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Teams use trades, signings to set the table for draft

Make no mistake about it, free agency is tied to the draft. Teams identify needs and react accordingly.

Free agency starts before the draft and ends after the selection process, but general managers have to take educated guesses about where to acquire talent. Let's take a look at seven teams that are starting to put the pieces of their puzzle together as they attempt to put a better team on the field in 2008 than they had in 2007.

1. Cleveland Browns

The Browns don't have a first-round pick in the draft and that made them turn to free agency and trades to plug their biggest holes. General manager Phil Savage resolved the defensive line issue and the wide receiver concerns while securing his two best players from his own roster. He started off Week 2 of free agency by signing center/guard Rex Hadnot, which does raise the question about LeCharles Bentley's future.

All that is left for the Browns to do is be well prepared for the second day of the draft (they don't have a pick until the fourth round after trading second- and third-rounders for defensive line help last week) and find a few young, promising prospects. Their puzzle is just about complete with one eye on another cornerback.

2. Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles came into the offseason with a need for a cornerback, which they got with the signing of Asante Samuel. The speedy decision to pay Samuel reminds me of how aggressive Philadelphia was when they went after offensive tackle Jon Runyan a few years ago. One of their other needs was defensive end and they solved that with the acquisition of Charlie Clemons.

With L.J. Smith on a franchise tag, the tight end situation is no longer a need, so all signs point to Philadelphia targeting a safety or wide receiver with the 19th pick in the first round. The Eagles are rumored to be attempting to resolve their wideout need through a trade but that hasn't come to fruition yet. Expect the Eagles to do lots of extra scouting on safety Kenny Phillips from Miami, as well as receivers Malcolm Kelly (Oklahoma) and James Hardy (Indiana).

Keep in mind they still have cornerback Lito Sheppard to use as trade bait and move up in the draft -- which they might have to do in order to secure the player they want. With Brian Dawkins missing six games in 2007 and Sean Considine re-injuring his shoulder, Phillips would look great in an Eagles uniform.

3. San Francisco 49ers

The Niners acted quickly in free agency, locking up six short-term deals as well as a lucrative deal for DE Justin Smith. Isaac Bruce is a great short-term answer at wide receiver, as is Dontarrious Thomas at linebacker.

The path looks clear for San Francisco to go to the draft looking for an offensive lineman at the 29th spot. Jeff Otah, a massive tackle, would be a great fit on the right side opposite Joe Staley, last year's first-round pick. If he's gone, then San Francisco could eye two players with guard/tackle skills in Chris Williams (Vanderbilt) or Sam Baker (USC).

4. New Orleans Saints

The Saints have already re-signed seven players and brought four more from other teams. Their need for a middle linebacker is solved, along with cornerback and defensive end, so it appears it's time to turn to the draft for a defensive tackle.

Picking in the No. 10 spot probably means they will miss on Sedrick Ellis and Glenn Dorsey if they stay put. A personnel director from another team told me he feels the drop-off to the next group of tackles is significant.

Do the Saints move up for one of the big guys or do they move down and look at a guy like Pat Sims from Auburn, who measured 6-foot-2 and 310 pounds with a 5.09 40 time at the combine? Ed Orgeron is now the defensive line coach and he is going to want a guy with great quickness and the toughness to be coached hard every day.

5. New York Jets

The Jets spent money and knocked off some glaring needs right away. The offensive line got two veterans in Alan Faneca and Damien Woody. They also secured a nose tackle for the 3-4 defense and an outside pass rushing OLB.

The No. 6 pick in the draft pretty much guarantees they will take care of their next biggest need, wide receiver. There might be enough quality receivers to actually move down and still get the player they want.

It will be interesting to see what the Saints do if one of the premier defensive tackles -- Ellis or Dorsey -- were still on the board when they pick. The Saints don't have a need at the position, but New Orleans sure would like to have one of those players.

6. Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings jumped out fast with a bundle of cash and patched up two big needs with safety Madieu Williams and speedy wide receiver Bernard Berrian. All of a sudden Minnesota can satisfy their third biggest need, defensive end, in the draft.

At the No. 17 spot, the Vikings could be looking at Florida's Derrick Harvey but probably not Ohio State's Vernon Gholston or Virginia's Chris Long. Harvey measured 6-4½, 271. He ran a 4.85 40-yard dash and a 4.36 short shuttle, and had 31 reps on the bench press test.

7. Detroit Lions

In free agency, the Lions grabbed defensive backs, which they desperately needed, and a solid defensive tackle in Chuck Darby. Darby is more in line with what Rod Marinelli wants.

The Lions still have plenty of defensive needs, so the draft sets up well to take a middle linebacker like Dan Connor (Penn State) at the No. 15 spot or a defensive end like Florida's Harvey.

Things are starting to take shape and the draft intentions are getting easier to see as the free agent signings start filing in. In less than two weeks there have been close to 70 signings. Next week, I will look at a few more teams.

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