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FR: Super Bowl 45 Storylines

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisbe...

Ben Roethlisberger (left) will be on the spot at Media Day. Image via Wikipedia

Each year, the buildup to the Super Bowl is full of storylines. Some are hype, some are funny, some are ridiculous, and some actually mean something. So on the eve of the spectacle known as Media Day, we’re going to do what we do each year and break down the storylines using our Football Relativity comparison. The 10 level marks the storylines that you’ll hear the most; the 1 level is the storyline that will barely make a ripple.

If you have ideas we overlooked, suggest them via comments and we’ll add them to the comparison.

10 – Big Ben’s redemption – This story is old, because it’s been a full season since Ben Roethlisberger’s legal questions in Georgia, and several months since his league-mandated suspension. But Roethlisberger will be peppered with questions about his past and his future throughout the week. Armchair psychologists will try to determine if he has changed, if he has learned his lesson, whether women have forgiven him, and a multitude of other questions. With Big Ben giving pat answers to such questions all seasons, we can’t expect any revelations or public soul-searching, but the questions will undoubtedly be there.

9 – Aaron Rodgers’ place among the elite QBs today – Rodgers can break the glass ceiling of NFL quarterbacks if he wins this Super Bowl, much like Drew Brees did last year. Before New Orleans’ Super Bowl win, Brees was fighting for inclusion with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning among the league’s best QBs. Now Brees has turned the duo into a threesome. If Rodgers leads the Pack to a win Sunday, he’ll make it a quartet. He already has the regular-season numbers, but a Super Bowl win would vault him over Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, and the other good quarterbacks into the land of the great – at least in terms of national perception. This storyline will be a talking-head go-to this week.

8 – Big Ben’s place among the elite QBs all-time – While Rodgers is out to solidify his ranking among the quarterbacks of today, Big Ben has history at stake. If he gets another Super Bowl win, he’ll join the Troy Aikman/Brady class with three rings, trailing just Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw on the all-time list. The list of QBs with two rings includes many greats – John Elway, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese – but also Jim Plunkett, a good but not great. Roethlisberger can cement his lasting legacy (and strengthen his Hall of Fame case) by moving from the two-ring to the three-ring club.

7 – Packers IR controversy – Maybe it was the lull of the bye week, but the story about how the Packers were treating their 16 players on injured reserve blew up last week and will linger into media day. A quick review: First, the Packers announced that their IR players wouldn’t arrive in Texas until Thursday, which would leave them out of the team photo that happens Tuesday. Nick Barnett and JerMichael Finley took to Twitter to protest being left out, and the Packers rescheduled the photo until Friday. Then Rodgers publicly criticized players who were doing their rehab away from Green Bay, even though that’s a fairly typical decision for players. Again, Barnett and Finley (among others) took offense. The Packers will claim the waters have been smoothed over, but questions will persist all week and especially when injured players are available to the media later in the week.

6 – Looming lockout – Because both commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith will hold press conferences this week, the looming lockout will be front-page news. There will be plenty of posturing, and both sides will try to win the battle of public perception. Who knows who will win; but we do know for sure that headlines will be forthcoming.

5 – Hines Ward retirement – Some stories have percolated suggesting that Ward, the long-time Steelers receiver and Super Bowl 40 MVP, might retire were the Steelers to win the Super Bowl. But Ward has said his third ring won’t be enough to transition him out of the game. Still, reports are out there enough that Ward will have to declare he’s coming back more than once to the media onslaught this week.

4 – Steelers injuries – Both teams have injuries, but the Steelers’ are higher profile. Reports say that Pro Bowl rookie center Maurkice Pouncey is out, although the team hasn’t officially ruled him out. Star defensive end Aaron Smith faced an early-week MRI that will determine whether he’s able to play. Former first-round pick Ziggy Hood has played quite well in Smith’s stead, which could allow the Steelers to bring Smith back in a limited role. But Pouncey’s replacement, Doug Legursky, will be a pretty significant drop-off from Pouncey’s level of play. That makes this an on-field issue worth talking about this week.

3 – Clay Matthews’ stardom – Aside from Rodgers, the Packer with the most to gain from a marketing standpoint this week is Matthews, the star outside linebacker and third-generation NFL player. Matthews has a distinctive look and two fine pro seasons, and that will make him a popular target of questions, especially by the non-traditional media. It’ll be interesting to see if Matthews can become a breakout star this week.

2 – none

1 – Packers injuries – While the Packers would like to have either OLB Frank Zombo or Erik Walden available Sunday to start across from Clay Matthews, this isn’t a make-or-break proposition for the Packers. However, it is an excuse for us to declare once again that Zombo is the best surname in the NFL. It’s a name fit for an X-Man or a wrestler, and it’s his real last name. We want him to be a star just so we can hear ZOMBO more often.

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Divisional Round Saturday Thoughts

Let’s reflect on two memorable Saturday divisional-round games.

Hines Ward celebrates his TD catch vs. the Ravens

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24
*The score didn’t reflect it, but this was just as much of a defensive struggle as any other game in the series. The difference was that turnovers both defenses forced set up touchdowns on short fields, instead of field goals. With 11 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and tons of hard hits, this was an epic reminder of the kind of football the Steelers and Ravens always play against each other.
* The two defensive stars were Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison. Suggs was an unstoppable force with three sacks and two other tackles for loss, including the sack that caused Ben Roethlisberger’s fumble which Cory Redding picked up when no one else considered doing so and returned for a touchdown. Harrison had three sacks of his own, two more tackles for loss, and two passes defensed, showing again why he’s the most complete 3-4 outside linebacker in the league.
*Redding’s touchdown was one of the most unusual plays you’ll ever see in a playoff game. While most players on both teams assumed the ball was the result of an incomplete pass, Redding realized he hadn’t heard a whistle and picked it up. He was in the end zone before everyone else, aside from two Ravens defensive backs, realized what was going on. Redding’s eureka moment gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead and a healthy dose of momentum they kept until the third quarter.
*Both running backs had crucial fumbles in this game. Rashard Mendenhall’s fumble in the first quarter set up Baltimore’s first touchdown, while Ray Rice’s fumble in the third quarter turned momentum and helped Pittsburgh get back in the game. We still like Rice better than Mendenhall, because Rice has far more elusiveness and ability to turn nothing into something. Mendenhall needs a hole blocked for him before he can get going and gain yards.
*The Ravens were supposed to have the receiver depth in this game, after adding Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the offseason, but it was the Steelers who got good performances from the two rookies they added. Emmanuel Sanders had four key catches, while Antonio Brown’s 58-yard bomb late in the game set up the game-winning touchdown. With Sanders, Brown, and Mike Wallace (who was the focus of Baltimore’s defense in this game), the Steelers are set up nicely for the post-Hines Ward era, whenever it begins. Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, meanwhile, both had key drops as Baltimore tried to rally for a game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes. Somehow, despite those additions, Derrick Mason remained the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver this season.
*Joe Flacco is becoming a good quarterback, and he’s had good success on the road in the playoffs in his three-year career. But in this game Flacco made costly errors – an overthrown ball that turned into a Ryan Clark interception, setting up Pittsburgh’s third touchdown. Then Flacco fumbled a snap to set up a field goal. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs, which is still quite good for a young QB, but he’s not good enough to beat an elite team in the postseason yet.
*Two other names deserving mention in this game were Baltmore CB Chris Carr and Pittsburgh DE Ziggy Hood. Carr, whom the Ravens signed when he was primarily a kick returner in Tennessee, has become a sure-tackling corner for the Ravens. Hood, a former first-round pick, filled in beautifully for the injured Aaron Smith, notching a sack and another fumble for loss. Hood and Brett Keisel are top-quality 3-4 defensive ends, which should let Smith play more limited snaps when he returns.

