• I aways find the second and third rounds of the NFL draft at its most interesting when you start to see teams put things together, complementing their first-round work and fitting together the pieces of their roster puzzle. As the blanks get filled in, teams create new tandems and combinations and give their fans unforeseen possibilities to consider.
Some of the most promising ones coming out of the early rounds of this year's draft are:
-- Cincinnati revamping its offensive makeup with the pairing of first-round receiver A.J. Green of Georgia (No. 4 overall) and Texas Christian quarterback Andy Dalton. Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco? That's so 2010.
-- Tampa Bay getting a much-needed double shot of pass-rushing help in taking the draft's biggest tumbler, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers at No. 51, just a night after landing Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn at No. 20.
-- The Vikings rolling the dice with first-round quarterback Christian Ponder (12th), but then at least having the decency to get him a new target to throw to in second-round Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph (43rd overall).
-- Houston making new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips a happy man, jacking up the front seven of the Texans' 3-4 defense with defensive end J.J. Watt in Round 1 (11th) and Arizona outside linebacker Brooks Reed (42nd overall) in the second. And for good measure, Houston traded back into the second round to address its pass-coverage need with University of Miami cornerback Brandon Harris.
-- And the on-the-way-up Lions continued to add weapons to their young offensive nucleus, snagging explosive Boise State receiver Titus Young in the second round (No. 44) and then securing a backfield mate for 2010 first-round running back Jahvid Best in Illinois rusher Mikel LeShoure (57th). Watch out for Detroit in the NFC North in 2011. The Lions aren't jokes anymore.
• His well-chronicled knee issue may or may not hold him back on the field, but it didn't do Da'Quan Bowers any favors in the draft. He says the knee doesn't hurt him one bit, but he certainly experienced a painful plunge into the bottom half of the second round, before going to Tampa Bay at No. 51. That's only about 50 slots later than he was originally expected to come off the board.
"The last 24 hours have been crazy-long,'' Bowers said Friday night after the Bucs caught the falling star. "It's been grueling just waiting for that one phone call. I'm just glad for the opportunity that Tampa Bay gave me. I just want to show them that they made a great pick and it wasn't a mistake.
"I didn't expect the wait to be this long. I was expecting to go off the board in the first round. But I'm glad Tampa Bay like me enough to pick me where they picked me. I'm definitely motivated. I'm just ready to get in Tampa and show everybody what I'm capable of doing, and show them that they picked a great athlete and a great guy.''
Bowers couldn't have landed in an NFL locale with more opportunity. The Bucs ranked 31st in sacks last season, and they'll turn him loose to chase quarterbacks from Day 1 -- if he can earn the starting job. Bowers said his knee won't be an issue, but it was this week; and he won't convince anyone that his health isn't a concern until he takes the field and produces like the first-round pick he was presumed to be.
"The knee is fine,'' Bowers said. "It's getting better every day. I'll be ready to get on the field whenever they need me to.''
• The draft's other spectacular freefall was executed, of course, by Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett. But man, did he ever stick the landing. Mallett to New England at No. 74, in the third round, puts a happy ending on a pretty sad chapter in Mallett's football life.
With the Patriots, the pluses are obvious: Mallett can watch and learn from Tom Brady, hopefully picking up plenty about how to play quarterback in the NFL and what it takes to be a professional in every aspect of the game. With no early pressure on Mallett to work his way onto the field, barring an injury to Brady, he'll have time to grow and work on some of the maturity issues that plagued at Michigan and Arkansas.
And even if he doesn't emerge as Brady's successor someday, perhaps he'll show enough in a couple years to make him an attractive trade possibility for teams on the lookout for a young starter. Not exactly the same scenario that allowed Matt Cassel to cash in, but close enough.
• With Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Mallett making it seven quarterbacks taken in the first three rounds, the NFL fell one short of a record showing for passers. Had Iowa's Ricky Stanzi cracked the third round, as some analysts thought possible, the eight QBs would have been the most ever for Rounds 1-3.
As is, it was the most quarterbacks taken that early since 2006, when seven were selected in Rounds 1-3: Vince Young (3rd), Matt Leinart (10th) and Jay Cutler (11th) in the first round; Kellen Clemens and Tarvaris Jackson in the second round; and Charlie Whitehurst and Brodie Croyle in the third.
The Class of 2011 best hope that five-year comparison doesn't hold much meaning. Cutler is the only one of the seven still owning a starting job in the NFL -- and he's already on his second team.
• I like the work of several teams that gave it a nice, even-handed approach in the opening two rounds, paying near equal attention to both sides of the ball.
Arizona got potential impact players on defense with cornerback Patrick Peterson in Round 1, and offense, with second-round running back Ryan Williams. Taking Williams just two years after spending a first-round pick on running back Beanie Wells clearly spells out the Cardinals were hoping for more in Wells.
Tennessee hopped on its quarterback need with Jake Locker at No. 8 on Thursday night, but came right back and spent its No. 39 pick on a much-needed outside linebacker in UCLA's Akeem Ayers.
San Francisco took the reverse approach. First, the 49ers went defense, grabbing Missouri outside linebacker Aldon Smith at No. 7. Then, San Francisco targeted the passer it craved, trading three picks to Denver to get back up to No. 36 and select Kaepernick.
Lastly, Detroit's haul of defensive tackle Nick Fairley in the first round, and receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel LeShoure in the second keeps the Lions on an upward trajectory in my estimation.
• The Colts are trying their best to give Peyton Manning what he wants before they hand him a gazillion dollars in his next contract: That would be some young offensive linemen to protect his well-paid backside.
Indy went with Boston College offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo in the first round (No. 22), addressing its most glaring need with one of the top three tackles in the draft, and then doubled down by adding Villanova guard-tackle Benjamin Ijalana in the second round (49th).
No. 18 no doubt watched the proceedings unfold, and pronounced it good.
• Well, I guess the Bills meant it when they said they can win with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. I predicted Buffalo would go for Missouri's Blaine Gabbert at No. 3, but that didn't happen. The Bills passed on Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder in the first round, said "no thanks'' to Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick in the second round, and didn't bite on Ryan Mallett or any other passer in the third round.
Ryan Fitzpatrick it is. At least for another season in Buffalo.
• Uh, oh, rest of the NFC. The Packers offense might have gotten even better, taking offensive players in the first three round for the first time in 15 years. Green Bay selected Mississippi State offensive tackle Derek Sherrod in the first round, took underrated Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb at the end of the second, and capped the night by tabbing Hawaii running back Alex Green, a third-down threat, with the penultimate pick of Round 3.
• New 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has made it known he still wants Alex Smith around in 2011, but trading up to draft Kaepernick early in Round 2 should speak volumes to Smith about where his future lies, and it's anywhere but the Bay Area.
If Smith chooses to come back and help groom Kaepernick to take his job, he's just a glutton for punishment. He's been the favorite whipping boy of 49ers fans for years now, and it won't get better with a second-round rookie waiting in the wings for his chance to play.
After everything Smith has been through with the 49ers, I can't see him signing up for the "bridge'' quarterback duty in San Francisco. Even if he is walking away from a potential starting role this season. Enough's enough.