Rumors and Risers on the Draft Horizon

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The evaluation of hundreds of draft-eligible players is a dynamic process. Things are always changing.

First, players are evaluated on their regular-season on-field performance, then on their body of work at the bowl games and postseason all-star games. The combine then gives scouts an opportunity to see everyone (sort of) work on the same field in the same drills, followed by school pro days and individual workouts that attract reps from every team.

Improvements and disappointments in those performances, as well as injuries and off-field issues, pepper the landscape of prospects and constantly force teams to reevaluate and readjust their board and the players who fill it.

Then we get to April. With all the information at their disposal, scouts and personnel people go back and reassess the players. This leads to another shuffling of the board. At the same time, the big-impact signings of free agency have passed. Teams are beginning to come to terms with their roster needs and are prioritizing which of them must be addressed through the draft and which will be of greatest concern on day one.

Then the fun begins. Teams will put out the word on certain players. Some will disparage a player they actually want in an effort to create less competition for him. Some teams at the top of the draft will talk up certain players to try and drum up interest and parlay it into an opportunity to trade down and pick up additional selections. Some teams will publicize individual meetings with top prospects to keep other teams guessing as to their intentions. Carolina has hosted a multitude of players at various positions this month, leaving most prognosticators to guess as to what they will do with their first-round pick.

As you can imagine, the rumors fly at this time of year, and player movement spikes as a result. Here is some of what we're hearing this week.

Rumors Amongst the Regals

The top five picks will generate some trade action this year, or at least the teams in those top spots hope they do. Miami is allowed to negotiate with potential picks prior to the draft. While the Dolphins are believed to already know which player they want, in typical Bill Parcells fashion the team has begun negotiating with four top players, including Michigan's Jake Long. This is aimed at creating some negotiating leverage with the player they would ultimately like to have.

Parcells has already put a number out to the agents, believed to be something less than what last year's No. 1, QB JaMarcus Russell, signed for. He has told them that the first player to accept the deal will be the pick. The Dolphins won't get much interest from other teams for their pick, so this is the only way to try and save some money. Don't expect the agents to jump too soon.

St. Louis has so many needs at No. 2 that it is in the enviable position of sitting and waiting to see what happens. If Miami goes defensive line, the Rams will still have options there with whoever is left, Chris Long or Vernon Gholston. Marc Bulger would be thrilled to see the team select big OT Jake Long, and a DT would make sense, allowing last year's No. 1, Adam Carriker, to move back outside.

The Rams have also floated some interest in Arkansas RB Darren McFadden in hopes that they can coax a team into a trade for their pick. But we're not sure anyone is buying. With Steven Jackson already on board, a move for a back doesn't make sense.

Atlanta is another team that will struggle to find a trading partner. Few teams seem willing to trade up for QB Matt Ryan at this point, and the rising status of Brian Brohm also limits the Golden Eagle's value. There are two premiere DTs, so teams will wait to see what the Falcons do before picking up the phone to call the Raiders.

Oakland has been linked with McFadden for weeks now. We all know Al Davis loves speed, and there is no denying McFadden's versatility and playmaking ability. However, with three veteran backs with starting experience on the roster in Justin Fargas, LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes, another back doesn't seem like a wise choice.

The unpredictability of Davis and the Raiders organization actually works in their favor this time, but Jerry Jones and the Cowboys are the only real players for McFadden, and with Rashard Mendenhall and McFadden's college teammate, Felix Jones, making late runs up the board, expect Jones to hold off on making a deal here.

Head coach Lane Kiffin made a case for DE Vernon Gholston last week at the owners' meetings. That was a good move, as the comments immediately caught the attention of the Jets and Patriots, who are said to have interest. But Kiffin's recent fall from grace in Oakland and questions about how much say he'll actually have in the war room on draft day lead to questions about the validity of those comments. Still, it could be enough to generate some conversations between the teams leading up to the draft.

That brings us to Kansas City at No. 5. Another team with multiple needs, the Chiefs could take just about anyone who falls to them. But Herm Edwards' comments in various interviews recently lead us to believe this pick is absolutely up for sale. Edwards and the Chiefs are looking to build with youth through the draft. Could they select Ryan? Yes. However, the Chiefs also feel like they have a diamond in the rough on their bench in Tyler Thigpen. Edwards is high on him.

So the big KC contingent at the Ryan workout in Chestnut Hill makes sense. Expect to hear a lot about them taking a QB in the first round as we get closer to the draft. They could be in position to take Ryan, but they could also be willing to part with him for the right price. Baltimore certainly could be interested, as could the Jets if rumors of their displeasure with Kellen Clemens are true. Just know that the Chiefs may have the Thigpen card hidden up their sleeve.

If Ryan is gone and one of the DEs falls, the Chiefs' phone will ring and Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum or New England's Scott Pioli will likely be on the other end. Both Long and Gholston have shown the skills necessary to convert to OLB in a 3-4. Jake Long could also be of interest to those teams and Baltimore. Dallas is another team that has the ammunition to move up. If McFadden falls this far, Jones might start salivating.

