NFL Nation: Tye Hill

This is the second installment of the last 15 players who have been taken 15th overall in the NFL draft, the pick the Steelers have this year. I reviewed the most recent picks at No. 15 overall on Monday and here they are:

2013: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Saints

2012: Bruce Irvin, DE, Seahawks

2011: Mike Pouncey, C, Dolphins

2010: Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants

2009: Brian Cushing, LB, Texans

Here are the five picks that preceded those players at No. 15 overall:

2008 -- Branden Albert, OT, Chiefs: Albert gave the Chiefs six seasons at left tackle after playing guard at the University of Virginia. Albert is not an elite left tackle but he’s a pretty good one and he made his first Pro Bowl in 2013. Albert is headed to free agency, and he will be among the most coveted offensive tackles on the open market. Even if he leaves Kansas City, this still was a good pick for the Chiefs.

2007 – Lawrence Timmons, LB, Steelers: The Steelers will gladly take it if they get another player with the 15th overall pick the caliber of Timmons. He piles up tackles, is good in coverage and is also capable of making big plays. Timmons, who has started 53 consecutive regular-season games, is a model for how the Steelers like to bring along the players they draft. He played mostly special teams as a rookie, assumed a bigger role in the defense his second season and became a full-time starter in 2009. Timmons has been entrenched in the starting lineup since then and is the Steelers’ best defensive player.

2006 – Tye Hill, CB, Rams: This looked like a good pick after Hill made the PFWA All-Rookie team. But he regressed after his first season and the Rams were willing to trade Hill for a seventh-round draft pick after the former Clemson standout spent just three seasons in St. Louis. Hill, who had four interceptions for the Rams, qualifies as a bust, especially since St. Louis took him four picks before three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

2005 – Derrick Johnson, LB: One of the top 3-4 inside linebackers in the NFL, Johnson seems to get better with age. Johnson made his third consecutive Pro Bowl after recording 107 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2013. Johnson, 31, also intercepted two passes in helping lead Kansas City’s resurgence. This pick has been a big hit for the Chiefs, especially with Johnson still playing at such a high level.

2004 – Michael Clayton, WR, Buccaneers: The former LSU star burst onto the scene as a rookie, catching 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. He fell off a cliff after that, never coming close to the numbers he put up as a rookie. Clayton battled some injuries as well as inconsistency and never built on what he did his first season in the NFL. The Buccaneers released him after six seasons, making Clayton a miss with where Tampa Bay took him in the draft.
Despite a few grumblings of antipathy, I appreciate you gamely improving my initial nominees for the inaugural NFC North blog fantasy 4x100 relay race. The teams are now assembled and ready for your vote.

Your suggestions led me to:
I bowed out of the comments section when the debate descended into the merits of using 40 times to determine credibility for relay. Whatever the opposite of a trackhead is, that's me.

Go ahead and register your vote. I'll find a way to work in the results into a future post.
The St. Louis Rams can probably forget about landing the highest-rated cornerback in the 2011 NFL draft.

They're drafting too late for a realistic shot at LSU's Patrick Peterson, who apparently knows this, and the position isn't one of great need for the Rams, anyway.

Before taking a look at cornerbacks the Rams have drafted since moving to St. Louis for the 1995 season, I'll pass along thoughts on the position from coach Steve Spagnuolo, who addressed his secondary over breakfast at the NFL owners meeting last month:
"Real happy with the way Bradley Fletcher overcame his knee injury. I do think it affected him early in the season. As you guys know, when you have the ACL, his knee injury was pretty extensive, you come back and it takes the whole year. I'm really looking forward to him this coming year.

"Jerome Murphy, rookie, I thought he came on at the end, so that is helpful. Ron Bartell, this will be the third year for him in this system, so that is real helpful. Justin King will bounce back. He battled injuries. It was a pull or a groin. We have some guys there to work with that will help us. We're OK. You would like to add a guy at any position."

That final sentence came off as obligatory -- what coaches say when leaving open the possibility for something unexpected.

The Rams have drafted only one cornerback, Tye Hill, in the first round since moving to St. Louis. They haven't drafted one higher than 65th overall over the past four drafts. The team could still draft one relatively early, but it's an upset if the Rams use the 14th overall choice for one.

Draft Watch: AFC East

April, 7, 2011
4/07/11
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» NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: history in that spot.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills' top pick is No. 3 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL teams in parentheses:

2010: DT Gerald McCoy (Buccaneers)

2009: DE Tyson Jackson (Chiefs)

2008: QB Matt Ryan (Falcons)

2007: T Joe Thomas (Browns)

2006: QB Vince Young (Titans)

2005: WR Braylon Edwards (Browns)

2004: WR Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals)

ANALYSIS: Some sexy picks have been made in this spot. None of the players have been out-and-out busts, although character concerns have overshadowed a couple. Only McCoy and Jackson haven't been selected for at least one Pro Bowl. Fitzgerald is an elite receiver, arguably the best in the business. Edwards can be a dangerous playmaker when not dropping passes, which he didn't do last year. Ryan is an emerging star. Young has been a lightning rod, but he did win rookie of the year and has gone to a pair of Pro Bowls. Thomas is a star blocker with four Pro Bowls on his résumé already.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins' top pick is No. 15 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL teams in parentheses:

2010: DE Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants)

2009: LB Brian Cushing (Texans)

2008: G Branden Albert (Chiefs)

2007: LB Lawrence Timmons (Steelers)

2006: CB Tye Hill (Rams)

2005: LB Derrick Johnson (Chiefs)

2004: WR Michael Clayton (Buccaneers)

ANALYSIS: This is a region of the first round where picks can break either way. There have been solid players drafted here, but no superstars. Cushing was a rookie of the year, but his career has been tainted by performance-enhancing drug usage. Clayton made an immediate impact with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, but hasn't caught more than 38 passes since. Johnson has been a solid linebacker for Kansas City, while Timmons has been an influential member of Pittsburgh's defense the past two seasons. Hill has been the biggest disappointment. He has been with four teams, starting 25 games.