Aaron Rodgers celebrates another score

Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21
*Aaron Rodgers is officially making the leap in these playoffs. His masterful 31-for-36 game for 366 yards and three touchdowns is an all-time classic, giving him two terrific playoff games in a row. The Falcons had no answer for Rodgers and his deep group of receivers. All four of his top receivers had at least four catches, led by eight from Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.
*Tramon Williams starred again as well. After his game-clinching interception against the Eagles, Williams added two more picks against the Falcons, including one he returned for a 70-yard touchdown late in the first half that really started the Packers’ onslaught. Charles Woodson is terrific, but Williams gives Green Bay a second terrific cover man.
*Clay Matthews continued his strong play with two more sacks. He has become an elite outside rusher, a la DeMarcus Ware.
*The one bright spot for the Falcons was kick returner Eric Weems, who backed up his Pro Bowl selection with a 102-yard kickoff return for a score. That’s something to watch for the Packers next week, because the Bears with Devin Hester and the Seahawks with Leon Washington both have elite return men.

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FR: Rookie signings

With the news that the Jets have signed first-round pick Mark Sanchez to a five-year contract, we thought it would be interesting to compare which rookies most need to get their deals signed, sealed, and delivered so that they can report to training camp on time.

In this relativity poll, we’ll compare this year’s first-rounders (along with a key second-rounder) in terms of who most needs to sign in time for camp, with 10 being the highest and 1 being the lowest. Of course, all rookies need practice time, so this is an exercise of degrees. But it’s still interesting.

10 – QB Matthew Stafford, Lions; QB Mark Sanchez, Jets – It’s obvious that, if rookie quarterbacks want to play in their inaugural seasons, they need as many practice reps as possible. Thankfully for Detroit and New York, both of the marquee quarterbacks have now signed. Sanchez is probably a little more likely to start right away than Stafford, if for no other reason than that the Lions have a veteran in Daunte Culpepper who could start for a few games as Stafford adjusts to the pros. But props to these players and organizations for getting signed right away.

9 – OT Jason Smith, Rams; WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – Smith is supposed to be a cornerstone for the Rams, and they need him to be ready to play right away. He should enter training camp as a starter. Heyward-Bey is a bit rawer than other receivers, and so he needs reps too. But if he does, he could be at least an impact deep threat pretty early on.

8 – DE Tyson Jackson, Chiefs; WR Michael Crabtree, 49ers – Jackson is moving from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, and the Chiefs will need him right away, so they need to get his deal done on time. Crabtree figures to play pretty soon as well, and receivers in general need all the adjust time they can get.

7 – LB Aaron Curry, Seahawks; OT Eugene Monroe, Jaguars; DB Malcolm Jenkins, Saints; QB Josh Freeman, Buccaneers; WR Percy Harvin, Vikings – Curry is a little more ready made as a player, so he’s below other top 5 picks on this chart. But no matter who it is, teams need to get top-5 guys in ASAP. Monroe should be a starter, so the Jaguars can’t afford the kind of fiasco they had with Derrick Harvey last year. The Saints need to figure out whether to start Jenkins at cornerback or safety, and so they need as many looks at him as possible. Even though Freeman likely isn’t going to play this year, it seems as though quarterbacks who hold out see their long-term development impeded, and so he needs to be ready to go when camp opens. Harvin is fighting the receiver adjustment that is steeper than many other positions, and he’s also going to be Minnesota’s Wildcat option, and so he moves up this list for those reasons.

6 – NT B.J. Raji, Packers; OLB Aaron Maybin, Bills; DE-OLB Brian Orakpo, Redskins – Raji should start right away, and a nose tackle’s role isn’t that tough to pick up, so he falls lower in this comparison than other top-10 picks. Maybin and Orakpo both could play either defensive end or outside linebacker, and both could actually find a role at both spots. With that versatility comes more learning, so the more reps they get, the better.

5 – LB Brian Cushing, Texans; OLB Larry English, Chargers; OLB Robert Ayers, Broncos; WR Jeremy Maclin, Eagles – Cushing faces the easiest adjustment of this bunch, as linebackers are often able to contribute as tackling machines in their rookie years. English and Ayers both look to be more niche pass rushers to begin, and that’s a role that can be picked up. They may need more technique work to adjust to the pros than actual system work. Maclin faces the receiver uphill battle, but the Eagles’ success with DeSean Jackson last year seems to indicate they’re ready to integrate Maclin this year.

 4- TE Brandon Pettigrew, Lions; C Alex Mack, Browns; WR Hakeem Nicks, Giants; WR Kenny Britt, Titans; DE Everette Brown, Panthers – Pettigrew needs to play right away, but tight end isn’t as tough an adjustment as receiver. He can contribute at least as a blocker right away. Mack needs to get in camp early if he is to start at center and make all the line calls for Cleveland. Nicks and Britt could contribute right away given the depth charts they’re facing, so they need to take advantage of every rep they can get. Brown is vital because he’s the fallback in case Julius Peppers holds out in Carolina. The Panthers need him to be ready to go right away.

3 – OT Michael Oher, Ravens; DT Peria Jerry, Falcons; CB Vontae Davis, Dolphins – Oher probably should start right away after Willie Anderson’s retirement, but right tackle isn’t as scheme-specific as other line spots. Jerry has been banged up in minicamps, but his positional adjustment shouldn’t be too rough. Davis will have a bit of an adjustment to the Dolphins’ coverage scheme, but the basics of coverage carry over, so he’s not that high on this list.

2 – RB Knowshon Moreno, Broncos; OLB Clay Matthews, Packers; RB Donald Brown, Colts – Running backs adapt most easily of all rookies, so they are all near the bottom of this list. Moreno isn’t a 1 just because Josh McDaniels could hold a grudge were he to hold out. Brown isn’t a 1 because the Colts’ offense and audible system is more complex than most because of Peyton Manning’s acumen. Matthews is moving into a system much like his college game plan, so he should have a pretty natural move up to the pros.

1 – OG Eric Wood, Bills; RB Beanie Wells, Cardinals; DE Ziggy Hood, Steelers – Wood is moving up to play guard, which isn’t that stark a transition. Wells has the advantage of being a running back. Hood probably fits in as a backup his first year, so reps aren’t as crucial to him as they are at other positions.

