Wednesday April 23rd, 2008

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we dip under the 72-hour mark counting down to the NFL's big pick-fest in New York, New York....

• A couple things appear abundantly clear in the wake of the Jared Allen trade to Minnesota: The Chiefs made an exceptional deal for themselves, and the Vikings took a costly and potentially risky step that could elevate them to the level of legitimate contenders for the NFC title.

First, the Vikings' side of the blockbuster deal. The acquisition of Allen clearly represents a risk. But there is some confusion about how much of a gamble it was for Minnesota to give up three high draft picks for him, making him the league's most highly paid defensive player in the process, courtesy of a six-year, $74 million deal that includes $31 million guaranteed.

The obvious question mark in regards to Allen, 26, are his two DUI convictions while in Kansas City, the second of which resulted in a four-game league suspension in 2007, which was subsequently reduced to two games by commissioner Roger Goodell. Much of the debate regarding the wisdom of Minnesota paying so high a price for Allen is sure to center on the question of whether he's only one more mistake away from incurring a mandatory year-long league suspension under the terms of the league's substance abuse policy?

One league source told SI.com on Wednesday that Allen's two strikes in the program get wiped off the books if he stays incident free through September, at which time his most recent DUI will be two years old. He would then be out from under the threat of a year-long league suspension if he incurred another DUI after September, the source said. But that scenario could not be confirmed by an NFL spokesman Wednesday, leaving it uncertain whether Allen is a high risk for a career-interrupting suspension.

Perhaps it will turn out that the Vikings are not taking quite the gamble on Allen that some might assume. Minnesota is said to be convinced the signs of maturity that Allen started showing in Kansas City in the past year-plus have taken root and he has become someone worth betting on. To that end, Minnesota did nothing out of the ordinary to protect itself in his new precedent-setting contract. There are only the standard clauses within the deal that would allow the team to recoup some of the money if Allen incurs a significant suspension or violates his contract in some way, but no extraordinary steps were taken to safeguard the organization.

I am convinced of this much: With Allen in its lineup, Minnesota has moved significantly this offseason to close the gap on Green Bay in the NFC North, and even position itself as one of the favorites in the NFC. On offense, Brett Favre's retirement gives the Vikings hope that they no longer have a huge deficit in the quarterback comparison with the defending division champions. Tarvaris Jackson may still be a question mark, but so too is Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers at this point. And Minnesota clearly has the most exciting young playmaker in the NFC North in second-year running back Adrian Peterson.

But it's on defense where the Vikings' advantage may now be the most dramatic. Allen's impact as a pass rusher and playmaker should only be enhanced playing alongside Minnesota's Pro Bowl defensive tackle tandem of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, who make up the best defensive line interior in the league. Allen's speed rushing game is going to thrive in the one-on-one situations that he's likely to see, and it should make the Packers even more determined to get a little younger at offensive tackle, where Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are both entering their ninth NFL seasons.

On the field, Allen could certainly be the final piece of a defensive puzzle that elevates Minnesota's front seven from very good to near dominant. With a little more production from Jackson and a receiving corps that has gained ex-Bear Bernard Berrian, the Peterson-led Vikings offense may not have to improve greatly to transform Minnesota from 8-8 in '07 to a 10- or 11-win playoff team this season. With Allen on board in Minnesota and Favre gone from Green Bay, the Packers can't expect to win the division by five games again. In the NFC North, it looks like Green Bay is coming back to the pack.

As for the Chiefs' side of the trade, it's hard to imagine how they scarcely could have extracted more for a player who had vowed not to sign a long-term deal with the team after being franchised this offseason. Kansas City held firm and got Minnesota's first-round pick and two third-round selections this year, and also picked up five slots in the sixth round by swapping spots with the Vikings.

With six of the first 82 selections -- or one every 13½ picks or so -- the Chiefs now join the Falcons (five of the first 68 picks) as the two teams that own the top of this weekend's draft. Kansas City couldn't have dreamed for much more of a boost toward its goal of undertaking a massive youth program than sitting on two first-rounders (Nos. 5 and 17), a second-round selection (No. 35), and three thirds (Nos. 66, 73 and 82). The Chiefs have a league-high 13 picks overall, and that's a jackpot in today's NFL. If they choose wisely -- always a big if -- this draft should be remembered as the foundation of their rebuilding efforts.

Losing Allen, the league's reigning sacks leader, is undoubtedly a blow to the talent level of Kansas City's roster. But sending him to a team in the opposing conference in exchange for a mid first-round pick and two more selections in the third round is a case of the Chiefs making the best of a bad situation. They maximized their return on Allen (and then some) when his value was at its highest point yet, rather than risk losing him for considerably less at a later date. All indications pointed toward K.C. losing Allen next year if they weren't prepared to go the franchise-tag route again, so the Chiefs did the smart thing and took the best deal they could get. Some would even say they picked the Vikings pocket in the process.

But the Chiefs can now in some order address their needs at offensive tackle, defensive end, guard, cornerback and receiver, all in the first three rounds if things break well for them. And they certainly have the ammunition to make their two first-round picks, and then trade back into the lower portion of the first round for a quarterback like Chad Henne, Joe Flacco or Brian Brohm if they decide Brodie Croyle is not everything they thought he was.

