Every offseason is an opportunity to remedy a problem, go in a different direction or get younger.
For example, teams started moving toward a two-running-back system a few years ago. Before you knew it, there were very few “bell cow” backs, and just about every team was using a rotation of runners.
As I prepare for the 2009 NFL Draft, two issues keep surfacing, and the April selection process will be stressed by the number of teams looking to do the same thing.
1. Time to move away from old tackles
The offensive tackle population in the NFL is starting to look old. The retirement of tackle John Tait at age 34 left a void on the Chicago Bears’ offensive line. Their bookend tackle, John St. Clair, is 31 years old and yet to be re-signed. Chris Williams, a 2008 first-round draft pick, will fill one spot, but tackle is a concern not only in Chicago but around the league.
Right now, 21 offensive tackles penciled in as starters for 2009 will be 30 years or older when the season kicks off, and that’s a concern for general managers.
Eight of the old tackles will be 32 or older, and now is really the time to start thinking about replacing that aging player with a younger athlete. This is the year to seriously consider taking a young tackle in the draft, especially after the success that rookie tackles had last season. Ryan Clady played like a 10-year veteran for the Denver Broncos, and so did many members of the 2008 class. Now is the time to take a long hard look at Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith, Michael Oher, Eben Britton and William Beatty early in the draft to get younger and, in some cases, much cheaper.
As some teams draft a tackle in the first round — and I expect at least five teams to do so — we should see veterans traded, released, not re-signed or, in some cases, moved to a backup role.
It was a bit surprising to see the Jacksonville Jaguars sign 34-year-old Tra Thomas to a three-year contract when a solid rookie tackle would be available at the No. 8 spot in the draft, but it also says the team has other needs to address when it’s on the clock.
The St. Louis Rams could take a tackle at the No. 2 spot, especially because they released seven-time Pro Bowl selection Orlando Pace on Tuesday. The Seattle Seahawks also could need a young tackle if they cut veteran Walter Jones, who has four years left on his deal for $21.8 million ($5.45 per year) with one modest roster bonus.
2. Conversion to 3-4 defense creates need for certain players
With many teams heading toward some version of the 3-4 defense or in the middle of a conversion started a year ago, a tremendous amount of pressure is building on the draft talent for the front seven positions.
Every one of these teams is looking for some of the following pieces to their puzzle: a big nose tackle to force a double team, an outside linebacker who can rush the passer and a defensive end with size to two-gap an offensive tackle.
If nothing else, there could be some draft-day trades to jockey for position on the few players who could satisfy these needs.
Here’s how the 3-4 teams line up in the race for talent on the draft board: Kansas City Chiefs (No. 3 overall pick), Cleveland Browns (No. 5), Green Bay Packers (No. 9), Denver (No. 12), San Diego Chargers (No. 16), New England Patriots (No. 23), Miami Dolphins (No. 25), Baltimore Ravens (No. 26) and Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 32). The Dallas Cowboys don’t have a first-round draft pick this year.
Here’s a list of players with potential first-round grades who appear to be on the radar for the 3-4 base defense teams. Some of them will not receive a first-round grade, which reduces the list, and some of the remaining players will be selected by 4-3 teams. I have interviewed all of them, and they say 3-4 teams have shown plenty of interest in them.
These players include nose tackle B.J. Raji, defensive ends Jarron Gilbert, Evander “Ziggy” Hood and Tyson Jackson, and outside linebackers Everette Brown, Aaron Curry, Brian Cushing, Larry English, Michael Johnson, Aaron Maybin and Brian Orakpo.