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FR: 2009 NFL Draft review

After putting out first (and second) thoughts on the draft, and sharing some local knowledge, we now want to take time to compare each team’s draft class to each other. Because draft grades are just as useless as power rankings, we’re going to do this the Football Relativity way. We’ll compare each team’s haul to the others, with the best hauls at 10 on the scale and the worst haul at 1.

10 – Patriots – The Patriots traded down (as usual), but they got a load of talent. Second-rounders DT Ron Brace and CB Darius Butler were great picks, and I expect S Patrick Chung and OT Sebastian Vollmer to become starters as well. Then there’s third-rounder Brandon Tate, who was a first-round talent before a knee injury and a reported positive drug test dropped his stock. There are at least three and maybe five hits there, not even considering the guys they picked later. Plus, New England amassed two extra second-round picks next year. This was exactly the kind of draft a veteran contender needs to restock and continue moving forward.

9 – Jets – This was a completely opposite draft from New England’s, but just as effective. The price to move up to get QB Mark Sanchez was right, and the Jets showed enough gumption to pay it. (I actually think the Jets might have ended up paying less in the trade to move to 5 than they would have to move to 8.) Sanchez sets the Jets up long term, which is the best thing you can do in a draft. Shonn Greene is a good running back, and given Leon Washington’s impending free agency and Thomas Jones’ contract squabble, that could quickly become a position of need for Gang Green.

8 – Giants – Jerry Reese has quickly established himself as a good drafter, and he did a good job again. First-rounder  WR Hakeem Nicks has a world of talent and produced at a high level in college, and he’s at a need position. The question is whether the pressure to replace Plaxico Burress overwhelms Nicks and hinders his development. Getting OT William Beatty and OLB Clint Sintim in the second round was really good value and fortifies the Giants’ biggest strengths. Both should be starter-caliber down the line. Ramses Barden is a huge receiver who is an intriguing prospect, and fourth-round Andre Brown could end up replacing Derrick Ward as fire in the RB troika. The Giants will continue as one of the league’s deepest teams with this draft class.

8 (con’t) – Eagles – For a team that didn’t have third- or fourth-round picks, the Eagles had a surprisingly deep draft. First-rounder Jeremy Maclin is a really good WR prospect and could combine with DeSean Jackson to finally give the Eagles a good (if smallish) receiving corps. Second-rounder LeSean McCoy provides depth at running back that is essential because of Correll Buckhalter’s departure and Brian Westbrook’s tendency to get dinged. Fifth-round TE Cornelius Ingram is an intersting prospect if he can overcome a knee injury, and CB Macho Harris was a productive college player. There’s not a lot of line help here, but because the Eagles usually focus there, it’s OK to go away from that for a year.

8 (con’t) – Rams – The Rams didn’t do anything fancy, but they got a massive talent infusion that was sorely needed. OT Jason Smith could end up being the best player in the draft, and second-round LB James Laurinaitis will become the cornerstone of the defense. That’s a great start. On the second day, the Rams got a developmental corner in Bradley Fletcher and a defensive tackle, Dorrell Scott, who should be in a rotation right away and could eventually anchor the defense. All in all, it was a great weekend for St. Louis.

7 – Ravens – While some have questions about Michael Oher, the worst-case scenario for him is that he’s an above-average right tackle. That’s a good find at 23. OLB Paul Kruger (second round) and ILB Jason Phillips (fifth round) will fit into this defense as well. All in all, another solid haul from a team that’s annually one of the best on draft day.

7 (con’t) – Texans – I liked the pick of OLB Brian Cushing in the first round. He’s the kind of player who can help take the Texans’ defense to the next level. (Remember, the Texans already have front-line playmakers like DEs Mario Williams and Antonio Smith and DT Amobi Okoye, plus LB DeMeco Ryans.) Connor Barwin seems to be a fit too, and as a pass-rush specialist, he’ll provide immediate value. Antoine Caldwell is a solid offensive lineman as well. And people raved about TE James Casey’s athleticism, so he’s an interesting fifth-round pick to watch.

7 (con’t) – Bengals – Cincinnati took a lot of home-run swings in this class – OT Andre Smith, ILB Rey Maualuga, DE Michael Johnson among them. If all three hit, this is a franchise-making class. But there’s a chance (not huge, but not miniscule either) that all three could miss. So I can’t put this class at the top of the list. Still, this is a needed talent infusion. I liked the pick of TE Chase Coffman at the end of the third round; he could start right away. P Kevin Huber will also step right in, because the Bengals cleared out their other punters right after the draft.

7 (con’t) – Packers – Green Bay is switching to a 3-4 defense, and unlike some other switching teams (this means you, Denver), they tried to actually fill the holes in their D that this switch creates. B.J. Raji is the nose tackle that makes this kind of defense stout against the run, so he made sense at No. 9 overall. I don’t love Clay Matthews as a prospect, but he can play outside ‘backer and rush the passer while also dropping into coverage, so it made sense for Green Bay to deal back into the end of the first round to get him. They still need the DeMarcus Ware type of pass rush phenom to really make the D click, but you can’t get everything at once. Green Bay also got some interior OL help in the form of second-day picks T.J. Lang and Jamon Meredith. This is a solid, need-driven draft that doesn’t have elite talent but that does have good players who will help in ’09 and beyond.

7 (con’t) – 49ers – I’ve documented my love for Michael Crabtree, and so of course I’m going to rave about the fact that the Niners got him at No. 10 overall. San Fran also got an extra first-round pick next year, which is great value but prevented this class from being truly stocked. Third-round RB Glen Coffee will help relieve Frank Gore, while fifth-round LB Scott McKillop will be a solid two-down player. And seventh-round DT Ricky Jean-Francois is a talent who underperformed this year but who could emerge once again.

6 – Bills – I think that Brian Orakpo was a better player than Aaron Maybin, so I didn’t love the fact that the Bills opted for Maybin. But most people think that Eric Wood (28th overall) and Andy Levitre (2nd round) will become offensive line starters inside. I would have preferred a tackle at 28 instead of Wood, but if he becomes a solid starter, that’s OK. All in all, this was a solid draft, but it didn’t have the pop that would have helped after the Jason Peters trade.

6 (con’t) – Jaguars – OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton provide help at a huge need area right off the bat, and I like the fact that Jacksonville overloaded there. Free-agent acquisition Tra Thomas signed a one-year deal, so by 2010 both Monroe and Britton could be starting. The Jags also needed wideouts, and they drafted three, including Mike Thomas, who is probably the best prospect. He was a good fourth-round value. This looks to be a solid draft class.

6 (con’t) – Lions – The Lions did what they had to do in opting for QB Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick and signing him before the draft. He’s the best QB talent in this class; now it’s on him to develop and the Lions to coach him up. TE Brandon Pettigrew should help that development as a safety-valve receiver and blocker. Louis Delmas should be a starting safety, and Derrick Williams should be an eventual starter at wide receiver. I would have preferred the Lions to get some more OL help, but they had so many needs that every pick makes sense. This is an infusion of talent that will help, although the Lions need several more booster shots before they’re healthy again.