Win-win trades can often be overstated. But this one has a chance to make a big impact in both Kansas City and Minnesota.

• If you're keeping score, it'll wind up taking a wait of 102 days between the time we first heard about the allegations that an ex-Patriots employee secretly taped the Rams' 2002 Super Bowl walk-through practice and when former New England video assistant Matt Walsh gets to tell his much-anticipated story to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. That's Feb. 2 to May 13, which is the day the league will interview Walsh in New York, per its announcement Wednesday.

My hunch remains that we'll all be left asking a version of the "Is that all there is?'' question once Walsh gets his show-and-tell session before the league. If there ever was a video of the Rams' walk-through, put me down as being skeptical of Walsh's chances to produce it. He may tell the NFL one was shot, but I get the sense he has no smoking gun to corroborate his claim. I could be completely wrong, but at least come the second week of May, we should finally know.

On the down side, waiting until then is a bit like finding out the Pennsylvania presidential primary is going to have a do-over in another three weeks. God help us all.

• Draft buzz that I'm hearing includes the following:

• The No. 6 Jets are calibrating every potential move they make with the No. 7 Patriots in mind. These two really don't like each other, and it's not even close to being hype in this case. Under no scenario does New York want to see Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan make it to New England's slot, because Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Eric Mangini know the Patriots will promptly put their draft slot up for auction and reap a bounty of picks from some quarterback-needy team.

The Jets have even gone so far as to talk with the No. 8 Ravens about what it would cost them to trade up to sixth for Ryan. Anything to keep the Patriots from hitting the jackpot. Hearing that, it kind of leads one to believe the Jets have decided to pass on Ryan, even though they reportedly love him. Then again, they could anticipate having multiple options that they like -- Chris Long or Darren McFadden among them -- and wanted to see how much the Ravens would give up to get their franchise quarterback.

• Speaking of quarterback-needy teams that I'm just about to give up trying to figure out, a reliable league source told me Tuesday night that he's hearing No. 3 Atlanta will pass on Matt Ryan even if LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey goes to St. Louis at No. 2.

No Ryan or Dorsey to the Falcons? Huh? Now I'm really confused. The Falcons don't need a running back (McFadden) with Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood around, and they don't need a defensive end (Chris Long or Vernon Gholston) with their recent heavy investments in John Abraham and Jamaal Anderson. Who or what does that leave them with? Either trading downward or taking USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis?

This time of year, the more you hear, the less you know.

• If I had to put a dollar down today, I'm leaning toward giving the No. 2 Rams Chris Long rather than Dorsey. While some coaches in St. Louis are said to be staunchly in favor of Dorsey, the Rams sound convinced it's unfair to label Long as just a maximum-effort, high-motor type who might not have a great upside potential in the NFL.

• There seems to be real debate within the league about the second highest-rated offensive lineman behind Michigan's Jake Long, the first overall pick. Some say it's Boise State tackle Ryan Clady, and some maintain Virginia guard Branden Albert -- who projects to tackle in the NFL -- will wind up being the better pro.

Said one league scout: "I always go with intelligence in a situation like this. Albert is a smart guy, and very dedicated. There's a lot going on at guard, a lot of stuff changing on the fly.''

Some within the league have raised concerns about Clady's low Wonderlic Test score -- said to be a 14 -- and questioned his maturity level in regards to some off-field conduct.

• Tampa Bay was the other team seriously involved in the Jared Allen trade talks with Kansas City. While the Chiefs were steadfastly said to be seeking a first and second-round pick in exchange for Allen, the Bucs never offered anything more than their first-round pick (No. 20), and third-year defensive tackle Jovan Haye, who had a career-high six sacks in 2007.

Jacksonville was also interested, but Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson did not want to deal Allen to a fellow AFC team. The fourth team in the Allen derby was Philadelphia, but the Eagles' interest never progressed very far, largely because of the hefty financial commitment they already made this offseason to free-agent cornerback Asante Samuel.

• So much for the theory that Bill Parcells' history in the first round of the draft is all about defense, defense and more defense. Just shows you that whenever you use history as your guide to discerning what will happen in the draft, you better make sure it includes some present-day realities.

• Ex-Seahawk Shaun Alexander and that big contract he received from Seattle in 2006 will now be folded into the cautionary tale that has long existed in the NFL when it comes to veteran running backs: Never, ever trust anyone over 30. Or even at 30 for that matter.

• I'm sick of listening to Chad Johnson whine myself, so I was kind of glad to hear Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis tell his disgruntled receiver this week to either shut up or have the guts to sit out the season. But I have to admit I'm shocked that in today's NFL trade market Cincinnati saw fit to turn down an offer from Washington that could have wound up costing the Redskins two first-round picks.

It's not like you're guaranteed of getting a Chad Johnson-level player with the No. 21 pick of the draft, which Washington owns this year. Far from it. But the reality is that really good players often get traded for far less than what the Redskins were offering.

I know I'm not breaking this news, but I do believe this little showdown in Cincy has gotten very personal at this point, on both sides. It's a matter of wounded pride now for both Johnson and Lewis.

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