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NEW COVER STORY...TGS NFL DRAFT PREVIEW---PART I

                                        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, 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 they 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 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, like us 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 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 numerous draft previews, including Hub Arkush with a reincarnated Pro Football Weekly preview, and countless more options on the Internet.

The draft provided something unique for me, too, as I produced my own version of nearly 40 years ago for 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 I was looking for a job outside of the college sports information office sphere in the early '80s. 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 '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 2017, and the NFL Draft remains a pretty big deal. We at TGS will be paying attention as usual, with this year's event being moved from Chicago to Philadelphia in front of the historic Museum of Art, and nearby the steps that Rocky Balboa made famous. A bit different locale than the days at the Marriott Marquis at Times Square. The fun begins with the first round on April 27, with the remainder of the draft conducted over the 28th and 29h. It has become an enjoyable right of passage for us, and now the conclusion to our publishing season, as 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, revolved around offseason developments and first-round draft projections, and our predicted selections, noted in bold italics. As always, trades can alter draft order. But for the moment this is how we believe things might proceed later this month in Philly. We'll go in draft order (as of Monday, April 3), covering the first half of Round One in Part I, and following with the rest of the first round in our final issue of the season next Monday.

Remember, the NFL preseason is just over four months away!

1-CLEVELAND BROWNS...Back in a recently-familiar spot "on the clock" since the end of the regular season in early January, the Browns are also in a not-so-familiar role after keeping HC Hue Jackson and football operations director Sashi Brown for a second year after the 1-15 train wreck of 2016, forgoing the almost-annual coaching and front office changes the previous five seasons. Injuries exacerbated the problems a year ago, but Cleveland had already entered the last campaign with a lineup that needed upgrades almost everywhere. Especially at QB, where 26 different signal-callers have started since Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999. That merry-go-round figures to keep spinning this fall after the acquisition of Brock Osweiler from Houston and RG III's release. Cleveland, however, apparently more covets the 2nd-rounder in 2018 that it got from the Texans, and Osweiler appears a short-term fix at best and candidate to be released at the worst if holdover Cody Kessler (0-8 when forced into the starer role as a rookie last season) or ex-Stanford QB Kevin Hogan emerge as comparable options. With extra picks from the Eagles thanks to last year's swap of first-round selections, Cleveland, also with two first-round picks, and needs everywhere, is a candidate to trade down for more volume, or could wait for the Eagles' pick later in the round to go for a QB. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M

2-SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS...The new model for instability, with a fourth HC (recent Falcons o.c. Kyle Shanahan) in as many seasons, and a new GM (John Lynch), who has been hired out of the TV booth, the 49ers hope to have bottomed out in last fall's 2-14 mess under the since-dismissed pair of HC Chip Kelly and GM Trent Baalke, just four years after appearing in Super Bowl XLVII and three years after their last NFC title game. Lynch immediately addressed QB concerns by adding journeymen Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley from the Bears in free agency after Colin Kaepernick opted out of the final year of his contract and Blaine Gabbert was released. While the Niners still likely look for a developmental QB in the draft, it is probably not a top priority, thanks to the serviceable Hoyer, reunited with Shanahan, who was o.c. at Cleveland in 2014 when Hoyer posted a 7-6 record with the Browns. Free agency also delivered WR Pierre Garcon from the Redskins. A leaky defense that set dubious franchise marks for most points, rushing yards, and total yards allowed in a season was an expected focus in free agency (LBs Malcolm Smith from the Raiders and Dekoda Watson from Denver being the featured additions) and figures to get more attention in the draft. Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford

3-CHICAGO BEARS...Tough position for vet HC John Fox, under pressure to forge some sort of a turnaround after last season's 3-13 crash and burn. (Fox doesn't have as much rope as GM Ryan Pace, also entering his third year on the job.) The Bears have moved on from QB Jay Cutler, who was released, with ex-Buc Mike Glennon signed to a 3-year, $45 million deal to pilot the offense. (Mark Sanchez was also signed as the new reliever after last year's bullpen arms Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley left for the 49ers.) The passing game will thus have an almost-entirely new look after longtime mainstay WR Alshon Jeffery moved to the Eagles, with ex-Steeler Markus Wheaton and ex-Saint Kendall Wright new WR additions, and TE Dion Sims signed away from the Dolphins. Having addressed more of the offensive questions in free agency, expect the "D" to be an early focus in the draft, with a leaky secondary likely to draw most of the attention. Jamal Adams, S, LSU