New England Patriots

The Patriots' first-round picks are Nos. 17 and 28 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in those spots, with their NFL teams in parentheses:

2010: G Mike Iupati (49ers) and DE Jared Odrick (Dolphins)

2009: QB Josh Freeman (Buccaneers) and G Eric Wood (Bills)

2008: T Gosder Cherilus (Lions) and DE Lawrence Jackson (Seahawks)

2007: DE Jarvis Moss (Broncos) and T Joe Staley (49ers)

2006: LB Chad Greenway (Vikings) and TE Marcedes Lewis (Jaguars)

2005: LB David Pollack (Bengals) and DE Luis Castillo (Chargers)

2004: LB D.J. Williams (Broncos) and CB Chris Gamble (Panthers)

ANALYSIS: Results have been mixed with these slots, but the 28th pick actually has found more starters than the 17th in recent years. Freeman showed signs of developing into a future star last year, and Cherilus has started 40 of his 43 games at right tackle. Williams and Greenway have been regular starters. But Moss and Pollock didn't work out. In the 28th slot, Odrick is the only one who hasn't been a regular starter. Injuries detonated his rookie season.

New York Jets

The Jets' top pick is No. 30 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL teams in parentheses:

2010: RB Jahvid Best (Lions)

2009: WR Kenny Britt (Titans)

2008: TE Dustin Keller (Jets)

2007: WR Craig Davis (Chargers)

2006: RB Joseph Addai (Colts)

2005: TE Heath Miller (Steelers)

2004: RB Kevin Jones (Lions)

ANALYSIS: What strikes me is that all seven selections not only are offensive players, but also ball handlers. Perhaps teams in the back of the draft feel they can gamble a little bit and try to hit big on a skill position. Whatever the reasoning, it seems to have worked. This has been a successful spot. Jones and Addai rushed for 1,000 yards as rookies. Best appears to be the Lions' running back of the future. Miller and Addai have gone to Pro Bowls. Britt was the Titans' leading receiver last year. Keller is one of the NFL's better tight ends.

Draft Watch: NFC West

March, 17, 2011
3/17/11
12:00
PM ET
» NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.

Arizona Cardinals

Best choice: Steve Breaston, WR, fifth round (2007). Tough, productive and team-oriented, Breaston embodies everything coach Ken Whisenhunt loves in a player. There were other considerations in this spot, including Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but Breaston was the choice for his consistency, bargain price and all-out approach.

Worst choice: Matt Leinart, QB, first round (2006). Other draft choices failed more quickly, from 2007 third-rounder Buster Davis to 2009 second-rounder Cody Brown. None set back the franchise as much as the Cardinals' decision to use the 10th overall choice for Leinart. The team invested four seasons in Leinart, then cut him right before the one season in which Leinart appeared best positioned to start.

On the bubble: Beanie Wells, RB, first round (2009). Injuries set back Wells before each of his first two NFL seasons, just as draft analysts warned. Wells has plenty of talent. He ran hard and effectively for flashes as a rookie, but the consistency and production simply haven't been there. This third season looks like a pivotal one for the 31st player chosen in the 2009 draft.

Seattle Seahawks

Best choice: Russell Okung, LT, first round (2010). A player coming off an injury-affected rookie season should not stand out as a team's best draft choice over the past five years. Okung gets the designation by default. Multiple coaching changes have contributed to Seattle getting less from some already ordinary draft classes. Seventh-rounders Cameron Morrah, Justin Forsett and Ben Obomanu might have better futures than the first-round choices from their respective draft classes.

Worst choice: Lawrence Jackson, DE, first round (2008). Jackson made little impact in his first two seasons, then got shipped to Detroit when his former college coach, Pete Carroll, took over. He fared better with the Lions, no doubt benefiting from Ndamukong Suh's disruptive presence. The Seahawks had little to show for his two seasons in Seattle.

On the bubble: Aaron Curry, LB, first round (2009). Curry's strength against the run has shined through at times, but he hasn't made impact plays or showed the anticipated growth. The Seahawks would like Curry to become more adept at rushing the passer. That wasn't his role in college, however, and others have done it better in Seattle.

San Francisco 49ers

Best choice: Patrick Willis, LB, first round (2006). Willis has earned four Pro Bowl berths in as many seasons. He's a dominant physical presence and the type of player a defense can build around. Willis, arguably the best inside linebacker in the NFL, has produced several signature plays already. Three off the top of my head: tracking down Sean Morey 62 yards downfield in overtime; crushing receiver Brad Smith on a pass over the middle; and knocking out Matt Hasselbeck with broken ribs.

Worst choice: Kentwan Balmer, DE, first round (2008). Balmer lasted only two seasons with the 49ers before the team traded him to Seattle for a sixth-round choice in the 2010 draft. It's telling when a team trades a recent high draft choice to a division rival without fearing the consequences. Running back Glen Coffee was another consideration in this spot. The 49ers used a third-round choice on him in 2009, then watched him retire before the 2010 season.

On the bubble: Manny Lawson, OLB (2006). Lawson stands out as one of the better special-teams players in the league. He had 6.5 sacks in 2009 and was entering a pivotal year in 2010. The production wasn't there, however, and now Lawson appears likely to hit the market when free agency opens.

St. Louis Rams

Best choice: Sam Bradford, QB, first round (2010). The Rams picked the right year to hold the No. 1 overall choice. Bradford made an immediate impact as the Rams won more games in 2010 than they had in their previous three seasons combined. Bradford played every snap even though scouting reports questioned his durability and wondered how quickly he would assimilate into a pro-style offense.

Worst choice: Tye Hill, CB, first round (2006). The Rams could have drafted quarterback Jay Cutler at No. 11, but they liked Marc Bulger and didn't see an immediate need. The Rams moved back four spots in a trade with Denver, choosing Hill with the 15th pick. The deal netted a third-rounder for the Rams, which the team wasted on troubled offensive lineman Claude Wroten. Hill's starts declined every season and the Rams traded him to Atlanta for a seventh-round choice before Hill's fourth NFL season.