Risers

Several players are making themselves more money by the day. On the offensive side of the ball, Michigan State WR Devin Thomas may be benefitting the most. Thomas put up 79 catches and eight touchdowns last season, numbers that put him in the Spartans record book next to names like Plaxico Burress and Charles Rogers. A JC transfer, some scouts questioned his limited body of work at the highest level of competition. But he quieted that talk with a 4.4 40 and a nearly 11-foot broad jump at the combine, and his size (6'2", 215) makes him NFL-ready.

Thomas has been helped by the sliding talent at his position. Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly has two bad knees and ran poorly this week at the Sooners' pro day. Indiana's James Hardy lacks ideal size, Limas Sweed is polished but lacks explosiveness, and DeSean Jackson is a different kind of receiver, a smaller deep threat. Thomas is the top player for teams looking for an impact receiver. He could go to Buffalo at No. 11.

We mentioned Brian Brohm above. Throughout his college career, Brohm has displayed great poise and consistency. While Ryan has provided dramatics and a flair for pulling out winning efforts, Brohm has repeatedly put up impressive passing numbers and managed the offense. As teams without a starting caliber QB or quality backup start to panic toward the end of April, Brohm's stock will rise. Don't be surprised to see him eventually end up as a first-round pick after starting as a potential second-/third-round prospect.

Virginia G-T Branden Albert's versatility and athleticism have helped him move upward in recent months. Albert has trimmed himself from 340 to 315 pounds and is showing great range. His long arms and quick feet could make him an ideal tackle at the next level, though his experience at G in 37 starts for the Hoos could make him a valuable swing man for the team that takes him.

Tight end has been considered a weak position in this draft class, but a few of the prospects at that spot could find niches for themselves at the next level. Purdue's Dustin Keller is a player who could do that. Though undersized (6'2", 242) as a traditional in-line blocker, Keller is a former WR with great hands who could excel as an H-back or move TE. He runs a 4.5 40 and has a 38" vertical. In the right system, he could be a valuable target in the middle of the field. Look for him to move into the middle of the second round or higher.

Another lineman who could make a splash is Virginia Tech's Duane Brown. Initially a midround prospect, he has moved into solid second-round consideration with a strong performance at the East-West Shrine Game. He's another athletic lineman who converted from TE and shows good footwork and quickness to handle edge rushers at the next level.

On the defensive side, some of the biggest movers are on the D-line. Lawrence Jackson was extremely productive for Southern Cal as a four-year starter, recording over 30 career sacks and 17 tackles for loss as a senior. Though he is the antithesis of the workout warrior who excels at this time of year, he has produced consistently. And as players with medical concerns, questionable effort or off-field issues try to counter their falls with sterling workout numbers, scouts keep coming back to Jackson's high level of play against top competition and his considerable experience. He's a sure thing near the top of Round 2.

Florida DE Derrick Harvey is another who produced on the field with 19½ sacks and 30 TFL over the last two seasons. He has great physical attributes, including an 82-inch wingspan and the frame to add more weight. But he also has the speed and athleticism to stand up in a 3-4 scheme like that of the Jets. Throw in a 4.8 40 time and 31 bench reps and he's an ideal pass rusher in any scheme.

Trevor Laws, the 300-pound DT from Notre Dame, uses great quickness and a strong first step to penetrate the LOS from the interior and can create havoc while collapsing the pocket in the passing game or disrupting the run game in the backfield. He's an ideal 3-technique tackle in the mold of Warren Sapp who can also anchor against the run and clog up the middle when asked.

Among the LBs, Penn State's Dan Connor and Southern Cal's Keith Rivers have been the marquee names, but Tennessee's Jerod Mayo has entered the picture as a potential Round 1 selection. A productive player who started his career at OLB, Mayo was moved to MLB as a senior and recorded 140 tackles. Still, that wasn't enough to make him more than a late-second- or third-round pick.

However, he wowed scouts with a big combine, running the 40 in 4.5. Again, versatility will be the key. His ability to play inside or outside and contribute on special teams will increase his value and force some teams to consider him in Round 1.

Others to Watch

Ray Rice, RB, Rutgers —A 4.4 40 at the combine and a 39" vertical at the Rutgers pro day has some scouts making comparisons to Maurice Jones-Drew. Rice is short at 5'8" but carries his 200 pounds well and is big enough to run inside at the next level.

Jerome Simpson, WR, Coastal Carolina — A small-school standout who dominated at the I-AA level, he impressed scouts with a 4.4 40 and 40" vertical in workouts. As players like Malcolm Kelly and Early Doucet slide, Simpson could become a nice second-/third-round pick.

Corey Lynch, FS, Appalachian State —Remarkably, Lynch was not invited to the combine after ranking among the career I-AA leaders in tackles, INTs, INT-return yards and PDs. However, he ran a 4.8 in the 40 at his pro day, and his 3.99 short shuttle was faster than any time posted in Indianapolis. He'll be a nice pickup for a team in the middle rounds and has the makings of a top special-teams player.

Craig Steltz, SS, LSU — Steltz was sidelined for most of the postseason with a shoulder injury, which kept him from participating in the Senior Bowl and the combine. But he was one of the most impressive performers at the Tigers' pro day, running as fast as 4.5 and outjumping teammate Doucet with a 35" vertical. He's still an overachiever type who will come off the board in the fourth round, most likely. But the kind of explosiveness he showed in workouts could make him an early Day 2 pick.

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