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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NFL OFFSEASON UPDATE AND DRAFT PREVIEW!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


The NFL Draft has always been a storyline unto itself, even before the AFL-NFL merger finally materialized in 1970. Although the draft, along with the Super Bowl, was a more immediate byproduct of the July, 1966 merger, as the leagues began conducting common drafts beginning in 1967. The top choice in the first common draft in ’67 was none other than Michigan State DE Bubba Smith, snagged by the Baltimore Colts, who acquired the top pick in a trade with the expansion New Orleans Saints for QB Gary Cuozzo!

For several of those years, into the mid ‘70s, the draft would often take place not long after the season concluded, sometimes in late January or early February, before eventually being pushed back into springtime.

Before the advent of ESPN, keeping track of the draft meant waiting for the evening newspaper (remember those?), which would provide info on first-round selections, then waiting for the following day’s morning paper to report upon subsequent picks. Or, listening to news radio when it was time for the sports reports every half hour, and charting reports of the latest picks. Upon its launching in September of 1979, ESPN, however, thought that providing extensive draft coverage might not be a bad idea for pro football junkies who were looking for their gridiron “fix” in the offseason. Indeed, one of ESPN’s first major breakthroughs was its on-site coverage of the 1980 draft, just a few months after the network began its operations, with its new marquee hire, longtime NBC play-by-play man Jim Simpson, anchoring the proceedings.

It was in those years that this writer, finishing school at Long Beach State and working in its sports information office, began producing his own draft preview for a small collection of readers who would include the founder of TGS, Mort Olshan, who so liked some of the material that he offered me a chance of a lifetime to join his staff in 1981. And, for awhile, we at TGS mulled the possibility of producing our own draft previews at about the same time a then-young Mel Kiper, Jr. was probably starting to do some of the same things from his Baltimore home base.

Draft previews in those days were few in number and mostly homemade products put together in somewhat rudimentary fashion. Some were better reads than others; the Drugstore List, produced by Jerry Jones (no relation to the Cowboys’ owner), was one of our favorites for several years. Jones continued to produce his Drugstore List, complete with (much like TGS) a familiar goldenrod-colored cover, through last season, before Jones sadly passed away last summer after battling lung cancer. He’ll be missed.

For the past several years, we have also missed the inimitable Joel Buschbaum, Pro Football Weekly’s eccentric draftnik who was based in Brooklyn and rarely ventured into the public, although his radio spots on the blowtorch KMOX in St. Louis, prior to Monday Night Football games in the fall, introduced him to a new legion of fans throughout the midwest and helped him cultivate a cult-like following among many hardcore NFL fans from the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s. Buschbaum’s voluminous material allowed PFW to also capitalize on the growing interest in the draft as it took coverage to another level with its slick draft-centered publications. Unfortunately, the eccentric Buchsbaum would pass away in December of 2002 at the relatviely young age of 48, and we recall PFW Publisher and Editor Hub Arkush relating his sadness at the news to us shortly thereafter at an industry trade show. Hub, however, fortunately found able successors to Buchsbaum in Nolan Nawrocki and Eric Edholm, who have continued PFW’s insightful and comprehensive draft coverage in the Buchsbaum tradition.

Over three decades ago, we had an idea that the draft held the potential to captivate the NFL audience, as forward-looking thinkers such as Jerry Jones, Buschbaum/Arkush at PFW, Kiper, and Mel’s eventual employers at ESPN were able to recognize and capitalize upon as well. And the rest, they say, is history.

Fast forward to 2013, and the NFL Draft remains a pretty big deal. We at TGS got back into the draft preview regimen a year ago and enjoyed it so much (being reminded of things I was doing more than 30 years ago) that we decided to do so again this season. So, with time running out in our 2012-13 publishing schedule (next Monday’s edition will conclude our coverage until fall), and the draft fast approaching in two weeks, we offer Part I of our draft preview in this issue, with Part II next week.

Following are our team updates, revolved around first-round draft projections, and our predicted selections. Early projections rate this draft having less “sizzle” than some recent seasons, only because offensive skill position candidates at QB, WR, and RB don’t appear as prevalent in the blue-chip category as offensive linemen and front-seven defenders. We’ll see. The “first wave” of FA signings has slowed by now, but a handful of those could still alter team wish/need lists in the draft. And, as always, trades can alter draft order. But for the moment this is how we believe things might proceed beginning Thursday, April 25 at Radio City Music Hall. We’ll go in draft order (as of Thursday, April 11), covering the first half of Round One in this issue, and following with second half in our final issue of the season next Monday.

