St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones looks at the league in the wake of the 2011 draft.
n THREE TEAMS ON THE RISE
Falcons: We're not exactly going out on a limb with the Falcons, considering they went 13-3 last season and won the NFC South. But their gutsy first-round draft maneuver might have landed them the best playmaker in the draft and put them in position to win their first Super Bowl. The Falcons traded five picks (three this year, two next year) in the top four rounds to jump from No. 27 all the way to No. 6 to take Alabama WR Julio Jones, above. The move sent a strong message that the Falcons are all in for 2011.
Saints: After they won it all in 2009, you get the feeling the Saints suffered a hangover in 2010 — and they still went 11-5. Without that "defending champion" moniker hanging over them this season, the Saints might get back to the business of putting together a title contender. They had a good start in the draft with the best first round of any team. First, they got Cal DE Cam Jordan, above, whom many projected as a top-10 pick, with the 24th selection. Then they traded back into the first round and picked up Alabama RB Mark Ingram. (By the way, Bucs fans, notice we've listed two NFC South teams in this category.)
Cowboys: Don't forget, this team went 5-3 in the second half, including victories over the Colts and Eagles, after that dreadful 1-7 start. Coach Jason Garrett now goes into his first full season as head coach, and QB Tony Romo, who missed much of last year with a broken clavicle, will return healthy. And, perhaps, he will stay healthy after the Cowboys selected USC OT Tyron Smith, above, with the ninth pick. Smith, who is only 20 and stands 6 feet 5 and 307 pounds, is expected to start immediately.
n THREE TEAMS ON THE DECLINE
Raiders: The Raiders showed some surprising signs of life last season, going 8-8 after back-to-back 5-11 seasons. But you know how you get stuck in the mud in the NFL? By being a mediocre team and then not having a pick in the draft until No. 48. We're still not 100 percent sold on QB Jason Campbell, and Oakland's best player — Pro Bowl CB Nnamdi Asomugha, above — probably will leave for free agency. And, last we checked, that kook Al Davis is still running the show.
Chiefs: This is not to suggest that the Chiefs don't have a future. This is more about believing they weren't quite as good as their 10-6 record of a season ago. That was evident when the Ravens went to Kansas City in the playoffs and blew out the Chiefs, 30-7. The Chiefs need a playmaker, and they might have gotten one with the No. 26 pick — Pitt WR Jonathan Baldwin, above. But many teams left Baldwin off their list because of worries about his attitude. Look, we like the overall picture of the Chiefs, but we wouldn't be surprised to see a step back in 2011 before a move forward in 2012.
Bears: The Bears had serious offensive line problems last season as QB Jay Cutler, above, was sacked 52 times in 15 games. So picking Wisconsin OT Gabe Carimi, who will start right away, in the first round was a solid pick. But this franchise still lacks a line-of-scrimmage game-breaker, and kick returner Devin Hester might be hurt by the new kickoff rules. Everything fell right for the Bears in 2010, and they still couldn't beat division rival Green Bay when it counted most in the NFC Championship Game at home. And until Cutler proves us wrong, we just don't believe he's a winner.
n THREE TEAMS THAT MADE STRANGE FIRST-ROUND PICKS
Cardinals: When Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season, former Heisman winner Matt Leinart was supposed to step in as Arizona's quarterback. But that didn't pan out, and the Cardinals still need a quarterback. All QBs except for No. 1 pick Cam Newton were available, but the Cardinals took LSU CB Patrick Peterson, above, with the fifth pick. Peterson is projected to be an elite corner, and those are hard to find. Maybe he was just too good to pass up, but geez, who is going to play quarterback for this team?
Jaguars: The Jaguars had one of the worst pass defenses in football last season. They could've used a pass-rusher, and there were a slew of those in this year's first round. They could've used a defensive back, and those were there, too, when the Jags picked 10th. So what did the Jags do? They took a quarterback (Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, above), who has taken backward steps since his sophomore year in college.
Steelers: Hard-nosed Ohio State DE Cameron Heyward, above, is exactly the type of player the Steelers turn into superstars on defense. And we predict he will be, in a couple of years, an impact player for the Steelers. But didn't Pittsburgh have more pressing needs? Like cornerback? And, especially, offensive line? The Steelers did go O-line and corner in next two rounds, but it was strange that they didn't use a first-round pick on one of those positions.
Three things that popped into our heads
1 If Auburn QB and Carolina No. 1 pick Cam Newton, left, turns out to be a star, imagine how loaded the NFC South is going to be at quarterback for the next few years. The Saints' Drew Brees, who already owns a Super Bowl ring and has been in five Pro Bowls, seems like an old man, but he just turned 32. He likely has another five or six solid years ahead of him. Atlanta's Matt Ryan turns 26 this month and is 33-13 as an NFL starter. The Bucs' Josh Freeman just turned 23 and led the Bucs to a 10-6 record. The Panthers, meantime, have what they think is a franchise quarterback. No other division comes close to matching this kind of talent at quarterback.
2 The Lions are halfway to building a defensive line that could match some of the all-time great ones, like the Rams' Fearsome Foursome, the Steelers' Steel Curtain and Vikings' Purple People Eaters. Detroit selected NT Ndamukong Suh with the No. 2 pick last season, and Suh was the NFL defensive rookie of the year. Now the Lions have another candidate this season after taking Auburn DT Nick Fairley, above, with the 13th pick. Could the Lions, who haven't had a winning season since 2000, actually be respectable in 2011?
3 Isn't it odd how much skepticism there is about the quarterbacks in this year's draft? First overall pick Cam Newton has his detractors. Jake Locker was considered a reach for the Titans at No. 8. FSU's Christian Ponder, above, was the shock of the first round by going so high (No. 12 to Minnesota). There seems to be a divide in opinion about all the quarterbacks. You have to think that recent busts such as JaMarcus Russell and Alex Smith have the so-called experts second-guessing every quarterback on the board.
Four Super Bowl favorites
Packers: Know what's scary? QB Aaron Rodgers is only 27 years old.
Patriots: Will play 2011 season with a chip on their shoulder. Steelers: Clutch QB and strong defense always a formula for NFL success.
Falcons: Still looking for first postseason victory in the Matt Ryan era.