it necessary despite the questionable health histories of Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure and Kevin Smith.

Message sent, huh?

NFC West draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
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The shift in NFL disciplinary emphasis from off-field behavior to on-field safety should serve the NFC West well over the coming months.

The division took calculated gambles early and often in the 2012 NFL draft, selecting players with rap sheets as varied as the players' on-field skill sets.

But player safety is trumping player behavior as the prevailing NFL issue these days, and NFC West teams aren't likely to draw much scrutiny for their decisions, at least initially.

Five of the first 10 players NFC West teams selected had, at various times, faced accusations relating to drunken driving (Michael Floyd), robbery (Bruce Irvin), marijuana possession (Janoris Jenkins), attempted strangulation (LaMichael James) and resisting arrest (Trumaine Johnson).

They were not all charged nor convicted. They are not necessarily bad guys, of course. But each carried red flags into the evaluation process. Each represents a heightened risk for his new NFC West team.

What's going on here?

A theory: Pete Carroll, Jeff Fisher and Jim Harbaugh, in particular, are three of the higher-profile, more highly paid coaches in the NFL. Higher-paid coaches tend to have more power (Carroll and Fisher demanded personnel influence as a condition of employment). Coaches also tend to listen to their assistants. They might be more apt to take chances, confident in their ability to manage players.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, also well-compensated and facing a pivotal year at quarterback, has made it clear that he's a believer in drafting with character in mind. He also might need to win his bet on Kevin Kolb, perhaps one reason the Cardinals, having done their homework on Floyd, took the first calculated gamble among NFC West teams.

Arizona made Floyd the second receiver drafted, taking him at No. 13. Irvin went to Seattle two spots later, followed by Jenkins to St. Louis (39th), James to San Francisco (61st) and Johnson to the Rams (65th).

BEST MOVE

The Rams' pre-draft move to trade back four spots from the second overall pick set up their next three drafts, beginning with this one.

[+] EnlargeJanoris Jenkins
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesManuevering for additional picks meant the St. Louis Rams could take a chance on defensive back Janoris Jenkins.
Moving back again from sixth to 14th overall brought a 2012 second-rounder in return, leaving the Rams with six of the first 96 overall selections -- the most for any team in recent seasons (New England had six of the first 97 picks in the 2009 draft).

With three second-round choices this year, the Rams felt comfortable taking a chance on Jenkins, a player widely regarded as a first-round talent. Jenkins might have the ability to make this draft for the Rams, but taking him at No. 39 and amid so many other early selections insulated the team from undue risk.

The Rams move forward with four first-round selections over the next two drafts. They're in position to get better the right way through the draft.

RISKIEST MOVE

There were a few candidates for consideration, including the Cardinals' decision to draft a wide receiver instead of an offensive tackle at No. 13.

But Irvin's selection with the 15th overall choice stands out given his background, one-dimensional nature and the surprise factor associated with his selection.

Irvin dropped out of high school, lived on the streets for two years, was arrested on robbery charges and more recently was charged with disorderly conduct. His life and career have been trending in the right direction for a few years, but with so few analysts projecting Irvin for the first round, the Seahawks can expect louder than usual criticism if Irvin fails to develop.

Seattle could have drafted Fletcher Cox, Quinton Coples, Michael Brockers, Melvin Ingram or Chandler Jones among the defensive players available when the Seahawks were scheduled to select with the 12th overall choice. They traded back and took Irvin after Philadelphia took Cox at No. 12 and St. Louis took Brockers at No. 14.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

We could double up on Irvin in this space, but the 49ers deserve a mention as well.

They made Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins a surprise selection with the 27th overall choice. Analysts knew San Francisco might consider a receiver in the first round, but if any of them projected Jenkins as a possibility in that slot, that would be news to me.

Personnel people I've spoken with said they liked Jenkins. The Rams reportedly had him ranked not far behind Justin Blackmon, the first receiver selected.

Receivers Stephen Hill, Alshon Jeffery and Rueben Randle drew more mention before the draft. All were available when the 49ers selected Jenkins, as were Brian Quick and Ryan Broyles, all taken in the second round. The 49ers will get an up-close look at Quick, drafted by the Rams. But Jenkins was the player they wanted.

FILE IT AWAY

The quarterback situations in Seattle and Arizona have become more competitive.

