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Billick on NFC South, West draft needs
Billick examines the NFC South's and NFC West's draft needs and looks at the top running back prospects.
49ers have plenty of options
Of all the teams that made a change at head coach, San Francisco might be the most talented.
That talent led many to pick the 49ers to not only win the NFC West but to go deep into the playoffs. As is usual, the lack of quality at quarterback submarined what appeared to be a great year.
This is obviously priority one for the 49ers. New coach Jim Harbaugh says he likes what he sees in the 49ers' 2005 first overall pick Alex Smith. That may be tested if either Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert fall to them at No. 7 in the upcoming NFL draft.
The Niners have 10 picks and if last year is any indication, they will use them well. Last year's draft saw San Francisco solidify its offensive line with tackle
New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio comes out of the Dom Capers school of defense and may be looking for a rush end or outside linebacker modeled after Clay Matthews.
Running back Frank Gore will return from injury but this is a position the 49ers might consider looking at, albeit not with the first-round pick.
The 49ers have drawn a tough task with having to take on the NFC East and AFC North along with fast-improving Tampa Bay and Detroit.
Rams need help at wide receiver
Normally, 7-9 is not viewed as a great year, but when you have not been above .500 since 2003 and the winner of your division is also 7-9, you can feel pretty good about yourself if you are the St. Louis Rams. God bless the NFC West.
In fact, the last time the Rams were in the playoffs was in 2004 when they went 8-8 and finished second in the division to Seattle, only to go on the road and beat the Seahawks in the wild-card round. The Rams lost to the Atlanta Falcons the next week.
Coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney can feel good about the direction they have the Rams headed. Last year's first two rounds yielded a franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford and a starting left tackle in Rodger Saffold.
The Rams still have a long way to go but Nos. 1 and 1-A are at wide receiver and defensive line. With the injury to Mark Clayton, the Rams starting wide receivers were a sixth-round draft choice they got from Philly and an undrafted free agent who has bounced around the NFC East before landing in St Louis. Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola are great stories but the Rams have to upgrade the position and give Bradford and Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson something to work with.
The Rams have drafted four defensive linemen in the first 15 picks this decade and don’t have a great deal to show for it. Only Chris Long remain,s and the Rams may consider taking one with the 14th pick of the draft.
With the loss of O.J. Atogwe, they will look to solidify the safety position as well — but likely in the second or third round. The first round is too rich for a safety in this draft class.
Whomever the Rams take, they are going to need them to play well early. The Rams schedule includes the NFC East, AFC North as well as the last two winners of the Super Bowl, New Orleans and Green Bay.
Bradford's physical style a plus
Allen Bradford is a bigger back who had 110 attempts for 794 yards his redshirt senior year at USC. That 7.2 yards per carry is very intriguing, but you wonder why he was never able to take over the full-time starting role.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Bradford ran a 4.58 40-yard dash which was an excellent time for weighing in at 242 pounds. But I would have liked to see a more explosive vertical jump than the 29 inches he posted.
On tape, he is a patient runner with deceptive speed and quickness. I really like the way he keeps his feet churning after contact and runs through tackles. With that physicality, he is hardly brought down with just an arm tackle. He doesn't have elite breakaway speed once he is the open field, but he will fight for the tough yardage and get hard earned first downs.
One thing he will want to prove to NFL staffs is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and have some presence in the passing game. Bradford had only 14 career receptions during his time at USC, and with the pass friendly systems of the NFL, he will want to prove he has that skill set in order to be an every-down back.
The more I evaluate Bradford, the more the comparison to LeGarrette Blount comes to mind. Blount had a breakout season for the Tampa Bay Bucs, and I think Bradford can provide that same type of physical running style to his future team. I look for him to be selected in the late third to mid-fourth round.
Murray can aid passing attack
Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray is drawing some comparisons to Adrian Peterson and I don't think that is fair to either player. Really, the only thing these two have in common is their alma mater.