6 (con’t) – Cardinals – The Cards have secretly been a team that has drafted well over the past several years, and they followed that trend again this year. First-round RB Beanie Wells should be a starter complementing Tim Hightower right away. Arizona was lucky that he fell to them. Third-round S Rashad Johnson is the real deal as well. DE Cody Brown helps to replace the departed Antonio Smith and Travis LaBoy, and I’m intrigued to see how OT Herman Johnson’s massive size translates to the NFL. Lots of hits once again in Arizona.

6 (con’t) – Steelers – This was a typical Steelers draft – not flashy but full of solid players. Ziggy Hood is a good value as a defensive lineman, and OL Kraig Urbik steps into the team’s biggest need area. Seventh-round C A.Q. Shipley could end up as a starter, and pretty soon. Add two corners (Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett) to another need area, and you have a draft class that allows Pittsburgh to continue moving forward.

5 – Titans – The Titans didn’t need a lot of immediate help, so this draft is about filling in cracks instead of filling chasms. First-rounder Kenny Britt is a good prospect who will probably need a couple of years, but he’s a talent at a spot where the Titans haven’t had enough skill over the years. DT Sen’Derrick Marks is probably the guy out of this class the Titans most need to play immediately. He’s a talent, but his production hasn’t been ideal. But given the Titans’ strong coaching staff and especially DL coach Jim Washburn, he’s worth the risk. TE Jared Cook is a good prospect, and RB Javon Ringer is good insurance in case LenDale White doesn’t keep his weight down.

5 (con’t) – Redskins – The reason you don’t trade future first-round picks is that you never know when a player the caliber of DE Brian Orakpo will fall to you. The Redskins patience was rewarded with the best DE in the draft and a guy who should provide a solid pass rush for years to come. There’s not a wealth of depth in this draft because of pre-draft trades, but getting a premium prospect in Orakpo keeps the Redskins pretty high in the comparison.

5 (con’t) – Bears – The Bears were one of two teams without a first-day pick, but they did much better on the second day than Dallas did. Third-round DT Jarron Gilbert is a talent who needs coaching, and the Bears have one of the league’s best DL coaches in Rod Marinelli. (Bad head coach, great position coach) Wide receiver was Chicago’s biggest need area, and Joaquin Iglesias is a good prospect there, while Johnny Knox is an intriguing sleeper. Fourth-round CB D.J. Moore is undersized, but he was a terrific college player who I believe will contribute as a starter eventually, a la current Bear (and former fourth-round pick) Nathan Vasher. This is a solid class of second-day prospects.

5 (con’t) – Falcons – This is another draft that isn’t sexy but that is very functional. DT Peria Jerry will help inside, and S William Moore is a talent who is a potential starter if he gets good coaching and responds to it. I like fourth-round DE Lawrence Sidbury as a John Abraham-lite pass rusher, especially given Abraham’s tendency to miss time. Even the last two picks, LB Spencer Adkins and DT Vance Walker, could contribute in the Falcons’ system. There isn’t great impact here, but the Falcons continue to fill out their roster.

5 (con’t) – Saints – The Saints didn’t have a lot of picks because of trades for Jonathan Vilma and Jeremy Shockey, but they used the picks they did have on defense. First-rounder Malcolm Jenkins should be the best cornerback out of this class, and he’s big enough to play either corner or safety. New Orleans needs him to emerge as a corner, in part because fourth-round FS Chip Vaughn is a potential starter as well. If the Saints get two secondary starters out of this few picks, that’s good work.

5 (con’t) – Seahawks – Getting Aaron Curry at No. 4 was a boon for Seattle, and second-rounder Max Unger is an immediate starter as well. While these guys don’t play high-impact positions, they will become core players. Third-round receiver Deon Butler steps into a need area as well. Not having fourth- or fifth-round picks limits the depth of this class, but Seattle did well with its first three selections.

4 – Dolphins- Vontae Davis was probably the most talented corner in the draft aside from Malcolm Jenkins, although he didn’t play to his talent last year. Still, at the bottom of the first round, he’s a good pick. I don’t know what to think about the Pat White selection in the second round. What’s White’s upside? The Dolphins already think that Chad Henne is their quarterback of the future, so White is blocked there. Can White really be a starting receiver? The fact that Miami drafted Patrick Turner and Brian Hartline in the middle rounds would indicate that the Dolphins don’t think so. So are we looking at White as a Wildcat-offense specialist? I might be wrong, but I don’t think that niche role is worth a high second-round pick.

4 (con’t) – Vikings – This was another risky draft class. First-rounder Percy Harvin has blinding speed, and could be a game-breaker. But he’s not a true wide receiver, and his off-field concerns make him a question mark. The Vikings will have to tweak their schemes to really maximize Harvin’s talents. Second-round OT Phil Loadholt is a load who can play right tackle, but there are comportment questions about him as well. CB Asher Allen was good but inconsistent in college, while fifth-round LB Jasper Brinkley battled injuries in his college career. It’s hard to tell whether this class will end up being great or disappointing, so we have to leave them in the middle for now.

4 (con’t) – Colts – RB Donald Brown is a good player, and the Colts had some need there because of Joseph Addai’s tendency to get dinged up. But the Colts are trying to alter their defensive system, and they didn’t get enough help there. DT Fili Moala has a reputation as a bit of an underachiever, but he and Terrance Taylor at least provide size inside. The Colts need P Pat McAfee needs to win the job right off the bat after letting Hunter Smith leave. This isn’t an eye-popping draft, but there is some help here.

4 (con’t) – Chiefs – DE Tyson Jackson was a little bit of a reach, but he’s a good prospect at a need area. Still, I don’t see a lot of impact from him. Solid play, yes, but not impact. (Think Ty Warren, not Richard Seymour.) Jackson and second-rounder Alex Magee should fill DE spots in the Chiefs’ new 3-4. Fourth-round CB Donald Washington could be a steal, and he’s certainly the Chiefs’ best second-day prospect. Trading for Matt Cassel was the right move for K.C., but that deal thinned out this draft class significantly. So these players will help, but the Chiefs are so talent-starved that they still need more.

3 – Raiders – Everyone is pounding the Raiders’ draft, but there are a couple of teams I thought did less with more picks. First-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey is a huge talent, and while he would have been on the board at 17 and didn’t have to be taken seventh overall, he’s at least a legitimate first-rounder. Fourth-round WR Louis Murphy is a sleeper who could team with Heyward-Bey to revitalize the Raiders’ receiving corps – and that’s necessary. Picking three D-linemen should help. Plus, the Raiders get a brownie point from me for drafting defensive linemen named Slade (Norris) and Stryker (Sulak).

3 (con’t) – Chargers – I don’t love first-round pick Larry English, a small DE who will have to move to outside ‘backer, but I can see why the Chargers made that pick given Shawne Merriman’s contract and injury situation. But why not Robert Ayers instead of English? The lack of a second-round pick (which they dealt during last year’s draft) really hurts the depth of this class. Canadian DT Vaughn Martin is an interesting prospect to watch.