1-KANSAS CITY CHIEFS...The rebuilding in Kansas City has begun for new HC Andy Reid, who addressed his QB issues at Arrowhead in the offseason when dealing with San Francisco for QB Alex Smith, who became expendable for the 49ers after the emergence of Colin Kaepernick. Might the Chiefs be looking to deal the top choice? Perhaps, although most insiders suggest there are no sure-fire “franchise” picks like last year’s number one or two selections, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Thus, the chances of a team willing to give up what the Redskins did for RG III last year seem unlikely. Still, recall that six of the top seven picks were eventually dealt last season, and Reid and new GM John Dorsey will at least be likely to shop around with the idea of picking up a few extra selections, especially since KC dealt its own 2nd-round choice to the Niners in the Smith trade. The Chiefs’ offseason FA makeover hasn’t yet included much upgrading along the OL, where most of the riches in the draft class of 2013 are likely to be found. And with a glaring hole at RT with Eric Winston’s release, it’s probably a coin flip between Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan’s intriguing Eric Fisher if Reid indeed keeps the pick. Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan

2-JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS...After Mike Mularkey joined such past counterparts as Les Steckel in Minnesota and Rod Rust in New England at the head of the latest “one and done” coaching regimes in the NFL, owner Shad Khan went for a more defensive emphasis when tapping Seahawks’ d.c. Gus Bradley as the new heas coach. The Jags, however, might have even more roster holes to fill than the Chiefs, so Bradley and new GM Dave Caldwell could be tempted to move down in order to accumulate more picks that could provide immediate help. A year ago the Jags might have been tempted by one of the many QBs in the 2012 Draft. But this year’s rookie signal-calling crop is thin compared to a year ago, and we highly doubt West Virginia’s Geno Smith or Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley, the consensus top two QBs in this draft but each with question marks, get pushed this high in the first round. Instead, Bradley and Caldwell likely give Blaine Gabbert (off of a shoulder injury that cost him the last six games on 2012) one more season to audition, with Chad Henne in reserve like a year ago, although the fact J’ville was in the mix to acquire Seattle's Matt Flynn (before he moved to Oakland) confirms Gabbert’s probable short-term prognosis. Whether or not the Jags keep this pick, the defense-minded Bradley probably looks on the stop end for reinforcements with his early selections after J’ville ranked near the bottom of most stop unit stats last season and dead last in sacks with 20. A pass-rush DE or another playmaker from the edge is likely to be targeted; Oregon’s versatile DE/LB Dion Jordan could fill that bill and give Bradley the sort of versatile playmaker who could help right away. Look for holes along the OL and at corner to be addressed in the early rounds as well. Dion Jordan, DE-LB, Oregon

3-OAKLAND RAIDERS...Dennis Allen’s regime barely survived a rocky 4-12 debut last season, and most believe GM Reggie McKenzie has Allen on a short leash entering 2013. The Raiders hoped to address their QB issues in the offseason when offloading Carson Palmer to the Cardinals and acquiring Seattle’s Matt Flynn (expendable after the emergence of Russell Wilson) to take his place; Flynn will be favored to win the starting job over holdover Terrelle Pryor, and appears a better fit than Palmer for the West Coast system that o.c. Greg Olson would prefer to employ. Allen and McKenzie almost surely will target some glaring defensive needs, with spots at DT (where Desmond Bryant’s FA departure for Cleveland, and releases of Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour have further thinned the ranks) and CB likely to be targeted for upgrade after the LB spots were addressed more directly in free agency with the additions of Kevin Burnett (via Miami) and Nick Roach (via Chicago). The cost of the 2011 acquisition of Palmer, however, continues to be felt, as the Raiders are minus their 2nd-round pick as a result of that trade with Cincinnati. So Allen and McKenzie had better get their top pick right, and most believe Oakland couldn’t go wrong with either of the two top-rated DTs, Florida’s Sharrif Floyd or Utah’s Star Lotulelei, each likely to make an immediate impact. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida

4-PHILADELPHIA EAGLES...For the first time in this millennium, Andy Reid is not going to be the Eagles’ coach. Instead, Oregon’s Chip Kelly, whose hiring was perhaps the most intriguing in the coaching ranks during the offseason, now takes over at the Linc. The immediate ramifications of a Kelly regime focus upon the QB position, where Michael Vick has been retained for an audition in the Kelly system that apparently includes implementing much of the read-option style used by the Pac-12 Ducks. Vick’s retention, plus Kelly’s FA additions of Dennis Dixon (a former pupil at Oregon) and ex-Tulsa G.J. Kinne, suggests that is indeed the direction Kelly is exploring with his QBs, making the future of Nick Foles, who showed promise as a rookie for Reid in 2012 but definitely not a read-option alternative, an intriguing storyline this summer in Philly. Kelly, who could also be tempted by read-option possibilities at QB in later rounds of the draft (perhaps Arizona’s Matt Scott or Florida State’s EJ Manuel), is more likely to address some glaring OL needs with his earliest picks in the draft. If either of the top-rated OTs, Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel or Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher, is still on the board, that’s the direction the Birds likely take with their top selection, although they’ll be tempted to upgrade at corner (where both of last year’s starters, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie, have departed and FA signees Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams have already been enlisted) and on the DL, where a switch to 3-4 looks might make a hybrid DE/LB (if Oregon’s Dion Jordan is still on the board, his college coach Kelly would definitely be interested) as well. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M

