NFL Nation: Bobby Beathard

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INDIANAPOLIS – No Peyton Manning. No winning at least 12 games for seven straight seasons. No two Super Bowl appearances. No Lucas Oil Stadium. Possibly no Andrew Luck, either.

That’s what would have happened if the Indianapolis Colts had decided to select Ryan Leaf over Manning back in 1998.

Agent Leigh Steinberg wrote in his book, “The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game,” that Leaf skipped a meeting with the Colts prior to the 1998 draft so that they would not draft him at No. 1 overall, allowing him to drop to the San Diego Chargers at No. 2.

Life wouldn’t be so glamorous in Indianapolis if the Colts had taken Leaf. There probably would have been a lot of babysitting by the Colts with Leaf.

He had four poor seasons in the NFL and he’s currently serving a five-year prison term from burglary and drug possession charges and probation violations from charges in Texas.

Manning surpassed Reggie Miller as the primary sports figure in Indianapolis and he'll play in his third Super Bowl in less than two weeks with the Denver Broncos.

Former Colts general manager Bill Polian said on “Mike & Mike” on Tuesday that after doing their due diligence researching the two quarterbacks it was an easy decision to select Manning.

“What we heard on the football side that we would have been better off with Peyton,” Polian said on the show. “There was a lot of information that led us toward Ryan was nowhere mature enough to handle the job.”

Steinberg said that former Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard went along with the idea that Leaf skip out on meeting with the Colts. Beathard was also on “Mike & Mike” where he denied that because they “absolutely wanted to draft Peyton.”

Polian told a story where he crossed paths with Beathard at one of Leaf’s workouts and the former Chargers general manager walked by Polian, slapped him on the arm and said, “you’re going to really love this kid,” trying to trick him into selecting the former Washington State University quarterback so Manning could slide to No. 2.

“Ryan was the talented guy with the tremendous upside, but there were red flags we were concerned about,” Billy Devaney, who was in San Diego’s front office in 1998, said on “Mike & Mike.” “Peyton didn’t have any holes in him.”

It didn’t take long for everybody, especially the Colts, to realize that.
Jimmy ClausenAP Photo/Darron CummingsJimmy Clausen had to wait to be drafted, but may play right away for the Carolina Panthers.
If Matt Moore is the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers when they close the regular season Jan. 2 in Atlanta, John Fox will be the happiest coach in the NFL.

It will mean the Panthers are headed to the playoffs and Fox will have earned the contract extension the Panthers have been so hesitant to give him. If Moore lasts that long, it means everything’s gone right for the Panthers. It means they’ve found a No. 2 receiver, a pass-rusher and a big run-stuffer.

If Moore lasts that long as the starter, I’ll be stunned. That’s not an indictment of Moore. As Fox likes to say, “It is what it is’’.

Here’s what it is. The Panthers drafted Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen with the No. 48 overall pick Friday night. He’s a second-round pick with first-round talent and he was Carolina’s first pick in this draft. The Panthers were trying to trade up to early in the second round to get Clausen, but didn’t have enough ammunition to get there.

Clausen still tumbled and the Panthers didn’t hesitate. You can read a lot into that and consider it a pretty major statement. Fox and general manager Marty Hurney never have taken a quarterback earlier than the fourth round of the draft and they’ve spent the offseason singing Moore’s praises.

That’s great because Moore looked pretty good the last five games of last season. Hurney likes to tell you his mentor, Bobby Beathard, used to say a quarterback has to take advantage when his window opens.

There still might be a window for Moore, but it shut by about 50 percent the minute the Panthers selected Clausen. The Panthers will spend the rest of the offseason saying Clausen and Moore will compete for the job in training camp, while making it sound like Moore has the inside track on the starting position.

Probably true, to a degree. Moore’s been in the system for three years and he deserves a shot. When I first started to think through this column, I was planning on saying Clausen instantly becomes the starter. After a little more thought, I’m toning that down, but only a little.

Fox and Hurney are loyal (sometimes to a fault) and you can’t question the integrity of either man. They’ll give Moore a shot. Unless Clausen totally outplays him in training camp and the preseason, Moore will be the starter on opening day.

It’s the fair thing to do. It’s probably the prudent thing to do. The Panthers have a good running game, and, if the defense is any good, Moore could be completely functional for this team.

