posted 2012-04-25 22:05:18

NFL Draft Preview

Jets and Giants, The Vikings, and Sleepers

Benn Wynns

Staff Writer

In a league that is almost more notable for the drama found off the field than on, few extracurricular events quite match the grandiosity of the NFL’s annual rookie draft. Even though not a single snap will be taken, thousands will fill Radio City Music Hall between April 26 and 28 (general admission tickets are free) to see which exciting college players they’ll get to watch on their favorite pro team for the next several years.

This year’s draft promises to be particularly eventful, with once-in-a- generation prospects, several franchises going through rebuilding processes, and numerous trades adding to the high- stakes drama. Here are a few stories to follow through the draft, which begins on Thursday evening at 8 p.m.

Local Teams – After a 2011 season that ended with a Super Bowl title, the Giants lack any glaring needs with their 32nd pick out of 32 teams in round one. But an offensive line always need reinforcement, and after losing Kareem McKenzie, Big Blue may opt for a second-tier tackle like Stanford’s Jonathan Martin or Ohio State’s Mike Adams. A lack of depth in the team’s linebacker core (which forced the team to rely on former schoolteacher Chase Blackburn in a starting role for much of last season) could also lead the Giants to someone like Nebraska’s Levonte David.

More interesting could be what the Jets do with their 16th overall pick. A need for rushing depth seems to have disappeared with the signing of a little-known Wildcat quarterback named Tim Tebow, so Rex Ryan’s team may instead look to replenish an aging defense. Potential picks could be defensive end/linebacker Courtney Upshaw from national champions Alabama, or his Crimson Tide teammate Mark Barron, who would back up veteran safeties LaRon Landry and Jim Leonhard.

Most Anticipated Pick – Like many NFL drafts, the real intrigue won’t begin until after the first pick or two. With the now Peyton Manning-less Colts dead set on can’t-miss Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck at number one and the Redskins having traded up for Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III at the second pick, the balance of the rest of draft lies in the hands of the Minnesota Vikings at number three. Adding to the stakes for the third pick is the Vikings’ need to win now, having been threatened with forced relocation by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should they not arrange for a new stadium in the Twin Cities soon.

Southern California’s Matt Kalil (whose older brother Ryan is a Pro Bowler with the Carolina Panthers) would be an ideal left tackle to protect the blindside of young quarterback Christian Ponder, though the team may wish to help Ponder by providing him with a blue-chip wide receiver like Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon.

Potential Steals – Every year, Pro Bowl rosters are filled with superstars who somehow weren’t noticed until later rounds in draft (see 199th overall selection Tom Brady or 126th overall pick Jared Allen). While I won’t be predicting that level of sleeperdom, the early rounds could have their share of surprisingly fortuitous picks as well.

After a bizarre Twitter shoutout from Colts owner Jim Irsay and a wave of praise from scouts, Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill has become a bit of a hot commodity, almost enough to lose his “unexpected” status should he succeed as a pro. However, Tannehill could still be a steal for mid-round clubs like Cleveland, Miami or Arizona who have voids behind center but missed out on the Robert Griffin trade sweepstakes won by the Redskins earlier this year.

Another potential surprise could be South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery, who had been a high- profile prospect at the beginning of the college football season, saw his stock drop after a somewhat disappointing campaign with the Gamecocks. But wildly successful pro players like Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Rob Gronkowski have illustrated how valuable a big-target receiver like the 6’4” Jeffery can be in the modern, pass-centric NFL.

Possible landing spots in the late first round or second for Jeffery could be with the Baltimore Ravens, who have seen their receiver corps depleted in recent years, or even a risk-taking team like the Jets who have a history of fondness for tall possession receivers.

All these questions and more will be answered live at Radio City Music Hall and on ESPN this week.