5-DETROIT LIONS...Beleaguered HC Jim Schwartz barely survived last season’s hugely-disappointing 4-12 collapse and is under a must-win mandate this fall; most believe GM Martin Mayhew has a bit more rope from the Ford family ownership than does Schwartz, whose team regressed alarmingly amid recurring mental lapses a year ago. The Lions could be tempted to look for help along the OL in the early rounds, but most believe Mayhew and Schwartz are more desperate for help on defense, especially at the DE positions after Cliff Avril left in free agency for Seattle, Kyle Vanden Bosch was released and Lawrence Jackson is unlikely to return to the fold, and at the corners, where Chris Houston was re-signed but a glaring hole continues to exist on the other edge. Wherever the Lions can get the most impact defensively is where they likely go with this pick, which means passing up the consensus top CB in the draft, Alabama’s Dee Milliner, would be unlikely if he’s still on the board, especially since the Lions partially addressed DE needs when signing ex-Seahawk Jason Jones in free agency. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama

6-CLEVELAND BROWNS...The regime of new owner Jimmy Haslam also includes a new coach, well-regarded longtime o.c. Rob Chudzinski, and GM, Michael Lombardi, after an offseason housecleaning that not surprisingly cost HC Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert their jobs. Which also means the commitment to 2nd-year QB Brandon Weeden, the fair-haired boy of the Shurmur regime, isn’t likely to run deep; Lombardi has already traded away QB Colt McCoy to the 49ers and signed FA Jason Campbell as the competition for Weeden, to be overssen by new o.c. Norv Turner. Also new in Cleveland is d.c. Ray Horton, fresh from a similar stint in Arizona where he almost got the HC job after Ken Whisenhunt’s dismissal. Horton’s preference for 3-4 looks is another change forthcoming for the Browns, and the chance to give Horton a versatile playmaker on the edge will certainly tempt Lombardi and Chudzinski. One of several of those types of “hybrids” who could go in the first round is BYU’s Ziggy Ansah, a raw talent, but with enormous upside and the versatile toy that a d.c. in love with the 3-4 like Horton could certainly appreciate. Note that the Browns are currently minus their second-round pick due to selecting WR Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft last June. Ziggy Ansah, DE-LB, BYU

7-ARIZONA CARDINALS...The Big Red were one of many teams that cleaned house in the offseason, with HC Ken Whisnehunt and GM Rod Graves out, replaced by new coach Bruce Arians, the longtime Steelers and recently Colts o.c. and one-time Temple HC who filled in so admirably for HC Chuck Pagano a year ago at Indy, and GM Steve Kelm. Whisenhunt’s regime became undone due to lingering QB issues that remained unsolved in the desert after Kurt Warner’s retirement, as well as chronic OL woes. Arians and Kelm think they have addressed the QB spot prior to the draft, adding Carson Palmer from the Raiders after not retaining holdovers Kevin Kolb (who has since signed with the Bills) and John Skelton. The thought is that Palmer’s ability to throw deep will be a good fit for the Arians offense. But keeping the former Heisman winner in one piece (which means protecting him properly, something the Cards couldn’t do for Kolb, Skelton, Ryan Lindley, or Brian Hoyer, their four different QBs who started a year ago) is another matter. Which suggests the Big Red likely looks OL, the consensus deepest talent reserve in the draft. Assuming Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher are already off the board, the Cards likely go for Oklahoma OT Lane Johnson, which would allow Arians to keep holdover Levi Brown, who missed all of 2012 with a triceps injury, on the right side where he belongs and perhaps begin to stabilize a very leaky forward wall. Palmer would certainly endorse such a pick, and it would be no surprise if likely looks again at the OL with another of his early choices as well. Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma

8-BUFFALO BILLS...Some college rah-rah is what the Bills might need after being the only team to miss the playoffs every year in this millennium; in fact, Buffalo’s last memory of the postseason is the nightmare of Tennessee scoring that wild last-play TD by Kevin Dyson in the “Music City Miracle” during the 1999 playoffs. Not to mention Buffalo posting losing records for eight straight years. Thus, Syracuse HC Doug Marrone, with NFL experience (most recently with Sean Payton’s 2009 Super Bowl staff in New Orleans) in his background, takes over for Chan Gailey, whose two-year run ended with a whimper like every other regime in Orchard Park the past decade. Marrone and holdover GM Buddy Nix quickly moved to change the dynamics at QB that soured the past season-and-a-half under Ryan Fitzpatrick, who flopped soon after signing a lucrative contract extension midway in the 2011 campaign. Although we’re not sure that the recently-signed Kevin Kolb from Arizona is going to be that much of an improvement. But, having at least addressed the QB issue, look for the Bills to deal with their next most-pressing dilemma, WR, as Stevie Johnson is currently the only proven wideout on the roster. And the chance to get Tennessee’s raw but multi-talented Cordarrelle Patterson, with unlimited upside, might be too good to bypass, with West Virginia’s Tavon Austin and Cal’s Keenan Allen also likely on the Bills’ radar. Nix and Marrone have already addressed some key defensive needs in free agency by signing LB Manny Lawson (Bengals) and DE Alan Branch (Seahawks) to hopefully help shore up an underachieving stop unit, so offense likely gets the first call at Radio City Music Hall. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee

9-NEW YORK JETS...Rex Ryan remains in the saddle (barely) after the fallout from last year’s 6-10 face-plant that cost GM Mike Tannenbaum, o.c. Tony Sparano, and several players their jobs. New GM John Idzik has presided over a pretty thorough housecleaning in which already six starters from 2012 have departed in free agency and nine starters (and counting) overall have left the fold in Florham Park...and more might be on their way out the door. Still in place, however, is beleaguered QB Mark Sanchez, for whom Idzik could find no takers in the trade market willing to also swallow Sanchez’ big $8.25 million salary number this season. Sanchez, for the moment, at least, remains the default option at QB (especially with Tim Tebow apparently no longer in the plans and Greg McElroy not considered a long-term answer), and has spent the offseason learning the West Coast offense from new o.c. Marty Mornhinweg. But the Jets have plenty of other holes, which now include RB as well after Shonn Greene was one of those departing in free agency, inking with the Titans. Rexy could also use more production from a defense that regressed alarmingly the past two years. With Ryan’s job on the line, don’t expect the Jets to roll the dice on a rookie QB like Geno Smith or Matt Barkley, although there remains a good chance that alternatives other than Sanchez or FA addition David Garrard will continue to be explored into the summer. Rexy also badly needs a playmaker on the defensive edge, especially after OLBs Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas have departed; the Jets likely look at a pair of SEC alternatives, Georgia LB Jarvis Jones or LSU DE-LB Barkevious Mongo, to deliver the stop unit impact that Ryan needs ASAP. The Jets could also be preparing to maneuver on or before draft day, especially if able to move CB Darrelle Revis (Tampa Bay a likely destination), and the resultant load of draft picks he would command. Barkevious Mingo, DE-LB, LSU

10-TENNESSEE TITANS...Third-year HC Mike Munchak was fortunate to survive last year’s 6-10 disappointment, and fast-forwarding the progress of QB Jake Locker, who seemed to stall during an injury-plagued sophomore campaign a year ago, will likely be tied to Munchak’s ongoing employment in Nashville. Since it might be a make-or-break year for Locker as well, GM Ruston Webster looked to help Jake as much as possible in the offseason by addressing via free agency ongoing concerns at a variety of offensive spots, adding a WR (ex-Texan Kevin Walter), RB (ex-Jet Shonn Greene as insurance for Chris Johnson), and linemen (ex-Bills G Andy Levitre and former Bears C/G Chris Spencer). Another former Buffalo starter, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, has been brought in as cover for Locker after Matt Hasselbeck left via free agency for Indy. After allowing a franchise-worst 471 points in 2012, expect the Titans to also be looking for DL and secondary reinforcements in the draft. But re-booting an ineffective OL remains Munchak’s top priority, and to augment the FA additions up front, don’t be surprised if GM Webster goes for another big ugly (which would get a nod of approval from former lineman Munchak) with his top pick. The Titans will also be looking to fortify their TE spot in later rounds after Jared Cook’s departure in free agency (FA addition Delanie Walker from the 49ers is a nice stop-gap, but is not the receiving threat Cook provided). Chance Warmack, G, Alabama

11-SAN DIEGO CHARGERS...Another venue that has used lots of Spic-and-Span in the offseason to clean up, San Diego has a new HC (Mike McCoy, recently o.c. at Denver) and GM (Tom Telesco) to replace the long-running but eventually turned-stale partnership of HC Norv Turner & abrasive GM A.J. Smith. Telesco has made no bones about his objectives, ridding the roster of any FA over the age of 30 and adding lots of lower-profile role players in the offseason. Still, plenty of upgrades are required, especially along the OL. The Bolts could use reinforcements at both the tackle and guard spots to better protect QB Philip Rivers, and might be tempted to move up if there is a run on the prized tackles early in the round. But Telesco could also use upgrades at the G positions and would be understandably interested in North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper, regarded as one of the two best prospects at his position along with Alabama’s Chance Warmack. There will also be interest in wideouts and running backs, but many of the best-regarded at those positions are likely to still be available in later rounds. Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina

12-MIAMI DOLPHINS...The Dolphins have a bit more flexibility than other teams due to extra picks in the second (54th overall, via Indy courtesy of the trade of CB Vontae Davis) and third (82nd overall, via Chicago as the final installment of last year’s Brandon Marshall trade) rounds, so Miami could definitely be wheeling and dealing. With the extra picks, the Dolphins will have plenty of chances to address their needs on the defensive edge and in the secondary (CB in particular, with Sean Smith signing with the Chiefs, on top of Davis’ departure). But with a run on offensive linemen likely to take place in the first round, and HC Joe Philbin desperately needing reinforcement at the tackle spot following Jake Long’s FA departure to St. Louis, the Dolphins either trade up or opt for someone like Alabama OT D. J. Fluker, who could still be on the board at this slot after tackles such as Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, and Lane Johnson are all likely gone within the first ten picks. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama

13-TAMPA BAY BUCS... Stay tuned for developments regarding a possible trade for Jets DC Darrelle Revis, for whom Tampa Bay has been rumored as the most-likely destination. If so, the Bucs are likely to part with this pick, which would probably be fine with HC Greg Schiano, who places a high premium on shutdown CBs, of which a healthy Revis (and that “healthy” part might be a big if) would still seem to qualify. Tampa Bay also finished with the third-fewest sacks in the NFL last season, so upgrades along the defensive front will also be addressed, and don’t be surprised if the Bucs look for a TE with Dallas Clark now a free agent and perhaps bound for Denver. It’s also a crucial year for QB Josh Fremean, entering his fourth season but yet to display the consistency required to get the Bucs into the postseason. Tampa Bay might go for a developmental project at QB in the later rounds while Freeman gets one more chance this fall. Regardless if the Bucs stay put at 13, we doubt that Utah DT Star Lotulelei drops any further than this slot, even with some of the questions about a heart condition being mostly dispelled in the offseason. Tampa Bay could also use the DL help, so if the Bucs still retain this pick and Lotulelei is on the board, that could be a nice fit. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah

14-CAROLINA PANTHERS...The Pan-thas have been a little bit cap-strapped in the offseason, and limited somewhat in what they could commit long-term, but were nonetheless able to swing one-year deals for WRs Dominik Hixon (ex-Giants) and Ted Ginn, Jr. (ex-49ers), hopefully to give Cam Newton a couple of more downfield targets and perhaps lessen the load on vet WR Steve Smith, still productive (73 catches LY) but 34 years old in May. After releasing CB Chris Gamble, the Panthers also swung short-term deals to plug in the gaps on the corners when adding FAs Drayton Florence (ex-Lions) and D.J. Moore (ex-Bears). Those stop-gap additions might push back the need to seriously upgrade on the on the corners until the 2014 draft, although the Panthers still lack a shutdown CB. Carolina could probably use more immediate help along the DL, which makes DTs such as North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams (who would be a popular regional pick) or Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson look very interesting. Note that the Panthers are currently minus a 3rd-round pick as the result of swapping multiple selections with San Francisco on draft day a year ago. Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina

15-NEW ORLEANS SAINTS...Although still minus a 2nd-round pick as the final penalty from the Bounty-gate scandal last year, the Saints are at least back with a first-round pick, as well as having HC Sean Payton in charge once more after he was forced to sit out last season. The offense is fine; Payton knows his defense is where immediate upgrades are most needed, especially with new DC Rob Ryan on board and installing 3-4 looks with the stop unit. And Ryan helped lure of couple of his former Cowboys, LB Victor Butler and DE Kenyon Coleman, in free agency, while also adding CB Keenan Lewis from the Steelers. But as they transition to the 3-4, a demand for playmakers on the edge will be crucial, and an impact OLB could certainly come in handy. Although Ryan might push Payton & GM Mickey Loomis for a NT (which could come in later rounds), if Georgia’s electric OLB Jarvis Jones is still on the board when the Saints are on the clock, we’d be surprised if they looked elsewhere. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia

16-ST. LOUIS RAMS...The Rams are still reaping the draft rewards of last year’s deal with Washington that allowed the Redskins to take Robert Griffin III in the second slot behind Indy, which nabbed Andrew Luck with the top choice last April. The next dividend for St. Louis comes with an extra first-round pick this season (number 22, in the Skins’ slot), so don’t be surprised if the Rams are involved in myriad trade discussions all of the way until the draft. After making early moves in free agency to lock up ex-Dolphin OT Jake Long and ex-Titan TE Jared Cook, the Rams were hard up against the salary cap and have been able to make few moves since; expect some more contract restructuring before training camp, giving Jeff Fisher a bit of flexibility when the second (and lesser) wave of FAs hits in June. The Rams are probably going to want to add another RB after Steven Jackson’s FA departure for Atlanta, as well as another wideout after Danny Amendola left for the Patriots, and will likely use one at least one of their first-round picks to help in those areas. But the consensus opinion is that plenty of RB and WR options will be available in later rounds, so instead of going offense-offense in the first round, expect St. Louis to expend one of its early picks to address concerns at the safety spots that were depleted when cutting Quintin Mikell and when Craig Dahl left in free agency for the 49ers. Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro and Florida’s Matt Elam are the two top-rated safeties, and both could still be on the board by mid-round; if so, the Rams likely tab one of them here before going for a WR or RB with their next pick. If, that is, they’re not involved in some draft-day maneuvers with those two valuable first-round picks. Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas

Following are our forecasts for the final half of the first round, beginning with Pittsburgh's pick in the 17th slot...