4-JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS...In his return to J'ville, Tom Coughlin has hit the ground running, just as he did 22 years ago when hired as the Jags' first head coach. Only this time he has no coaching responsibilities, instead tasked with upgrading the 53-man roster from his new position as Executive VP of Football Operations. Which has created some angst for holdover GM Dave Caldwell, no longer calling the personnel shots...stay tuned for further developments. Coughlin was immediately active in free agency, especially upgrading a defense which added ex-Texans CB A.J. Bouye, ex-Cards DT Calais Campbell, ex-Cowboys S Barry Church, and a few others in a quick re-boot of a leaky platoon. Still in the saddle is QB Blake Bortles, entering his 4th year and apparently a bit more favored by new HC Doug Marrone (who got a head-start on the job when replacing Gus Bradley on an interim basis last December) than Coughlin, who has been lukewarm at best in his support of J'ville's holdover QB. Whatever, it's a make-or-break season for the former UCF star. Coughlin might not yet be done with defensive additions, as he could use another pass rusher and more help in the 2ndary after S Jonathan Cyprien (to the Titans) and CB Prince Amukamara (to the Bears) both departed. But will the temptation be too great if LSU RB Leonard Fournette is still on the board when it comes time for the Jags to pick? Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

5-TENNESSEE TITANS (from LA Rams)...Sitting pretty for the first time in a while are the Titans, who have this pick at five from the Rams (thanks to last year's draft-choice swap that allowed LA to take Cal QB Jared Goff with the overall top pick) as well as their own at the 18 slot in the first round, plus an extra third-rounder (at the end of that round in the compensatory section). Which could make the Titans a viable trade-down candidate, especially on draft day if a player like LSU's Fournette or one of the fancied QBs is deemed too good to bypass by some team. Second-year GM Jon Robinson will be ready to listen, as he did when the Rams called a year ago. All after a rapid upgrade (from 3-13 to 9-7) a year ago under well-traveled HC Mike Mularkey, whose power-based run game had Tennessee in the AFC playoff picture into late December. After shoring up the defense in free agency (ex-Jag S Jonathan Cyprien, ex-Patriot CB Logan Ryan, ex-Broncos NT Sylvester Williams the highest-profile additions), don't be surprised if the Titans seek a target for fast-maturing QB Marcus Mariota in the early rounds. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson

6-NEW YORK JETS...A side-benefit for owner Woody Johnson to being nominated by President Trump to become the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom is that he might not have to spend as much time watching his wretched team. Johnson's doings, however, do not remove any of the pressure on under-fire HC Todd Bowles, who, after a 5-11 debacle last fall, enters 2017 as much on the hot seat as the Dolphins' Joe Philbin two years ago. Bowles, along with Indy's Chuck Pagano, are the coaches considered most at risk of walking the plank in 2017. It might also be put up or shut up time for GM Mike Maccagnan, also entering his third year, though expectations have already been lowered in the offseason after pruning more than $45 million worth of talent from the roster, with more subtractions perhaps on the way if WR Eric Decker and DL Sheldon Richardson don't return. The extent of the FA upgrades have been CB Morris Claiborne from Dallas, OT Kelvin Beachum from Jacksonville, and QB Josh McCown from Cleveland, the latter on a 1-year deal, and currently the presumptive starter with Ryan Fitzpatrick out of contract and Geno Smith having signed with the Giants. With McCown a short-term solution at best, Maccagnan might be tempted to go QB with an early pick, though that approach has not worked lately for the Jets, with recent high selections Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg yet to impress. Among the many areas of need is the OL, which saw three of its starters (LT Ryan Clady, RT Breno Giacomini, & C Nick Mangold) released. Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin

7-LOS ANGELES CHARGERS...It has been an awkward offseason for the Chargers, whose move to Los Angeles (and, for two years, to the quaint, 30,000-seat StubHub Center in Carson while waiting for the Rams' palatial digs at the old Hollywood Park site to be finished) has been only slightly better received by the locals than Sonny Liston's return to then-hometown Philadelphia, when no one greeted him at the airport after he won the heavyweight crown in '62 by KO'ing Floyd Patterson in Chicago. New HC Anthony Lynn (most recently on the Buffalo staff, where last season he was RB coach, o.c., and ended as interim HC) has a roster that did not go through much of an offseason makeover despite last year's disappointing 5-11 mark. Franchise-tagging potential unrestricted FA OLB Melvin Ingram was perhaps the most significant development (especially with new d.c. Gus Bradley transitioning the "D" from 4-3 to 3-4 looks, and Ingram also a possibility at DE), while fans in Denver shed no tears that underachieving OT Russell Okung inked a FA deal with the Bolts. The clock is also ticking on the career of QB Philip Rivers, entering his 14th season, so identifying a possible eventual successor in this draft with several intriguing QBs is a distinct possibility. Might the Spanos clan think this is the time to enlist some star power with the move to L.A? Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