On the bubble: Donnie Avery, WR, second round (2008). Avery had 100 catches, including eight for touchdowns, during his first two seasons. A knee injury sidelined him all of last season. The Rams have a new offensive coordinator. They'll probably address the position in the draft. Avery should re-emerge as part of the mix. This is a big year for him.
This is the third in a series of items revisiting relatively recent NFL trades involving first-round draft choices in the slots NFC West teams occupy this year.

The St. Louis Rams must hope the 14th overall choice treats them better than the 13th and 15th choices treated them recently.

Defensive tackle Adam Carriker was the choice at No. 13 in 2007. Cornerback Tye Hill was the choice at No. 15 a year earlier. Neither lasted long with the team.

This year, Rams fans will be looking to see if one of the top receivers or defensive linemen falls their way at No. 14. As for trading the pick? I'll break out what the 14th overall choice has brought in some previous trades involving only draft choices.

The pick: 14th overall

Held by: St. Louis Rams

Most recent trade involving only picks: 2007. The New York Jets jumped 11 spots to draft cornerback Darrelle Revis at No. 14. This trade helps show what Seattle might have to pay for swapping first-round choices with the Rams this year. In 2007, the Jets sent the 25th, 59th and 164th choices to Carolina for the 14th and 191st picks. The trade-value chart says the Jets paid 1,056.8 points for picks worth 1,116 points. The difference equates to a pick late in the fourth round. Carolina wound up with linebacker Jon Beason (25th), offensive lineman Ryan Kalil (59th) and linebacker Tim Shaw (164th).

Shockey vs. Haynesworth: In 2002, the New York Giants moved up one spot to No. 14 and drafted tight end Jeremy Shockey. They gave up the 15th pick, which Tennessee used for Albert Haynesworth, and the 110th choice (Mike Echols). Echols never played.

When the Bucs got Buffaloed: Tampa Bay moved up seven spots to No. 14 in 2001 for a chance to draft tackle Kenyatta Walker. The Buffalo Bills came away with the 21st pick, used for cornerback Nate Clements, and the 51st choice (Paul Toviessi). Walker was supposed to lock down the left side of the Bucs' line, but he played mostly right tackle, starting 73 games over six seasons. He was in the CFL by age 29.

The price of moving up: What might the Rams pay if they sought to move up a pick or three from the 14th overall spot? In 1993, the Denver Broncos sent the 14th (Steve Everitt) and 83rd (Mike Caldwell) choices to Cleveland for the 11th overall choice (Dan Williams). A decade later, the Patriots sent the 14th (Michael Haynes) and 193rd (Marques Ogden) choices to Chicago for the 13th choice (Ty Warren). Neither trade was a lopsided mismatch on the value chart. The Patriots underpaid slightly. The Broncos overpaid slightly.

Webb/SmithGetty ImagesChicago's J'Marcus Webb, left, and Detroit's Alphonso Smith were pleasant surprises in 2010.
About this time last year, we compiled a list of four NFC North players who had the opportunity to alleviate some pressure to acquire upgrades at their positions -- provided they demonstrated notable offseason development. In reviewing that post, I feel better about the positions we identified than the specific players we picked out. But such is life.

This year's pending lockout presents a curveball for offseason development. If a lockout begins in early March and continues through the summer, coaches and front office executives won't have their typical opportunity to improve and observe younger players. Free agency could also be truncated and risky. Ultimately, teams might be left to rely on observations and projections based on last season's performance.

In that vein, let's pick one player per team whose 2010 emergence seemingly eliminated a 2011 offseason need.

Chicago Bears

Player: Offensive lineman J'Marcus Webb

2010 notables: The Bears made Webb a seventh-round pick last spring and, desperate for alternatives after a rough start, elevated him to the starting lineup in Week 5. Webb's ascendance coincided with the stabilization of the Bears' line, and he remained the starter for the rest of the season. How well he played as an individual is up for debate. According to ESPN's penalty database, Webb was called for 11 penalties in his 12 starts, including seven for holding.
Position status: If nothing else, Webb enters the offseason as one of the Bears' top two tackles along with Frank Omiyale. Offensive line might be the single-most needy position group on the Bears' roster, and the team could legitimately address any of its five positions in the first round of the 2011 draft. Based on how the draft plays out, the Bears could keep Webb at right tackle. Or, given his 6-foot-8 frame, they could consider moving him to left tackle and returning Omiyale to the right side. The future of 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams, who was moved from left tackle to left guard midway through last season, could also affect where Webb plays.
2011 projection: Yes, there are many moving parts here. But Webb has a couple of things going for him. One, he is a 22-year-old player who has navigated his way through 12 NFL starts and still has plenty of room to improve. Long-range planners are always infatuated by a young player with experience. Second, Webb is a favorite of Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice, who personally scouted him before the draft -- and came away from Webb's workout with a chipped tooth. There is a long way to go here, and it would be wrong to assume Webb is a lock to start in 2011. But the Bears can't address all five positions in one offseason, and Webb's presence might help make their decisions easier this spring.

