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NEW COVER STORY...TGS NFL DRAFT PREVIEW--PART ONE
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


The NFL Draft always brings back plenty of memories. Especially for this writer, who recalls the days long before the draft became an industry unto itself, and working on rudimentary draft previews for the heck of it. We recall the days when the draft festivities would take place almost at the conclusion of the regular season, and then when it would be conducted in late January during the years immediately following the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

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. Veteran Jim Simpson, a top announcer at ABC and NBC the previous two decades and ESPN’s first “celebrity” hire, would play an integral role in those early coverages of the draft, beginning in 1980.

We can also recall the draft days before Mel Kiper, Jr. became a household name, although we suspect a young Mel was doing some of the same things we were doing, in a low-flying orbit with our draft previews, about the time ESPN began its coverage of the draft.

In those days, there were few media coverage options for hard-core NFL fans and “draftniks” outside of Joel Buchsbaum’s mesmerizing reports for Pro Football Weekly. The mysterious Buchsbaum, based in Brooklyn and rarely seen in public, had quickly developed a cult-like following in those days, as he was featured not only in PFW but also on various sports talk radio shows (notably in St. Louis, where he cultivated a new legion of fans in the midwest on blowtorch KMOX when preceding the Monday night games). There was also a fellow named Jerry Jones, different from the one who would buy the Cowboys several years later, who would preview the draft with a small, goldenrod-colored booklet called the Drugstore List. Jones’ labor of love, which began in 1978, continued thru 2012, with his last edition published shortly before his passing. Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, however, the Drugstore List was one of the few reference sources for the draft besides Buchsbaum’s material for PFW.

The passing of all-time draft all-stars such as Jones and Buchsbaum, and the demise of PFW (the first publication to set the bar high for draft coverage), are all viewed sadly by draftniks, although there are still countless other draft previews, both in print (including former PFW publisher Hub Arkush with his new Pro Football Now preview) and especially on the internet.

The draft provided something unique for me, too, as I produced my own version of a preview long ago to a very small collection of clientele while I was finishing my college work. Those early draft previews were among the items I first sent along to TGS Founder Mort Olshan when looking for a job outside of the college sports information office sphere well over thirty years ago. Mort liked what he saw, and darned if he didn’t hire me, providing my entree into this fascinating business. We even toyed with the idea of producing some serious draft previews at TGS in the early ’80s before passing on the idea; among other things, by the time the draft rolled around each spring, we were too exhausted from a season’s worth of football and basketball publishing work to so quickly sink our teeth into another project. No Mel Kiper, Jr. for us, though in retrospect perhaps we should have gone for it way back when. We had an idea that the draft held the potential to captivate the NFL audience, as forward-looking thinkers such as Kiper were able to capitalize upon later in the ‘80s.

Fast forward to 2015, and the NFL Draft remains a pretty big deal. We at TGS will be paying attention, as usual, with this year’s event moved, for the first time in 50 years, away from New York, to Chicago, and at its former calendar slot (first round on April 30) after being pushed back to May 8-10 a year ago. Whatever the dates, it has become an enjoyable right of passage for us, and now the conclusion to our publishing season, when we offer our own draft preview, along with updating what each team has been doing in free agency up until this point on the calendar.

For us, this is a treat, and a walk down memory lane when we used to do these draft previews just for fun. After all of these years, we still get the same kick out of previewing the draft as we did back in the early ‘80s!

Following are our team updates, revolving around first-round draft projections, and our predicted selections. As always, trades can alter draft order, but for the moment this is how we believe things might proceed beginning April 30 in Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theatre. We’ll go in draft order (as of Thursday, April 9), covering the first half of Round One in this issue, and following with second the half in our final issue of the season next Monday.

1-TAMPA BAY BUCS...Lovie Smith was not hired last year to oversee an extensive rebuild at Tampa Bay. But that’s what is happening off of Dale Mabry Highway, as despite Lovie restoring some order within the Buc organization, the on-field product regressed, with both the offense and defense ranking among the league’s worst in most stat categories. Upgrades are needed almost everywhere. But Lovie and GM Jason Licht have telegraphed their plan of attack atop the first round by letting QB Josh McCown loose, almost insuring that Florida State’s Jameis Winston will be the initial selection. In later rounds the Bucs will be looking for help on both lines, and Lovie will seek better fits for his Cover-2 defensive scheme, which has already resulted in releases of some of last year’s defenders and mid-level FA signings such as DT Henry Melton (ex-Dallas), LB Bruce Carter (also ex-Dallas), and S Chris Conte (ex-Chicago). Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

