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Snap Judgments: Need, speed dominate first day of NFL draft

IRVING, Texas -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we put a wrap on the marquee day of the NFL's annual pick-fest, from our vantage point of deep in the heart of Texas....

• What hit home again Saturday was that the first round of the NFL Draft has now evolved into an exercise where teams have just three criteria for selecting players: Need, need and more need. All the elaborate and tedious work that teams put into ranking the best available players on their draft board takes a quick backseat to the urgency of filling a vacancy on the depth chart.

--Need is largely why there were eight trades in Saturday's wild and wooly first round, with teams hop-scotching their way all over the draft board to get the players they required.

--Need is why the Saints absolutely felt they had to trade up from No. 10 to No. 7 and get USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.

--Need is why Jacksonville felt compelled to travel all the way from 26th to No. 8 to land the defensive end -- Florida's Derrick Harvey -- it craved.

--Need saw the Chiefs bounce up a couple notches from 17 to 15 to ensure themselves of getting the offensive tackle -- Virginia's Branden Albert -- they had targeted.

--Need was behind Carolina giving Philadelphia a ton for its No. 19 pick, which the Panthers used to select an offensive tackle they loved in Pitt's Jeff Otah.

--And need made teams like Atlanta and Houston reach for a couple offensive tackles in USC's Sam Baker and Virginia Tech's Duane Brown, respectively, both of whom were considered second-round talents.

There isn't even any more lip service really paid to the notion of taking the best available athlete when a team's first-round turn comes around. It's a need-driven draft. More than ever.

In Dallas, where I'm spending draft weekend, the big controversy centers on the question of the Cowboys selecting Arkansas running back Felix Jones with their first of two first-rounders at No. 22, when higher-rated Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall was still available (he went 23rd to Pittsburgh). Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was peppered with questions from Dallas-area reporters wanting to know why he bypassed Mendenhall, who was rated the draft's second-best back by many, in favor of Jones, who shared time in college with fellow Razorback first-round running back Darren McFadden and was considered the draft's fourth-best runner?

I thought Jones was at least honest when he and Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips explained their rationale in a post-picking press conference. Dallas wanted a complementary back to go with starter Marion Barber. They weren't looking for another back capable of carrying 20-25 times a game like Barber; they were seeking a runner who could be effective despite getting only maybe half of those touches. And one who was used to being in a two-back tandem. Mendenhall didn't really fit the description, the Cowboys explained. They wanted Jones because they viewed him as a different kind of back than Barber, with more versatility and more open-field, home-run potential.

"Barber, in my mind, gave us the luxury of having a different kind of back,'' Jerry Jones said. "You really will get the most out of [Felix Jones] if you have someone [sharing the load with him]. We're committed to a two-back approach. And Felix has shown he flourishes in a two-back system. That's no issue with Felix.''

Jerry Jones wouldn't say this in so many words, but Dallas wanted Felix Jones because he fit what the Cowboys think they need, higher ranking for Mendenhall be dammed. Thus, Dallas very willingly spent a first-round pick on a runner who will technically be a backup. That's just the reality. The Cowboys would have preferred that Mendenhall hadn't lingered on the board, prompting all these pesky questions about comparative value. Jones was the guy the Cowboys thought they needed, so they took him. End of story.

That's how the first round in the NFL works these days.

• The juxtaposition was so stark that it immediately jumped to mind. Watching Matt Ryan walk to the podium in New York on Saturday, wearing a new Falcons hat and posing with an Atlanta jersey, I couldn't help but be struck with how much has changed for that franchise in the span of a year.

It was at last year's draft, which I covered from Radio City Music Hall in New York, that then Falcons quarterback Michael Vick stood on the platform with commissioner Roger Goodell, as the league honored Virginia Tech football players and coaches with a round of applause in the wake of the shooting tragedy earlier that month.

Just days earlier, the Vick dog-fighting story had broken. In a meeting with Goodell, Vick assured the commissioner he had nothing to do with the operation, but had been the victim of actions undertaken by family members. At the time, Goodell chose to believe him, but he warned Vick that he would consider the quarterback responsible for the actions and decisions of family members and associates.

We now know the rest of the story. Fast forward to this year on draft Saturday, Vick is in prison, and the Falcons are debuting a new franchise quarterback in Boston College's Ryan, the third overall pick.

My, what a difference a year makes.

• Long live Goodell. The first two rounds of the draft flew by on Saturday, and we've got the Commish to thank for that with his new edict for up-tempo picking. Last year's record first round took an agonizing six hours and four minutes, while the first two rounds this year were done in just 5:50.

Somehow, some way, NFL teams conducted their business more quickly, and the union still managed to survive. Praise be.

• Speaking of Goodell, I think he might have authored my quote of the day. Asked in a pre-draft interview on ESPN what his reaction would be if ex-Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh has no tape to show him of the Rams' 2002 Super Bowl walk-through when they meet in New York on May 13, Goodell quite tellingly said:

"I'll be disappointed, because it's been so widely reported that there is a tape. But on the other hand, I won't be disappointed for the game of football.''

Pretty good assessment of what a lot of people are going to be saying if there's no walk-through tape.

• We're among those who hate the idea of grading a draft instantly, even before the players ever put on a uniform for their new team, but that doesn't mean we come out of Saturday's events without opinions.

