Covering the NFL draft is big business these days and there's no one out there who spends more time scouting players and preparing for the NFL draft like Rob Rang of CBS Sports and NFL Draft Scout. Rang is a Senior Analyst with NFL Draft Scout which teamed up with CBS Sports to provide the most in depth and comprehensive draft information on the web. With all of that in mind, who else better to drill with some Arizona Cardinals-centric draft questions....
ROTB - The Arizona Cardinals, despite reaching their first Super Bowl in franchise history, have a fair share of needs heading into the draft including running back, pass rushers, offensive line, and depth at safety. If you're sitting in the war room with the Cardinals staff, how would rank their needs and why?
RR - I'd rank pass rusher as the greatest priority, not because it is the need that I think running back is, but because I do believe it is an area of general weakness and generally-speaking, teams must address pass rush needs early via the draft. Running back is the team's greatest need, in my opinion and could be addressed as early as the first round, but because teams have been able to historically find talented runners in the later rounds (like Hightower last year), the Cardinals can choose to wait a bit. Offensive line and safety depth are important, but could be filled in the middle rounds.
ROTB - Looking at the running back prospects with first round grades in this draft (Moreno, Wells, Brown and McCoy), each seem to be well rounded players who can immediately help whichever team drafts them. Assuming that you have a first round grade on each, what order would you put those four and what sets them apart from each other?
RR - I rank them Moreno, Wells, Brown, McCoy. Moreno is the surest thing of the bunch. He lacks home run speed, but gets good to very good grades in every other category and rare grades in terms of his lateral quickness and game-day focus. Wells could be a Pro Bowl caliber back, as his combination of size, agility, speed and power is without comparison in this draft. If he ran with the determination that Moreno did, he'd be a lock for the top five. Brown is a safe pick that doesn't have elite agility or straight line speed on the field, but reads his blocks very well, has very good agility and acceleration and consistently gains yardage in chunks. Like Moreno, you're getting a focused, locker-room presence with Brown. McCoy has rare agility and straight line speed when healthy. He is a better interior runner than given credit for, but is at his best outside. He can make defenders miss and would be at his best as part of a tandem with a physical back.
ROTB - Michael Johnson is an OLB name that's being thrown around in the last first round talk and he's looking like one of the 'physical freaks' who rise up draft boards thanks to great workouts. Based on his body of work on the field though, is he a first round talent and should the Cardinals take a serious look at him with their 31st overall selection? What kind of pro do you think he'll make?
RR - It is tough to argue with Johnson's production while at Georgia Tech, but he has the raw tools that should have generated even more. He has an explosive first step, rare speed, surprising power and the agility to drop back in coverage and flatten out to cover the run. He is not the sum of his parts on the football field, however. He has the tools to be a Pro Bowler and was ranked as college football's elite senior prospect by many entering the year, but plays too hot and cold for my blood.
ROTB - A couple of other DE/OLB's who are lumped in with Johnson in the late 1st, early to mid 2nd round are Connor Barwin, Larry English, Clint Sintim and maybe even Paul Kruger. How would you rank that group and is there one guy that stands above the rest? Is there one worth reaching for in the first?
RR - Barwin is leaping up the board after his workouts and this athleticism is obvious in his play at defensive end as a senior. As a linebacker, I personally would rank English and Sintim next. English will be making the transition to linebacker and was a bit stiff at the Combine and in defensive drills while at the Senior Bowl. Sintim has the experience playing OLB in the 3-4 alignment, obviously, but is a bit stiff for my taste in coverage. Kruger I like best as a 4-3 defensive end, though he is athletic enough to handle the transition to outside linebacker. I like his strength and size closer to the line of scrimmage.
ROTB - There seem to be quite a few more 'hybrid' defensive end/outside linebackers in this years draft and it's good thing considering that a couple more NFL teams are switching to the 3-4 this season. Do you see more colleges using a 'hybrid' type of player meaning that this is a trend that will continue or is this just a one year anomaly?
RR - I don't know that this is a one year anomaly as more collegiate teams are using pass rush specialists, but this is certainly a unique year in terms of the number of supremely talented linebacker prospects. This position, along with offensive tackle and tight end, ranks among the strongest groups of the 2009 draft.
ROTB - Every year players seem to rise up draft boards thanks to 'position versatility' (ala Branden Albert in 2008) and every once in a while you'll hear theories like a 'slow corner makes a good safety' or a 'tackle with bad feet makes a good guard.' Is it really that simple or are these common misconceptions? Also, with the success that the Panthers had with Charles Godrey last year, do you see more teams trying to move slower corners to safety?
RR - Teams have been converting slower, more physical corner backs to safeties for years, though the example of Charles Godfrey with the Panthers is a very good one. It is not as simple as a slow footed corner automatically making a good safety, however. The player needs to have instincts, enough straight-line speed to cover at least a 1/3 of the field, physicality in taking on and defeating blocks, and most importantly, reliable open field tackling skills.
ROTB - Alex Mack has gotten plenty of publicity this season and he's seems to be the consensus #1 center. It's rare that centers carry a first round grade (only three since 2000), so what makes him so special? How does he compare to Nick Mangold (the last center taken in the first round)?
RR - I wouldn't say that Mack is the consensus top-ranked center. My highest rated center, in fact, is fellow Pac-10 star Max Unger from Oregon. I also know of clubs that have Louisville's Eric Wood as the top center prospect of the 2009 draft. This is an exceptional center class at the top (though the talent drops significantly after these three players). Mack, like Unger and Wood, are career starters. Mack has good strength at the point of attack and gets to the second level effectively. He can break down in space and make the next level block. Unger isn't as strong a run blocker, but has even more active feet, perhaps because of his experience at left tackle. Wood might be the most explosive of the bunch due to his rare initial quickness. None of the three are the locks to make the first round Mangold was, as he was blessed with a rarer combination of size, athleticism and strength than this trio. One or perhaps even two of the centers could go in the first round. All three will be taken by the end of the second round.
Rob Rang obvioulsy knows his stuff and ROTB thanks him for taking the time to answer our questions. His thoughts on need vs. priority were surprising as were his thoughts on the trio of centers. Unger and Wood could give the Cardinals even more to think about when their turns comes with the 31st pick. What do you guys think and did his responses on MIchael Johnson and the rest of the OLB group change anyone's opinion?