The Seahawks used a third-round choice for Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, a strong-armed quarterback with fantastic intangibles. Concerns over Wilson's 5-foot-11 height knocked him down draft boards, but a third-round pedigree in Seattle should put Seahawks quarterbacks Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson and Justin Portis on notice.

Arizona used a sixth-round choice for San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley. The Cardinals have shown a willingness to let less-heralded quarterbacks compete for playing time. John Skelton and Max Hall over the last couple seasons come to mind. With Kolb and John Skelton battling for the starting job, Lindley arrives as a potential alternative for the future.

The 49ers did not head into this draft needing to draft a quarterback, but this is a good time to recall the move they made to acquire Colin Kaepernick in the second round a year ago. Alex Smith is the incumbent starter, but his contract gives the 49ers an easy out after one or two seasons.

NFC South draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The 2012 NFL draft won’t be remembered as the flashiest in NFC South history. That honor belongs to the 2011 draft -- probably forever.

It’s tough to top a draft in which quarterback Cam Newton went No. 1 to Carolina, Atlanta traded up for receiver Julio Jones and New Orleans traded back into the first round to get running back Mark Ingram. Aside from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pretty good splash, this year’s NFC South draft wasn’t filled with drama.

Instead, it was filled with very deliberate picks that addressed big needs all around the division.

BEST MOVE

No pick set the division's tone for this draft better than Carolina's selection of Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 9 overall.

There’s nothing really flashy about Kuechly, but the Panthers didn’t need flash this time around. They got that with Newton, and he gave them a prolific offense. But that offense was only enough to carry the Panthers to a 6-10 record last season. Carolina couldn’t play defense, and opponents have run all over the Panthers the last few seasons.

A lot of people thought the Panthers should go with a defensive tackle in the first round. But there were two reasons they didn’t. They weren’t enamored of any of the first-round prospects at that position. They also feel pretty good about what they already have at defensive tackle. Ron Edwards, a big free-agent pickup last year, is coming back from an injury that kept him out last season, and the Panthers think he can anchor their defensive line. They also used two third-round picks on defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua last year.

The Panthers believe they have the personnel to clog up the middle. Kuechly should be able to come in and do what he does best. He can roam the field and be the kind of tackling machine he was in college. This guy had as few flaws as any player in the draft and is ready to make an instant impact. It remains to be seen whether Keuchly or Jon Beason will play the middle and which one will slide outside. It doesn’t really matter. Either way, the Panthers now have a deep linebacker corps that should be able to stop just about any running game.

RISKIEST MOVE

You could say the Saints made a risky move by using their first draft pick on a player who didn’t even play his college ball in the United States. They drafted Regina (Canada) defensive tackle Akiem Hicks with the No. 89 overall pick in the third round.

The fact Hicks didn’t play against elite completion means there is obvious risk with this pick. But why not take a shot when you’re this late in the third round? Hicks has tremendous upside, and he was good enough to be recruited to LSU before leaving for Canada. The Saints have a great history of discovering gems (Jimmy Graham, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston) later in the draft. They took a risk, but it might pay off.

[+] EnlargeMark Barron and Doug Martin
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Bucs made headlines with their first-round draft picks, S Mark Barron and RB Doug Martin.
Hicks should at least have a chance at some playing time early on. The Saints don’t have much behind Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis at defensive tackle. Hicks could end up in the rotation very quickly, and the Saints could end up looking very smart for taking this risk.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Bucs haven’t been exciting in any way in quite some time. But they provided virtually all of the excitement within the division in this draft. General manager Mark Dominik shrewdly made some trades that gave the Bucs the ammunition to move up twice and come out of the draft with three instant starters.

Get over the fact that Dominik used the No. 7 overall pick on a safety, Alabama’s Mark Barron. The Bucs weren’t sold on LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne for reasons we don’t know. They were sold on Barron, and safety might have been the weakest position on their roster heading into the draft. Trading down from No. 5 to No. 7 started a process in which Dominik was able to manipulate the draft with trades that gave him two other starters -- running back Doug Martin and outside linebacker Lavonte David.

The Bucs traded back into the first round to get Martin late Thursday night. They were without a second-round pick Friday night. But they saw David sitting there, they had the ammunition, and they pounced. No NFC South team needed more help from this draft than the Buccaneers, and Dominik made sure they got help that will matter right from the start.