Murray checked in at the Combine measuring 5-foot-11 5/8 and 213 pounds. He ran a 4.41 40-yard dash and jumped a 34.5-inch vertical. Those numbers were surprising to me, because when you watch him on tape he doesn't seem to play that fast or that explosive.
At the Senior Bowl, he wasn't as elusive in space, and you saw his speed only once he got to the open field. He didn't get the edge as well as I thought he would, and didn't hit the hole as quickly as I would have liked to see. In pass protection drills, which is critical for the success of NFL running backs, he often dropped his head and eyes and lost his guy just before contact. That is understandable, considering he had an impressive 71 receptions as a senior at Oklahoma, suggesting that he rarely, if ever, was asked to stay in and protect the passer.
Those soft hands and ability to impact the passing game will be a huge asset, but he will need to firm up his technique in max protection situations.
One thing he did well at the Senior Bowl, he ran hard and physical almost as if to prove to NFL scouts he wasn't as injury prone as his college career may suggest.
I think Murray has value in the NFL as a third-down back with potential to share some first and second down carries later in his career, but to compare him to Adrian Peterson wouldn't even be close. I have him as my eighth best running back prospect.
Seahawks could look to improve pass rush
The Seattle Seahawks had a great run in 2010 with a most unlikely playoff run stemming from a 7-9 record that was able to win the anemic NFC West.
As exciting as making the playoffs was for the sub-.500 team, come the draft they may wish they had let someone else go dropping from what would have been the eighth overall pick to the 25th.
No team had more turnover in personnel than did the Seahawks with better than 200-plus roster moves made from the time Pete Carroll took over as the headman.
That turnover yielded some unlikely benefits when they signed wide receiver
Last year's draft resulted in two solid starters from the first round by way of offensive tackle Russell Okung and sagely safety Earl Thomas. Second-round wide receiver Golden Tate has also shown signs of being a contributor.
In 2011, Seattle will have just two picks in the first two days of the draft after trading this year's third-round pick to San Diego for Charlie Whitehurst.
Even with all those moves, Seattle has plenty to get done this offseason. Brandon Mebane and Raheem Brock are both free agents along the defensive line and Seattle had difficulty generating a pass rush with out using their nickel blitzes.
They might also look at the offensive tackles with the 25th pick because current starting right tackle William Robinson is a free agent.
Seattle may have a tough time improving on its 7-9 record with the NFC East being its out-of-division opponents along with the AFC North. They will also have to play both Atlanta and Chicago.
Cardinals need complete overhaul
The Arizona Cardinals did more than just fall out of the playoffs last year at 5-11. They totally changed the personality of their team with the loss of players like Kurt Warner, Carlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle and Anquan Boldin.
In 2009, the Cardinals were 28th in the league in rushing attempts. When Warner retired, coach Ken Wisenhunt wanted to recraft the Cardinals in the image of the Pittsburgh Steelers teams he was part of prior to coming to Arizona.
The problem is with no presence at quarterback and a diminished defense, they ended up last in the NFL in rushing in 2010 and 29th the league in total defense.
Whisenhunt has brought in Ray Horton from the Steelers to be his new defensive coordinator and install the 3-4 zone blitz concepts of Dick Lebeau that former defensive coordinator Billy Davis could not quite piece together.
Perennial Pro Bowl selection Adrian Wilson can give him a familiar presence at Safety but interior defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Darnell Docket, both of whom are effective players, but are up the field pass rushers, are not the anchors that system needs inside.
In short, the Cardinals are in total rebuild mode and have the fifth pick of the draft to begin that process.
Typically, the second round can be a real trap round for poor picks, but the Cardinals have done well over the last few years with picks like Dansby, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Deuce Lutui, Campbell, Boldin, Wilson, Dockett and last year's pick Daryl Washington.
They must find an answer at quarterback, but with the fifth overall pick that may be to rich given this year's group of quarterbacks. They could also use a tight end, but that is likely to come from the later rounds as well.
Defensively they have to go about totally rebuilding, both up front and in the back end, to better staff the style of defense they want to play.
