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Sunday, April 27, 2008
NFC West: Rams set defensive tone with Long

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

It's no secret: The NFC West has been as soft as any division, particularly on defense. The Seattle Seahawks have been the only team with the talent or mettle to succeed in the playoffs since the 2004 season.

DRAFT DIVISIONAL REVIEWS
• Walker: NFC East draft review
• Sando: NFC West draft review
• Willamson: NFC North draft review
• Yasinskas: NFC South draft review
• Sando: AFC East draft review
• Williamson: AFC West draft review
• Walker: AFC North draft review
• Yasinskas: AFC South draft review
In an effort to toughen up, every team in the division drafted a defensive lineman among the top 50 overall choices. Three teams did so in the first round.

The Rams set the tone by taking Virginia's Chris Long second overall. The Seahawks drafted USC's Lawrence Jackson at No. 28. The San Francisco 49ers followed suit one pick later with Clemson's Kentwan Balmer. And the Cardinals, after addressing a need at corner in the first round, added Miami's Calais Campbell in the second round.

Best move


Chris Long
No. 2 overall pick Chris Long will help take the pressure of an aging Leonard Little.
The Rams needed to get younger and more active on their defensive line. Long helps on both fronts.

Left end Leonard Little, 33, started only seven games last season because of injuries. He finished with one sack, down from 13 in 2006. Little stands to benefit from having an active pass-rusher like Long lined up on the other side. This selection makes even more sense if Little is unable to recapture his past form.

A week before the draft, Long was considered a potential candidate for Miami with the No. 1 overall choice. The Dolphins took Jake Long instead, leaving the Rams to choose between the top-rated defensive tackle (Chris Long) and the top-rated end (Glenn Dorsey).

The debate was a worthwhile one. Dorsey might have been an even better choice, but the Rams couldn't go wrong with either player if the scouting reports are correct. Those reports say Long possesses the energy, attitude and outside pass-rushing potential the Rams need to pressure Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and challenge for the division title.

Riskiest move


Receivers are always a risky proposition in the draft. The Rams were the first team to draft a receiver when they landed Houston's Donnie Avery with the No. 33 overall pick. Avery's breakaway potential makes him a threat both as a receiver and as a return specialist, two areas in which the Rams need young players to emerge.

Hashmarks

Because they favor players with extensive experience in major college programs, the Seahawks have become predictable early in the draft.
Mike Sando

The Rams selected Avery even though conventional wisdom said other candidates were more worthy.

With the Rams coming off a 3-13 season and owner Chip Rosenbloom recently calling the Rams a playoff team, coach Scott Linehan might need this decision to pan out. Isaac Bruce is gone, Torry Holt is gutting it out on a chronically sore knee and Drew Bennett's receiving totals have declined every year since 2004.

In drafting Avery and fourth-round receiver Keenan Burton, the Rams paid particular attention to specific measurables: Both ranked among the leaders in the three-cone drill that measures quickness and ability to change direction.

"My biggest goal personally and as an organization that we talked about was adding speed to our team," coach Scott Linehan said. "I really felt if we could put some speed at our receiver [position], it would really help our system because it's built on that."

Most surprising move


The 49ers didn't take a skill-position player until the sixth round, which was surprising for a team that hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. Yet there's no question that Bruce and fellow veteran newcomer Bryant Johnson upgraded the receiver position. Tight end Vernon Davis also should emerge as more of a passing threat if Martz can coax better results from the quarterback position.

But the 49ers will need young reinforcements at receiver at some point. Bruce is nearing the end, and Arnaz Battle has never exceeded 686 yards in a season. Martz will surely help pump up those numbers, but another viable prospect might have been helpful for the future. The 49ers didn't take a receiver until selecting Virginia Tech's Josh Morgan in the sixth round, 174th overall.

File it away


LSU receiver Early Doucet could provide insurance for the Cardinals while Anquan Boldin remains unhappy about his contract situation.

Like Boldin, Doucet lacks breakaway speed. Also like Boldin, Doucet has good size at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, but Boldin plays more physically, particularly when fighting for the ball.

A disappointing 40-yard time probably hurt Doucet's draft position, but stopwatch speed can be overrated at wideout. Quickness and reliable hands qualify as Doucet's strengths. He flourished at the Senior Bowl and appears suited for the slot because of his size and route running.