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Five teams to watch at the NFL Draft
The NFL Draft will have fans from all 32 franchises thinking they’re the biggest stories of the weekend, but there are five squads I’m circling as the real teams to watch come Thursday-Saturday.
These are the ones that hold the cards and can shape the way the weekend plays out for the 27 others.
1. San Francisco 49ers: It’s rare that a team that owns the 31st overall pick in the NFL Draft could end up being the most influential. But as one NFL GM told me last month at the annual Owners Meetings, this draft could really end up being the “San Francisco 49ers Invitational.”
Due to recent trades, compensatory picks and a grounded approach to the NFL Draft over the past decade, the 49ers have accumulated 13 selections in this month’s draft. Not bad for a team that won the NFC championship a season ago.
General manager Trent Baalke has traded for Anquan Boldin and Colt McCoy. The 49ers are already reloading, but could make an even bigger splash at the draft. All eyes seem to be on Seattle this offseason and the Seahawks’ aggressive moves, but the 49ers carry a lot of weight heading into draft weekend.
They haven’t done too shabby this offseason, either.
2. Philadelphia Eagles: There’s a new boss in town and he’s got all the confidence and bluster in the world. Chip Kelly isn’t throwing out the term “Dream Team,” but he is confident in the talent he has in store.
The Eagles are a team to watch next week for a few reasons. One, because of all the activity they’ve already made this offseason and two, because of the widespread curiosity hovering over the direction they’re heading in. It’s all about Kelly. He’s got his quarterback in Michael Vick and it appears as though Nick Foles isn’t going anywhere. But there’s still a chance he rolls the dice on a Geno Smith or E.J. Manuel in the first two rounds of this year’s draft.
The defensive backfield underwent an extreme makeover in March, with all four starting positions being changed. New players Kenny Phillips, Cary Williams, Patrick Chung and Bradley Fletcher will all likely start come Week 1. So, where does Chip Kelly go in the first round at No. 4? It’s anybody’s guess. The second-round selection, the third in the round, could be even more intriguing.
3. St. Louis Rams: As everyone else does flips over what the Seahawks and 49ers have done this offseason, the Rams have quietly loaded up quite nicely, as well.
The “third” team in the NFC West inked a long-term deal with dynamic tight end Jared Cook and got Jake Long at an affordable price. If both players are healthy, they’ll serve as immediate upgrades to the offense. The NFL Draft, however, is where the Rams hold several cards. Due to the Robert Griffin III trade a season ago, St. Louis owns Washington’s first round pick (No. 22) in addition to their own (No. 16) this year.
There’s an obvious need at wide receiver, a position still not addressed in the offseason. Speaking with Rams' brass, though, they seem to like youngsters Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Brian Quick a lot more than the football viewing public.
St. Louis had more sacks than any other team in the league last year and was the only squad in the NFC West not to lose to the 49ers (they beat and tied them). Two first-round picks serve as serious currency in what’s shaping up to be the league’s most loaded division.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jags have been linked to just about every prospect in this draft and haven’t shown their cards whatsoever. There’s reason to believe we won’t know who the team will take until the name is announced on April 25.
Will it be Sharrif Floyd? Geno Smith? Bjoern Werner? Oregon’s ultra-athletic outside linebacker Dion Jordan? Dee Milliner, the top corner? Or will it be Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher?
The Jags hold a lot of power at No. 2 precisely because of their need for so much talent. They’re not one player away. Could the Jags shop the pick for multiple first-rounders over the next few years? It’s possible. Jacksonville is unique in that it’s undergone quite a change in its look and personality over the past several months, as well.
In David Caldwell, the new GM, there’s a cerebral player-personnel man who isn't scared to swing for the fences or go against convention.
In new head coach Gus Bradley, there’s a youthful positive energy and charisma that’s downright contagious. There’s a fairly new owner, his son and the data/numbers guys are in the front office, and there is an entirely new crew of assistants. The Jags are looking to build through the draft (and undrafted free agents); not through flashy free-agent signings.
What will they do at No. 2? It could help dictate the rest of the first round. Jacksonville also holds the first pick of the second round, which is always an interesting one. After the first day, teams spend all afternoon Friday recalibrating their boards. If there’s a guy they had listed as a top-15 pick who slips to 33, there could be a classic “over-trade” for the pick.
5. Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have two picks in the first round and four picks in the first three. They’ve got the 23rd pick, courtesy of the Percy Harvin trade, and then the 25th just two picks later. In other years, that wouldn’t be such a big deal. In this year, it’s two very valuable picks.
The 2013 NFL Draft isn’t as top-heavy as years prior. You could find two players in the 20s who end up making more of an impact, or are valued the same, as two players in the top 10.
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