The key to this year's draft is what happens with the No. 7 and No. 8 picks.
At No. 7, the Jacksonville Jaguars are in a tough spot. Most experts believe the draft has six top players: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Matt Kalil, Trent Richardson, Morris Claiborne and Justin Blackmon. Blackmon, the Oklahoma State receiver, is the wild card of the bunch because receivers must be extra special to go in the top five or six.
Getting Blackmon would be a break for the Jaguars, but if they can't, they might struggle to figure out the right choice. North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples may not meet the high standards of general manager Gene Smith for character and work ethic. The Jaguars will be calling around with a desire to trade down, but there might not be a prospect strong enough to draw trade offers.
That's why there's been talk of the Jaguars taking cornerback Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina.
The debate at No. 8 is whether the Dolphins should take Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. With Luck and Griffin expected to go No. 1 and No. 2, Tannehill is the next-best quarterback, but he might not be a top-10 pick for most teams. The Dolphins are in a tough spot. They must get a quarterback, but can they take him at No. 8? Or should they consider trading up to make sure they get ahead of Cleveland at No. 4 just in case the Browns plan to take Tannehill?
The long-standing nightmare in Miami is the franchise's inability to find the right replacement for Dan Marino. As a result, the Dolphins have lost 30,000 season-ticket holders over the past several years. Owner Stephen Ross is under the gun after he failed to land head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher.
Ross and general manager Jeff Ireland must make the right decision at quarterback. Odds favor them taking Tannehill at No. 8. If they draft someone else, Dolphins fans might heap on more criticism.
Whether they like it or not, the Dolphins really must make Tannehill their first choice.
From the inbox
Q: I understand the NFL wants to try and keep games short, and reviews can extend games past the three-hour mark. However, if there is any one penalty that should be reviewable, shouldn't coaches be able to challenge a pass interference call? These penalties can be 40- or 50-yard calls or give an opponent the ball at the 1-yard line. This penalty can, and often does, impact who wins.
Kevin in Toronto
A: Interference is a judgment call, more so than fumbles, incompletions and touchdown calls. The NFL is concerned about the length of games, and if it keeps adding to the number of possible replays, games could become way too long. The debate on interceptions shouldn't be whether they're reviewable or not reviewable. The debate should be whether interference should be for the yardage of the infraction or just to march off an interference penalty from scrimmage, like they do in college. The problem of using the college rule in the pros is that corners are smart and would be willing to sacrifice an interference penalty if they know it can eliminate a potential deep completion. That would lead to fewer big plays and possibly lower scores.
Q: As a Steelers fan, it looks as though the new CBA may have leveled the playing field. Since the Bill Cowher era began, Pittsburgh has never been saddled by a top-10 pick, and thus a bloated rookie contract. That has allowed the Steelers to build through the draft while providing competitive contracts to players entering their prime. Now that teams are free from the burden of paying exorbitant fees to top rookies, do you feel that more teams may emulate the Steelers' recipe for success?
Mike in Thornville, Ohio
A: I don't think things will change. Good organizations with good scouting operations are rewarded with annual success. Sure, a flat cap could cause the Steelers to lose some players like they did when Cowher was coach. The difference is they have a top quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who can make things right if they do lose players because of a tight cap. The Steelers are the classic example in sports that you don't need to keep changing coaches and schemes to be successful. By staying in their 3-4 defense, they've been able to groom players to become starters when players age. They bring in fewer than 10 new players a year. Stability works.
Q: What is the NFL's reasoning for having 53 players on a roster, but only able to activate 47 on game day? I've never been able to understand this.
Tony in Hobbs, N.M.
A: I'm glad to review this question every so often because new, younger fans don't get a chance to get fully educated in some of the ways of the NFL. The shortened rosters are for competitive reasons. Here's the thinking: Injuries are a part of a game. If a bad team has four or five players out with injuries and the good team has 53 healthy players, you have a competitive disadvantage that is worsened by the 53-man active roster. The better team with better players can have more quality players filling out special teams roles. The lesser teams with fewer good players would have to use more of its players and tire them out. Maybe that sounds lame, but some teams such as the Bengals believe in keeping active rosters at 47.