How can you not consider Kansas City a big first-day winner? The Chiefs landed a potentially dominant defensive tackle at No. 5 in Glenn Dorsey -- who many thought would go either second or third -- and then used some of their bevy of picks to smartly trade up from 17 to 15 to secure the offensive tackle they were desperate for in Virginia's Albert.

The Chiefs then further made their day with their second-round pick, No. 35 overall, grabbing Virginia Tech cornerback Brandon Flowers. He wasn't the fastest or tallest corner available, but Flowers earned first-round grades from most teams in terms of his physical style of play and coverage skills.

Said one veteran NFL personnel man to me on Saturday: "The Chiefs, that was a stroke of genius to come out of the first round with both Dorsey and Albert. A stroke of genius. That's a great round.''

• If there was a position that got over-picked, it was offensive tackle, where a whopping eight players went, led by No. 1 overall selection Jake Long of Michigan. Five of the first 17 picks were tackles, counting Albert, the Virginia guard, who was taken by Kansas City and is projected as a left tackle in the NFL.

Nobody I talked to had any quibbles about the first six tackles taken, but many eyebrows were raised around the league by Atlanta trading back into the round at No. 21 with Washington to select USC's Baker, who was seen as a second-round pick. Even more surprising was Houston taking Virginia Tech's Brown with the 26th pick that once belonged to both Jacksonville and Baltimore on Saturday.

"Both of those guys, Baker and Brown, they're not first-round picks,'' a league scout told me. "They were second-round tackles. I was shocked by how quickly all those offensive tackles came off the board. I think once Gosder Cherilus went (to Detroit at No. 17), I think some teams panicked and overpaid for a tackle.''

• On the flip side, not having a receiver drafted in the first round for the first time since 1990 seemed about right for a crop of pass-catchers that never did inspire much excitement this draft season. Teams were just being smart not to overrate the likes of Michigan State's Devin Thomas, Indiana's James Hardy, Cal's DeSean Jackson, Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly and Texas's Limas Sweed.

Raise your hand if you had Houston's Donnie Avery and Kansas State's Jordy Nelson being two of the top three receivers chosen? I didn't. Me and lots of others had the Bills reaching a bit for Thomas at No. 11, but Buffalo wound up not taking a receiver until they tabbed Hardy at No. 41. Jackson was my pick for the No. 20 Bucs, but he didn't go until almost 30 picks later, to No. 49 Philadelphia.

Kudos to Washington, however, for landing both Thomas (34th) and Kelly (51st) in the second round. The Redskins wanted some big receivers after going for small guys in recent years, and they got two of this draft's better prospects in that department.

• Baltimore came away from the first-round with the quarterback I liked best among this year's class of passers, Delaware's Joe Flacco. And picking up Rutgers running back Ray Rice with the 55th pick, in the second round, was another strong move.

Though I bought some of the buzz surrounding Michigan quarterback Chad Henne and the Ravens in recent weeks, I knew that Baltimore has been high on Flacco since late last fall, when the Blue Hen quarterback started elevating himself into first-round consideration. Ravens scouts who saw Flacco play against nearby Towson State and Navy gushed about the kid's potential.

New Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron "loves'' Flacco, a league source said Saturday, and thinks he has a chance to be special in the NFL. With a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback in Baltimore, the Ravens have the kind of fresh start that's going to generate some positive vibes the remainder of this offseason.

• Start the bidding for Oakland running back LaMont Jordan. With Darren McFadden becoming a Raider, there's not enough room for everybody. Oakland could wind up having to part with both Jordan and Dominic Rhodes because I don't believe Michael Bush and Justin Fargas are going anywhere.

• Picks I really liked in the first two rounds:

-- Buffalo going for Troy cornerback Leodis McKelvin at No. 11, the top-rated pass coverage man, rather than reaching for a receiver like Devin Thomas. The Bills can get a bit funky in the first round, but not this time.

-- Carolina taking Jonathan Stewart at No. 13. Some personnel men I talk to think the ex-Duck might be the most complete back in the draft.

-- Seattle selecting USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson at No. 28. He's a proven pass rusher who played at a big-time program, and he belonged in the first-round discussion all along.

-- Green Bay taking Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm at No. 56. Brohm couldn't ask for a much better shot to make his case that he's an NFL starter. Aaron Rodgers' next start will be his first.

-- Ditto for Miami taking Michigan's Chad Henne at No. 57. Same exact situation as Brohm applies.

• Picks I really didn't like in the first two rounds:

-- Chicago choosing Vanderbilt offensive tackle Chris Williams at No. 14. Williams is no slouch, but Virginia's Albert and Pitt's Otah were still on the board, and the Bears passed on two pretty good prospects.

-- Tampa Bay taking Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib at No. 20 when South Florida's Mike Jenkins was still available.

-- St. Louis taking Houston receiver Donnie Avery with the No. 33 pick, over the likes of Michigan State's Devin Thomas and Indiana's James Hardy. I guess the Rams wanted someone undersized.

• Just wondering, but could Pacman Jones being acquired by Dallas for a fourth-round pick be this year's version of the Randy Moss deal in New England? The Patriots gave up just a fourth-round pick for Moss last year at this time, and the rest was history. Everybody only wanted to talk about Moss's baggage at first, just like we will if Jones is re-instated to the league in time to play in 2008.

Jerry Jones said an interesting thing on Saturday about Pacman. He said he'd rather have someone playing for him who has been knocked down a few times in life, because they know what it's like to have to get up again, rather than someone who has never experienced difficulty.

All I can say to that, Jerry, is you've got your man. You've got your man.

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