Detroit Lions

Player: Cornerback Alphonso Smith
2010 notables: Acquired in a preseason trade with the Denver Broncos, Smith made a productive if uneven debut by intercepting five passes in 12 games. A shoulder injury ended his season in December, and many fans' lasting impression might have been his embarrassing Thanksgiving Day performance against the New England Patriots. But playmaking cornerbacks are difficult to find, and Smith gives the Lions a viable option at a position of significant need.
Position status: Veterans Chris Houston and Nate Vasher are pending free agents, but the Lions have said they want Houston to return. Veteran Eric King has been informed of his release, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Tye Hill, Prince Miller and Paul Pratt are all pending free agents, although the Lions have exclusive rights on Miller and Pratt. Last season's Week 1 nickelback, Aaron Berry, spent most of the season on injured reserve.
2011 projection:
In 2010, the Lions brought back only one member of their 2009 secondary: Safety Louis Delmas. Smith's performance in 2009 should at least lessen the overhaul necessary this offseason. Like Webb, he shouldn't be a lock to start in 2011. But the Lions also shouldn't be starting from scratch, either. Smith gives the Lions a legitimate option in the event they focus their resources elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesLate-season starter James Starks gives the Packers options at running back next season.
Green Bay Packers

Player: Running back James Starks
2010 notables:
Starks' story has been well-told. After spending the first half of the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, he rushed for 73 yards in his NFL debut and amassed 315 yards in four playoff games. In part because he never fumbled, Starks earned the trust of coach Mike McCarthy, and proved to be a reliable and instinctive runner.
Position status:
The Packers are expected to get former starter Ryan Grant back from an ankle injury. Grant is scheduled to earn about $5.25 million in 2011, the final year of his most recent contract extension. Backups Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn are pending free agents. Starks leapfrogged fellow rookie Dimitri Nance, who is signed through 2013.
2011 projection:
In an era where many teams split carries among their tailbacks, Grant was the Packers' primary runner from 2007 to 2009. That was the plan for 2010 as well, before his injury. But if nothing else, Starks gives the Packers a second option and important insurance should Grant be felled by another injury. Does Starks deserve to compete with Grant for a starting job next season? That's a question the Packers' coaching staff will have to answer whenever training camp convenes. But the Packers learned the hard way last season that a two-man backfield is a requirement, not a luxury.

[+] EnlargeHusain Abdullah
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireVikings safety Husain Abdullah might have played himself into a starting role next season.
Minnesota Vikings

Player: Safety Husain Abdullah
2010 notables:
Known mostly for special teams play and fasting during training camp, Abdullah unseated Tyrell Johnson and was a surprise starter at strong safety. He missed one game because of a concussion and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. You never know how players will be viewed by a new coaching staff, but Abdullah seemed to show enough promise to merit another chance to start in 2011.
Position status:
The Vikings have long been due for changes at safety, where Johnson and Madieu Williams have performed poorly over the past three seasons. Williams could be released this offseason, opening at least one starting spot. Jamarca Sanford struggled to stay healthy last season but might be best suited as a special teams player.
2011 projection:
Would the Vikings replace both starting safeties this offseason? Or would they give Abdullah another chance while focusing on Williams' free safety spot? The latter scenario seems more likely. At this time last season, few would have expected Abdullah to be in this spot. But if last season were any indication, he had leapfrogged every other safety on the Vikings' roster. Read into that ranking what you will.
Rodgers, Matthews & Driver US PresswireGreen Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and Donald Driver are all playing in Super Bowl XLV, but how might they have fit into the NFC West's draft plans?
DALLAS -- Every Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass and playoff victory makes the San Francisco 49ers look worse for drafting Alex Smith over Rodgers back in 2005.

A victory for Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 45 would only sanction additional mutilation of this rotting equine carcass.

Some criticism is justified, obviously, but with Rodgers and key Packers scheduled to make their Super Bowl media debuts Monday afternoon, another line of thinking occurred to me. The 49ers weren't the only ones to bypass Rodgers and other key players in this Super Bowl. Why should they absorb such a disproportionate amount of the blame?

The Green Bay players making Super Bowl media appearances Monday -- Rodgers, Donald Driver, A.J. Hawk, Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson -- all qualify for analysis and reflection.

Let's take a look at them through NFC West lenses, beginning in chronological order:

1998 Draft: Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan

Round: First (fourth overall, by Oakland)

NFC West spin: The Cardinals passed over Woodson to select defensive end Andre Wadsworth third overall. The decision seemed defensible at the time. Wadsworth was a freakish talent at a premium position, but chronic knee injuries prevented him from approaching his potential. Wadsworth underwent microfracture knee surgery after only his third NFL season. He never played again, despite a 2007 comeback attempt.

First-round selections in the division:

  • Cardinals (third overall): Wadsworth, DE, Florida State
  • Rams (sixth overall): Grant Wistrom, DE, Nebraska
  • Seahawks (15th overall): Anthony Simmons, LB, Clemson
  • 49ers (28th overall): R.W. McQuarters, CB, Oklahoma State
1999 Draft: Donald Driver, WR, Alcorn State

Round: Seventh (213th overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: Good for the Packers. They found a steal in the seventh round. Driver developed into a full-time starter in 2002, his fourth season. He has 698 career receptions. Driver reflects well on the Packers, but not negatively on anyone in the NFC West.

Seventh-round selections in the division (Seahawks did not have a pick): 2005 Draft: Aaron Rodgers, QB, California

Round: First (24th overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: Only the Seahawks, who held the 26th choice that year, escape second-guessing for this one. To be fair, however, the Rams' Marc Bulger was coming off a breakout 2004 season in which he had thrown 21 touchdown passes while leading St. Louis to the playoffs. There was no reason for the Rams to target a quarterback in the 2005 first round. Rodgers might have wilted in St. Louis while the organization crumbled around him (a fate that might have awaited him in San Francisco as well). The Cardinals could have used a young quarterback to build around, but they signed Kurt Warner to a free-agent contract that offseason. Warner went 2-8 as a starter in 2005, but the Cardinals eventually went to the Super Bowl with him under center. Warner even edged Rodgers in the playoffs following the 2009 season.

First-round selections in the division:

  • 49ers (first overall): Alex Smith, QB, Utah
  • Cardinals (eighth overall): Antrel Rolle, DB, Miami
  • Rams (19th overall): Alex Barron, T, Florida State
  • Seahawks (26th overall): Chris Spencer, C, Mississippi
2006 Draft: A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State

Round: First (fifth overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: The 49ers in particular were monitoring this choice closely. They were picking sixth overall that year and trying to find weapons for their second-year quarterback. Tight end Vernon Davis, chosen sixth overall, is becoming a perennial Pro Bowl choice. Hawk was an all-rookie selection, but he has not played well enough overall to cause much second-guessing in NFC West circles. The Cardinals ultimately whiffed on a quarterback that year, but no one is telling them they should have drafted Hawk instead.