8-CAROLINA PANTHERS...It's a long way from a year ago for the Pan-thas, who last April were off of a Super Bowl visit and preparing to bide their time at the 2016 draft until near the end of the first round. This year, they get on the clock much earlier, which is what happens when a team drops from 15-1 all of the way to 6-10. Now GM Dave Gettleman and HC Ron Rivera try to piece together their Humpty-Dumpty of a team and are more than a bit concerned about the status of QB Cam Newton, who underwent rotator cuff surgery at the end of March and whose status for the preseason is very much up in the air. The regular season comes real quickly once the preseason starts. Newton's durability is becoming more of a concern, as he has been advised by Rivera and o.c. Mike Shula to be a bit more judicious on his scrambles from the pocket. To that end, and needing OL upgrades, ex-Viking OT Matt Kalil was the highest-profile FA addition, though Gettleman might want to look at another OT in the draft. The Panthers also brought back a couple of former defensive stars, DE Julius Peppers and CB Captain Munnerlyn, as FAs. One interesting rumor has Gettleman looking to move up to perhaps go after LSU RB Leonard Fournette, believed by some to potentially have the sort of impact that Ezekiel Elliott had in Dallas last fall. The CB spot could also be targeted after Carolina's pass defense never really recovered from CB Josh Norman's departure to the Redskins last offseason.Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State

9-CINCINNATI BENGALS...We can never be sure how much pressure HC Marvin Lewis is working under as he enters his 15th season at Cincy still looking for his first playoff win, and having survived several past campaigns no better than last year's 6-9-1. But after whiffing badly in the last two drafts after making the playoffs four straight years before last season's miss, there might finally be some urgency to the proceedings at Paul Brown Stadium. There have been offseason rumors about backup QB AJ McCarron being targeted by some teams after the Patriots apparently pulled Jimmy Garappolo off of the table, but still no movement on that front into the first week of April. A target area in the draft will likely be along the OL after starters T Andrew Whitworth (to the Rams) and G Kevin Zeitler (to the Browns) both left in free agency. And the defensive front seven, already a bit thin before LB Karlos Dansby (to the Cardinals) and DE Margus Hunt (to the Colts) moved in the offseason, could be another priority. Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama

10-BUFFALO BILLS...The dismissal of HC Rex Ryan last fall was telegraphed more than one of George Foreman's roundhouse rights in the Rumble in the Jungle vs. Muhammad Ali, and owners Terry and Kim Pegula didn't even wait for last season to end before hitting the eject button. Former Carolina d.c. Sean McDermott now tries where all Buffalo coaches since Wade Phillips in 1999 have failed...leading the Bills to the playoffs. For a while it looked like QB Tyrod Taylor had taken his last snaps in Buffalo, but a restructured deal has saved the Bills about $10 million and has guaranteed Taylor a job and $15.5 mill over the next two years, not a bad consolation. Taylor always appeared the best QB option for Buffalo anyway in the near-term. With Taylor's situation resolved, GM Doug Whaley went about fortifying his safety slots in free agency, inking Micah Hyde from Green Bay and Jordan Pryor from Cleveland, but he still might be looking for help in the front seven after the Bills were again too leaky vs. the run a year ago. Meanwhile, with only Sammy Watkins as an established WR target for Taylor, Whaley is likely to be looking for some dynamic pass catchers for his QB at the draft in Philly. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan

11-NEW ORLEANS SAINTS...Time appears to have been suspended the past few years at the Superdome, with HC Sean Payton & GM Mickey Loomis still in the saddle despite annual rumors (especially in the case of Payton) of moves elsewhere, QB Drew Brees continuing to post big passing numbers, and the ongoing failures of the defense, all contributing to a succession of 7-9 finishes (four in the past five seasons). As for Loomis, he has overseen the franchise going from mediocrity to Super Bowl and back to mediocrity in his tenure since 2002, with Payton's arrival signaling a reverse in fortunes after the ill-fated 2005 Hurricane Katrina season. But the Saints still seem in limbo after a third straight playoff miss, and not sure that Loomis' latest FA moves, almost all designed to help the defense (ex-Panther A.J. Klein, ex-Charger Manti Te'o, and ex-Card Alex Okafor, LBs all, among the top offseason additions), change the metrics too much for a "D" that has seemingly reserved a spot low in the rankings (last year it was 31st in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed). Meanwhile, we'll see how much Loomis and Payton are committed to Garrett Grayson as Brees' eventual successor, or if they identify a developmental QB on the second or third days. There still could be movement on acquiring Patriot CB Malcolm Butler, a strong offseason rumor, but into April there had yet to be a deal consummated. After giving up the most passing yards in the league, Loomis (even if he should land Butler) will be looking for more secondary help, or perhaps a pass-rush upgrade, with his early picks. Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU

12-CLEVELAND BROWNS (from Philadelphia)...Here could be the real payoff for the Browns from last year's draft swap with the Eagles that allowed Philly to select Carson Wentz. Now it's Cleveland's turn to take a QB, which, thanks to this first-round pick from the Birds, the Brownies didn't have to rush with their own at the top of the round. Barring another QB going sooner (as we project Clemson's Deshaun Watson might), GM Sashi Brown should have his pick of remaining QBs. Remember, North Carolina's strong-armed Mitchell Trubisky has Northeast Ohio roots, though Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer and Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes have many supporters, too. And Watson might still be on the board. Or the Browns could trade down. Or Cleveland could make it to Super Bowl LII. (Just joking on the latter.) Stay tuned. Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina

13-ARIZONA CARDINALS...Rather suddenly, the title window appears to have closed in the Valley of the Sun, and there was even talk in Phoenix that salty HC Bruce Arians might walk away after last season's disappointing drop from the NFC title game in 2015 to 7-8-1 and a playoff miss last season. At the center of concern is the QB spot, where aging and injury-prone Carson Palmer took a significant step backwards last season and contemplated retirement. Palmer returns, but at this stage he's a year-to-year proposition, so now might be the time for GM Steve Keim to invest in a successor QB in the draft. There was more outflow (DT Calais Campbell, S Tony Jefferson, S D.J, Swearinger, CB Marcus Cooper, LB Kevin Minter, LB Alex Okafor) than inflow (S Antoine Bethea and PK Phil Dawson from the 49ers, plus LB Karlos Dansby, returning for a third tour of duty with the Big Red, from the Bengals) in free agency, though Keim did succeed in locking up DE Chandler Jones to a long-term deal after temporarily using the franchise tag to keep him in-house. But expect Keim to look offense early, passing game in particular, with not only Palmer a question mark, but also a WR corps dealing with Michael Floyd's release late last season, Jaron Brown's return from ACL surgery, John Brown's diagnosis with the sickle cell trait, and Larry Fitzgerald's advancing age (now 34). DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame

14-PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (from Minnesota)...In the end the Birds didn't even lose a first-round pick after the draft swap last year with the Browns that allowed Philly to take QB Carson Wentz with the second overall pick. For that the Eagles can thank the Vikings, who were in an emergency to find a QB after Teddy Bridgewater's injury late last preseason and gladly parted with this first-round pick to land QB Sam Bradford, who had already become surplus in Philly. In the offseason at the Linc, GM Howie Roseman was looking to upgrade the secondary, but whiffed on most of his targets at CB, which becomes a likely focus in the early rounds. Roseman did succeed in upgrading the WR corps by adding Alshon Jeffery from the Bears and Torrey Smith from the 49ers. But with Ryan Mathews too injury-prone and smallish Darren Sproles not considered durable enough, a bell-cow RB might be targeted in the early rounds as a further complement to Wentz. Though DE Chris Long was added from the Pats, expect Roseman to also look for another pass-rusher after Connor Barwin's release. Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama

15-INDIANAPOLIS COLTS...With the unpredictable ownership of Jim Irsay, it's hard to tell in which direction the Colts are headed. It took a while after the regular season concluded, but under-fire GM Ryan Grigson walked the plank in late January, with HC Chuck Pagano temporarily spared. But with new GM Chris Ballard now in the fold, Pagano remains under pressure, and the thought of bringing in a new coach to take advantage of the prime years of QB Andrew Luck will be a topic of conversation in the Indy Star if the Colts can't do better than another 8-8 mark. Ballard was relatively active in free agency, with several defensive pieces added to the mix (DE Jabaal Sheard and LB Barkevious Mingo from the Patriots, DT Al Woods and LB Sean Spence from the Titans, plus DE Margus Hunt from the Bengals and LB John Simon from the Texans), but another pass-rusher could be targeted early to help what was a subpar stop unit a year ago. It's also not certain how much more Indy can squeeze out of 33-year-old RB Frank Gore, so Ballard might look for another infantry option to take some of the offensive load off of Luck. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

16-BALTIMORE RAVENS...It's a fork-in-the-road season for the long-serving pair of HC John Harbaugh and GM Ozzie Newsome, who look to upgrade an aging roster that has failed to reach the playoffs in three of the past four years. Newsome achieved some of his aims in free agency by adding a potential shutdown CB (Brandon Carr from the Cowboys) and safety (Tony Jefferson from the Cards), to help a suspect secondary, though Ozzie is probably not done adding reinforcements in the defensive backfield, especially with key CB Jimmy Smith remaining injury-prone. Finding a pass rusher to help improve the Ravens' anemic sack total (just 31) from a year ago also remains a focus. As does the WR position after the retirement of Steve Smith and slow development (due in large part to injuries) of former No. 1 pick Breshad Perriman, which forced Newsome to bring back Mike Wallace and his high cap number. Ozzie, however, did avoid a potential shortcoming in the defensive interior when re-signing NT Brandon Williams. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee

Next issue: NFL DRAFT PREVIEW-PART II, plus COLLEGE HOOP SUPERLATIVES


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