3 (con’t) – Panthers – The Panthers have been traditionally one of the league’s best drafting teams, but they’re in a dangerous Boolean thread of trading next year’s first-rounder for a current pick. It worked out OK last year, because Jeff Otah played well and the pick was 28th overall. But Everette Brown, whom they picked in the second round, isn’t a dominant player like Otah is. Brown is a good defensive end, but ideally he would play across from Julius Peppers instead of trying to replace him. Beyond that, DT Corvey Irvin fills a need but was a bit of a reach, and RB Mike Goodson doesn’t seem to fill a huge need. Sixth-round OG Duke Robinson has character questions, but in the sixth round you’re not finding a better talent. Given the losses Carolina had on their line, Robinson will be an important backup right away. The Panthers will get some players out of this draft, but it’s not up to their usual standards.

2 – Broncos – I fundamentally disagree with the Broncos’ approach in this draft. They needed defensive help, especially in the front 7, yet DE/OLB Robert Ayers was the only pick in that area. He’s a good fit, but what about defensive tackle (which was completely overlooked)? RB Knowshon Moreno was a luxury pick for a team with a lot of necessities. He’ll be a good pro, but he’s not taking this team from 8-8 to 10-6, much less any further. Alphonso Smith is a good corner, but he won’t replace Champ Bailey because of his height. The Broncos need Smith, Darnell McBath, and David Bruton to stabilize the secondary, but only Smith is a core player there. I do like fifth-round WR Kenny McKinley as a sleeper. There’s talent in this class, but on the whole this draft just didn’t make sense for a team that should be remaking its post-Jay Cutler identity. (Read the first thoughts post for what I think this class says about Josh McDaniels.)

2 (con’t) – Cowboys – Like the Bears, Dallas didn’t have any first-day picks, but in Dallas’ case my eyes didn’t pop at the picks they did have. It didn’t help that their first pick, OLB Jason Williams, felt like a reach. I’d be surprised if there’s more than one or two starters in this group. They did draft the most interesting kicker in David Buehler, who absolutely tore it up at the combine.

2 (con’t) – Buccaneers – I’m not a Josh Freeman believer, but the Bucs are. I won’t pound them for dealing  a sixth-round pick to move up two spots to get him. But given the massive overhaul the Bucs are doing on defense, they could have used more help on that side. We’ll see if Roy Miller or Kyle Moore contribute on the defensive line. Watch seventh-round WR Sammie Stroughter as a potential sleeper. The bottom line is that this draft class will rise and fall with Freeman, and because I think he’ll fall, the Bucs fall to the bottom of this comparison.

1 – Browns – Simply put, the Browns didn’t get enough value for the fifth overall pick, and it seemed like they were scared to pick in the first round. The guy they ended up with, C Alex Mack, should start, but how much of an impact can he have at that position? For a team that needs a lot of help, Mack doesn’t provide it. The Browns gave up on top-5 talent too easily because they didn’t want to pay financially, and that will end up costing them in the long run. Then to make things worse, I thought WR Brian Robeskie was a reach at the top of the second round. Only the picks of WR Mohammed Massaquoi and LB Kaluka Maiava keep this class from being a total failure.

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Deja vu – Evaluating the FR mock draft

Before we evaluate our mixed bag of a mock draft, a few notes:
*We’ve updated the trades and swaps post with the two player-related trades from this weekend’s draft. (In case you missed it, three players moved from the Jets to the Browns in the Mark Sanchez deal, and the Pats dealt Ellis Hobbs to the Eagles.) That post is now final, and we’ll start a new one for deals between now and the beginning of the season if there are any.
*Check out the first draft thoughts and second draft thoughts on the draft. We’ll do a relativity post comparing all 32 teams to each other later this week, but we want to be thorough with that one.

Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, here are the first-round results, compared to what we predicted. As you can see, we only hit three picks dead on, but we were one or two picks away on a bunch of other guys.

1. QB Matthew Stafford, Lions – as predicted

2. OT Jason Smith, Rams – as predicted

3. DE Tyson Jackson, Chiefs – predicted 9th, off 6 spots

4. OLB Aaron Curry, Seahawks – predicted 3rd, off 1 spot

5. QB Mark Sanchez, Jets – predicted 4th, off 1 spot

6. OT Andre Smith, Bengals – predicted 7th, off 1 spot

7. WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – predicted 17th, off 10 spots

8. OT Eugene Monroe, Jaguars – predicted 6th, off 2 spots

9. DT B.J. Raji, Packers – predicted 12th, off 3 spots

10. WR Michael Crabtree, 49ers – predicted 5th, off 5 spots

11. DE Aaron Maybin, Bills – predicted 16th, off 5 spots

12. RB Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – predicted 26th, off 14 spots

13. DE Brian Orakpo, Redskins – predicted 11th, off 2 spots

14. CB Malcolm Jenkins, Saints – predicted 8th, off 6 spots

15. OLB Brian Cushing, Texans – predicted 14th, off 1 spot

16. OLB Larry English, Chargers – predicted 23rd, off 7 spots

17. QB Josh Freeman, Buccaneers – predicted 22nd, off 5 spots

18. DE Robert Ayers, Broncos – predicted 13th, off 5 spots

19. WR Jeremy Maclin, Eagles – predicted 10th, off 9 spots

20. TE Brandon Pettigrew, Lions – predicted 28th, off 8 spots

21. C Alex Mack, Browns – not predicted in first round

22. WR Percy Harvin, Vikings – not predicted in first round

23. OT Michael Oher, Ravens – predicted 15th, off 8 spots

24. DT Peria Jerry, Falcons – predicted 21st, off 3 spots

25. CB Vontae Davis, Dolphins – predicted 29th, off 4 spots

26. OLB Clay Matthews, Packers – predicted 27th, off 1 spot

27. RB Donald Brown, Colts – not predicted in first round

28. C Eric Wood, Bills – not predicted in first round

29. WR Hakeem Nicks, Giants – not predicted in first round

30. WR Kenny Britt, Titans – not predicted in first round

31. RB Chris Wells, Cardinals – as predicted

32. DT Evander Hood, Steelers – predicted 30th, off 2 spots

So there you go. We had direct hits at 1, 2, and 31, while missing five other players by one spot and another two by two spots. Overall, we hit 26 of 32 first-rounders, which is OK but not great. I thought those centers and wide receivers would last until the early second round. Of the 6 guys who I put in the first round who didn’t get drafted there, five went in the first 11 picks of the second round, and the last went at No. 54 overall. So there were no complete embarrassments there.

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Preja Vu – The Football Relativity 2009 Mock Draft

After much ado, we finally present the Football Relativity Mock Draft.

Instead of doing umpteen versions of mock (read: made-up) drafts this offseason, we tried to be different than other sites by focusing on more specific issues. You can look back through the draft coverage to see analysis, opinions, and outlandish predictions on the biggest stories of the draft — Stafford vs. Sanchez, where Michael Crabtree fits, and what Aaron Curry’s upside is (and is not). We also looked at the offensive and defensive positions that are most likely or least likely to produce busts in the first half of the first round.