But keep one thing in mind, even as you ponder that whole concept of fairness and loyalty. Moore really isn’t Fox and Hurney’s guy. He’s in this position pretty much by default. Moore was an undrafted free agent plucked off the waiver wire from the Cowboys three years ago. He got thrown into the lineup last year after Jake Delhomme was injured, which happened after Delhomme played poorly for most of the season.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJimmy Clausen passed for 3,722 yards and 28 touchdowns for Notre Dame in 2009.
Delhomme was Fox and Hurney’s guy. They stuck with him far too long and when they finally cut him in February, Moore became the heir apparent partly because of his play last year, but mainly because he was the only other quarterback on the roster besides Hunter Cantwell.

By draft right, and by Fox’s close friendship with former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, Clausen automatically becomes Fox and Hurney’s guy. That carries a lot of implications for a coach and a general manager who clearly are heading into the season on the hottest of seats.

Let’s go on the assumption that Moore starts on opening day. It gives him his shot and it prevents Clausen from having to play his first NFL game in the hostile atmosphere of the new Giants Stadium.

After the trip to New York, the Panthers host the Buccaneers and Bengals. Then, they go to New Orleans before hosting Chicago. After that, they’ve got their bye week and that’s when things could get interesting. Let’s say the Panthers are 3-2 or better at that point. Moore stays as the starter.

But let’s say they’re 2-3 or worse. Let’s say Fox and Hurney are scratching and clawing for their jobs and receiver Steve Smith relinquishes his position as the president of the Matt Moore Fan Club. At that point, there’s no other option.

They have to hand it off to their guy. They have to go to the guy with the Notre Dame pedigree. They have to win, or at least convince owner Jerry Richardson they’ve found their franchise quarterback and are on the verge of winning big. Anything less than that and Clausen could be playing for Bill Cowher in 2011 -- if there is a 2011 season.

But Fox and Hurney can’t worry about the league’s uncertain labor situation. They’ve got a more immediate uncertainty about their own labor situation.

If Clausen sits his entire rookie season, Fox and Hurney will be thrilled they didn’t have to throw him into a fire that never got too hot. If they start him, he’ll be going into an inferno, but he’ll be Fox and Hurney’s last chance to put out the flames. Actually, Clausen’s the best chance to put out those flames.

What the Panthers did Friday night was draft a potentially better version of a young Delhomme. Remember back in 2003 when Fox and Hurney quietly signed Delhomme as a free agent and opened the season with Rodney Peete as their starting quarterback?

How long did that last? Precisely one half of the first game. A few months later, Delhomme had the Panthers in the Super Bowl.

Delhomme was Fox and Hurney’s hand-picked guy. Now, Clausen is. The two are a lot alike and I’m using the young Delhomme as a measuring stick. That Delhomme was a gunslinger and so is this Clausen. That Delhomme took chances and this Clausen takes chances. That Delhomme was cocky. So is this Clausen.

The 2003 season was the shining moment for Fox and Hurney. When people have their backs pinned to the wall, they tend to go back in their past to what worked best.

Fox and Hurney would have been thrilled -- and probably stunned -- if Peete had stayed the starter and taken that team to the Super Bowl. But they didn’t really give him much of a chance to do that.

At the first sign of trouble, they turned to Delhomme. It’s going to be history repeating itself -- at least in theory. Moore’s going to get a shot. But the first time the Panthers lose a couple games in a row, Fox and Hurney are going to turn to their guy.

That’s Clausen.

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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The Rams should feel better about Sam Bradford's prospects as the No. 1 overall choice in the 2010 draft after watching the quarterback work out Monday at the University of Oklahoma.

The session, which begins at noon ET, is a setup. That's the reality of pro days featuring elite prospects. They are choreographed to make the stars look good. Quarterbacks throw to their own receivers at their own stadiums on their own terms, without having to worry about coverages or pass rushes. It's tough for great college players to look bad under those circumstances.

The first pro day I attended helped Ryan Leaf cement his status as one of the top two choices in the 1998 draft. Colts president Bill Polian and then-Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard stood on the field at Washington State's Martin Stadium with straight faces while Leaf showed off his obvious physical skills.

If either personnel evaluator had known Leaf would bomb in the NFL, neither would have wasted his time in Pullman that day.

