Friday April 11th, 2008

Thanks to its wheeling and dealing ways, Cleveland essentially won't have a draft this year. San Diego's roster is so well stocked it doesn't really need one. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Here's my quick take on the five teams that have the most riding on the 2008 NFL draft. These are teams that absolutely have to get it right two weekends from now when the league commences its annual version of high-stakes poker:

1. Denver -- Two consecutive non-playoff seasons is an obvious factor adding to the sense of urgency in Bronco-land. The surprising and relatively late-in-the-draft-season departure of general manager Ted Sundquist is another, because now there's no one else to blame but coach Mike Shanahan if things don't work out on the personnel front.

Denver's recent track record is spotty at best when it comes to identifying talent and building a roster. All those swings and misses on the defensive line. All those chances taken on players who came with some baggage in tow. The Broncos have nine overall picks, including two in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds, but how they use their first two selections (No. 12 and 42 overall) will be huge.

They have to replace retired offensive tackle Matt Lepsis if they hope to re-solidify their line and keep quarterback Jay Cutler's development going. And they have to again shop for an impact player in the middle of their defensive line, which is a key to their defensive improvement. In addition, the offseason arm injury suffered by No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall could force the Broncos to spend their second-round pick on another pass-catcher.

With the talent gap only widening between two-time defending division champion San Diego and the rest of the AFC West, the Broncos and Shanahan don't have any margin for error.

2. Philadelphia -- With a league-high-tying 11 picks, including eight in the final four rounds, the Eagles could undergo quite the roster makeover with coach Andy Reid's 10th draft in Philly. They could make that a whopping dozen selections if they deal veteran cornerback Lito Sheppard on draft weekend as expected. If the last-place Eagles hope to keep pace with the Giants and Cowboys in the hypercompetitive NFC East, they've got to make the most of the second-day bonanza they're sitting on.

Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb staved off the critics calling for the end of their era in Philadelphia with those three season-ending wins last December, but it's a tenuous situation at best, and there's a palpable sense time is running out on the Eagles' window of Super Bowl opportunity.

The Eagles are getting old in some key spots such as offensive tackle, where Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas are still on duty, and safety, where Brian Dawkins can't be counted on indefinitely. In addition, Philly needs more options at defensive end, and its eternal search for impact receivers continues.

For inspiration, the Eagles need only look at the Giants, who rebounded from an 8-8 finish with an embattled coach in 2006 to win it all last season. But the impetus for New York's success was that spectacular 2007 draft class. If Philadelphia wants to copy the Giants, the imitation best start in late April.

3. Atlanta -- The Falcons won't have to wait long to see new general manager Thomas Dimitroff do his stuff on draft weekend. The former Patriots director of college scouting has six selections to play with in the first three rounds (three seconds and two thirds), and 11 overall. Obviously all eyes will be on Atlanta's first pick, No. 3, to see whether the Falcons make the splashy franchise quarterback call in favor of Boston College's Matt Ryan, or go the less-sexy route in tabbing LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey.

With so many needs to fill, look for Dimitroff and new head coach Mike Smith to go for solid, proven collegiate performers and leave the projects and players with big boom-bust potential on the board. My sense is the Falcons defense will get the majority of the attention, because until the team's quarterback of the future arrives and develops, Atlanta is probably going to have to win games with its defense and its Michael Turner-led running game.

For the Falcons, the ignominious year that 2007 was has to represent rock bottom. The climb back to respectability starts with the possibility of this draft, and all the fresh faces who will hopefully help the franchise finally turn the page on its darkest chapter yet.

4. Dallas -- Sorry, but when you're the only team in the league that owns two first-round picks (No. 22 and 28), the pressure's on you more so than most. Facts are facts. And when you add in the Cowboys' belief their time to win is now, with an NFC-best 13-3 record that wound up ringing hollow in 2007, it ratchets up the stakes another notch or two.

The Cowboys own eight overall picks and while they don't have a litany of needs, they best address two of their three big needs with their pair of first-rounders. Dallas could use another running back to compliment Marion Barber, a receiver to draw some coverage away from Owens and Jason Witten and a cornerback who can make some plays when teams stay away from Terence Newman's side of the field (trading for Pacman Jones would render this draft need moot).

Owner Jerry Jones has ponied up and paid his quarterback, Tony Romo, and has seemingly won the gamble he took on T.O. Now he hungers to put his franchise's 11-year streak of playoff-winless seasons to bed. Dallas has a glitzy new stadium on the way and most of the pieces in place to make a Super Bowl run. The last few components can be the toughest to collect, and that's what makes this month's results so pivotal.

5. Miami -- The Dolphins are another given when it comes to the NFL teams with the most to gain or lose in this year's draft. They went 1-15 and now hold the coveted/burdensome No. 1 pick. What could present a bigger potential fork in the road than that? Factor in the Fish's new regime, headed by the Big Tuna himself, Bill Parcells, and you've got the makings of a watershed moment that only comes around so often (think 1998 Colts, mulling Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf).