Now that all that is done, it’s time to make the outlandish prediction and do the mock draft. So here is the first round, as I predict it. Of course this is preja vu, not deja vu, so there will be mistakes. But I’ll let you know what I’m thinking as we go along. As always, feel free to leave comments criticizing, questioning, or confirming what you read below.

1. Lions – QB Matthew Stafford, Georgia
If you’ve been reading the relativity, you know that I think Mark Sanchez will be a better pro than Stafford. In fact, I would probably pick Sanchez at No. 1 this year were I the decision-maker. But that’s a minority view, and so the preja vu projection is that Detroit takes Stafford. Stafford has a big arm and he got better each year he started at Georgia, both of which are huge check marks on his resume. Plus, there’s a pretty significant sample size of data for Stafford even though he left as a junior. So while this pick is a bit of a gamble, it’s not a gamble on the level of San Francisco’s Alex Smith pick a few years back. If this was a quarterback-rich draft, I would recommend the Lions passing on a quarterback at No. 1 and instead taking Jason Smith, but since there is no high-level quarterback option beyond Stafford and Sanchez, the Lions all but have to go quarterback first. There will be a tackle available at 20.

2. Rams – OT Jason Smith, Baylor
Smith projects as a top-level player in the NFL, and he would be a godsend for the Rams. St. Louis has the experience of drafting Orlando Pace and not having to worry about left tackle for a decade, so there will be a comfort level among the fans for investing in a tackle this early. Plus, left tackle is a core building position, which makes this an especially valuable pick. The Rams wanted Jake Long last year but missed out, which again points to a left tackle here. Everything is lining up for Smith to be a Ram.

3. Chiefs – LB Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
The draft will start to be in flux at this pick. Eugene Monroe would make sense at this pick, but because the Chiefs picked Branden Albert and started him at left tackle all season last year, we’re not anticipating that possibility. Still, it is worth noting that Albert played guard in college, and so a Monroe selection isn’t a complete impossibility. Also, if a team is absolutely in love with Sanchez, this is the spot they’ll have to get to in order to absolutely ensure that they get him. Most teams are probably hoping to trade up to 10 or 8 to get Sanchez, but I have a hunch that won’t be high enough. But if the Chiefs stay put, my guess is that they don’t overcomplicate things. Curry will be a 10-year starter inside in the 3-4, and he’ll be a stalwart of the middle level of the defense. While I don’t think he’ll ever be a breakout superstar, he’ll be a good run-stuffer, a good coverage ‘backer, and a solid citizen. That recipe adds up to a core player in K.C.’s still-massive rebuilding project.

4. Seahawks – QB Mark Sanchez, USC
The Sanchez shoe is going to drop early, folks. There’s too much buzz about him right now for him to have a Brady Quinn/Aaron Rodgers type of slide into the 20s of the first round – or even a Ben Roethlisberger slide into the early teens. While there aren’t a ton of QB-needy teams in the top 10, Sanchez’s value is too much to pass up. We’ll slot him to the Seahawks because Matt Hasselbeck is closer to the end than the beginning and coming off an injury-plagued season. But this is also a trade possibility. Regardless, I see Sanchez coming off the board in the top 5 because someone will be desperate to get him. And whoever drafts him – even in the top 5 – will end up being glad that they did.

5. Browns – WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech
Crabtree is the other talent who simply can’t stay on the board too long because he’s too good. And if the Browns were to deal Braylon Edwards, which is of course a hot rumor, then they would frankly be stupid to pass on Crabtree. Crabtree might actually end up being better than Edwards, which is saying something. He’s a big possession receiver who can catch the ball in traffic and make things happen after the catch. When you’re being compared to Larry Fitzgerald — and I’ve heard Crabtree in such a comparison on Jeremy Green’s ESPN podcast — you’re in really good company. Cleveland should feel comfortable building an offense around Crabtree and OT Joe Thomas regardless of who the quarterback is. This would be a great value pick.

6. Bengals – OT Eugene Monroe, Virginia
The Bengals have a history of drafting talented players with questionable character, which is why so many mock drafts connect them to Alabama OT Andre Smith and his baggage. But if Sanchez catapults up the draft, someone has to slip, and I think that will be Monroe. If that happens, the Bengals will rejoice. Like Andre and Jason Smith, Monroe is a talented tackle who has the ability to be a bookend for many years. He’s probably not an elite Orlando Pace/Jonathan Ogden/Walter Jones level player, but he’s good enough to be a reliable, above-average starter a la longtime Bengal Willie Anderson. Monroe would be the kind of pick who could help the Bengals move forward, which is exactly what’s needed in Cincinnati.

7. Raiders – OT Andre Smith, Alabama
Most mock drafters have the Raiders taking Jeremy Maclin, and maybe they know something I don’t. But while Raiders maven Al Davis loves speed, this pick may fit his pattern even more. The Raiders have done the best job of accumulating talent when they’ve taken players who were passed over by risk-averse teams who were concerned about character. That’s the situation Andre Smith is in. He was the most dominant offensive lineman in college football last year, but his bowl-game suspension and then his combine/workout follies have dropped the bottom out of his stock. But he’s still a really good player who will be a top-level right tackle in the NFL and could be an elite left tackle. (Addendum: Remember that Tom Cable, the Raiders’ head coach of the moment, is an offensive line guy.) My hunch is that the Raiders overlook the concerns about Smith and go for the best football talent on the board.

8. Jaguars – CB Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State
This pick is a real X-factor in the draft, for this reason. Last year, the Jaguars leapt up to the No. 8 spot in the draft to take DE Derrick Harvey, and then they couldn’t get him signed until September. So it seems that this year, the Jags don’t have the stomach to pick (and pay) a player this high again and would like to trade down. But if Sanchez is off the board already, what player on the board has enough value that someone would trade up fro him? So a trade might be difficult. Then consider this: After taking DEs Harvey and Quentin Groves in the first two rounds last year, Jacksonville isn’t really a candidate for any of the ends who fit in this area, and the franchise’s utter failure taking first-round receivers (from R. Jay Soward to Reggie Williams to Matt Jones) makes Maclin seem like a bad projection as well. The needs chart says that Maclin, B.J. Raji, and Malcolm Jenkins are fits here. We’re going with Jenkins, a top-10 prospect pre-combine who slipped after running a slower-than-expected 40 time. He’s a big corner who can play physically and tackle, and that seems to fit Jacksonville’s personality well.

9. Packers – DE Tyson Jackson, LSU
Green Bay is moving to a 3-4 defense this year, and so they must get a player who is friendly to that system. Pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Aaron Maybin do, as does Raji, who might be big enough to be the Jamal Williams/Vince Wilfork/Casey Hampton nose tackle. But Raji’s character concerns make me put Jackson in this spot. Jackson can play 4-3 defensive end, but he’s big enough to move inside a tick and play end in the 3-4, a la Richard Seymour. Jackson can hold up against the run and provide some pass rush even from that interior position, and it’s harder to find a top guy with those qualities than it is to find the glamorous pass rusher, so Jackson is the fit.

