- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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When a coach or GM says his team must rebuild through the draft, it might sound boring. But the old cliché rings truer than ever, which makes Saturday and Sunday more important than ever.
Although the Washington Redskins go against the grain and build their roster primarily through free-agent signings and strategic trades, the other 31 teams are more dependent on the draft. That's been true for a while. Thanks to a $109 million salary cap, though, teams have a better chance to keep their successful draft choices. That means fewer top players hit free agency, and when they do, the prices are ridiculous.
Teams that don't do well in the draft eventually have to depend on free agency. That's a dangerous proposition for two reasons: Free agents are expensive, and many free agents don't live up to the hype.
Most general managers don't like the way rookies are paid. It doesn't make sense to give the top pick a six-year, $54 million deal when he hasn't worn an NFL uniform. Although there is a rookie pool, agents have done a great job of draining the water and logic out of the restrictions. They've added option bonuses, incentives and escalators to turn $3 million slots into $54 million deals.
As much as teams talk about making trades within the first round, few like to move up. It costs in terms of draft choices, and the big money you have to pay a top-five draft pick usually isn't worth it. Last year's fifth pick, A.J. Hawk, signed a six-year, $36 million deal and had $15.04 million of guarantees. That's a lot of money.
But what are the alternatives? The interesting part is that more and more rookies are starting. Last year, 81 rookies started at least five games. That compares with 77 in 2005, 67 in 2004 and 57 in 2003. The draft provides long-term roster solutions for teams, but more and more, it's providing immediate fixes, too.
Here's what to look for this weekend:
1. The quarterback debate wages on: Last year, it was pretty evident Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler were going to be first-round choices. Fearing the cap consequences of making a mistake on any of them, teams such as Detroit and Oakland passed on quarterbacks. Al Davis admitted not taking Leinart set the Raiders franchise back for years. Had Davis taken Leinart or Cutler, the Raiders could draft Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson this year without thinking. On Saturday, Davis has a franchise-wrenching decision. Johnson is the best player, and JaMarcus Russell is the best quarterback. He has reportedly decided that Russell will be the pick. The Lions and Browns may pass on Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, thinking they can get Drew Stanton or Trent Edwards in a later round. In a league in which the quarterback is the most important player on the team, it's hard to believe teams will pass on the passers. But they will.
2. Big receivers: This is one of the better wide receiver drafts in recent years. Johnson is perhaps the top player in the draft, being 6-foot-5, 239 pounds and able to run a 4.35 40. Ted Ginn Jr. of Ohio State, Robert Meachem of Tennessee and Dwayne Bowe of LSU are expected to go in the first round. The great part of this year's receiver class is how deep it is. And all the top prospects have size. Johnson is 6-5. Dwayne Jarrett, who ran a disappointing 4.62 40, and Sidney Rice are 6-4. Meachem and Bowe are 6-2. In 2004, seven receivers went in the first round, but the only one to emerge as a Pro Bowler was Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals.
3. The Reggie Bush aftermath: It will be fascinating watching what the Houston Texans do. A year ago, they made a last-minute decision not to take the best player in the draft -- Bush. Instead, they took defensive end Mario Williams No. 1. Without a healthy running back, QB David Carr and the offense failed last season. Under coach Gary Kubiak, Houston has replaced the quarterback, halfback and fullback all for significantly more money than the starters who were under contract. Bush helped the Saints become a playoff team. The talk in Houston is that the Texans hope defensive end Gaines Adams will fall down to them at No. 10. That's right, Gaines, like Williams, is a pass-rusher. The Texans want more sacks, but they can't trade up for Adams. Imagine if they give up a good portion of this year's and next year's draft to move up to take another defensive end? They also aren't going to get halfback Adrian Peterson, who will go third or fifth. At 10, the Texans might trade back if the right player isn't there.
