The NFC West Draft
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Arizona Cardinals (31st Overall)
The Cardinals went to the Super Bowl last year despite an extremely weak rushing attack -- they finished 28th in Rushing DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here), and dead last in total rushing yards with 1178 in the regular season. That's 73.6 yards per game, and Cardinals backs rushed for over 100 yards in only three games. This is anathema to head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line guru Russ Grimm, who made their coaching bones with the Steelers when they featured the power running of Jerome Bettis. (Grimm, of course, was one of the Hogs, providing lanes for the likes of John Riggins). Between Edgerrin James, Tim Hightower, and J.J. Arrington, there wasn't that feature back that could take a team on his shoulders. The Cardinals were effectively pass-wacky, but it wasn't by choice.
If he can stay healthy, Ohio state running back Chris "Beanie" Wells will be the instrument used by Whisenhunt to implement the power running game he's used to. At 6-1, 235 pounds and with legitimate sub-4.5 speed, he's going to be a real task for any defense to take down. The problem is the amount of time Wells spent in the trainer's room, especially in his last two seasons, due to a variety of ankle, hamstring, foot, and thumb injuries. Still, he amassed 3,382 rushing yards in his Ohio State career, fourth in school history, despite starting only 21 games. When Wells visited the Cardinals a few weeks before the draft, Whisenhunt asked him this: "Now, when we draft you, Chris, do you want me to call you 'Chris', or do you want me to call you 'Beanie'"? The Cards actually had UConn's Donald Brown rated higher than Wells, but Brown was off the board, taken by the Colts, and Wells fit the profile of the physical back Whisenhunt and Grimm are so familiar with. The next challenge: Stay on the field!
St. Louis Rams (2nd Overall)
The offensive line class of 1997 may be the best of all time. Three slam-dunk Hall-of-Fame left tackles -- Baltimore's Jonathan Ogden, Seattle's Walter Jones, and St. Louis' Orlando Pace -- all came out of that draft. Pace may have been the best of the three at his peak, patrolling the left side of the Rams' offense through the Greatest Show on Turf era and two Super Bowl appearances. But that peak was a long time ago, and the Rams' offensive line has suffered from injury and poor play for years. Pace has been bitten by the latter bug, missing 25 games in the last three seasons, and with his salary gradually escalating, the rebuilding Rams had little choice to cut him. Pace signed on with the Bears, where he'll protect Jay Cutler's blind side in the short term.
To help fix an offensive line that finished 28th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards stat in 2008 (ALY is explained here), St. Louis selected Baylor tackle Jason Smith with the second overall pick. A former tight end, Smith has rare quickness for his position (sub-5.0) and a power that belies the time he spent in college in a two-point stance. He'll replace Pace on the list side -- the Rams hope for the next decade or so -- and be the pointman in a new power offense the team would like to employ. Smith developed excellent drive-blocking skills in 2008, as 65 percent of Baylor's rushing yardage came on runs to the left.
San Francisco 49ers (10th overall)
Between their witness protection quarterbacks and a staff of iffy receivers, the 49ers finished 29th in Passing DVOA in 2008, and didn't have a single pass-catcher finish higher than 25th in DYAR -- and that was the aging Isaac Bruce. The 49ers finished 7-9 in a weak division despite their offensive problem, and the hypothesis seemed to be that it would take less time to draft a receiver early on than develop another quarterback after the whole Alex Smith adventure. When the Raiders passed on two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree in favor of Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick, the Niners jumped at the chance to add Texas Tech's playmaker to their roster.
Crabtree does come with some risk -- doctors discovered a stress fracture in his left foot at the Scouting Combine, and the injury prevented him from running at the Combine or at his Pro Day. He won't see the field until training camp, but the 49ers should see their investment repaid with a tough, physical receiver that is fearless over the middle and unafraid to block. Crabtree put up the best two-season catch total in NCAA history, and caught at least ten passes in 10 out of 13 games in 2008. It will be interesting to see how Crabtree does now that he's separated from Mike Leach's dynamic spread offense, but he's in an optimal situation -- he's a receiver who craves the ball on a team with precious few impact players on offense.
Seattle Seahawks (4th Overall)
The Seahawks' linebacker corps wasn't a distinct liability in a 2008 season that saw the former division champs close out the Mike Holmgren era with a 4-12 record, but changed needed to be made. New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley came from Tampa Bay before the 2009 season to implement the Tampa-2 defense he learned from Monte Kiffin. A variant of the Cover-2, the Tampa-2 requires linebackers that can consistently play in space, which was a problem for veteran Julian Peterson. Peterson is a freakish athlete, but he tended to disappear for entire drives after making a few impact plays. The Seahawks traded him to the Lions in mid-March for lineman Cory Redding, and the hope was that one player would be there when Seattle picked fourth overall in the 2009 draft. Fortunately, he was.
Wake Forest linebacker entered the '09 draft as not only the best defender, but quite possibly the best overall player. In a three-part series I did on him for the Post (click to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), Curry displayed hunger, humility, and intelligence in measures that any NFL team would certainly find impressive. Of all the teams that displayed interest in Curry before the draft, the Seahawks were the only one to cancel their visit with him - they already knew what they were getting. He is the most versatile linebacker to hit the NFL in years -- since Derrick Brooks or the young Julian Peterson -- and his multi-faceted game will define a new scheme in Seattle.
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Posted by: mykulw | May 31, 2009 11:46 AM
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