10. 49ers – WR Jeremy Maclin, Missouri
Instead of winding up in Oakland, we see Maclin ending up across the bay. Maclin is a dynamic receiver who has decent size and blazing speed, and he can be the playmaker the Niners have lacked at receiver since T.O. whined his way out of town. With Isaac Bruce coming back for a year, Maclin would have an ideal mentor, as well as a little less pressure in ’09. He would also fill a need, because unless Brandon Jones takes three quantum leaps forward, the 49ers have no game-breaking threat in the passing game. San Francisco would be a great situation for Maclin to move into, and he would be a good value for the 49ers at this point.

11. Bills – DE Brian Orakpo, Texas
Over the past few years, the Bills have drafted more for need than any other team. They have “reached” for players and picked them over their rating because (a) they were at positions of need and (b) they were convinced the players would be good. So we looked closely at the team needs list before predicting this pick. The trade of Jason Peters gave us pause and opened the possibility that OT Michael Oher would be the pick here. But pass rusher is also a need, and none of them are off our board now. While Aaron Maybin may be a bit more highly rated, Orakpo is a little bigger and little more suited to a 4-3 defense, at least in a John Abraham type of role given his size. So he’s the pick here.

12. Broncos – DT B.J. Raji, Boston College
The Broncos are moving to a 3-4 defense, and they need tons of help on that side of the ball. After trading Jay Cutler, it would make sense for the Broncos to take Mark Sanchez if he falls to them, but there’s zero chance of that happening. (You can quote me on that.) And given the proliferation of defensive needs the Broncos have, trading their two first-rounders to get Sanchez just isn’t wise. So we have them staying put and taking 3-4 friendly defensive players. They start with Raji, a true nose tackle who is big enough to play the pivot in the 3-4. His stock has slipped a little because of character questions, but he’s not getting past this spot. Another reason for the downward trend is the difficulty of getting it right at defensive tackle early in the draft, as we discovered in defensive portion of the draft bust research project. If Raji (or Tyson Jackson) is there, the Broncos will spend their first pick on the front line and then look for an OLB pass rusher at No. 18. If Raji stays on the straight and narrow, he would be a great building block for the Broncos to get at this point.

13. Redskins – DE Robert Ayers, Tennessee
The Redskins apparently are lusting after Sanchez, so don’t be surprised if they leap into the top 5 to get him. But if they don’t trade up, they’re in position where they need help on the lines. After Jason Taylor didn’t work out last year, a pass rusher is a special need, and Ayers is the purest 4-3 defensive end available at the top of the draft. He’s sturdy enough to hang in there against the run and has shown flashes of great pass rush ability. He has the ostentatious potential that appeals to owner Daniel Snyder, so the pick makes sense from that perspective too.

14. Saints – OLB Brian Cushing, USC
The Saints simply have to draft defense, which remains the biggest problem on their to-do list. The offense is good enough to win right now, but the defense isn’t. And since the Saints are in a 4-3, the undersized pass rushers left on the board (Maybin and Everette Brown) don’t really work. So we’ll give the Saints Cushing, a legit outside linebacker who can become a stalwart run stopper and coverage guy. Cushing is the best of the three Trojans’ linebackers expected to be first-rounders because he’s the most versatile and most consistent. He could team with Jonathan Vilma to begin to stabilize the middle level of the Saints’ defense.

15. Texans – OT Michael Oher, Ole Miss
Oher probably isn’t a wonderful value at this point, but offensive tackles tend to move up the draft board at the end because it’s such a need position. Oher (subject of the wonderful book The Blind Side) is a physical specimen who played well but not exceedingly well at Ole Miss. While he’s not a sure thing at left tackle, he would be a beast of a right tackle, and that’s a need spot for Houston as well. So we’re projecting a run and taking Oher off the board before most experts are prognosticating.

16. Chargers – DE/OLB Aaron Maybin, Penn State
The Chargers are a strange team in that they don’t have pressing needs because of strong organizational depth. But given Shawne Merriman’s injury and contract concerns, and given the importance of pass rushers in the 3-4 system, Maybin makes sense here. He would be a great value for San Diego and would help immediately, even if he only played a bit role as a rookie. My guess is that GM A.J. Smith might even crack a smile if Maybin fell in his lap.

17. Jets – WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland
This is another flex spot in the draft. Do the Jets want Josh Freeman? Will they roll the dice on a receiver? Or do they play it safe? It seems like a little bit of risk is warranted, given the Jets’ dearth of offensive playmakers. So we’ll project them taking Heyward-Bey, a big strong receiver who was productive in college even if his performance was spotty at times. It’s a risk, but the Jets need to take such a risk to upgrade their mediocre receiving group.

18. Broncos (from Bears in the QB Jay Cutler trade) – DE/OLB Everette Brown, Florida State
We’ve already given the Broncos a front-line defender for their new 3-4 scheme; now it’s time to upgrade the edge. Brown was a beast on the field for the Seminoles, and he has the kind of speed that projects well to the outside linebacker/pass rusher spot in the 3-4 defense. While a Raji/Brown combo isn’t sexy, it would set the Broncos up to take a leap forward defensively in ’09. Of course, it would also put the onus on Josh McDaniels to keep the offense humming along, but that’s going to happen anyway.

19. Buccaneers – MLB Rey Maualuga, USC
The Buccaneers are another team in flux, especially on defense. Longtime stalwart Derrick Brooks is gone, and the team needs to find a new defensive leader. Maualuga can be that guy. He’s a productive inside ‘backer who takes some chances but delivers on his fair share of them. He also has the personality of a leader, which is needed in Tampa right now. The Bucs have invested in their offense in the offseason market by adding Byron Leftwich, Derrick Ward, and Kellen Winslow, plus new deals for Michael Clayton, Antonio Bryant, and Donald Penn. So it makes sense for the Bucs to invest on defense in the draft, which again points to Maualuga.

20. Lions (from Dallas in the WR Roy Williams trade) – OT Eben Britton, Arizona
If I were putting the Lions together, the approach would be to take the quarterback at the top of the draft and then build the offensive line. (Call if the Falcon plan, after Atlanta drafted Matt Ryan early last year and then traded back into the first round to take Sam Baker.) The plan works best for Detroit if Michael Oher falls to 20, but if he’s not there, it’s probably still wise to take an offensive lineman here. At almost every other position, the value that’s available at 20 is very similar to the value at 33, but not at offensive tackle. That’s why Britton is slotted here.

21. Eagles – DT Peria Jerry, Ole Miss
The Jason Peters trade completely changed Philly’s approach to this pick. Instead of taking a luxury like Knowshon Moreno with one of two first-round picks, the Eagles will likely buckle down and play it safe with their single top pick. That points to a defensive lineman, because the Eagles seem to take a DL every year early. This year, there’s one defensive tackle (after B.J. Raji) with a true first-round grade in Jerry, and he actually will fit an attacking 4-3 scheme well. So Jerry’s the guy for Philly.