17-PITTSBURGH STEELERS...The Steelers are definitely in scramble mode as they look to inject more youth into an aging roster that missed the playoffs for the second time in the Mike Tomlin era last season. There are several areas of need for Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert to address, especially on the defensive side where the departures of LB James Harrison and CB Keenan Lewis have left a couple of big holes to be filled. Expect the Steelers to address both spots early; the need for a pass-rush LB is vital, but if a top cover CB such as Florida State's Xavier Rhodes is still on the board, Pittsburgh will have to take a look. Expect the WR spot to be addressed at some point in the draft after Mike Wallace left for the Dolphins via free agency, and it might be time to nab a developmental prospect at QB in the later rounds, as the various beatings absorbed by Ben Roethlisberger make him an "old" 10-year vet. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State

18-DALLAS COWBOYS...Unlike earlier in his ownership era when Jerry Jones had a trigger finger just as itchy as George Steinbrenner once did in his most tyrannical days running the Yankees, Jones' ego has apparently evolved to the point where he has convinced himself that paying top dollar to keep his personal favorites, Tony Romo at QB and Jason Garrett as HC, validate their respective statuses. (Romo's restructured deal also freed up considerable cap space for Jones this year.) But ol' Jer still isn't beyond playing mind games, and though safety and OL spots are crying for upgrades, we're thinking Jones might decide that now is the time to light another fire under Romo while also adding an intriguing change-of-pace weapon who could provide Jones with a part-time version of the Redskins' RG III. So don't be surprised if Jones goes for West Virginia QB Geno Smith (who has his share of detractors) if he is still on the board. Although expect defense to get a lot of attention in subsequent rounds as the Cowboys adjust from Rob Ryan's 3-4 to the 4-3 looks preferred by new d.c. Monte Kiffin. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia

19-NEW YORK GIANTS...The Giants' stop unit fell apart down the stretch last season (especially vulnerable vs. the run) and cost Tom Coughlin's team a chance to defend its Super Bowl crown in the playoffs. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is thus desperately seeking some upgrades, and a playmaker in the front seven would come in handy, especially after DE Osi Umenyiora departed for the Falcons in free agency. The G-Men could use help at several spots, but would be inclined to give strong consideration to Georgia's ILB Alec Ogletree should he still be on the board. Offensively, WR Victor Cruz' contract status is likely to be clarified before the draft, which would downgrade the wideouts as a priority; depth at the OT spots is more likely to be addressed. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia

20-CHICAGO BEARS...New HC Marc Trestman and 2nd-year GM Phil Emery have already moved in free agency to shore up the OL in front of QB Jay Cutler, inking ex-Saints LT Jermon Bushrod as the top offseason acquisition. While adding a tackle on the right side would also seem a priority, the Bears are also going to be looking at their aging defense (now minus Brian Urlacher, released in the offseason) for new coordinator Mel Tucker, who likely retains much of the Tampa 2 scheme from the Lovie Smith regime. While the LB spots (depleted by not only Urlacher's release, but also by Nick Roach's FA move to Oakland) figure to be targeted, the safety spots feature barely serviceable sorts such as Major Wright and Chris Conte and could use an upgrade. If Florida's Matt Elam (regarded along with Texas' Kenny Vaccaro as the 1-2 safety prospects) is still on the board, Emery likely would not let him slip any further. Note that the Bears are minus a third-round pick as the final installment of last year's Brandon Marshall trade with Miami. Matt Elam, S, Florida

21-CINCINNATI BENGALS...The Bengals, off back-to-back playoff visits for the first time since the Forrest Gregg era way back in 1981-82, kept most of their DL and secondary intact during free agency, and the LB spots could also soon be addressed if ex-Steeler James Harrison signs with Cincy, as has been rumored. At this point of the first round, however, the Bengals could still have their pick of the litter of the RBs, a likely area of emphasis with Bernard Scott off of a serious knee injury and last year's addition, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, not really an every-down back. North Carolina's versatile Gio Bernard, a slashing runner and also adept at catching balls out of the backfield and could start a run on RBs in the last half of the round. Gio Bernard, RB, North Carolina

