Draft means filling a need
Eric Gilmore: Times Columnist

The countdown to this year's NFL draft hits T-minus three weeks today. So you know what that means. Well, besides more face time for ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. and an overload of information about great knee benders from Middle Tennessee State.

NFL general managers, coaches and personnel chiefs are going to start feeding us that line about how they plan to draft the best available player, regardless of position, when they're on the clock.

My reaction? What a bunch of garbage.

For the most part, NFL teams draft to fill specific needs.

They can't afford to stockpile multiple high-priced players at the same position, which would surely happen if you followed the best-available-player draft plan.

Those days are gone in the NFL, along with five-year plans and affordable tickets.

In this era of free agency and the salary cap, NFL general managers spend each offseason plugging holes on their rosters.

So if you're trying to determine what the ***** or Raiders might do in this month's draft, that's what you need to remember.

Consider last year's draft. The Raiders traded cornerback Phillip Buchanon to the Houston Texans a few days before the draft. They needed a cornerback and drafted one, Nebraska's Fabian Washington, with the 23rd pick in the first round.

And the *****? They desperately needed a quarterback and used the draft's No. 1 overall pick on Utah quarterback Alex Smith.

You don't need to be Gil Brandt to know Smith wasn't the best player available. But he filled the *****' biggest need, so they reached and took him.

So what are the *****' greatest needs this year? Let's start with offense and whittle down the candidates.

We can eliminate quarterback -- stop laughing, you Alex Smith bashers. Cross offensive line off the list. The ***** drafted two offensive linemen last year -- David Baas in the second round and Adam Snyder in the third.

They spent big money last year on free-agent offensive tackle Jonas Jennings. Then this year they singed free-agent guard Larry Allen.

Eliminate running back. -- Kevin Barlow and Frank Gore fill that bill for now -- and wide receiver, where the ***** added free agents Antonio Bryant and Bryan Gilmore to holdover Arnaz Battle. Not great, but adequate.

That brings us to tight end. No ***** tight end had more than nine catches last season. The ***** can't count on injury-plagued Eric Johnson.

Smith desperately needs another weapon. So it would make perfect sense for the ***** to use the No. 6 overall pick for Maryland's Vernon Davis, a 6-foot-33/4, 263-pound matchup nightmare who covers 40 yards in 4.38 seconds.

The ***** have needs on defense, too, obviously. They lost outside linebacker Julian Peterson and outside linebacker/defensive end Andre Carter. So if Ohio State outside linebacker A.J. Hawk lasts until No. 6, which is doubtful, he'd be very tempting.

The *****' secondary is very needy, too, despite the addition of free-agent corner Walt Harris. That makes Texas safety/cornerback Michael Huff a possibility.

But no 49er is needier than Smith. So Davis is the pick here.

Now let's play the same game with the Raiders, who own the No. 7 pick.

Cross off wide receiver, where Randy Moss, Jerry Porter, Doug Gabriel and a cast of thousands reside.

Running back? Not in the first round. The Raiders spent big bucks last year on free agent LaMont Jordan.

Offensive line? The Raiders could use another guard, but they used the No. 2 overall pick in 2004 on offensive tackle Robert Gallery and a second-rounder that year on center Jake Grove. This is not the team's weakest link.

Let's eliminate the secondary from first-round consideration. The Raiders drafted two corners last year to go with Nnamdi Asomugha, a 2003 first-rounder. They signed veteran free-agent corners Tyrone Poole and Duane Starks.

At safety, Stuart Schweigert, Jarrod Cooper and Derrick Gibson return. Not great, but they'll do for now.

The Raiders could use a linebacker to team with Danny Clark and Kirk Morrison, but Hawk probably will be gone by the time they draft.

And an even bigger need is at defensive tackle, where monstrous Ted Washington left the Raiders, leaving a huge hole.

Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, at 6-4 and 340 pounds, could fill that hole.

But before you pencil Ngata into your mock draft for the Raiders, consider one more position: quarterback.

Yes, the Raiders signed free-agent quarterback Aaron Brooks to replace Kerry Collins. Brooks, though, is clearly a stopgap.

The question is whether Andrew Walter, a third-round pick last year, is the long-term answer.

This, of course, is ultimately Al Davis' call.

The view here? Davis either should trade up for USC's Matt Leinart or stay put and grab Texas' Vince Young.

That's the only way to fill his team's biggest need.