April 24, 2008

Michael Lombardi is a 22-year veteran of NFL personnel departments, spending eight years with the Raiders and nine years with the Browns, in addition to brief stints with the Broncos, Eagles and 49ers.

Draft weekend is one of my favorite times of the year. NFL executives have spent the past nine months studying and now it's finally time to take the exam. As they enter the war room it is essential that they rely on their knowledge of every team's strengths and weaknesses and, most importantly, how those teams will think and react. Here are my recommendations for several teams this weekend:

Prepare for the unexpected. The draft for the New York Jets does not start until the Atlanta Falcons make their selection at No. 3. Before the Falcons make their pick, I would have two plans in place.

Plan A would assume the Falcons did not select Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. I would then be on the phone with Arkansas running back Darren McFadden and his representatives, telling them he would be our guy at No. 6. I'd do this while knowing and hoping the phone calls might force the Raiders hand in actually selecting McFadden at No. 4. At the same time I would make numerous trade offers to the Raiders -- with absolutely no intention of trading -- knowing Al Davis hates to trade down on draft day.

If the Raiders suspect we are trying to trade up to get McFadden then this freezes the pick, meaning the pick is not for sale to anyone else at that moment. My main goal is to tie up the Raiders' phone lines, freeze their pick and determine what Baltimore is thinking at No. 8.

The Ravens are my main competition for a quarterback and I need to do whatever is possible to determine their course of action. I don't expect the Raiders to move, but I am hoping they will offer me some vital clues with each one of my calls. On draft day, every team's strategy has to be declared; it's now time to show your hand. Every phone call I make, I closely listen to the voice on the other line to determine if they are bluffing or if they have something concrete in the works.

If the Raiders pass on every deal offered and select McFadden, as I suspect, and I also determine that Baltimore is on the move to acquire Ryan, then I call the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 5 to discuss flopping picks. I know I cannot freeze Kansas City's pick because the Chiefs have so many holes that they will be trying to acquire picks all day.

Carl Peterson, the Chiefs president, is not an easy trade partner. He has to win every deal. That is just Carl's nature. He will suspect I am desperate, willing to pay his price to acquire Ryan. But I will offer what I believe is a fair deal based on the value of the picks being exchanged and not back down. If Peterson thinks he can intimidate or bluff me into a deal, then he is dead wrong.

I also know Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome is not likely to overpay for the pick nor get strong-armed by Peterson. Newsome is a value drafter and rarely does he throw in all his chips. But if Newsome is willing to overpay, that still will not change my thoughts or offer. So I make my offer and stand firm.

If I lose Ryan to the Ravens then my choice is pretty simple: I take Jonathan Stewart, the Oregon running back. Stewart is not receiving the accolades his talent deserves, mainly because of his recent turf toe surgery, yet he may prove to be the best back in this draft. One thing I definitely don't do is sit still. I start making calls to teams in the back end of the first round. With Ryan in Baltimore, I know my competition for Michigan quarterback Chad Henne has been reduced by one team. I start calling Seattle at 25, San Diego at 27 and Dallas at 28, with trade offers using my second-round pick (No. 36 overall) to get back into the first round.

I also will worry about the Chicago Bears trying to move into the bottom of the first round. But I know Bears GM Jerry Angelo very well. He is strict and disciplined when it comes to valuing draft picks. He loves multiple picks and is very reluctant to part with any. I also know the Chiefs are potential players in the quarterback market. Depending on what position they take at No. 5, that will help me understand where they may be headed with their 17th pick that they just acquired in the Jared Allen trade.

Now, Plan B. If the Falcons pick Ryan at three, then I stay where I am and pick Stewart, assuming the Raiders take McFadden. I will still work my plan to get back into the first round to get Henne. But now I know Baltimore will be even more serious competition. So I may have to move further into the first round, calling the Redskins at 21 and the Steelers at 23. I have to work every single one of my options and keep applying the pressure on all the teams to finalize a deal. My goal is to come out of this draft with a running back and quarterback, two cornerstones of the future for my team. Nothing can stop me from achieving that goal.

Think big. The Broncos in the late '90s had great success building an offensive line with quick, smallish athletes. They won two Super Bowls with this approach. They had a dynamic running game led by an outstanding running back, which highlighted their play action and bootleg passing game. But times have changed in the NFL. The Broncos are no longer the standard for how to run the ball. Denver ranked in the top five in only nine of the 126 offensive categories last season. Much of their poor offensive production in the past two years is due to the lack of size and power in their offensive line.