First-round selections in the division:

  • 49ers (sixth overall): Davis, TE, Maryland
  • Cardinals (10th overall): Matt Leinart, QB, USC
  • Rams (15th overall): Tye Hill, CB, Clemson
  • 49ers (22nd overall): Manny Lawson, OLB, North Carolina State
  • Seahawks (31st overall): Kelly Jennings, CB, Miami
2006 Draft: Greg Jennings, WR, Western Michigan

Round: Second (52nd overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: The Cardinals and Rams passed on Jennings in the second round, but that was understandable. Both teams were already strong at receiver. Looking back, however, the Rams certainly would have gone in another direction. They whiffed on tight end Joe Klopfenstein six spots before the Packers took Jennings.

Second-round selections in the division (49ers traded their pick):

  • Cardinals (41st overall): Deuce Lutui, G, USC
  • Rams (46th overall): Klopfenstein, TE, Colorado
  • Seahawks (63rd overall): Darryl Tapp, DE, Virginia Tech
2009 Draft: Clay Matthews, OLB, USC

Round: First (26th overall, to Green Bay)

NFC West spin: This draft hurts. Surely the Seahawks and Rams could have put Matthews' pass-rush ability to use even if he didn't fit their schemes precisely at the time. Both teams passed on him. Worse, the Packers used an additional 2009 first-round choice, this one ninth overall, for another key contributor, B.J. Raji.

First-round selections in the division:
Hope you enjoyed the exercise. I'll be heading to the Pittsburgh Steelers' media session in the not-too-distant future, with plans to check back at the next opportunity.


Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass and playoff victory makes the San Francisco 49ers look worse for drafting Alex Smith over Rodgers back in 2005.

A victory for Rodgers and Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 45 would only sanction additional mutilation of this rotting equine carcass.

Some criticism is justified, obviously, but with Rodgers and key Packers scheduled to make their Super Bowl media debuts Monday afternoon, another line of thinking occurred to me. The 49ers weren't the only ones to bypass Rodgers and other key players in this Super Bowl. Why should they absorb such a disproportionate amount of the blame?

Rodgers' case isn't the only relevant or interesting one along these lines. The Green Bay players making Super Bowl media appearances Monday -- Aaron Rodgers, Donald Driver, A.J. Hawk, Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson -- all qualify for analysis and reflection.

Let's take a look at them through NFC West lenses, beginning in chronological order:

1998 Draft: Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan

Round: First (fourth overall, by Oakland)

NFC West spin: The Cardinals passed over Woodson to select defensive end Andre Wadsworth third overall. The decision seemed defensible at the time. Wadsworth was a freakish talent at a premium position, but chronic knee injuries prevented him from approaching his potential. Wadsworth underwent microfracture knee surgery after only his third NFL season. He never played again, despite a 2007 comeback attempt.

First-round selections in the division:

  • Cardinals (third overall): Wadsworth, DE, Florida State
  • Rams (sixth overall): Grant Wistrom, DE, Nebraska.
  • Seahawks (15th overall): Anthony Simmons, LB, Clemson
  • 49ers (28th overall): R.W. McQuarters, CB, Oklahoma State.
1999 Draft: Donald Driver, WR, Alcorn State

Round: Seventh (213th overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: Good for the Packers. They found a steal in the seventh round. Driver developed into a full-time starter in 2002, his fourth season. He has 698 career receptions. Driver reflects well on the Packers, but not negatively on anyone in the NFC West.

Seventh-round selections in the division:

  • 49ers (23rth overall): Kory Minor, OLB, Notre Dame
  • Cardinals (239th overall): Chris Greisen, QB, Northwest Missouri
  • Rams (252nd overall): Rodney Williams, P, Georgia Tech
2005 Draft: Aaron Rodgers, QB, California

Round: First (24th overall, by Green Bay)

NFC West spin: Only the Seahawks, who held the 26th choice that year, escape second-guessing for this one. To be fair, however, the Rams' Marc Bulger was coming off a breakout 2004 season in which he had thrown 21 touchdown passes while leading St. Louis to the playoffs. There was no reason for the Rams to target a quarterback in the 2005 first round. Rodgers might have wilted in St. Louis while the organization crumbled around him (a fate that might have awaited him in San Francisco as well). The Cardinals could have used a young quarterback to build around, but they signed Kurt Warner to a free-agent contract that offseason. Warner went 2-8 as a starter in 2005, but the Cardinals eventually went to the Super Bowl with him under center. Warner even outplayed Rodgers in the playoffs following the 2009 season.

First-round selections in the division:

  • 49ers (first overall): Alex Smith, QB, Utah

The Arizona Cardinals could have had Rodgers, but they drafted cornerback-turned-safety-turned-New York Giant Antrel Rolle. The St. Louis Rams could have had Rodgers. They selected tackle Alex Barron, a player St. Louis sent to the Dallas Cowboys for Bobby Carpenter.

Wrap-up: Lions 34, Dolphins 27

December, 26, 2010
12/26/10
5:41
PM ET
The Detroit Lions defeated the Miami Dolphins 34-27 in Sun Life Stadium.

What it means: The Dolphins blew a 10-point lead with about five minutes left in the game and lost to the feeblest road team of the past three years. The Dolphins finished the season 1-7 at home, tying the worst record in franchise history.

Home finale: Such a humiliating defeat to punctuate such a humiliating home schedule might mean the end for head coach Tony Sparano. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross predicted his team would reach the Super Bowl this year, indicating where his head was after offseason acquisitions such as receiver Brandon Marshall and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. ... Running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown might have walked off the field for the last time as Dolphins. Williams rushed 14 times for a game-high 71 yards. Brown had 12 carries for 37 yards and a touchdown.