They get a break by being in the anemic NFC West, but their out-of-division opponents in 2011 are out of the stacked and physical NFC East and AFC North.
Rodgers a strong inside runner
Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers is only 5-foot-5 7/8, but carries the majority of his 196 pounds in his legs. His thick trunks give him that bowling ball effect on the field and often times, it takes multiple tacklers to bring him down. He is drawing obvious comparisons to Maurice Jones Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Surprisingly enough, Rodgers may be a better inside runner than outside. His 4.64 speed is not extraordinarily fast, but he has excellent quickness and acceleration that make him a great inside back. Additionally, he uses his lack of height to his advantage as the defense often loses him behind the offensive line, and before they know it, Rodgers has shot through a hole and is speeding down the open field. He shows excellent start/start jukes and rarely takes a hit square on.
In pass protection, he often tries to cut down rushers with a chop block, but in the NFL he will want to establish a counter block or defenders will anticipate and jump over his blocks on their way to the quarterback. He does show adequate hands out of the backfield to be an impact in the passing game but more in the flat and screen game than downfield.
I like Rodgers to go in a system with an established running back that will take the majority of the work load and allow him to steadily increase his responsibility — similar to MJD when Fred Taylor showed him the ropes of the NFL.
Hunter compares to Brian Westbrook
Oklahoma State running back Kendall Hunter had tremendous sophomore and senior seasons, but sandwiched an injury-riddled junior year between. If he can stay healthy, he may be one of the steals of the draft.
I compare Hunter to Brian Westbrook in the fact that he can be a third-down back right away and has the potential to work himself into a starting role as a featured back. When watching Hunter at the Senior Bowl, I saw a competitive player who was physical, quick and passionate.
He performed the best and showed he was possibly the most complete running back of all at the Senior Bowl. He was really quick into the hole and ran physical when needed but also was an excellent route runner out of the backfield. Like Westbrook, Hunter will be a matchup nightmare for defenses in the screen game and in man coverage for teams trying to cover him with just a linebacker.
While he may be a little undersized at 5-foot-7 1/4 and 199 pounds, Hunter proved his durability his senior year by having nine 100-yard rushing games and carrying the ball 271 times.
Falcons must address concerns on defense
Even though the Falcons went 13-3 and produced a franchise-first, third straight winning season, they came away from 2010 unfulfilled after losing in the divisional round and another one-and-done playoff performance.
Atlanta was solid on both sides of the ball, ranking near the middle of the league both offensively and defensively. With offensive Pro Bowl selections Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Ovie Mughelli, Tony Gonzalez and Tyson Clabo, they have all the assets they need to take the next step into the upper echelon of offenses.
Even though they were a bit of a surprise in their defensive productivity, this is clearly the area they will need to improve, not only in the playoffs, but to even stay competitive in the now-tough NFC South that includes New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff need to lock the offensive coaches out of the draft room and load up on defense. Their top priority with the 27th pick should be an edge pass rusher to complement Pro Bowl defensive end John Abraham. They picked up a winner in the first round of last year's draft in linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to team up with Curtis Lofton and Mike Peterson. They picked up Dunta Robinson in free agency and got solid play from Brent Grimes in the secondary and saw solid improvement in safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. Still, they should focus on the backend and take another corner and safeties for added depth, nickel play and special teams contributors.
If they do take an offensive player they might consider taking a center to eventually replace the effective but aging Todd McClure or a tight end to sit at the foot of Tony Gonzalez for a year before he chooses to retire and walk into the Hall of Fame.
In addition to the now-tough NFC South, the Falcons out-of-division opponents come out of the NFC North and AFC South, and also include 2010 playoff teams Philadelphia and Seattle.
Bucs could look at secondary help
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the darlings of the league last year with coach Raheem Morris seemingly willing the Bucs to a 10-6 record.
The Bucs got better with every outing and if not for an uncharacteristic flop late in the season against Detroit would have made the playoffs.