2-TENNESSEE TITANS...Roster needs are many in Nashville, where the Titans took several steps backward last season under first-year HC Ken Whisenhunt, whose tough-love approach didn’t resonate as the team fell to 2-14 SU, a franchise-worst since based in Houston back in 1994. The phone of GM Rushton Webster has been ringing off the hook with interest in this second slot; Whisenhunt’s recent statements regarding Sam Bradford also have the rumor mill whirring at LP Field, where the former Ram and Heisman winner could possibly be included in a package deal from his new employer, Philadelphia, whose coach Chip Kelly is known to be envious of his former college QB at Oregon, Marcus Mariota. Whisenhunt and Webster are going to have to think hard about the QB position for their rebuilding project to get off the ground, and whether current options Zach Mettenberger and Charlie Whitehurst are anything more than stop-gaps (Jake Locker, who was going to be a FA after last season, retired instead). If the Titans keep this pick, they are going to be hard-pressed to pass on Mariota, although they will also be looking to address the RT spot after Michael Oher’s release. Tennessee has focused most of its FA dollars on defense, which should bring a smile to the face of mastermind Dick LeBeau, hired in the offseason to work alongside current d.c. Ray Horton. Already, LB Brian Orapko (ex-Redskins), CB Perrish Cox (ex-49ers), and S Da’Norris Searcy (ex-Bills) have been added, with DT likely to be addressed in the early rounds. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

3-JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS...The Jags regressed in the win column (from 4-12 to 3-13) in the second year of the Gus Bradley regime, although the organization at least believes it has found its QB of the future after Blake Bortles flashed considerable upside as a rookie last season. The Jags, however, still finished near the bottom of most offensive categories in the AFC, and addressed two areas of need on the attack end with significant FA additions including TE Julius Thomas (ex-Broncos) and T Jeremy Parnell (ex-Cowboys). Which might mean that GM Dave Caldwell looks for defensive reinforcements in the first round before addressing other offensive needs, including RB, with subsequent picks. J’ville improved its pass rush (to 45 sacks) a year ago, but would still like to add another impact defender off of the edge, and should have a choice among plenty of well-regarded candidates as the OLB spot appears one of the deepest in this draft. Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson

4-OAKLAND RAIDERS...It’s almost sad to witness the depths to which the Silver & Black have fallen, to the point where many top-level FAs don’t even want to consider Oakland these days. The franchise appears in transition, perhaps even away from the aging Coliseum (maybe even back to former home L.A.) if a local stadium option doesn’t materialize soon. There is also a new HC in Jack Del Rio, who spent the past couple of years in Denver as d.c. for the Broncos after a long run as head coach of the Jags. Now the heat is squarely on GM Reggie McKenzie, who is on notice after three straight sub-.500 seasons and the early-season dismissal of HC Dennis Allen in a very rocky 2014. McKenzie missed on most of his top targets in free agency (such as Ndamukong Suh), but still ended up with a few potentially-handy additions such as C Rodney Hudson (ex-Chiefs) and LBs Malcolm Smith (ex-Seahawks) and Curtis Lofton (ex-Saints), the latter two likely pleasing new d.c. Ken Norton, Jr., hired from Pete Carroll’s Seattle staff. But come April 30, expect McKenzie and Del Rio to look at the offense early, perhaps to find a deep-threat wideout to help stretch the field for strong-armed QB Derek Carr, who hinted that he could wing it pretty good as a rookie. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

5-WASHINGTON REDSKINS...After the Skins lost 7 of their last 8 games a year ago, HC Jay Gruden was fortunate to get one more chance from owner Dan Snyder, who has canned coaches after one year before (remember how Marty Schottenheimer walked the plank for lesser transgressions after 2001?). New GM Scot McCloughan focused most of the FA activity upon an aging and slow defense that had prompted the dismissal of d.c. Jim Haslett, with the likes of DTs Terrance Knighton (ex-Broncos) and Stephen Paea (ex-Bears), DE Ricky Jean-Francois (ex-Colts), and CB Chris Culliver (ex-49ers) now on hand to aid new d.c. Joe Barry, recently Mike McCoy’s LB coach in San Diego. Most NFC observers believe the Skins need even more reinforcements to their stop unit and will have a hard time passing up the many impactful OLB types who figure to go quickly in the first round, although McCloughan is also in the market for help at the safety spots after Ryan Clark’s retirement and Brandon Meriweather’s release. By the way, though it appears as if RG III is going to get another shot at QB, the re-signing of backup Colt McCoy and continuing presence of Kirk Cousins on the roster suggests the Skins are probably not looking at any QBs until perhaps tabbing a developmental project in the later rounds. Randy Gregory, OLB, Nebraska

