by Scott Benson
One of the most talked-out, highly-anticipated weekends on the NFL calendar is now less than two weeks away.
The 73rd NFL Draft is set for Saturday and Sunday, April 26-27, though in a different format than the one draft watchers have become accustomed to.
Only the first two rounds will be held on Saturday, and the first selection won’t be made until 3 p.m. That’s been pushed back from the traditional start-time of noon. Rounds three through seven will be held on Sunday, with a 10 a.m. start.
This year, teams will be alloted just 10 minutes for each first round pick (cut from the traditional 15). Round two selections will be made in 7 minutes, down from 10 in years previous. Rounds 3-7 will allow just 5 minutes for each pick.
TV coverage will once again be offered on both the NFL Network and ESPN, so if you have the former, you can avoid the latter. The NFLN has been emphasizing “live coverage of every pick” in their promos, which seems like a shot at the Worldwide Leader. ESPN hasn’t covered a pick after 32 since George Grande and Paul Zimmerman were pitched to the curb, and the event became secondary to the Leader’s never ending shtick.
As you know already, our own New England Patriots will be major players in this year’s affair.
Their fortuitous trade with San Francisco last April has netted them the 7th selection, lessening the blow of their penalty for Spygate, which cost them their own first round pick. They also grabbed an additional third round pick in a trade with Oakland, giving them four picks in the first three rounds. They have eight overall.
Of course, you have to know that the aforementioned Spygate will be revisited as well. If you’re still a bit sensitive about it, gird those loins for another assault. When Sheriff Matt Goodell steps to the mike to intone the words “the New England Patriots” for the first time, whether it be for the 7th pick or the 17th, expect the hounds of hell to be unleashed from the Radio City Music Hall rafters by the New York/Philly leatherlungs in attendance. Even Donovan McNabb will think, “man, that’s harsh.”
And when the 31st pick comes, expect a deafening roar that will have you reaching for your remote. If you haven’t busted it already at the inevitable Friday morning turd in the punchbowl announcement from the preening bookseller Arlen Specter. You know that’s coming too.
Just remember – it’s only noise. Better we should focus on the task at hand.
And what is that task? From this corner, it looks to be a remodel job on the defense that’s been unable to seal the deal in each of the last two seasons, and and which bore the brunt of New England’s losses in free agency. The Pats, unpredictable sorts they, will no doubt also look to sustain their almost-world-beating offense, but it’s clear the team’s greatest needs rest on the other side of the ball. Whether they are able to fill those needs while remaining true to their “value” ideals is the biggest question in this year’s draft.
Let’s take a look at exactly what those needs are. The caveat is that teams that draft purely for need are often disappointed in the results, and the disciplined Pats surely heed those words as they stack their board every year.
Job one is finding a starter to pair with Ellis Hobbs, now that Asante Samuel has sought his riches in Philadelphia. The Pats brought in three veteran free agents to patch the holes left by the departure of Samuel and Randall Gay, but they’re all on one-year contracts, and the team must look beyond 2008. Same goes on the back line, with Rodney Harrison and James Sanders on the final year of their deals. It will be interesting to watch for the influence of new secondary coach Dom Capers here. He has been dispatched to meet with several prospects over the past two months.
Second most obvious need is at linebacker. A pass rushing edge player who could log significant snaps would give the Pats flexibility with Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel, and this has been the focus of much discussion where the 7th pick is concerned. Inside, Tedy Bruschi will be 35 and entering his 13th season when things get started this fall. Victor Hobson certainly changes the dynamic there, with his experience and relative youth, and that eases the immediate pressure on the Pats to find a draft pearl inside. New England has always marched to its own drummer when it comes to drafting linebackers, so despite the need, there’s no telling what will happen here. Again, Capers’ influence will be worth watching. If the Pats are moving more towards his aggressive, attacking style, we may see them buck one of their trends at this position.
The Pats strongest unit may be Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, but this still pops up on the radar for a couple of reasons. First, Seymour and Wilfork have just two seasons remaining on their contracts, and second, linemen often provide the best value when it comes to early draft picks. The Pats have certainly had their success there, on both sides of the ball, so that has to be factored in as we consider their direction with that 7th pick.
Randy Moss and Wes Welker are two of the best receivers in the league, and they’re locked down for the long-term. Jabar Gaffney has become a Tom Brady favorite, often in tight spots, but he’s signed through 2008 only, and after him, it’s the great unknown. He hasn’t had the best of luck, but Chad Jackson has done almost nothing in two seasons, and Kelley Washington (resigned to a two-year deal) may be just a special-teamer only. The Pats don’t draft a ton of receivers, but with Jackson still iffy, they may elect to move in this direction. Especially if they can nail down a prospect that could also return kickoffs.
The Pats are rife with pro-bowlers here too, but Logan Mankins, Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur are all due to reach the end of their contracts after the 2009 season. Like with defensive line, the Pats may be well advised to begin planning for that now, with the idea they may lose one or more. New England has made their early o-line picks count (Matt Light in 2001, and Mankins in 2005), and the right lineman might be the best investment of one of their early picks this year.
Ben Watson is recovering from off-season surgery, and David Thomas is nearly as unknown a quantity as Chad Jackson. Kyle Brady was released, so at the least, the Pats may be looking for a tight end that can contribute as a blocker while developing as a receiver. The Pats have spent 9 of the 70 draft picks of the Belichick Era on tight ends, so it seems like a solid bet that another propsect will hear his name called at month’s end.
The Pats are pretty solid for the short term here, providing Sammy Morris returns to support Laurence Maroney. One thing to keep an eye on is Kevin Faulk; one of the team’s most valuable players, Faulk will be 32 in the fall and entering the final two years of his contract. The Pats may look to add a change of pace runner/receiver to develop, or a banger if there’s ongoing concern about Morris. They could also look for a versatile fullback, where Heath Evans is entering the final year of his deal.
The most important position on the field requires a constant effort to develop young players. This may be a secondary priority now, given the presence of Tom Brady, but an upgrade at the backup position may be on their minds. Matt Cassel has been up and down and may never grow fully into the role. The Pats may want another prototype development guy here.
In our next installment, we’ll look at some of the propsect options at each position. As always, you’re welcome to log your own draft thoughts in our comments section.