Davone intervention: The football gods giveth, and they taketh away. With 31 seconds left in the first half, Dolphins receiver Davone Bess caught a touchdown pass that went through the hands of Lions defensive back Tye Hill. But earlier in the game, Bess fumbled on a punt return that set up a Lions field goal, and with a little more than two minutes left in a tie game, Bess fell down on a route, allowing Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy to intercept Chad Henne and return it 30 yards for the winning score.

Offensive implosion: The Dolphins amassed 425 yards and held the ball for nearly 15 minutes more than the Lions. Henne had a decent game until crunch time. The Dolphins led by 10 points with about five minutes left, but Henne threw his only two interceptions on third down in Dolphins territory inside the final four minutes. The first allowed the Lions to kick a game-tying field goal. The second left Sparano shaking his head.

Fins firsts: Popular fullback Lousaka Polite, who is virtually automatic in converting short-yardage third downs, finally scored his first NFL rushing touchdown in his seventh season. Mickey Shuler Jr., son of the former New York Jets tight end, caught his first NFL pass, a 28-yarder to set up a field goal.

What's next: The Dolphins will have the chance to punctuate their disappointing campaign with a victory against the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

Wrap-up: Lions 34, Dolphins 27*

December, 26, 2010
12/26/10
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A few thoughts on the end of another late-game victory for the Detroit Lions:

What it means: The Lions won their third consecutive game, two of which have come on the road, and now have a chance to elevate out of the NFC North basement for the first time in three seasons. A victory in next Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings will ensure it. Sunday’s game should be an instant classic in recent Lions history.

What I liked: The Lions scored the final 17 points to complete a comeback from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. A 53-yard touchdown reception by tailback Jahvid Best, Dave Rayner’s 47-yard field goal and DeAndre Levy’s 30-yard interception return accounted for the scoring. Levy’s decision to cut back at about 10-yard line was a smooth, veteran and knowledgeable football play.

What I liked II: Cornerback Nate Vasher intercepted Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne to set up Rayner’s field goal and also made a textbook tackle of Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown on the final play of the game, keeping Brown in bounds with the Dolphins out of timeouts. Vasher seemed buried two years ago in Chicago, and his career took him to San Diego and finally to Detroit. But Sunday, we got a reminder of how good of a player he once was.

What I liked III: Nate Burleson’s 30-yard block of Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis in the fourth quarter allowed tailback Best to maneuver downfield for his touchdown. Burleson basically face-guarded Davis across the field and down the right sideline before pancaking him near the goal line. Best got the credit for the score, but it wouldn’t have happened if Burleson hadn’t stayed with Davis.

Secondary woes: The Lions began the game without safety Louis Delmas, who was deactivated because of a concussion, and I checked my Lions roster a few times to identify some unfamiliar numbers. At different point, you saw Eric King, Prince Miller and Tye Hill playing in the Lions’ beleaguered secondary. While Vasher bailed out the secondary, it’s worth noting that Hill should have intercepted a Henne pass late in the second quarter. But the ball glanced off his hands and into those of Davone Bess for a 13-yard touchdown that gave the Dolphins a lead heading into halftime.

What I wasn’t sure of: Receiver Calvin Johnson wasn’t on the field for much of the fourth quarter. Did he have an injury? There was no official announcement that I saw or heard. *Update: Johnson had an ankle injury.

What’s next: The Lions will return home for their season finale to take on the Vikings, who might or might not have played their Week 16 game against the Philadelphia Eagles by then.

Tennessee Titans cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
9/04/10
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Check here for a full list of Tennessee's roster moves.

Biggest surprises: Running back Samkon Gado ran ahead of LeGarrette Blount since he was added, but Gado lost out to the unproven rookie. Tight end Sean Ryan seemed like he’d stick as insurance for Craig Stevens, whose role is now quite important and who’s had concussion issues in the past. But the Titans parted ways with Ryan. Veteran cornerback Tye Hill was surprised he was let go, according to The Tennessean. Jeff Fisher says teams need at least four corners. If you count nickelback Vincent Fuller, a safety, in the equation the numbers are OK. But otherwise unproven Ryan Mouton is fourth.

No-brainers: Chris Simms often looked confused and flustered in preseason action, and it became clear that the Titans would stick with Kerry Collins as the veteran backup to Vince Young while looking to develop rookie Rusty Smith for down the road. Collins can run the scout team at practice and step in with no practice work if and when he’s needed, and Smith’s got a lot of good qualities, including a nice arm and swagger.

What’s next: The Titans will probably look for help at linebacker, where Gerald McRath’s four-game suspension is underway, and the primary alternative, Collin Allred, has not been durable lately. Could they pursue Oakland’s Thomas Howard in a trade? The depth right now beyond Stephen Tulloch, Will Witherspoon and Allred is Jamie Winborn, Stanford Keglar and long snapper Ken Amato. With receiver Paul Williams finally gone, Keglar can be the guy fans wonder about still being around.

NFC South training camp preview

July, 23, 2010
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The good news for the New Orleans Saints is they are defending Super Bowl champions. The bad news is that’s not a great spot to be in in the NFC South.

The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost it, didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. Since the division came into existence in 2002, there has been no such thing as a dynasty in the NFC South. No team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons.

The Saints, who already have re-written history, will have to do it again if they want to stay on top. But the Atlanta Falcons might not be far behind, the Panthers have enough talent to be dangerous and the Buccaneers almost have to be better than last season.

We’ll find out soon enough if anyone can challenge the Saints. The test begins next week when all four NFC South teams report to training camp.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

Falcons: What does John Abraham have left?

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Falcons are confident defensive end John Abraham still has something left in the tank.
For the past couple of years, the 32-year-old defensive end has been one of those guys who doesn’t practice all the time because the Falcons go out of their way to keep him healthy and fresh. That plan isn’t likely to change this season, but the Falcons will be keeping a very close eye on Abraham in camp.