At the moment, Miami has more needs than picks, but nine selections may have to be enough for Parcells' first draft in South Florida. It seems pretty clear the Dolphins will wind up taking a lineman named Long, be it defensive end Chris or offensive tackle Jake. That's the smartest, quickest route to respectability. A quarterback with one of Miami's two second-rounders is also a solid bet (Michigan's Chad Henne has caught the Dolphins' eyes).

After that, Miami is probably going to go for defense heavily, trying to shore up the unit that will be asked to keep the Dolphins in games while things build on the offensive side. Linebackers, always a Parcells' forte, should be at the top of the need list. This is clearly a stepping-stone draft for Miami, designed to set the stage for 2009 and beyond. But it's a big first step, with all the hype and white-hot lights that go with the No. 1 slot.

• Another week, another Brett Favre headline. Is this how the entire offseason is going to go? And this week's was a doozy. The guy hasn't even made it six weeks into his retirement and he's already musing about maybe being a long-distance version of the Packers' game-day emergency quarterback? Huh?

It's mind-boggling to me that after Favre bowed out of the game with grace and a sense of good timing that we're already at the point where a sense of clarity about his status has been sacrificed in order for him to keep the slightest comeback option open in his mind. And we're not even to tax day yet.

I understand that Favre was likely just talking off the top of his head to the Biloxi, Miss., newspaper that he has often made news in, but when he starts saying "right now, no'' to the question of whether he's considering a return to the game, it's pretty easy to guess that later could mean yes.

First there was the obsessive Favre retirement watch. And now, and this is even worse, comes the obsessive Favre un-retirement watch. Can't anybody just say goodbye and mean it any more?

• Speaking of legendary ex-quarterbacks with a Super Bowl ring, I loved the John Elway irony this week. The former Bronco said he wouldn't have chosen to call out a teammate in the media, as current Denver quarterback Jay Cutler did recently to Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall.

Elway said he would have handled the matter of Marshall seriously injuring his arm due to horse play (they are Broncos, after all) in a private, face-to-face meeting with the receiver. Cutler instead chose to voice his displeasure with his top receiver's immaturity in some on-the-record quotes to reporters.

Oh, and did we mention how Elway chose to let Cutler know how he felt about the issue? It was in some on-the-record quotes to reporters. And I bet Elway never even realized how rich that sounded.

• And while we're talking about guys who just don't get it, I wish I could tell Oklahoma receiver Malcolm Kelly how some NFL teams are scouting more than just a prospect's 40 times this spring. They're looking for things like what motivates you, what kind of guy will you be when things don't go your way, and if you'll find everyone to blame but yourself.

After struggling with a quad injury, Kelly finally worked out for pro scouts on Wednesday at OU, but when he didn't run as fast as he thought he should (4.68), he lashed out at the school for having him run on the softer artificial surface of the Sooners' practice facility rather than the firmer Astroturf infield of the school's indoor track. This despite the fact the scouts present asked Kelly to run on the softer surface because it's what he'll play on in the NFL.

"Just a little bit of time could mean a whole lot of draft money,'' bemoaned Kelly, thereby revealing his first priority. "This is my life. You know what I'm saying? This ain't no school. This ain't no classroom. This ain't got nothing to do with that. This has to do with me, my family. This is what I do. I play football. And I'm supposed to come out here and run as fast as I can.''

You can bet plenty of teams heard Kelly's message loud and clear. Especially the parts about the money and the me.

Matt Stover might not have wanted his e-mail about trying to start the process of replacing NFL players' union chief Gene Upshaw to become public, but that doesn't mean the longtime Baltimore kicker didn't want to get the ball rolling on a final year in office for Upshaw. And no clarification by Stover can change that.

Know this: Stover's not a lone wolf on this issue. It's not just him and Vikings center Matt Birk in the anti-Upshaw faction and everyone else in the NFL solidly behind the union leader.

As for Upshaw, he responded in the somewhat typical Mean Gene fashion that has become his favored MO in recent years: "Matt Stover has no clue. Whoever is pulling his chain is doing a disservice to the union. I could understand the idea that they need to get rid of me if I wasn't doing a good job, but shoot, the owners are mad because they think I've done too good a job.''

Any criticism or mention of a post-Upshaw era players' union has tended to send the Hall of Fame ex-Raiders lineman into a defensive tizzy for a while now. But last I checked, he's not either a Supreme Court justice or Vladimir Putin. It's not a lifetime appointment, Geno.

• I guess we should have seen the Brian Urlacher contract dispute coming in Chicago. I mean, now that Lance Briggs is a happy Bear, there was an opening in the disgruntled Chicago linebacker department. But with both defensive tackle Tommie Harris and return man extraordinaire Devin Hester up for some new money soon, and kicker Robbie Gould and defensive end Mark Anderson also in line for a pay hike, Urlacher's deal doesn't sound like it's on the front burner in Chicago.

• Now that Brian Billick has left Baltimore, do you know there are only four NFL head coaches remaining who have worked in their current positions since the 1990s? The list is down to Philly's Reid and Seattle's Mike Holmgren (both started in 1999), Denver's Shanahan (1995) and Tennessee's Jeff Fisher (1994).

Momma, don't let you babies grow up to be Cowboys (coaches, or with any other team for that matter).

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