6-NEW YORK JETS...The HC Todd Bowles/GM Mike Maccagnan eras begin simultaneously this fall at MetLife Stadium as owner Woody Johnson went in a different direction after the Rex Ryan/John Idzik regime ran aground. There remains speculation that the Jets are QB shopping and that Oregon Heisman winner Marcus Mariota could be in their plans. But with Geno Smith still in the picture and getting a nice recent endorsement from Bowles, and Ryan Fitzpatrick added in free agency as insurance, the Jets might not consider the QB spot their most pressing need. (Michael Vick, by the way, is unlikely to return.) The Jets have already rebuilt their secondary in free agency, bringing CB Darrelle Revis back “home” while also adding CB Antonio Cromartie from the Cardinals, CB Buster Skrine from the Browns and S Marcus Gilchrist from the Chargers. Now, Maccagnan likely looks to shore up the defensive edge, with Bowles likely to move LB Quinton Coples to the D-line, and will likely be tempted to grab one of the many impact OLB/DEs that figure to go quickly in the first round before addressing RB, OT, and perhaps QB in the later rounds. Dante Fowler, OLB/DE, Florida

7-CHICAGO BEARS...After HC Marc Trestman's dismissal, it took John Fox only a few days to land in Chicago after he parted ways with John Elway and the Broncos following Denver’s discouraging January playoff loss to the Colts. The decision to stick with QB Jay Cutler for another year was not arrived at as quickly by Fox and first-year GM Ryan Pace, but “Midway Jay” was eventually given one more chance by the new regime to solidify his status at Soldier Field, as Cutler hopes the offense of Adam Gase (over as the o.c. from Fox’s staff in Denver) is more to his liking. The defense, however, was even worse than Cutler and the offense a year ago, and figures to get plenty of attention in the early rounds after adding some complementary pieces in free agency around big-play OLB Pernell McPhee from the Ravens and vet S Antrel Rolle from the Giants. At some point, Fox and Pace probably look for another WR after Brandon Marshall’s release; ex-Charger Eddie Royal was added to fill the Emmanuel Sanders-like slot role in the Gase offense, but a bigger target to play outside the numbers remains a priority. But if touted Southern Cal DT Leonard Williams (whose motor didn’t always run with the Trojans) falls to this spot, it will be hard for the Bears to look elsewhere. Leonard Williams, DT, Southern Cal

8-ATLANTA FALCONS...The Falcons had targeted Seattle d.c. Dan Quinn as their man to succeed HC Mike Smith weeks before the Seahawks played in the Super Bowl in what turned out to be one of the NFL’s worst-kept secrets in January. Quinn does not inherit a hopeless situation, as the framework of a prolific offense is in place with QB Matt Ryan and top-shelf wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White. But the defense needs a significant transfusion beyond some of the bargain-level FA signings added by GM Thomas Dimitroff, who was the architect of a roster that recorded five winning seasons in a row before collapsing in 2013 & ‘14. Quinn will certainly be urging Dimitroff to address the pass-rush unit that has recorded the fewest sacks in the NFL over the past two years, and a speed-rusher from the edge should be a top priority. In later rounds, expect the Falcs to add some pieces for Matt Ryan and the offense, which could use new blood at RB after Steven Jackson became a cap casualty in the spring, and at TE, where Levine Toilolo was a significant drop-off from the retired Tony Gonzalez last season. Alvin “Bud” Dupree, DE/OLB, Kentucky