His sack total dipped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 last season. The obvious question is if Abraham is on the last legs of his career. Despite the statistical evidence, the Falcons believe there’s something left. After closely watching film of Abraham from last season, the coaches firmly believe Abraham can get back to double-digit sacks. Part of their thinking is he’ll benefit from improved play from the interior of the defensive line and that Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are ready to generate pressure from the other side. Recent history has shown the Falcons are willing to make deals late in the preseason (trading for cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Tye Hill) if they feel they have a weakness. But they’re hoping Abraham shows enough in camp to convince them the pass rush will be adequate.

Panthers: What must Matt Moore do to win the starting quarterback job?

A lot of people believe this training camp will be highlighted by a battle between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen. That’s not really the case -- or at least not how Carolina’s brass views the situation. The truth is the Panthers are going to camp with every intention of Moore being the starter. He earned that much by playing well at the end of last season.

Coach John Fox isn’t about to open the season with a rookie starting at quarterback. He could turn to Clausen later in the season if things aren’t going well. But the immediate starting job is Moore’s, and the only way he can lose it is to have a disastrous training camp and preseason.

Saints: Are the Saints ready for a return to the “real’’ world?

Rightfully so, the Saints spent a lot of time this offseason celebrating their first Super Bowl title. Great for them and great for their fans. But all that’s about to end. Coach Sean Payton runs what I think is easily the toughest camp in the NFC South, and I don’t anticipate that changing. If anything, camp might be tougher this year.

Payton is an excellent motivator and he’s well aware the Saints now are the jewel on the schedule of every opposing team. The track record of Super Bowl champions in the following season hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years. Payton knows that, and you can bet that message is going to be conveyed to his team. A big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season is because they had such a tough and productive camp.

Buccaneers: Who are the starting wide receivers?

The Bucs truly don’t know the answer to that question right now and that’s not a bad thing. The plan is to throw all the receivers out there in camp, let them compete and see who rises up. A lot of fans were frustrated and puzzled when the Bucs let Antonio Bryant walk in free agency, leaving the team without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. But the Bucs believe they’re better off without Bryant, who wasn’t all that productive last season and didn’t endear himself to the front office or coaching staff when he made public comments about the coaches and quarterback Josh Freeman that were far from flattering.

The Bucs used early draft picks on Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It’s likely at least one of them will start right away. Veterans Reggie Brown, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall will compete for the other job. If both rookies look good in camp, it’s possible they could be the starters because there isn’t much upside with Brown, Clayton or Stovall. Second-year pro Sammie Stroughter also is in the mix. But, ideally, the Bucs would like to use him as the slot receiver.

HOTTEST SEATS

Falcons: Brian VanGorder. The defensive coordinator has done a nice job of working with the talent he’s had the past two seasons. The Falcons haven’t always had the talent to play the kind of defense coach Mike Smith and Van Gorder want and they’ve gotten by with patchwork. But those days are over. Last year’s top picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, return after missing almost all their rookie seasons with injuries and the Falcons used their top two picks this year on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. They also spent a fortune signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. Although questions remain about the pass rush, the Falcons have the talent to play their scheme. That means the defense must take a big step forward.

Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett. A former second-round pick, Jarrett has not had much of an impact. With Muhsin Muhammad retired and Steve Smith expected to miss most of training camp with a broken arm, Jarrett is going to get a very long look in training camp. In a best-case scenario, Jarrett finally reaches his potential and earns the starting wide receiver job across from Smith. For that to happen, Jarrett must show an attention to detail and consistency; both have been lacking from his game. The Panthers drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards early because they’re not sure if Jarrett ever will blossom.

Darren Sharper
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIIf Darren Sharper isn't 100 percent healthy, he might not be the starter for the Saints.
Saints: Darren Sharper. The safety had a brilliant 2009 season. Sharper instantly became a fan favorite, but his lock on the starting job at free safety isn’t nearly as secure as many people think. Sharper is 34 and coming off knee surgery. We don’t even know if he physically will be able to do much during training camp. The Saints have moved Malcolm Jenkins, a first-round pick a year ago, from cornerback to safety. A lot of fans view Sharper as the Drew Brees of the defense, but I’m not so sure the coaching staff ever has seen it that way, and the Saints didn’t break the bank to re-sign Sharper in the offseason. If he’s 100 percent healthy, Sharper could stay in the starting lineup. Anything less and the Saints won’t hesitate to go with Jenkins.

Buccaneers: Ryan Sims. He was a starter with Chris Hovan at defensive tackle the past few years. The Bucs got rid of Hovan as soon as they could after last season. With the team using its top two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, Sims can’t be feeling too secure. With Roy Miller also in the mix and the Bucs in a full-blown youth movement, Sims needs a strong camp just to secure a roster spot.

SECRET WEAPON

Under-the-radar player to keep an eye out for in camp: Clifton Smith, return man/running back, Buccaneers. It may seem like a stretch to call a guy who has been to a Pro Bowl an under-the-radar player, but Smith fits the profile. After missing most of the second half of last season with concussion problems, Smith has sort of been forgotten. That might be a mistake. Smith established himself as a top-notch return man when he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season two years ago and helped ease the colossal mistake in which the Bucs drafted Dexter Jackson in the second round. When the new coaching staff took over last season, there was some talk about getting Smith more involved on offense. That got derailed by his injuries, but the plan could get back on track this year. Cadillac Williams is the main running back in Tampa Bay, but you could start to see Smith get some action as a situational player. With his speed, he could be an explosive receiver out of the backfield and also might be able to handle a few carries a game.

BEST POSITION BATTLE

It’s not an offensive skill position, so it won’t be flashy. But the best position battle in the NFC South will be sorted out in Spartanburg, S.C., as the Carolina Panthers try to figure what to do with their linebackers. This was supposed to be a spot with enormous strength, but an offseason knee injury to Thomas Davis has turned this into a huge question. Davis probably will miss the entire season, throwing the linebacker corps into a state of uncertainty.

