View Full Version : This year's draft in a fog

Mr. Laz
04-18-2005, 10:52 AM
Will the real No. 1 NFL pick please stand out?
By Tom Weir, USA TODAY

Whom the San Francisco 49ers will make the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft (if kept) remains unsettled, but that's hardly the only mystery in a draft where the only consensus is no consensus.

"In prior years, if you said these are the top five guys, there would be 30 teams who would take them," says Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese, whose Titans pick sixth. "This year, it's, 'Here's a quarterback. How many teams like him? Sixteen. How many like this running back? Sixteen.' It's kind of split right down the middle. I think that's happening with every position."

That might be the only near-unanimous opinion about the April 23-24 draft.

"All drafts are crapshoots, but this one may be more so than a lot of others," Buffalo Bills GM Tom Donahoe said during February's NFL scouting combine. "It doesn't seem like there is any consensus on who the better players are when you talk to personnel people."

NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt says the reason a fog has engulfed this draft is "because there are so many guys who look all alike. There are about 35 guys that all look pretty good."

Brandt, Dallas' vice president of player personnel from 1960-89, says some pessimism might stem from 2004's draft being so memorable.

"I think last year's draft will go down in history as one of the best," Brandt says. "I think we'll have a lot of Pro Bowlers and some future Hall of Famers out of that draft."

This year, Brandt says, "Whoever is the second pick isn't going to be as good as (2004 No. 2 pick) Robert Gallery. Having said that, the guy who goes second is still going to say, 'I don't care what Gil Brandt says, I still want the same money Robert Gallery got.' "

The perception that the Class of '05 won't merit the same hefty contracts and signing bonuses that other recent top picks received could make for a duller draft day. Last year the New York Giants had NFL fans abuzz as they engineered the trade for quarterback Eli Manning, after he had been selected No. 1 overall by San Diego.

This year, Brandt says, "I think everybody would like to move down."

Indianapolis President Bill Polian doubts that migration will occur but says the NFL's salary-cap economics are what's causing the roadblock, not a lack of draftable talent. Polian contends there are seven generally accepted blue-chip prospects in this draft, bunched at three positions:

Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of California and Alex Smith of Utah. (Related item: Unique double for Utah?)

Running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams of Auburn and Cedric Benson of Texas.

Cornerbacks Antrel Rolle of Miami (Fla.) and Adam "Pacman" Jones of West Virginia.

"The public perception is that the quarterbacks are not top-flight quarterbacks, and I'm not sure that's the correct perception," Polian says. "They're both juniors, and they're both West Coast quarterbacks. The East Coast media doesn't know them well, so therefore the public doesn't know them well."

The three running backs "are very legitimate prospects to be game-breakers," Polian says. And he rates the defensive backs as worthy of a top-10 pick.

"I don't think you can get anywhere near as good a player down below (the 10th pick) as you can up there," Polian says.

"But you must factor in what the cost is, too, in terms of a (signing) bonus. It's gigantic. It's $15 million, maybe more, at the top. That may give many people pause. They want an unblemished, sure-shot player at the top."

Manning's six-year deal with New York included a $20 million bonus in a total package of $54 million, if all incentives are met. Gallery's seven-year contract with Oakland is for a maximum of $60 million, $18.5 million guaranteed.

Playing hot potato with No. 1

About Rodgers and Smith, Polian says, "I'm not sure that if both had played their senior years and been Heisman Trophy candidates, as they obviously would have been, that there wouldn't be a lot more excitement about them."

Junior quarterbacks also have been associated with two of the biggest draft busts in recent years. Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 pick in 1998, is out of the NFL. So is Tim Couch, the No. 1 pick of 1999.

Couch washed out with Cleveland, which figures to have Rodgers or Smith available when it drafts third. New Browns general manager Phil Savage says the franchise's misfortune with its last junior quarterback won't play a role in whether he makes another one his first pick in Cleveland.

"I think both are what you want from the neck up, and they both come from sophisticated systems where they were coached well," Savage says.

Cleveland's tumble to 4-12 last season points out the toll of bad drafting, and what will be at stake when teams start rolling the dice at Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Besides cutting Couch last year, Cleveland last month released Courtney Brown, the No. 1 overall pick in 2000. Two weeks earlier, the Browns dealt Gerard Warren, the No. 3 pick overall in 2001, for a fourth-round draft choice.

"We want to try to just get started on the right foot," Savage says. As director of player personnel with Baltimore, he had a near-impeccable history in the draft, getting a starter with his first pick in each of the last seven years.

Savage expects to begin receiving "courtesy calls" this week about possible trades for his No. 3 pick, but he doubts a trade will occur until the draft begins and the first two selections are made.

"My inclination is it would be something that would take place when we were on the clock because you want a guarantee on who's available," Savage says. "We've kept our options open."

ESPN analyst and former NFL defensive lineman Mike Golic doubts any teams are clamoring to trade for San Francisco's No. 1 pick, which the 49ers have indicated will be used for Rodgers, Smith, Rolle or Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards.

"The 49ers are going to try to make this look like the sexiest draft in a long time and try to get someone to take that spot, and it's not going to happen," Golic says. "No one's going to take that spot."

Given the possibility there will be no seismic shifts in the drafting order, Golic says, "It doesn't seem like there's a lot of juice yet to this draft. I hope something gets it going."

That something, he says, could happen if trades are made before the draft for veteran running backs. Seattle's Shaun Alexander and Buffalo's Travis Henry are available. Indianapolis' Edgerrin James also had been on the trading block, but Polian says he will remain with the Colts after signing a one-year contract.

Alexander rushed for 1,696 yards in 2004. Henry ran for 1,356 yards in 2003 but has become expendable since the emergence last season of Willis McGahee.

"If they go to those teams that need running backs, then there could be a shift," Golic says.

Two teams with top-10 picks have an obvious need for a running back. Miami, which drafts second, was next to last in rushing yardage in the wake of Ricky Williams' shocking retirement. Tampa Bay, which drafts fifth, ranked 29th in rushing yards.

Junior absence largely felt

What stunted this draft, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper says, is that several of the best juniors in college football made relatively surprising decisions not to go pro early. Among those Kiper cites are Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart of Southern California and linebackers Ahmad Brooks of Virginia and A.J. Hawk of Ohio State.

"All of those guys would have been elite players in this draft," Kiper says.

They also would have made it easier to forecast the top 10 picks.

"It's amazing that some of the people who are No. 1 overall on some people's boards aren't even No. 1 on my board at their position," says Kiper, who has been analyzing the NFL draft for 27 years. His last name generates nearly 1,500 Google hits when paired with "draft guru."

As proof of just how odd a draft this is, Kiper says, "The top guy on my board didn't even play this year," referring to former Southern California receiver Mike Williams. A court decision kept Williams from entering the 2004 draft as a sophomore, and he couldn't return to USC because he already had hired an agent.

Kiper echoes the assessment that the talent is strikingly uniform, saying, "You're splitting hairs with the top two quarterbacks. You're splitting hairs with the top running backs and corners. You're all over the place at just about every position."

But, Kiper adds, "That's why I think it's going to be interesting. ... It's going to be more fun. For the fan, I think it's going to be a lot more intriguing."

Despite the generally tepid attitude toward this rookie crop, what Kiper knows for sure about this draft is, "It's like Christmas morning. Everybody is going to be thrilled with the guy they got."

Contributing: Larry Weisman