9-NEW YORK GIANTS...Though HC Tom Coughlin has been extended to 2016, there is still much speculation around the Big Apple that the G-Men have to return to the playoffs in order for Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese to continue sticking around past 2015 at MetLife. Confirming the win-now edict at the Meadowlands, Coughlin has gone back to the future to enlist former d.c. Steve Spagnuolo, who held the same position for the 2007 Super Bowl champs before leaving to become HC of the Rams, replacing Perry Fewell (now on the Redskin staff). Defense figures to get much of the attention on draft day, especially with some urgency to add reinforcements in the secondary, and at the safety spots in particular, after FA Antrel Rolle left for Chicago and with Steve Brown and Quintin Demps out of contract. Additions on the DL are not quite as imperative with DE Jason Pierre-Paul getting franchise-tagged. On offense, look for the guard position to be addressed. There is less need to add skill-position types, especially with WR Victor Cruz on the mend and potentially teaming up with 2014 rookie sensation Odell Beckham, Jr. as highlight-reel wideouts in the Ben McAdoo offense, and with Andre Williams emerging as the RB of the future a year ago. One of these years, Reese is also going to have to look for a successor at QB to Eli Manning (entering his 12th season), but that does not seem a priority...at least not yet. Landon Collins, S, Alabama

10-ST. LOUIS RAMS...In what looms as a potential make-or-break season for the Jeff Fisher regime, will the Rams really be going to war with Nick Foles (acquired from the Eagles in a trade that sent Sam Bradford to Philly) and/or Austin Davis at QB? That seems to be the plan at the moment, though the Rams continue to be the subject of much trade speculation. Dealing away Bradford and adding Foles is also potentially saving quite a bit of cap room, so expect more moves in the second wave of free agency in the early summer after GM Les Snead made a couple of potentially-impactful additions to the defense with ex-Lion DT Nick Fairley and ex-Patriots LB Akeem Ayers. At the moment, the OL appears to be the area of greatest need, especially after allowing a hefty 47 sacks last season. Expect the guard and center spots to be addressed early, and possibly tackle as well if Joe Barksdale (who didn’t receive the offers he was expecting in free agency) doesn’t return to the fold. Brandon Scherff, G, Iowa

11-MINNESOTA VIKINGS...Though the eventual disposition of the Adrian Peterson situation is still to be determined (HC Mike Zimmer seems to be indicating that A-P will be welcomed back, while Peterson’s agent Ben Dogra has different ideas), expect the Vikings to at least address depth at RB in the later rounds after Jerick McKinnon ran with some unexpected flair in A-P’s place a year ago. They figure to be looking elsewhere in the earlier rounds, with the OL likely to get plenty of attention after Minny bypassed most of the available options in the FA class, and perhaps at MLB, which some NFC observers believe is the last piece needed for the Vikes’ stop unit to advance to the formidable level. Minnesota also recently added the well-traveled Shaun Hill as QB insurance for Teddy Bridgewater after Matt Cassel was traded to Buffalo. But Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman might not be able to resist adding another WR after Cordarrelle Patterson was relegated to special teams by the end of last season and with vet Greg Jennings out of contract and unlikely to return. Mike Wallace was added via trade from Miami, but the chance to get another homerun threat for the ascending 2nd-year Bridgewater might be too tempting to overlook. Kevin White, WR, West Virginia

12-CLEVELAND BROWNS...Meet the NFL’s new most-dysfunctional franchise, which is picking nearer the middle of the first round only because of a surprising 6-3 start last season. That was before the campaign would completely unravel and jeopardize the jobs of HC Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer, as owner Jimmy Haslam toyed with the idea of a fourth HC and GM in as many years. (Farmer is now under NFL suspension for the first four games of the regular season after illegal texting of coaches during games in 2014.) Moreover, the plight of immature Johnny Football (who spent part of the offseason in rehab for some sort of vice) and Haslam’s apparent souring on the 2012 Heisman winner has the team’s QB situation back up in the air, especially after Brian Hoyer, who helped whip Cleveland into contention past midseason, left in free agency for the Texans. Josh McCown, recently with the Bears and Bucs, was signed in free agency as a stop-gap, but don’t be surprised if the Browns look for another QB early in the draft. Both lines also figure to get reinforcements, though the “D” was able to add something in free agency with ex-Dolphins DT Randy Starks, who can help a stop unit that ranked last in rushing defense a year ago. Cleveland also has Buffalo’s pick at the 19th slot in the first round after last year’s draft day trade that allowed the Bills to move up and take Clemson WR Sammy Watkins. Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford

13-NEW ORLEANS SAINTS...Not a quiet offseason at the Superdome, where the Saints have been wondering what went wrong in what should have been a cakewalk to the NFC South crown last fall with no other team even reaching .500. The blockbuster deal of the winter saw star TE Jimmy Graham sent to the Seahawks for former Pro Bowl C Max Unger, who fills a gap on the New Orleans OL. But Graham was a truly unique weapon who also opened the field for some of QB Drew Brees’ other targets. The Saints have also added ex-Bills RB C.J. Spiller to provide another weapon for HC Sean Payton and Brees, who turns 36 this season. With Brees signed only thru 2016, is it time for GM Mickey Loomis to begin thinking about a successor at QB? Still, defense likely gets most of the attention in the early rounds, especially since coordinator Rob Ryan is expected to transition back to a 3-4 scheme after the 4-3 proved an awkward fit a year ago. With that the case, Loomis might look for an impact pass-rusher on the edge. The CB spot is likely to be addressed, too, but that is not quite a top priority since Brandon Browner (ex-Patriots) and Kyle Wilson (ex-Jets) were added in free agency. The TE situation could get some attention with a later pick in the first round at the 31st slot, courtesy Seattle as a result of the Graham trade. Shane Ray, OLB, Missouri

14-MIAMI DOLPHINS...We thought it was win-or-else for HC Joe Philbin last season, but a thrilling penultimate triumph over the Vikings apparently convinced owner Stephen Ross to give Philbin another chance despite a 23-25 record and no playoff berths in the past three years. There will be no excuses for Miami missing another postseason this fall after landing the biggest fish of the FA waters, ex-Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, on a $114 million, six-year deal. But even though QB Ryan Tannehill enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2014, several pieces are not in place on offense, especially a WR corps that looks pretty thin after the trade of Mike Wallace and the releases of Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson. The OL also is due for some reshuffling (Mike Pouncey moving back to C from G), and the RB situation is up in the air with Knowshon Moreno a mild disappointment last season. When GM Dennis Hickey gets around to adding defense in the draft, he probably looks at the secondary, but not until addressing offensive needs earlier. DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville

15-SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS...We know why Jim Harbaugh left the 49ers, but still can’t quite believe how that situation could unravel so quickly when it seemed as if it should have been such a perfect fit. But the tinkering that Harbaugh and o.c. Greg Roman did with last year’s offense, and trying to turn Colin Kaepernick into a more-traditional QB, blew up in the staff’s faces and sabotaged the 2014 season . The thought persists among several NFC insiders that GM Trent Baalke believes he will have more control over Harbaugh successor Jim Tomsula, promoted from the staff. For what it’s worth, Tomsula has said he would like the old, mobile version of Kaepernick to resurface, but there was nothing wrong with Kaepernick’s wheels when he was sacked 52 times a season ago, suggesting upgrades are needed along the OL. There has already been a lot of personnel outflow from Santa Clara; no more RB Frank Gore, G Mike Iupati, WR Stevie Johnson, and probably WR Michael Crabtree on the attack end, while CBs Perrish Cox & Chris Culliver, plus retired LBs Patrick Willis and Chris Borland are gone from the defense. Highest profile among the incoming FAs are RB Reggie Bush (from the Lions) and DE Darnell Dockett (from the Cards). The Niners were not expecting to have to address the LB spot, but, after the retirements of Willis and Borland, that now becomes a priority along with WR, OL, and CB, the latter position perhaps having gone untouched to this point in the first round. Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State

16-HOUSTON TEXANS...Bill O’Brien proved a rather shrewd coaching hire by owner Bob McNair, as the former Penn State HC and Bill Belichick disciple kept the Texans in the wild card hunt until the final day of the season after the 2-14 train wreck that cost Gary Kubiak his job in 2013. Houston has already made some interesting moves in free agency, adding thick ex-Patriot NT Vince Wilfork and ex-Broncos CS Rahim Moore to the defense, and ex-Brown Brian Hoyer is expected to battle with Ryan Mallett and Tom Savage for the starting QB job. The thought is that one of those should be serviceable enough in 2015 before Houston perhaps addresses the position longer-term next year. Whatever, the Texans are also without a proven No. 1 wideout for the first time in their existence after longtime WR Andre Johnson departed for the Colts in free agency. O’Brien and GM Rick Smith would like another playmaker across from DeAndre Hopkins, as FA additions Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts do not figure to stretch the field. The Texans might also like to add another pass rusher for d.c. Romeo Crennel’s 3-4, especially with the recovery process continuing for last year’s top pick Jadeveon Clowney after microfracture knee surgery. Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State

Next issue: NFL Draft preview-Part Two!


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