The schedule will get a little tougher with Tampa Bay having to face the NFC North and AFC South along with Dallas and San Francisco, but Josh Freeman has Tampa Bay believing after growing into a clutch quarterback with six come-from-behind wins.
At the offensive skill positions, the Bucs have developed a solid core with rookie Mike Williams emerging as a big play receiving threat to go along with talented tight end Kellen Winslow and rookie LeGarrette Blount — whom they picked up on waivers — gives them a physical presence in the running game.
The Bucs could use help on the offensive line, particularly at tackle, but if they can just stay healthy next year it will be an already improved unit.
For the Bucs to truly become an annual playoff team, defense is where they are going to have to improve most, particularly against the rush where they ranked 28th in the league. Last year's first two picks of Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, both of whom ended up on injured reserve, should mature into a solid inside presence.
Defensive end is where they need to focus along with an inside linebacker should they lose Barrett Ruud to free agency.
Thomas' has strong receiving skills
Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas is another versatile back who will provide great value in the second or third round of the draft. I liken his style of play to Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears. They both have good size and above-average speed, and are excellent receivers out of the backfield.
On the field, Thomas runs downhill but also cam make quick cuts in tight spaces to either cut back across the field or juke a defender in the open field. He shows a great burst running between the tackles and hits the hole hard and with a purpose. He fights for extra yardage after contact and rarely was taken down by the first tackler.
In addition to his value as an inside runner, Thomas also lined up in the slot or motioned out of the backfield to create mismatches in the passing game as well. He ran digs, corners and out routes that would be more typical of a wide recover throughout his college career. This versatility will be very useful in today's pass-heavy NFL.
Thomas will also bring a certain level of toughness and durability. He never missed a game in his two seasons at Kansas Sate while carrying the ball nearly 550 times.
Williams will be a value pick
Measuring in at 5-foot-9 3/8 and 212 pounds, Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams is a small powerful running back who is ready to take his game to the next level. He showed off his powerful and explosive legs at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 40-inch vertical. You see that same explosiveness when you evaluate his on-the-field attributes as well.
He uses his strong lower body to power through tackles and often gains additional yards after contact and is rarely taken down by an arm tackle. He runs with a low pad level and nice balanced forward lean so that even when he is taken down, he will fall forward. Like a lot of power runners who fight for extra yardage, he will need to stay focused on ball security as he did have six fumbles in the past two seasons.
In addition to his power running style, he shows a certain flexibility in his hips that allows him to cut at close to full speed. With his 4.61 40-yard dash, he has the rare ability to get to the edge with quickness and then shows the vision to cut back if a lane opens up. Because of this versatility, he can be an effective inside and outside runner who is valuable in the NFL.
Like most rookie running backs, he will need to prove he can be an asset as a pass protector, but he has shown the ability to get out and catch the ball from the backfield.
Overall, I like the skill set that Williams brings to the table. As running back needy teams consider drafting Mark Ingram or Mikel Leshoure in the mid-first to early second round, they will want to consider the value they could get later in the draft with such backs as Ryan Williams.
Panthers have plenty of holes
It is good/news bad news for the Carolina Panthers who have the first overall pick. The good news is that there is a wide variety of talented prospects at every position to choose from. The bad news is they need help with just about all of them.
The Panthers were the worst offense in the NFL last year and on defense, and will work to re-establish a new 3-4 defensive scheme with first-year coach Ron Rivera, who came over from the San Diego Chargers.
Offensively they have solidified the interior of the offensive line by putting the franchise tag on fifth-year center Ryan Kalil. They have long had one of the best one-two running back punches in the league but risk losing DeAngelo Williams to free agency. Two big issues remain: What are they going to do at quarterback and whom will he throw to. Unfortunely, neither is likely to be addressed with the first overall pick.
The drafting of quarterback Jimmy Clausen with the 48th pick in last year's draft was the first time the Panthers had selected a signal caller in the first three rounds this decade. Clausen’s play may give them pause this year, but it is likely they will address that issue via free agency, rather than the draft, even though the first pick in the second round may have some interesting names left on the board at that position.
