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Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Updated: April 20, 3:00 PM ET
Top of draft will be shaped by new coaches

By Len Pasquarelli

There is a curious but undeniably triangular symmetry at the top of the 2005 NFL draft.

For the first time in the modern history of the draft, each of the top three teams in the selection order employs a rookie head coach. All three of the first-timers earned their stripes as defensive coordinators. Two of the three are converting full time to the resurgent 3-4 as their base defense, and the other will make extensive use of it.

So, on the defensive side, should we look for the early proceedings Saturday afternoon to have a decidedly Lawrence Welk (you know, a-one, and a-two, and a-three) feel to them? Probably not.

With apologies to the rocker Meat Loaf, three out of four ain't bad. The fourth element of the superfecta in the NFL's annual draft derby is that the new coaches' probable desires are a poor fit with this year's talent pool.

So, while the conventional wisdom suggests that first-year coaches Mike Nolan (San Francisco), Nick Saban (Miami) and Romeo Crennel (Cleveland) each would prefer a defensive prospect to serve as the cornerstone for the renovation he must enact, convention is not likely to hold to form in the 2005 draft.

Romeo Crennel
Romeo Crennel was the defensive coordinator in New England for the last four seasons.

Which probably means that the pyramid power that exists with the first three selections on Saturday points in the general direction of offense.

"The goal is to make the team better, not necessarily just one area of it, and so that means taking the best player who fits into what you're going to do," Crennel said at the combine workouts two months ago. "You don't hang labels on guys and say, 'Let's get the best defensive player because we need some help there.' Hey, maybe when I was a coordinator, I was in there [lobbying] for every defensive guy I could get my hands on. But I'm coaching the whole football team now."

There is, to be sure, plenty of coaching to be accomplished by Crennel, and by his fellow pledges to the NFL head coach fraternity. The 49ers, Dolphins and Browns combined for just 10 victories in 2004. Nine franchises individually posted that many wins or more in '04. As all three men realize, good franchises don't make coaching switches, so they all inherit teams in duress and in decline.

When that's the case, history indicates, you don't play favorites in the draft. Facing a wholesale overhaul, the best path to follow to respectability is the road laid out with a well-prepared draft board. Every draft board, including those of successful teams, is skewed a bit toward how prospects dovetail with the team's system.

But when the dike has sprung so many holes, it takes more than one finger to save a team from drowning.

"This isn't going to be rebuilt overnight," Cleveland personnel director Bill Rees acknowledged. "We know we're going to have to have a few more drafts."

Note: Between 1978, when the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule, and 2003, 101 teams won four or fewer games, as did each of the three franchises at the top of the '05 draft. Of that group, only 23, not even one-fourth, registered eight victories the following season.

The lesson is that, even in an age of swift turnarounds, it's next to impossible to reverse fortunes in one year. The three first-year coaches figure to be granted time to elicit improvement, and rebuilding a roster usually entails a lot more than just a one-year exercise. Patience, the coaches will soon find, is virtuous and, in the long run, victorious, as well.

That said, the rookie coaches are going to enter the draft this weekend seeking to put their personal imprint on their clubs.

Said Nolan: "Whichever guy we draft, I want him to look like what I want our team to look like. He's going to be our face, the reflection of what we're looking for in a player. When people look at that guy, I want them to see the qualities and the values this team is going to be about."

Nolan is in select company. Barring a trade, he will become only the sixth rookie head coach since 1970 to exercise the top overall selection in the draft. It's fair to assess that, for the most part, the five coaches who preceded him in that dubious distinction made picks with their heads and not their hearts.

Despite his offensive persuasions, Tampa Bay coach John McKay chose defensive end Lee Roy Selmon with the Bucs' initial pick as an expansion franchise in 1976. In 1989, even with his penchant for defense, Jimmy Johnson chose quarterback Troy Aikman for the Dallas Cowboys. Marvin Lewis' background was as a defensive coordinator, but his first pick with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003 was quarterback Carson Palmer.

It's a pretty good bet that Nolan, who fashioned a terrific defense during his tenure in Baltimore, wishes there were an Ed Reed-type safety or a Terrell Suggs-caliber pass-rusher at the top of this draft. Alas, there isn't, and the draft could actually get through its first five choices before a defender comes off the board.

Whichever guy we draft, I want him to look like what I want our team to look like. He's going to be our face, the reflection of what we're looking for in a player. When people look at that guy, I want them to see the qualities and the values this team is going to be about.
Mike Nolan, 49ers coach

Still, expect all three new coaches to address their most glaring needs, and to attend to personal preferences in their overall draft performances. Each has a proven eye for talent. All have been a part of successful organizations and have played key roles in draft rooms. Raised in the Bill Belichick system, and often sent on the road by his former boss to check and double-check prospects, Saban knows the routine.

"I went everywhere," Saban recalled of his tenure as Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Browns. "I saw, pretty much, everything."

There is, in some quarters, a suspicion that the 2005 draft will be strongly affected by having three first-time coaches at the top. But these are three veterans, men who have offered opinions while their teams were on the clock in the past and who will not be daunted by the task. It is silly, in fact, to suggest their rookie status will somehow be a negative in this lottery.

The draft might be shaped, but certainly not shaken, by their decisions.

As a devotee of power football, Saban probably hopes to see at some point, though not necessarily in the first round, a tailback capable of filling the void created in Miami by the retirement of Ricky Williams. While he has extended an olive branch to Williams, and feels there is some chance the erstwhile runner will return, Saban needs to unearth at least one option for grinding out yardage on the ground. And, just as much, the Dolphins require an influx of youth on defense.

Saban's rookie coaching cohorts likewise need defensive reinforcements. Crennel and first-year general manager Phil Savage have jettisoned 10 defensive veterans who started at least one game for Cleveland in 2004. Thus, the crying need appears to be at linebacker, where the Browns could use bodies and athleticism to help make the transition to the 3-4. In San Francisco, Nolan has linebackers, the relative strength of the defense he inherited, but lacks linemen suited to playing the three-man front.

Mostly, though, all three coaches just need more good football players. But players who, at least on paper, fit their respective styles.

"We've got a pretty good idea of what we're looking for," Saban said.

In the cases of Saban and Nolan, both of whom essentially have final say in personnel matters, the calls will be their own. Savage, who compiled a brilliant draft record during his tenure with the Ravens, when he was the top lieutenant to GM Ozzie Newsome, has final say on personnel – contractually, at least. But Savage and Crennel have operated like a smooth tag team in their first few months and are in accord on the kinds of players they want to bring in to infuse a suspect roster.

Not surprisingly, they want the kind of players everyone does, with a nod toward prospects who will constitute a class that eventually will serve as the foundation of the franchise.

"You want winners," Nolan said. "And you want guys who will win your way."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for