Q: I am curious about the NFL and its new Week 17 policy. Personally, I dislike it, and I am curious as to a couple of things. Namely, why are Ravens-Steelers, Jets-Patriots, and Saints-Falcons not Week 17 matchups? And perhaps the bigger question is, does this have anything and everything to do with the Colts tanking their shot at perfection in 2009? I'm also curious to know if the NFL would ever reconsider going back outside the division and re-seed the playoffs instead?
Jeff from Santa Monica, Calif.
A: This is the second year of playing division games in Week 17, so there is a little bit of experimenting. The problem facing the league is spacing out 12 divisional games over a 17-week period. You need good divisional games to start the season. You need some of your best divisional games the week after the World Series is over. You need good divisional games after Thanksgiving. Then you have NBC, ESPN and the NFL Network vying for night games. The reason the league went to divisional games in the final week is to try to keep divisional races as close as possible. It's a tough assignment.
Q: When should the San Diego Chargers start looking for a young replacement for Antonio Gates, and wouldn't Stanford's Coby Fleener be a great replacement? What are the chances that the Chargers could pick Fleener up?
Jesse in Napa, Calif.
A: Fleener would be a perfect fit on the Chargers just because they like tall targets and Fleener is a great tall target who could help in the middle of the field. As far as finding a replacement, that is their third priority. The first priority is improving their wide receiving crew. Second, they must get offensive linemen. After that, they can look to replace Gates, but that might be next season's assignment.
Q: I think Mark Barron should be the Jets' primary draft-day target. Like most teams, the Jets have stayed away from drafting a safety in the early rounds, but I think now it's time to provide Rex with a talented safety like he was used to having in Baltimore. In my opinion, we should trade up a few spots in front of the Cowboys if that is what is necessary to land him. What have you been hearing about the Jets' potential interest in Barron?
Zack in New York
A: The Jets must be interested in the Alabama safety. He's the perfect type of player and leader who can upgrade their secondary. Imagine a secondary with Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Barron. That said, they need a pass-rusher more than they need a safety. The debate would be whether Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw or South Carolina defensive lineman Melvin Ingram would be better for the defense than Barron. They might say yes to Upshaw, but they could pick Barron over Ingram.
Q: With recent readings about Maurice Jones-Drew possibly holding out due to being underpaid, and from what I read that the Jags might not be inclined to pay a running back with so much use (but really, he's split time for half of his career), so shouldn't a going-for-it team that needs a running back swoop in and trade for him, like Denver, Detroit or Pittsburgh?
Brian in Langhorne, Pa.
A: I wouldn't read much into it. MJD is one of the smarter players in football. He must know that he doesn't have the bargaining power to pull off getting a bigger contract. I look at this more like how some of the top running backs have handled the offseason. Running backs like Edgerrin James, Jamal Anderson and others had the philosophy that it's sometimes better to train as a running back away from your teammates than with them. Running backs take a pounding. Sometimes it helps to be on your own to get the mind and body right. If he starts missing mandatory sessions, then this could be a problem. But he's not going to get more money. I expect him to be back with the team.
Q: With the way offenses are becoming more pass friendly and QBs are the marquee players in the league now, is Ryan Tannehill that good, or has his stock only risen because the need is so great for QBs (i.e. Miami, Washington, Seattle, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Arizona), similar to last year with Locker, Gabbert, and Ponder?
Seth in Wilmington, N.C.
A: It's a little bit of both. Last year, teams clearly reached for first-round quarterbacks for fear they weren't going to get good ones in the second round. The Tannehill situation is intriguing. He's had limited experience in college, but Cam Newton played less and was a major success as a rookie. Tannehill is a great athlete. He's accurate. He's got a good arm. What you wonder about is whether he's like a Ben Roethlisberger, whom teams passed on because they thought it would take time for him to convert into a top NFL quarterback, or if he's like Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback who could be damaged if he gets to play too early.