They may also take a look at the tight ends in the second day of the draft with some good value likely still on the board in the third round. Tight end is a position that they have never really addressed in the draft, other than Mike Seidman in the third round in 2003, who never panned out.
Rivera has to rebuild a defense that will face Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman twice a year. In addition to the tough NFC South schedule, they also have to face the NFC North and AFC South in their out-of-division games which means more skilled passers in Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Jay Cutler as well. The Panthers likely will address their pass rush first after losing Julius Peppers to the Chicago Bears in free agency last year.
Saints need playmakers
On paper, the New Orleans Saints looked primed to repeat as Super Bowl champions. They were one of just a few teams to ranked in the top-10 both offensively and defensively, but neither unit played as well as the year before.
Drew Brees and the potent offense was explosive, but their inability to run the ball made the major difference.
Defensively, they were much better statistically, but did not generate the pressure on the quarterback and turnovers that were the hallmark of the Super Bowl team.
Last season's first-round cornerback Patrick Robinson and second-round offensive tackle Charles Brown were not able to crack the starting lineup but might have a bigger impact in Year 2. However, third-round selection tight end Jimmy Graham may have been the steal of the draft with the 95th pick.
The Saints pick up an extra third-round selection from Washington and might be well advised to use the first and second day of the draft to load up along the defensive front seven. Among the current starters, only first round picks Sedrick Ellis and Will Smith were actually drafted by New Orleans.
Along with the tough NFC South, the Saints will have to face the NFC North and AFC South along with the New York Giants and the improving St. Louis Rams.
Ingram may not go in first round
Alabama's Mark Ingram is considered by many as the top running back in this year's draft. He isn't going to wow anyone with his size, speed and physical skill set, but he runs hard and with a purpose. His running style is actually very comparable to Emmitt Smith.
Ingram is a patient runner who shows great vision, staying behind his blockers before shooting through an opening. He has nifty footwork and change of direction in tight spaces that make it very difficult to get a clean hit on him. He uses jukes and cutback lanes well to set up blocks and creates running lanes down the field. Ingram runs "angry" and stays behind his pads, ensuring that he falls forward for a couple more yards after contact.
His uses his low enter of gravity to run with a strong base and a powerful stride. Even when watching him run the 40-yard dash, he runs with high knees and uses his big powerful thighs. Throughout the rest of this month, he will be on a mission to prove to teams that he can protect the passer in the backfield and also have the hands to check out in the flat and be a threat in the passing game as well.
While Ingram may be the best overall running back prospect available in the draft, teams will be evaluating his against the "value" they could get in later rounds. With passing systems becoming much more prevalent in the NFL, the value of the first-round running back might be becoming extinct.
Leshoure compares to Michael Turner
Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure is drawing some comparisons to former Fighting Illini Rashard Mendenhall. When I watch him play, he reminds me more of Michael Turner of the Atlanta Falcons.
Like Turner, he churns his legs quickly and accelerates through the hole quickly. He puts his foot in the ground and makes one cut and then gets up field and gets as many yards as possible. He doesn't have great wiggle but changes direction well enough and then runs behind his pads in the open field.
I do like how Leshoure fights as a blocker in the backfield and has experience protecting the passer. This will help him get on the field quickly as a third-down back. He wasn't asked to catch the ball very much, so he will want to prove that he can be a threat in the passing game out in the flats.
I see him fitting in best with a team that utilizes a two-back system and reduce his overall workload. He played in a tandem backfield for Illinois and has never been asked to be the workhorse back.
Leshoure measures in at 5-foot-11 5/8 and 227 pounds. He proved he has some explosion in his legs by jumping a 38-inch vertical. I would look for Leshoure to be the second back selected, but I am not sure that he sneaks into the first round. If he gets by New England's second first-round pick, he will most likely slide into Day 2 of the draft.
For more analysis, follow Billick on Twitter at @coachbillick.
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