FILE IT AWAY

Atlanta’s selection of Wisconsin fullback Bradie Ewing in the fifth round might not seem like a big deal on the surface. For now, Ewing is probably nothing more than a special-teams player. But the Falcons also were looking a year or two down the road when they made this pick. Veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli is coming off a major injury, and he’ll turn 32 in June. It was time to find someone to groom as Mughelli’s eventual successor.

AFC West draft analysis

April, 28, 2012
4/28/12
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


The biggest offseason move in the AFC West in years was the Broncos’ signing of superstar quarterback Peyton Manning in March.

It instantly changed the landscape of the AFC West and it likely will continue to do so for the next three years or so. During the draft, Manning’s impact was felt in the division when several of the premium picks by the Broncos’ rivals were defensive players.

The first player taken in the division was athletic defensive tackle Dontari Poe. The Memphis product was taken No. 11 by the Chiefs. San Diego used its first three picks on defensive players, all of whom have a chance to make an instant impact.

Let’s look at the highlights of the AFC West draft:

BEST MOVE

The first two days of the San Diego Chargers’ draft.

No one in the division scored like the Chargers did. Following up a strong free-agency class, Chargers GM A.J. Smith deserves a lot of credit for this draft. The Chargers badly needed impact players on defense and they got them.

San Diego made one of the top value picks of the draft when it watched South Carolina pass-rusher Melvin Ingram fall to them. He was supposed to be a top-10 pick. San Diego considered moving up to take Alabama safety Mark Barron but he went at No. 7. Instead, the Chargers stayed at home and watched an equally talented player fall to them. Ingram fills the Chargers’ biggest need and he should be an instant contributor.

The Chargers scored again by getting great value in the second and third rounds. San Diego watched Connecticut defensive lineman Kendall Reyes fall to them at No. 49. With LSU safety Brandon Taylor still on the board (San Diego considered him at No. 49), the Chargers moved up and took him at No 73. There is no way the Chargers could have scripted the first three rounds any better.

The 2012 Chargers got better in this draft.

RISKIEST MOVE

Arguably, there wasn't a riskier move in this draft than the Kansas City Chiefs’ choice of Poe at No. 11.

The nose tackle from Memphis was one of the most talked about players in the draft. After his stunning performance at the NFL combine, Poe was considered a potential top-five player. However, after teams dissected his game film, they discovered Poe didn’t consistently make plays against marginal competition.

By the time the draft rolled around, it seemed as though Poe could fall into the 20s. But the Chiefs took him because of his ability and the fact he fills their greatest need. Poe was the best talent at No. 11 and the fact he filled a major need makes this a logical pick.

But if Poe doesn't develop, the Chiefs will get heat for not following the general consensus. The team has failed to hit a home run with recent picks on the defensive line, so the Chiefs have to make this work. Kansas City thinks Poe will excel under coach Romeo Crennel because he will concentrate on one position as opposed to having to play several spots as he did in college. If the Chiefs are right, this will be a big score. If not, they’ll be forever reminded of it.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeBrock Osweiler
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireThe Broncos decided to waste no time in finding Peyton Manning's heir apparent, selecting Brock Osweiler in the second round.
I don’t think it was shocking that the Denver Broncos picked a quarterback or that the quarterback ended up being Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler.

But I think it was a surprise Denver took him at No. 57. That’s a high spot for a player who probably won’t start until 2015, at the earliest.

The Broncos have other needs and they have Manning. Yet, Osweiler was a target. It shows how much Denver executive VP John Elway values the position and how much he liked Osweiler. He could have waited a couple of years to peg Manning’s successor, but he did it before Manning has even thrown a pass in Denver.

FILE IT AWAY

This draft will be remembered as a success for all four teams in the division. I was impressed with how each team approached the draft and the patience each team showed.

I think the Chargers got as many impact players for the immediate future as any team in the league. I like Denver’s creativity. It traded out of the first round and still got some quality players such as defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson and running back Ronnie Hillman.

The Chiefs quietly had a strong draft and middle-rounders such as receiver Devon Wylie, defensive back De'quan Menzie and running back Cyrus Gray will add depth to this team.

New Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie didn’t have many picks to work with -- his first was No. 95. But it is easy to tell there is draft-room stability with the post-Al Davis Raiders.

McKenzie played his board well and didn’t make any puzzling picks based on measurables as the late Davis was known to do. Oakland’s draft will not make many headlines, but McKenzie may have tabbed future starters in tackle Tony Bergstrom, linebacker Miles Burris and receiver Juron Criner.

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