Last season, in the two games against the San Diego Chargers, who happen to be a very big physical defensive team, Denver scored a total of six points. Against the stronger Jacksonville Jaguars, they scored 14 and mustered only 47 yards rushing. At times during the 2007 season when playing the bigger, more powerful teams, the Broncos looked like a 2A high school team trying to step up in competition to beat a 5A team. They were simply overmatched in the line.

It is critical in the NFL to have symmetry with your personnel. Right now, the Broncos don't have that fluid feel to their offense. They have a tremendous drop-back passer in Jay Cutler, but a smallish offensive line. The two pieces don't work well together.

Cutler is at his best when he can stand behind the center and throw the ball all over the field. He has very unique skills that can eventually lead a team to the Super Bowl, but he needs to have an offensive line that can highlight those skills. The Broncos need to acquire bigger bodies to help protect Cutler, not only to throw the ball down the field but also to control the line of scrimmage.

Cutler was uncanny last year in his ability to throw the ball with defensive lineman all around his legs. But Cutler took too many unnecessary hits and the Broncos needs to do a better job of securing him in the pocket.

Many teams in the NFL stole the Broncos approach to running the ball, now the Broncos need to steal other teams' approach to rebuilding their offensive line. This draft is critical for the Broncos to add size if they want to compete with the big, physical teams in the AFC.

Draft Darren McFadden. The alternative, likely Ohio State LB/DE Vernon Gholston, has too many questions marks. Gholston might work out like a demon, but his physical play is very inconsistent. Once he arrives in the NFL, the pass protection schemes he will face won't have him dealing with smaller running backs; he will have to defeat big offensive lineman to get to the quarterback. That will cause some adjustments in his style of play.

The Raiders may have been the slowest offensive team in football last year. They finished 29th in the NFL in plays over 20 yards. They have no one on their offensive team that their opponents would worry about defending. McFadden's running style fits the style of the Raiders running game. It's a zone scheme with very little decision making involved, which would clearly highlight McFadden's big-play ability. Drafting McFadden allows the Raiders to take the burden off their young quarterback as they try to slowly find an offense that best suits the talents of JaMarcus Russell.

Beyond the draft, the Raiders greatest challenge will be trying to find the right system of offense that can utilize the skill set of Russell. The Raiders will have to go through the same process that Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid went through with a young Donovan McNabb. Reid attempted to work the west coast offense around McNabb, but as he learned more about the skill set of his quarterback, he was forced to modify and change to what McNabb did best. What Reid learned about McNabb was that he was clearly more accurate throwing the ball up the field than he was throwing short passes. So the Eagle offense stayed with its basic concepts of the west coast offense, but added dimensions that would showcase McNabb's tremendous talents.

It will take more than 20 games for the Raiders to get the right feel of what Russell does best. In the meantime, drafting McFadden allows them to have a home run threat in the back field and some much needed speed for their offense.

Draft Jonathan Stewart. The Saints badly need a full-time running back. Deuce McAlister is coming off his second major knee injury and will be 30 during the season. It may be difficult at this point in his career for McAlister to regain his powerful and effective running style. Reggie Bush is a "run a play" back, meaning when Bush is in the game, everyone knows he is going to get the ball or at least be a decoy. Because Bush cannot pass protect, it's impossible to run the entire Saints offensive playbook when he is in the game. They have to run specific plays for Bush. In the NFL, when you run a specific play instead of your offense, you become a much easier offensive team to defend. Last year Bush's longest run was 22 yards and his longest pass reception was 25 yards. Hardly big time numbers for someone who is supposed to be a game changer.

With Stewart, they would get a big back who is very hard to tackle, allowing Bush to be a complement player. The former Duck has outstanding running skills, he can pass protect, he can catch the ball with ease and has a powerful body that can handle the punishment. Every time he touches the ball, he is capable of making the big play. He may be rookie of the year under the creative mind of Saints coach Sean Payton. Without another running back in their rotation, and Bush as the main runner, the Saints are vulnerable and predictable on offense.

Fix my offensive line. I know the boo birds will be calling because everyone in the city wants the Eagles to draft a wide receiver. But McNabb was sacked 44 times last season, the second most in his NFL career, and the Eagles allowed 49 sacks overall, ranking 28th in the NFL. What is more alarming about their sacks total is they allowed 19 sacks on first down, ranking 31st in the NFL. And first down is regarded as the optimum down in the NFL to throw and avoid sacks. When you allow that many sacks on first down, there is something wrong with the performance of your offensive linemen. Right now, the Eagles offensive line does not match up well in their division against the stronger defensive lines they play twice a year. And until that gets turned around, it does not matter who plays wide receiver for them.

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