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Championship teams are built based on evaluations made now

David Butler II / US Presswire
Tom Brady has some veteran targets, but the Pats must find a vertical threat to help open up the passing game.


My first year in the National Football League (1984), I was a member of a 49er team that won 15 regular-season games and went on to win the Lombardi Trophy in our own backyard at Stanford Stadium. What a way to start a career: Proudly wearing a Super Bowl ring.

The next season, after drafting wide receiver Jerry Rice, we struggled, barely making the playoffs and losing in the first round to the New York Giants.

There was much concern after that flameout. Owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. wanted nothing less than a Super Bowl-winning team. He held that level in everything he provided for the organization, so he expected a significant return on his investment. Coach Bill Walsh understood the mandate from ownership. When the season ended, we correctly identified our team needs, which were significant at this point.

Walsh was a brilliant offensive mind and unique play-caller, but his real strength was indentifying what his team needed to win the Super Bowl. He never built a roster that was just able to compete within the division. Walsh had larger views. He made sure his team was complex and diverse enough to handle the rigors of the season and peaked in the postseason.

Associated Press
Fullback Tom Rathman was part of a great 49ers draft class in 1986. Take a look at some of the stalwarts.
Highlights from 1986 draft class
Name
Years with 49ers
Games with
8
106
11
166
8
115
9
121

Walsh knew he had to replace a 33-year-old future Hall of Famer in defensive end Fred Dean, who was nearing the end of his career. He realized the team needed a reliable cover corner and the team had to transform from old to young. This planning resulted in one of the best drafts in NFL history, garnering seven starters, including Charles Haley, Steve Wallace, Tom Rathman and John Taylor. The 1986 draft was a bonanza for the 49ers, but it all started with understanding what the team needed to win a Super Bowl.

Now, in every team's headquarters, there are draft meetings being conducted, strategy for free agency being determined and coaches are working on what areas of their schemes need to be enhanced or updated. Yet, the most fruitful meeting that will occur will center on what exactly a team needs to reach a Super Bowl level. Placing a priority on team needs is essential, but understanding which area of the offseason can fulfill those holes might be as important.

For example, the Patriots must find an outside wide receiver to help their inside passing game. If they draft a wideout -- no matter how talented -- his ability to help them in 2011 will be limited due to a lack of understanding of the offense. The Patriots need a veteran player who can keep up with where their offense is right now. They need someone who can hit the ground running.

So as the Patriots prepare their need list, they will know the free-agent or trade market can solve their receiver need, and the draft will have to solve their issues on defense. Marrying the draft with free agency is another element that should be happening for every team right now. The organizations that do this the best will have the best offseasons.

Front office view: Carolina on my mind

The Panthers had a horrible, but predictable, season. They tore down the foundation from previous success and allowed coach John Fox and his entire staff to operate with lame-duck status, clearly committing to rebuilding.

New coach Ron Rivera will now direct that project. Rivera, as well as the Panthers' front office, will be extremely busy this offseason as they decide which free agents to retain (DeAngelo Williams, Richard Marshall, Ryan Kalil) and what direction they want to go with the first overall pick.

With that first choice, the Panthers must focus on what position is worthy of a significant financial investment. Running backs play five to six years on average, whereas offensive or defensive linemen can play 10-12. However, drafting the right quarterback is not only a long-term answer financially, but a long-term solution towards winning.

The Panthers have needs everywhere, but they do not have enough picks to satisfy all their holes. They must attempt to use some of their assets -- mainly wide receiver Steve Smith -- to acquire more picks and help their rebuilding process.

The time it will take to rebuild the Panthers will be directly related to their ability to make the right decision at quarterback. Do they select a signal-caller in the draft, or do they believe Jimmy Clausen is the solution? Their success in answering that question will determine how long it will take Carolina to get back to being a Super Bowl team.

Hall of Fame

I admire the job all the Hall of Fame writers do with the selection process. Each year there are players that belong in Canton that get overlooked (Haley for me this year), so naturally there are always objections to the final candidates. This time around, however, I cannot argue with any inductee's credentials. Each new member is worthy and would have garnered my vote.

That said, when watching the Lombardi documentary on HBO this past month, I could not help but notice the athletic ability and speed that guard Jerry Kramer displayed. I had seen many Packer games before, but this was the first time I used my personnel eye to evaluate Kramer's talent. My conclusion was simple: If Kramer is not in the Hall of Fame, then something is wrong with the process.

Having an office at NFL Films entitles me to some perks, the largest being able to chat with Steve Sabol from time to time about the history of our great game. Sabol's memory is amazing, as well as his ability to tell great stories of yesteryear. When I asked him about Kramer being in the Hall, Sabol agreed wholeheartedly.