22. Vikings – QB Josh Freeman, Kansas State
This is the answer to the Josh Freeman question. I don’t believe he’s good enough for a team in the teens – Washington, the Jets, Tampa – to pick as their QB of the future. But I do think Freeman will be a first-rounder after a team trades back into the round to take him. (See Joe Flacco, J.P. Losman, and Jason Campbell as examples.) Minnesota is a logical candidate to trade back, and here’s why: They need a center to replace Matt Birk and receivers. There’s depth at both of those positions through pick 40 or so. So the Vikings could trade back, pick up an extra pick or two, and still get what they need. One more consideration: It wouldn’t shock me for the Vikings to stay put and take Freeman, given the massive questions that remain around Tarvaris Jackson. All those things together make this Freeman’s spot in the draft.

23. Patriots – DE/OLB Larry English, Northern Illinois
The Patriots often seem to overdraft players above their spots because they know who they want and because they believe in their evaluation system. So it will be no surprise to see a surprise here. English isn’t rated this highly on most boards, but he’s a quality pass rusher as an OLB who was productive in college. That’s a need area for the Pats, who have lost Mike Vrabel this offseason. I think the pick will be defense regardless, with a corner like Darius Butler or Alphonso Smith also a possibility.

24. Falcons – MLB James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
This is another pick that might seem like a bit of an overdraft, but remember that Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff is a Patriots disciple and that his “overdraft” of Sam Baker last year worked out OK. After Keith Brooking left, a middle linebacker who can solidify the defense is a necessity for the Falcons. That’s what Laurainitis is. He’s not a dynamic playmaker, but he’s a solid, Chris Spielman type who will anchor a defense for 8-10 years. As the Falcons continue their rebuilding project, they’ll sign on for that.

25. Dolphins – CB Darius Butler, Connecticut
A lot of the ESPN types have been hyping the fact that UConn’s still-new football program is going to produce three first-round picks this year. That’s a Bristol, Connecticut, stretch, but Butler’s a legit first-rounder. He has good size and speed, which moves him ahead of Wake Forest’s Alphonso Smith and other candidates. The Dolphins had a solid season last year, but they don’t have enough playmakers, and cornerback’s a place where they need that kind of help. So Butler fits in as Bill Parcells’ big grocery purchase this year.

26. Ravens – RB Knowshon Moreno, Georgia
Running backs seem to slip most years in the draft, and often they end up with unlikely teams because the point comes when the value of the player is too good to pass up. (See Steven Jackson to the Rams when they had Marshall Faulk or Larry Johnson to the Chiefs when they had Priest Holmes.) That’s what I see happening to Moreno, a top 15 talent, this year. But there will come a point when a contender like Baltimore that has good but not great running backs will have to go ahead and take him. If Moreno ends up on such a contender, he’s going to be a difference maker, and with enough chances will be a rookie of the year candidate. In other words, he would be great value, even if he’s not at a need position. NOTE: This pick is rumored to be going to Arizona for Anquan Boldin.

27. Colts – OLB Clay Matthews, USC
The Colts are moving away from the Tampa-2 defense, but they don’t have the talent to make that transition smooth at all. So I think defense has to be the pick here, even though Indy has broken conventional wisdom before and loaded up on offense. Matthews is a try-hard guy who’s a good athlete and a good leader – the kind of guy you want to build a new defensive system around. Because this late in the draft there aren’t dominant players left, a guy like Matthews is the best option for a leader to help the Colts recast their defense.

28. Bills (from Panthers in the ’08 draft-day OT Jeff Otah trade via Eagles in the Jason Peters trade) – TE Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State
As we said before, the Bills have been known to reach. If they try to replace Jason Peters here with a tackle, they’ll be reaching for a Phil Loadholt or William Beatty. But since they have a tight end need, getting Pettigrew at this point would be nice value. Pettigrew is a good pass catching tight end with good size – the kind of offensive complement that seems to fit the Buffalo weather. Getting Pettigrew plus a pass rusher would be a nice first-round haul for the Bills.

29. Giants – CB Vontae Davis, Illinois
This pick is still in flux because it’s at the center of the Giants’ trade discussions for a receiver like Anquan Boldin or, more likely, Braylon Edwards. If they keep the pick, they could look receiver at someone like Hakeem Nicks or Kenny Britt. But last year we saw that receivers can slip in the draft because they generally contribute so little as rookies. So we’ll look at another Giants need and give them the most talented cornerback on the board in Davis. Davis’ performance isn’t always up to snuff, but he has worlds of talent, and the Giants’ culture would affect him positively. He’d be a great addition for New York.

30. Titans – DT Ziggy Hood, Missouri
Orginally, I had Percy Harvin slotted in here. It would be very out of character for the Titans to take a wide receiver, because that’s been a long term need for them that hasn’t been addressed in the draft’s opening round. But here’s why I can see Harvin fitting in this year: Chris Johnson. Remember last year that Tennessee picked the fastest guy on the board (Johnson had run a sub-4.3 40) and then figured out how to use him. Harvin is like Johnson, only with more receiving skills. Having both players on the field at the same time would make the Titans offense suddenly frightening. But the closer we get to the draft, the more problems seem to come up with Harvin. So we swapped this pick to Ziggy Hood, a defensive tackle who is rising up the draft board. The Titans haven’t been afraid to take risks on guys like that, and more often than not the organizational professionalism has rubbed off and affected the players for the better. (See Albert Haynesworth as Exhibit A.) But there’s just too much smoke (pun intended) for them to take Harvin. As for Hood, after the loss of Haynesworth via free agency, he would fit it at a position that’s obviously a need area for Tennessee. Plus, it’s hard to pass up a guy named Ziggy. So we’ll say that Ziggy zags to Nashville. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

31. Cardinals – RB Chris Wells, Ohio State
The back they call “Beanie” has been projected as a top-15 pick, but a foot injury has raised some questions. Couple that with the fact that running backs usually get drafted a tad later than expected, and I think he’ll be available for the Cards at the end of the first round. He’d be a great fit for Arizona here, especially since Edgerrin James is still a potential salary-cap cut. (James actually wants out to try to find a new home that will come with more playing time.) Wells would be a lead back who could combine with Tim Hightower to provide a stronger running back than the Cardinals have had in recent memory. At this point, the Cardinals need to take the best guy on the board, and Wells is among that list.

32. Steelers – OT Phil Loadholt, Oklahoma
Despite winning the Super Bowl last year, the Steelers have a pretty significant issue on the offensive line. So look for them to spend this pick on a lineman who can plug in and play immediately. While most mock drafts have the Steelers taking a center such as Alex Mack or Max Unger or Eric Wood, center is another of the positions where players tend to last longer than expected. (That’s how the Panthers got Ryan Kalil a few years back.) So we’ll project the Steelers to take another tackle, and since Mel Kiper is guaranteeing that Loadholt will be a first rounder, we’ll opt for him over William Beatty.

So there you have it. More than 4,000 words of preja vu predictions that will likely look foolish by Saturday night. We’ve pushed wide receivers and running backs down the chart and offensive tackles up the chart, so we’ll see if those trends hold on Saturday.

We’ll self-evaluate this mock after the weekend, and we’ll also be posting quick thoughts on the draft and a relativity comparison on how teams did next week. So stay tuned, and if you have mock draft predictions (and if you’re still reading), post them as comments below.

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