22-ST. LOUIS RAMS (from Washington)...If the Rams went defense with their first pick at the 16 slot (if they aren't involved in any trades, that is), look for them to go offense with this selection. Skill-position upgrades are essential with RB Steven Jackson (to Atlanta) and WR Danny Amendola (to New England) having departed in the offseason. With the likelihood of several capable RBs being available in later rounds, don't be surprised if the Rams opt for an impactful wideout at this spot, and then wait until subsequent rounds to nab a RB. Keenan Allen, WR, California

23-MINNESOTA VIKINGS...That buzz you might detect in the Twin Cities is not just for the draft, but also for the unveiling of new Vikings uniforms to coincide with the first round on April 25. Let's hope the team simply refers to its 1962-64 look and fully incorporates purple pants (not just part-time, as was the case in the last re-design a few years ago) as part of the white jersey ensemble. This is the first of two Vikings selections in the first round, with the next pick just over the horizon at 25, courtesy of Seattle in the recent Percy Harvin trade. While adding ex-Packer Greg Jennings effectively replaces Harvin on the roster, the Vikes could still use another big-time playmaker to complement the incomparable Adrian Peterson on the attack end. At least the Jennings addition suggests WR is not a priority in the draft; instead, it's defense, where the Vikes had yet to move in free agency to replace departed FAs ILB Jasper Brinkley (to Arizona) and vet CB Antoine Winfield (to Seattle). They'll address at least one of those areas at either this slot or two picks later at 25. Notre Dame's Manti Te'o would find the Vikes a comfortable fit, with several former Domers and college teammates on the roster. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame

24-INDIANAPOLIS COLTS...After Andrew Luck and the offense turned out better than any Colt fan could have dreamed last fall, don't be surprised if GM Ryan Grigson and HC Chuck Pagano emphasize defense with early picks after going offense-offense-offense-offense with the first four selections a year ago. The defensive-minded Pagano was able to add DE Ricky Jean-Francois from the 49ers in free agency, but might want another big body up front who can deliver a push from the edge, the type of defenders he utilized so effectively in his prior stint as d.c. for the Ravens. While the Colts still might want to add some depth to the OL and RB positions later in the draft, they likely go for the best-available front-seven type with their first pick. Datone Jones, DE, UCLA

25-MINNESOTA VIKINGS (from Seattle)...The Vikings also have a lot of flexibility for trades with this extra pick acquired from the Seahawks in the Percy Harvin trade. Don't be surprised if the Vikes go defense-defense with their picks, especially since the aforementioned addition of ex-Packer WR Greg Jennings has somewhat alleviated the need for a wideout in the wake of Harvin's departure. There's lots of mid-round depth at WR in this draft for the Vikes to tap Friday & Saturday; on Thursday, however, we expect they fill another crying defensive need. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State

26-GREEN BAY PACKERS...As usual, GM Ted Thompson was very low-key in the early free agency period, with only one addition (Rams TE Matthew Mulligan) of note. Defensive upgrades would seem to be a priority after Dom Capers' stop unit was gashed by the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs (adding another impact sort in the front seven besides LB Clay Matthews would be nice). But it would also be interesting to see if the Pack finally goes for premium RB after surrounding Aaron Rodgers with plenty of journeyman types in recent years. Another WR after Greg Jennings' FA departure to the Vikings will probably be addressed in later rounds. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State

27-HOUSTON TEXANS...The Texans are looking to get over the hump in the Division Round of the playoffs, which has been their postseason exit ramp the past two seasons. Perhaps the lift provided by ex-Ravens S Ed Reed, the top defensive FA addition, will come in handy. Houston, however, looks to have a mostly-settled roster, with only a few tweaks required here and there. The only significant FA departure was OLB Connor Barwin, who moved to the Eagles, so expect that position to be addressed in later rounds. Where the Texans likely look with their early picks is at WR for a complement to All-Pro Andre Johnson, now turning 32; having a big-play threat opposite Johnson is a luxury QB Matt Schaub has never had at Reliant Stadium. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia

28-DENVER BRONCOS...The funk still hasn't lifted in the Mile High City from S Rahim Moore's gaffe that allowed Jacoby Jones to complete a miraculous 70-yard TD pass-run completion to tie the Division Round playoff in the final seconds of the Ravens' eventual 38-35 double-OT win. And the offseason was stained by the failure to get the fax done on time for DE Elvis Dumervil's reworked contract; thus released into free agency, Dumervil promptly signed with Baltimore. Considering the advanced age and lack of the depth in the front seven, it's amazing that HC John Fox and d.c. Jack Del Rio could coax such a big effort from the "D" last season. Expect draft upgrades for the stop unit, especially at Dumervil's spot; the real "mover" in draft workouts has been Florida State DE Tank Carradine, with an explosive burst and apparently fully recovered from last November's torn ACL. Expect Fox, team prexy John Elway, and GM Brian Xanders to find another RB for Peyton Manning in later rounds after adding a new go-to target, ex-Patriot slot receiver Wes Welker, in free agency. Tank Carradine, DE, Florida State

