After the expansion Houston Texans make quarterback David Carr the No. 1 pick, the rest of the choices are pure speculation.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
This time of year, "immediate need" is one of the most popular phrases heard throughout the National Football League.
News out of most of the league's 32 teams' headquarters will be vague this week as the countdown to the NFL Draft nears zero.
The reason for that is clear -- no one wants to tip their hand about the players they truly covet.
This much is certain: with the first pick, the expansion Houston Texans will select Fresno State quarterback David Carr Saturday at around 12:20 p.m.
An avalanche of speculation will take over beginning with pick two.
Unlike the past three drafts when area fans had good reasons to tune in early, the heat won't rise for the three teams with area connections until after 2 p.m.
Selections unlikely: That's because the Cleveland Browns (7-9), San Francisco 49ers (12-4) and Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) had their best seasons in years last fall and, barring a trade up, won't be making a selection in the first 15 picks.
With the No. 16 selection, the Browns will be the first of our area teams to be on the clock.
After three years of an unproductive rushing, a star running back to give quarterback Tim Couch a decoy qualifies as the Browns' immediate need.
After passing on 49ers free agent Garrison Hearst and failing to trade for New Orleans' Ricky Williams (he's a Dolphin now), many expect Cleveland to take a running back with their first-round pick.
If they are still available, Michigan State's T.J. Duckett and Boston College's William Green are the top candidates.
Holdovers: Plans for what the 49ers and Steelers will do are a lot murkier because both teams have almost every starter back from last year.
Because San Francisco (first pick is No. 27) and Pittsburgh (first pick is No. 30) have less immediate needs, they are expected to consider drafting for depth.
Heading into this weekend, the 49ers, who are owned by John and Denise DeBartolo York of Canfield, have 21 of their 22 offensive and defensive starters from last season's wild-card team.
The 49ers re-signed four of their free agents (Hearst, fullback Fred Beasley, center Jeremy Newberry and backup offensive lineman Matt Willig).
The one player not returning to San Francisco is free safety Lance Schulters, who signed with the Tennessee Titans Thursday.
Signed pair: On April 2, the 49ers took the money they thought it would take to keep Schulters, and instead signed Bears free agent safety Tony Parrish and Rams defensive lineman Sean Moran.
"Parrish is a very good safety who is really going to help us and Sean Moran will be one of the seven-to-eight defensive lineman that we keep," said 49ers general manager Terry Donahue in a telephone interview from the team's complex in Santa Clara, Calif.
One other starting position remains unsettled. Although offensive guard Ray Brown is signed to a $2.4 million contract for 2002, the 49ers are courting a replacement for the 39-year-old even though he is coming off his first all-Pro season.
After meeting with Bears free agent Blake Brockermeyer last week, the 49ers signed Giants free agent Ron Stone Friday.
Chances are Brown will be released after June 1.
"We're in very good shape going into the draft, but we do have some needs we have to address," Donahue said. "I don't know how many teams have almost all of their entire starting lineup back, but there can't be many.
Draft targets: Donahue said offensive guard, tackle, wide receiver, cornerback and kicker are their draft targets. "But things might change by draft day," Donahue said.
"Everyone in the front office, especially John McVay and Dominic Corsell, has worked hard at getting this done. It helps that John and Denise have given us the wherewithal to keep this team intact.
"We feel very, very good about where the team is right now," Donahue said. "We still have cap issues, but we are so much better off than when we started this three years ago."
Because many players on the 49ers roster are young, the team has been able to keep its recent payrolls low. But as those players approach their fourth seasons and free agency rights, Donahue says the team must look ahead now.
"There certainly is concern here about the future in how we can retain our better players who will become high-priced. The only way is to pay them or replace them," Donahue said.
"We have a blueprint pertaining to salaries that we plan to follow. The real key to the future is understanding that some of these guys we won't be able to retain."
Because the 49ers play in the NFC West with the pass-happy St. Louis Rams, taking a cornerback with the first round pick won't be a surprise.
No knock: That's not a knock against starters Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster who are considered among the league's best for their age.
Rather, it's an acknowledgment that you can't have enough strong players when covering the likes of the Rams' Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and the Cardinals' David Boston twice a year.
Although they lost several backup players in the offseason, the Steelers have 21 of their 22 offensive and defensive starters returning.
The key loss was linebacker Earl Holmes, who eventually signed a five-year, $17 million contract with the Browns. The Steelers signed former Jets linebacker James Farrior for Holmes' inside spot.
Others gone from the 2001 AFC Central Division champions are kicker Kris Brown (Texans), cornerback Jason Simmons (Texans) and wide receiver Bobby Shaw (Jacksonville Jaguars).
Although Steelers coach Bill Cowher hasn't said what positions need attention most, he recently acknowledged that this class is loaded with strong defensive linemen.