Rams GM Billy Devaney worked under Beathard at the time. The Leaf experience, coupled with his experience in Atlanta during the Michael Vick saga, left Devaney more focused than ever on a quarterback's maturity, character and overall ability to comport himself as a franchise player. Bradford appears to have convinced the Rams on those fronts. His workout Monday is significant for them mostly because Bradford still must prove he has overcome the shoulder injury that ended his 2009 season.

Bradford's surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, has vouched for the shoulder in conversations with the Rams and Redskins, Peter King notes. Bradford would have to struggle pretty badly during his pro day to hurt his draft stock. I have a hard time thinking that will happen under the circumstances.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The premise: NFC West general managers Billy Devaney (Rams), Tim Ruskell (Seahawks), Scot McCloughan (49ers) and Rod Graves (Cardinals) have been evaluating NFL talent in some capacity since at least 1994, except for a two-year period when Devaney worked for CBS. Studying their teams' draft selections over the last 15 years can provide perspective for the decisions they'll make in the 2009 draft.

With that in mind, we break down the first- and second-round track records.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says Mike Martz and Mike Singletary clashed several times late in the season. You wouldn't know it from the politely worded statements each man released after Martz's firing.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Martz and 49ers president Jed York provided conflicting accounts of Martz's hiring in San Francisco. Martz expressed surprise at his firing. Background: After last season, general manager Scot McCloughan went on the record as saying Martz would not be a good fit for the job, only to have head coach Mike Nolan hire Martz anyway. Even if York didn't say anything directly to Martz, as Martz suggests, everyone knew where management stood on the matter. 

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' decision to rush into an agreement with Singletary shows the weakness of the team's current management. Signing Singletary so quickly meant the 49ers couldn't consider Mike Shanahan, an obviously superior candidate with roots in the 49ers' tradition. I'm not sure the 49ers could have landed Shanahan, but now they'll never know.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the Martz firing came down to a simple philosophical difference. Singletary wants to run the ball. Martz would prefer to throw it. Singletary was smart in making this decision now instead of a year from now, but hiring a seventh coordinator in seven seasons continues a regrettable pattern for the 49ers.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News lists former Rams coach Scott Linehan as a potential candidate to replace Martz. Under Linehan, Rams running back Steven Jackson once finished a season with 346 carries, most in franchise history since Eric Dickerson's tenure. I have not confirmed Linehan as a candidate yet, but hiring him would make sense.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals cornerback Rod Hood feels "due" to start making plays instead of allowing them. The Seahawks' Deion Branch was the most recent receiver to exploit Hood.

Also from Somers: Anquan Boldin's shoulder injury appears to be history.

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' defense can't be trusted. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast says the defense was fine until the Minnesota game.

Craig Harris of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals have experienced a 15 percent increase in retail sales at the stadium, its Tempe headquarters and on its Web site this season.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says the playoffs are making 37-year-old quarterback Kurt Warner feel a little younger.

Art Thiel of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says outgoing Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren remains a candidate to run an organization. And he says the Seahawks might be wise to let him run theirs at some point in the future.

Greg Johns of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer provides highlights from Holmgren's hour-long media session Tuesday. Holmgren was at peace with his decision to step away: "As we were losing games, I'd think, 'Oh man, I wish I had another shot at fixing this and righting the ship.' But I've thought long and hard now about the decision in a calm, less emotional way. And it was absolutely the right decision. That's why I script the first 15 plays, so I'm not out there at the beginning of the game all gaga."

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer quotes Holmgren on expectations for the 2009 season. Holmgren predicted fewer injuries and a better record.

Also from Farnsworth: a look into the Seahawks' free-agent future, starting with Leroy Hill.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Holmgren gets to leave the Seahawks on his own terms, a contrast from coaches in other organizations, including Shanahan in Denver.

Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks and the NFL were better off for Holmgren's decision to forego a career in real estate.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune looks at Holmgren's style in handling reporters, backed by examples and anecdotes from through the years.

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune provides highlights from Holmgren's farewell news conference, noting that the ex-coach does not plan to serve as TV analyst during the playoffs.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch outlines the Rams' process for finding a new head coach. Former St. Louis players Dan Dierdorf and Marshall Faulk will serve as consultants. Bobby Beathard and Lawrence McCutcheon will take active roles in the process. Winston Moss gets the first interview. Jim Haslett will be a finalist.

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams general manager Billy Devaney appears to have a good plan for finding the next head coach, a departure from form for the Rams.

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com also likes the Rams' plan.

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