29-NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS...We can never be sure what Bill Belichick might be thinking heading into a draft; all we know is that we're way beyond ever second-guessing him, especially after he took defenders with his first six picks last year, which helped to quickly rebuild the stop unit. The loss of the aforementioned Wes Welker in free agency was partially addressed by adding the Rams' Danny Amendola as a new target for Tom Brady. Another speed wideout to perhaps stretch the field better than Amendola could be targeted, especially since Brandon Lloyd was released in the offseason. But it's also about the time for Belichick to begin looking into the future at QB, where Brady enters his 14th season this fall, and where backup Ryan Mallett has not overly impressed in previous auditions. Don't be surprised if Belichick, known to surprise with past picks, pulls another rabbit out of his hat as he takes another stab at identifying Brady's eventual successor, who will have a few years to work under Brady's wing as did Aaron Rodgers at Green Bay with Brett Favre. Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal

30-ATLANTA FALCONS...We know the Falcons have a scary offense which only became more lethal in the offseason when RB Steven Jackson moved from St. Louis in free agency. Coach Mike Smith and GM Tom Dimitroff also prioritized on the attack end when signing OT Sam Baker, G Garrett Reynolds, and vet TE Tony Gonzalez to new deals, although identifying a successor for the aging Gonzalez will be a tempting option in the early rounds. What the Falcons really need to prevent, however, is the track-meet games that cost them a year ago and prevented Atlanta from holding on to a 17-0 lead in the NFC title game vs. the 49ers. The departures of FA CBs Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes have created an immediate void at the corners which will likely be addressed early by Falcons' braintrust. Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington

31-SAN FRANCISCO 49ers...With a whopping 13 picks in the draft, including another fast-approaching selection near the top of the 2nd round from the Chiefs thanks to the Alex Smith deal (plus a 3rd-rounder from Carolina), HC Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke could definitely be looking to deal. A possible area for upgrade looks to be along the DL, at the DT spot in particular, where Isaac Sopoaga departed for the Eagles in free agency. A new big run stuffer might be a possibility with one of the two early picks. The Niners addressed their secondary in free agency, adding ex-Eagles and Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha and ex-Rams S Craig Dahl after S Dashon Goldson moved to the Bucs. The TE spot could be another target area (especially with Delanie Walker's departure for Tennessee), as Harbaugh would like another piece to rotate at that spot along with Vernon Davis. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue

32-BALTIMORE RAVENS...Although the Ravens were the eventual beneficiary of the Elvis Dumervil fax snafu in Denver, Baltimore's miserly defense was strafed in the offseason, with inspirational leaders LB Ray Lewis (retired) and S Ed Reed (FA to Texans) leaving the fold, as well as playmakers such as LB Dannell Ellerbee (now Dolphins), DE-LB Paul Kruger (now Browns), and CB Cary Williams (now Eagles) all leaving in free agency. Mporeover, Super Bowl win or not, is QB Joe Flacco worth all of the money in his new contract? Expect GM Ozzie Newsome and HC John Harbaugh to look for some extra defensive upgrades, likely addressing Lewis' former spot in the middle of the defense sooner rather than later. Kevin Minter, LB, LSU

Two teams (Washington and Seattle) were minus first-round picks as of April 15 due to trades. Following is a look at what the Redskins and Seahawks might be trying to accomplish at Radio City Music Hall.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS...Thanks to last year's trade with the Rams that led to the draft pick used to select RG III, the Skins are without a first-round pick (also the case next season) and currently not slated to appear on the clock until pick number 51, deep in the 2nd round. General manager Bruce Allen was able to minimize most of the damage in free agency be re-working several contracts. The safety spot, however, looks in need of reinforcement after Tanard Jackson lost last year to a drug suspension, while replacement Madieu Williams was disappointing and remains unsigned. The Skins might be also looking at a CB and a maybe a space-eating DE to occupy blockers in d.c. Jim Haslett's 3-4. If a safety such as Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien or LSU's Eric Reid falls into the late second round, expect the Skins to pounce.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS...Pete Carroll dealt his first-round pick and two other choices (7th this year, 3rd next year) to the Vikings in exchange for big-play WR Percy Harvin, with the pass rush should receive an upgrade from FA DE Cliff Avril, who moves from Detroit. Vet ex-Viking CB Antoine Winfield appears the perfect addition for needed depth in the secondary, as well as for the nickel-back role. Carroll likely looks to add some depth along both lines, as the Seahawks appear to have the pieces to make a serious foray deeper into the postseason than the Division Round, where they exited bitterly last January 13 in a last-second loss to the Falcons. With Seattle not on the clock until pick 56 late in the 2nd round, big men such as Syracuse OT Justin Pugh or Georgia DT John Jenkins could be available targets.




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