The only thing that’s certain is that Jon Beason remains one of the best linebackers in the league and the unquestioned leader of this defense. But the Panthers aren’t even sure where Beason will line up. He has been fantastic in the middle, but he may move to Davis’ spot on the weak side. In what essentially amounts to a game of musical chairs, the Panthers are looking at four linebackers and trying to figure out the strongest starting trio. One reason they’re considering moving Beason is because they believe Dan Connor can be solid in the middle. He’ll get a chance to prove that in camp.

But the Panthers also will be keeping a close eye on outside linebackers Jamar Williams and James Anderson. If they both rise up, Beason could remain in the middle. If Connor rises up and the Panthers aren’t comfortable with Williams and Anderson as their starters on the outside, they won’t hesitate to move Beason.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans appear hell bent on maintaining the cornerback slot opposite Cortland Finnegan is open for competition.

And that’s the right approach in June, when you can't win a job and probably can't lose one either.

But through 12 of 14 spring and summer OTA practices, Jason McCourty has run with the first team 11 times. Tye Hill was due to get a shot last week, but suffered a hamstring injury and was out. Ryan Mouton got that day, but then McCourty was quickly back in place.

[+] EnlargeJason McCourty
AP Photo/Bill KostrounWhile Jason McCourty appears to be the front-runner to start opposite Cortland Finnegan, Titans coaches aren't saying as much.
Still, coach Jeff Fisher says it’s unwise to read too much into who’s getting the reps at the head of the line.

“We’re just rotating,” Fisher said.

But no matter how much he talks about rotating, the team hasn’t been rotating, at least not at the top.

Fisher said Hill, when healthy, can expect reps to come, as can rookie Alterraun Verner.

Rod Hood would have been in the mix as well, but he tore an ACL recently and is out of the mix.

I sought out former Titans safety Marcus Robertson, the defensive backs coach, to get a review of McCourty’s work so far.

Like his boss, Robertson wasn’t especially eager to single out McCourty or differentiate him too much from Mouton -- leaning toward talking of “them” rather than “him.”

Perhaps we need start calling them McCourton?

I think it’s clear that the Titans like Mouton better in the slot and he’s better suited for it while McCourty is better outside. But with Vincent Fuller entrenched there, it’s not an available spot.

Robertson said McCourty has “drastically improved.”

“Both of those guys have the ability,” Robertson said. “The one thing I like about JMac is the simple thing that he’s coachable. He has all the tools to be a good football player, he understands the game. I think for him, the more times he sees it, the better he will be.”

A brutal season for the Titans' secondary last year included too much time for Mouton and McCourty on the field as rookies.

“Although it wasn’t a great thing for us, I think it was a good thing for them,” Robertson said. “Because they got an opportunity to realize that at any given time you can be exposed and that if you don’t do the hard work during the week, you can easily be embarrassed on Sunday.

“That isn’t a good feeling and I know now that they are dedicated to being the best players they can be.”

McCourty said he isn’t concentrating on who’s lining up when, but that all of the team’s corners -- with Nick Harper’s old spot now open -- have to think of themselves as starting material.

“I know the guys behind me are just as good,” McCourty said. “So if I go out there and I slack, one of them is going to pick up on that and hop in front of me.”

Receiver Lavelle Hawkins interrupted to brag about having beaten McCourty on a play late in practice. McCourty didn’t really flinch. Pressed, he said it wasn’t much of a victory for the receiver, who grabbed a short slant.

Practice notes from Nashville

June, 15, 2010
6/15/10
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A couple thoughts out of the Tennessee Titans' organized team activities (OTAs) Tuesday:

  • I think Will Witherspoon is going to be a good player and a settling force for this team. So I was surprised to see that he’s not currently on the field as part of the nickel package, yielding to Gerald McRath and Colin Allred, who’s filling in for Stephen Tulloch. Tulloch is not with the team as a protest over his contract. Both Jeff Fisher and Witherspoon said they expect he will ultimately be part of the nickel package, and that his absence from it now is merely about him getting to know the base component of the system first.
  • Fisher has talked about rotating candidates through the starting cornerback spot opposite Cortland Finnegan. But until Tuesday it’s been all Jason McCourty. Now it’s Ryan Mouton. “Mouton just needs to go out there with the ones and continue to make the plays,” Fisher said. “He’s got a real good feel for what we’re doing, the one-on-one stuff has really improved, his understanding of the concepts is improving. He just needs to go out and make plays. McCourty did a nice job. He was very quiet, very competitive and much better playing the ball this spring, getting his hands on the ball, reacting to things.” Tye Hill, who suffered a hamstring injury Monday, and rookie Alterraun Verner will also get chances at the spot, Fisher said.
  • Kenny Britt is out of the doghouse where he landed for coming to initial OTAs out of shape. Mostly. He’s still not running with the first unit -- lining up only after the likes of Lavelle Hawkins -- and didn’t have a great day. Fisher said Britt’s climb back up the depth chart is about consistency and time. If Britt doesn’t qualify as this team’s top receiver by opening day, it’ll be a huge disappointment.
  • Everyone had a good laugh when Chris Simms scored in a goal line period on a bootleg. Not really his forte.
» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

Nick Harper, former Titans cornerback: His name’s not surfaced in any sort of free-agent talks around the league. No one thought he’d resurface with the Titans, and that’s been guaranteed with the addition of free agents Rod Hood and Tye Hill. Harper, underrated in his first two seasons with the Titans, slipped in his third and will be 36 in September. Will he find a team that wants experienced depth?

Rising

Jacques Reeves, Texans cornerback: Consistency has been the question. But with the offseason conditioning program under way, he’s got a chance with Dunta Robinson gone to make a play for a big role. Odds are a rookie corner from high in the draft will be part of things at the end of the month. But good work from Reeves now and through the summer can potentially keep him at the head of the line opposite second-year man Glover Quin.

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