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NFL Draft Forecasting Is Almost Impossible This Year

By Bill Peterson · April 20th, 2005 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

For all the underclassmen available in the NFL draft, which still artificially suppresses opportunity for young athletes, this year's event is said to be so deep and even, while the first teams to pick are so lacking in general, that there's no way of forecasting the selections.

Southern Cal quarterback Matt Leinart quickly announced he will play his senior season, constituting the biggest news of this draft. With two national championships and a Heisman Trophy under his belt, Leinart not only struck a welcomed blow for college football but opened the possibility that the Trojans could line up against the San Francisco 49ers, who probably would have taken him with the first overall pick.

All of the NFL's worst four teams, picking in the draft's traditional reverse order of competence, desperately need quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. Right after the 49ers, it's Miami, Cleveland and Chicago, all needing so much help that they might be willing to trade down for volume. And the Minnesota Vikings, picking seventh, could angle to trade up for a shot at Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards after dealing Randy Moss to Oakland.

It's all guess work all the time until Saturday, when the real fun begins. Until then, we note only a couple of trends that in combination should be quite helpful to the Bengals as they wait with the 17th selection.

Seldom, if ever, do this year's mock drafts project a lineman on either side of scrimmage going in the first 10 picks. The only pure linebacker consistently spotted in the top 15 is the winner of the Lombardi and Butkus awards, Derrick Johnson of Texas. The Bengals most obviously need tackling and pass rushing, while a little more oomph in the middle of their offensive line would be useful.

Despair for offensive skill throughout the league should work out very well for the Bengals, who are loaded with offensive skill and have ascended to the middle of the first round. The local entry now can rectify two consecutive years of putrid defense.

Contrary to early expectations, Marvin Lewis concentrated on offense with his first two top picks as the Bengals head coach.

Looking at this draft in combination with the past two, it's turned out a wise strategy. Quarterback Carson Palmer will enter the fall as a third-year veteran surrounded with skill, particularly if the Bengals can bring back wide receiver Peter Warrick and running back Chris Perry from injury.

In addition to the dire need for skill that prevails in the lower reaches of the NFL, we find a trend toward 3-4 defenses coming back to the league, which means other teams picking ahead of the Bengals are looking for the next Jason Gildon, a college defensive end who's undersized for the position in the NFL, where he might be useful as pass rushing outside linebacker who can stay off offensive linemen.

The majority of NFL teams played the 3-4 until the Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl playing the 4-3 in 1995. But the Pittsburgh Steelers kept playing the 3-4 -- even when they were the only ones -- and stopped teams with it, leading the NFL in defense last season. The Baltimore Ravens led the NFL in sacks with the 3-4 in 2003, and the New England Patriots have won the past two Super Bowls using the scheme.

At the moment, five NFL teams, in addition to the six teams already using the 3-4, are considering the alignment for the coming season. We hear discussions we wouldn't have heard so much in the past few years. Talk abounds, though it's somewhat questionable, that Maryland's Shawne Merriman, Wisconsin's Erasmus James, Troy's DeMarcus Ware, Oklahoma's Dan Cody and Georgia's David Pollack are too small to play defensive end in the NFL but might be fast enough to play outside linebacker.

They're considered tweeners. James, Pollack and Merriman all are in the neighborhood of 270 pounds, while Cody and Ware approach 255. An NFL defensive end weighing 280 still gives up 20 pounds to a 300-pound offensive tackle, so he needs speed to compensate. If he's too small, he might still possess the speed to play outside linebacker.

But all of that is in the eye of the beholder, the NFL personnel guy. Four years ago, Bengals defensive end Justin Smith would have been in that group, weighing 270. But he plays on the end of a 4-3 and came out the Bengals' most productive lineman last year with 70 tackles, eight sacks, two pass deflections and two fumble recoveries. Miami's Jason Taylor, Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney (268 pounds) and the New York Jets' John Abraham (256 pounds) all are lighter than Smith and went to the Pro Bowl as defensive ends.

Last year's Pro Bowl defensive ends ranged from Taylor at 255 to Pittsburgh's Aaron Smith at 298. The Pro Bowl outside linebackers ranged from Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks at 235 to Baltimore's Terrell Suggs at 260.

Naturally, the Bengals will make their own professional evaluation. They're not going to tell the world what it is and, even if they did, there's no guarantee this draft will fall in such a way that the the player they think will fall to them still will be available.

In that spirit, Lewis has been coy and mysterious with reporters, saying he has a wish list of about five players and that the Bengals are in a position to draft with the long term in mind. He also deflects the idea that the Bengals need a defensive tackle after signing free agent Bryan Robinson to play next to John Thornton, arguing that the Bengals didn't allow long runs through the middle of the line last season.

That ought to confuse a good number of draftniks who think the Bengals should take 305-pound Florida State defensive tackle Travis Johnson with their first pick. And with all the 3-4 defenses in the making, Johnson might not even be around, as he would make a good nose tackle in such an alignment.

We know many of the teams ahead of the Bengals will draft for offensive skill and pass rushing outside linebackers, and of course the best two corners should be gone before the 17th pick rolls around. We also know the Bengals desperately need pass rushing and tackling. And that they're staying in the 4-3.

Where does that leave them? It all depends on the first 16 picks. As most projections have it, offensive skill players will gobble up the first eight picks, except for Tennessee, which needs a cornerback with the sixth selection. A run on defensive talent will begin with Washington taking a cornerback on the ninth pick.

At that point, we begin hearing names like Johnson, Merriman and James, along with LSU defensive end Marcus Spears and Georgia strong safety Thomas Davis. Spears is the most heralded big defensive end (307 pounds) in this draft, while Davis is the highest rated strong safety. The Bengals could use either, should they slip to No. 17.

The Bengals also could use a middle linebacker, since Nate Webster's injury status is uncertain. But the draft's top-ranked middle linebacker, Georgia's Odell Thurman, might be considered a reach at the 17th pick.

How could the Bengals go wrong with an offensive lineman like Florida State tackle Alex Barron or Virginia guard Elton Brown? One vigorously researched mock draft even has the Bengals taking wide receiver Mike Williams, formerly Palmer's favorite receiver at USC.

No one knows, so why even guess? Because it's fun to forecast. It just happens that it's almost impossible to do this year.



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