4. Strange running back draft: Peterson is clearly the best running back because of his Larry Johnson-type running style and 4.4 40 speed. Marshawn Lynch of Cal should go in the middle of the first round to Buffalo, Green Bay or Tennessee. After that, the running back class drops into the second round. Those three franchises have immediate needs for backs. The bargains are for the teams willing to gamble in later rounds. There are some amazing big backs with speed who eventually could develop into stars. Chris Henry of Arizona is 5-11, 230 pounds, but he can run a 4.3. He could go in the second round. Michael Bush of Louisville could be the biggest bargain. He's still coming off his broken leg, but someone could get a first-round back in the third round.
5. Thin tight end crop: Greg Olsen of Miami is the best, but he might slip to between picks 25 and 30 even though he's fast and has great hands. Zach Miller of Arizona State is next, but he's not expected to go until the second round. Only three other tight ends -- Scott Chandler of Iowa, Ben Patrick of Delaware and Kevin Boss of Western Oregon -- have a chance to go on the first day. After some great tight end drafts in the 2000s, this is the thinnest in a while.
6. Strong trade winds: For trades, this draft will be a bonanza, and the exciting part is that several veterans are in play. The Chiefs got the hot stove draft league going by sending Dante Hall to the Rams. Quarterback Trent Green of the Chiefs (Miami being the main target) and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins of the Panthers (the Rams being the main team) are the main pre-draft attractions. Larry Johnson of the Chiefs, Lance Briggs of the Bears, Michael Turner of the Chargers, Justin Smiley of the 49ers, Brian Kelly of the Bucs, Eric Barton and Justin McCareins of the Jets, and Josh McCown are just some of the names being thrown around.
7. Fast corners: Speed is everything at cornerback. Seven of the top nine cornerbacks in this draft run in the 4.3s, with Chris Houston of Arkansas being the best at 4.32. The best debate is the one-two punch of Leon Hall of Michigan and Darrelle Revis of Pitt. Both run in the 4.3s. Hall is the better Cover 2 cornerback. Revis is the best pure man coverage guy. Both should go in the top 15. The bargain of the group could be Daymeion Hughes of Cal. He's a read-and-react cornerback but doesn't run very fast. Hughes was clocked at 4.65. Nathan Vasher of Texas ran a bad 40 coming out of school, but he ended up starting for the Bears and going to a Pro Bowl.
8. Defense or offense? The trends in the first round of recent drafts have favored defense. Teams are getting better athletes on defense to counter quick-throwing offensive schemes. The strange part of this draft is that the top five players on most boards are on offense -- Johnson, Russell, Peterson, Wisconsin OT Joe Thomas and Quinn. That's rare. Four of those five should go in the top five. After that, though, it turns into a defensive draft. Don't be surprised if 18 defensive players end up being taken in the first round.
9. Defensive 3-4 schemes are changing the world: The 49ers are moving to the 3-4 full time this year, and the Cardinals are thinking about going 3-4. A 3-4 defense requires bigger linebackers, bigger defensive linemen and cornerbacks who have enough bulk to tackle. If the Cardinals make the conversion, it would increase the number of 3-4 teams to nine. Such moves juggle ratings. Smaller linebackers and smaller defensive ends won't project as top picks in 3-4 defenses, just as bigger, slower linebackers won't translate as well in 4-3 schemes. When you hear teams talk about having only 18 to 20 first-round grades in a 32-team draft, don't think there aren't enough good players to fill out a 32-team first round. The more teams diversify into the 3-4, the more those ratings will be skewed.
10. Risers and fallers: Safety LaRon Landry, defensive tackle Amobi Okoye and cornerbacks Hall and Revis have risen into possible top-10 picks. Left tackle Joe Staley of Central Michigan is rising as a sure first-round pick. Cornerback Houston could get into the first round. Wide receiver Meachem could crack the top 10. The ones who have dropped are wide receiver Ginn (concerns about his foot sprain), defensive tackle Alan Branch of Michigan, Jarrett and (to some degree) Quinn, who could fall to the Vikings at No. 7.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Al Davis set the Raiders back by passing on a QB last year. Will he do it again? John Clayton examines Oakland's plight and more in his First ... and 10.