Kramer was a member of the NFL 50th anniversary team, was a five-time All-Pro selection, five-time NFL champion, and a member of the 1960s All-Decade team. He was a dominating player during his era. Had he played today, he might have been a Pro Bowl tight end. Regardless of era, Kramer had natural talent and speed, and played in an offense that required him to utilize his skill set. That should make it easy to cast a ballot on his behalf.

I believe the Hall members need to watch a little tape of some of the former players, and not rely on statistics or numbers only. Legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach once indicated he got his information from watching, not listening. The Hall must do a little watching.

Real estate market

Looking for a home near Cincinnati or Charlotte? If so, you might want to contact Bengals QB Carson Palmer or Panthers WR Steve Smith. Both are unhappy and want out of town. Palmer is frustrated being in a place that had no structure last year, and Smith is upset about not being able to play with a proven quarterback or in an offense that better suits his skills.

I can see Smith being dealt, as the Panthers are in full rebuild mode and need to use him to gain more draft picks. Maybe, the Panthers will be able to trade Smith to the Patriots and get back the second-rounder they dealt to New England last year. Smith would make great sense for the Patriots.

Palmer, on the other hand, is likely to be stuck in Cincinnati. His agent, David Dunn, is trying to do all he can to get the Bengals to move Palmer, but owner Mike Brown refuses to give in to those demands. Brown has to answer to no one, so it's unlikely Palmer will be dealt. Not to mention, if Palmer leaves who will play quarterback for the Bengals? Unless he chooses to retire, Palmer is going to be back in Cincinnati.

Draft preparation: Cam Newton

I am not sure what Team Newton was trying to accomplish by putting the Heisman Trophy winner through a media workout in San Diego last week. We all know Newton is going to look great in that situation. We all know Newton will be able to throw the ball from San Diego to Los Angeles and that he can move on his feet and is extremely athletic. With approximately 32 media members in attendance, Newton displayed his talents. My confusion lies in the fact that none of the media members hold a single draft pick, or have the financial ability to sign Newton. Garnering media support is not what Newton needs -- he needs a team's support. That can only come from working hard, and being physically and mentally prepared.

This whole concept of Team Newton really bothers me. There is no Team Manning, or Brady, or Rodgers, or Brees. Yes, I realize that each of those players has advisors that assist them behind the scenes. However, each player is only focusing on preparing to get better on the field. The more that Newton reminds personnel people and coaches of JaMarcus Russell, the harder he will fall in the draft.

What Newton must do is show the evaluators that he can learn to make the right calls at the line and that he can change protections and understands what he needs to do to prepare to be a pro player. Most of the game is run at the line of scrimmage in the NFL. Plays come in from the coaches before every down and it is the job of the quarterback to pick the right one based on the defensive formation. One thing I know for sure, what was going on at Auburn offensively, and the defenses Newton faced in college, will be completely different from what he encounters at the next level.

Right now, Newton does not have a pro game. He has pro talent, but he must improve in so many areas on and off the field. The quarterback must be the hardest worker and most prepared player on the team. Is Newton capable of doing all the little things well? I am not sure, but his actions after this media workout will give us clues.

Three-step drops

» I thought Titans coach Mike Munchak trying to hire Jets offensive line coach Bill Callahan as offensive coordinator was a smart idea. However, New York did not allow things to progress. The Jets know how important Callahan is to their overall success and will have a hard time keeping him from moving once his contract expires.

» Teams have told me that if the Seahawks allow Brandon Mebane to hit the free-agent market, he will be highly sought after. Young defensive linemen with some rush ability are a rare commodity in free agency.

» I am really going to be interested to see how Wade Phillips turns the Texans' 4-3 personnel into a 3-4. Where does defensive end Mario Williams fit? Who can play nose? It is going to take some work to get this done and with a potentially lockout looming, it might be tough to accomplish.


Relive every game this season online and on-demand with enhanced viewing features, including the "All-22" coaches film. Get NFL Game Rewind.

» Michael Vick told me recently that he felt he needed a year to get his body right and his speed back after sitting out for two years. I wonder how long it will take for Plaxico Burress to get his legs back and prove he is still a viable outside receiver? I know teams will be interested, but I doubt it will be for a huge contract.

» There is no way Vince Young will bring any trade value to the Titans, but I wonder which team will sign him to compete for a starting job. Young wants to be named the starter before he signs, which is not going to happen.

» The Jets want to sign both Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes to long-term deals this offseason. One might get the franchise tag, the other a new deal, but the word from the Jets is that they want them both back.

» The Jets' Brad Smith will be another highly-sought free agent. I know New York wants to keep him, but can it afford him?

» Congratulations to Thomas Dimitroff for winning Executive of the Year. He has done a great job of rebuilding the Falcons' talent base. With one more draft enhancing their defense, the Falcons should be ready to take the next hurdle.

» Also congratulations to Ted Thompson for a great job in every area. Thompson hired the right coach, picked the right quarterback and had the guts to hold onto his beliefs when facing tough decisions. His recent contract extension was well deserved.

Happy Valentine's Day to all.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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