In always risk-filled NFL draft, hype is the only sure thing


In 2002, the Houston Texans began the NFL draft by choosing David Carr as their first pick ever. Then, after Carolina took Julius Peppers, Detroit chose Joey Harrington and Buffalo picked 6-foot-8, 360-pound offensive tackle Mike Williams.

That was just the way most mock drafts had them, all four assumed to be future stars.

Six years later, Carr is a backup QB with the Giants, his third team; Harrington also is on his third team; and Williams is out of the NFL. Even Peppers, a star early, has had back-to-back bad seasons, and his former North Carolina teammate, defensive tackle Ryan Sims, taken sixth by Kansas City, is another major failure.

If the draft has become the NFL's second-most anticipated event after the Super Bowl, it's also one in which many "future Hall of Famers" turn out to be duds. These days, the increasing number of people writing, reporting and blogging about the NFL turn out mock draft after mock draft, some starting as early as the week after the Super Bowl.

Nor does analysis stop after the draft. Every team is graded instantly. The results are haphazard, of course &

no one can analyze a draft the day it happens, including the people doing the drafting.

"We're giving these guys grades and they haven't even taken any classes or exams yet," laughs Bill Polian, the president of the Colts, whose success rate is as good as anyone's in nearly a quarter century with Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis.

The current example is the New York Giants, whose surprise run to a title last season probably wouldn't have happened without the rookies. Seven made significant contributions in the playoffs, including running back Ahmad Bradshaw, the 250th of 255 players chosen.

Yet they were ranked at the bottom in many post-draft "report cards" issued immediately after last year's selections.

"We just did what we always do, evaluate everything our scouts and coaches tell us, then put it together and make a choice," says Jerry Reese, who last year wore two hats: rookie general manager and in his old job as player personnel director.

"It came out well, but there's no guarantee that the same thing will happen again. All we can do is try our best."

The draft starts next Saturday at Radio City Music Hall with a slightly revised format. It will begin three hours later, at — p.m. EDT, and there will be only 10 minutes between picks in the first round, then 7 minutes in the second, down from 15 and 10 in past years. Only two rounds will be held the first day, with five on Sunday.

But for the teams, the draft is a year-round thing.

For fans and media, it starts right after the Super Bowl, even before the scouting combine. Since then, an inordinate amount of time has been spent on revising those mock draft as players rise (Boise State offensive tackle Ryan Clady and Troy cornerback Leodis McKelvin); or fall (Oklahoma receiver Malcolm Kelly and Penn State linebacker Dan Connor); or fall, then rise again (Michigan receiver Mario Manningham).

One of the more amusing aspects is the reverence with which the potential top draft picks are portrayed.

The fact is, as that 2002 group attests, they are as likely to be busts as stars. Many will be decent players, no better than guys taken in lower rounds and often worse.

The Giants, for example, have gotten the likes of Michael Strahan, Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer and Osi Umenyiora after bad first-round picks the same year. Strahan, the 40th pick in 1993, would certainly be the first pick if that draft was redone on the basis of results.

But we continue to build up first-rounders like they can't miss.

Look at 2002. Or 2005, when the top 10 were, in order: Alex Smith, Ronnie Brown, Braylon Edwards, Cedric Benson, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Troy Williamson, Antrell Rolle, Carlos Rogers and Mike Williams.

Only Edwards has true star potential.

The others have been injured (Smith, Brown and Cadillac Williams); suspended (Jones); ordinary (Rolle and Rogers); and bad. Williamson, No. 7 overall, was traded by the Vikings this year for a sixth-rounder after dropping many of the passes thrown anywhere near him.

Mike Williams? One of four receivers in five years taken first by Detroit, he's no longer in the NFL.

The Giants had no first-rounder that year because it went for Eli Manning the previous year to the Chargers, who used it to take Shawne Merriman, already a certified star, with the 12th pick.

But New York's second-, third- and fourth-rounders were Corey Webster, Justin Tuck and Brandon Jacobs, all integral parts of last season's title team. Jacobs is another example of "you never know" &

a third-string running back behind Cadillac Williams and Brown at Auburn who transferred to Southern Illinois to get playing time.

Another new development, the result of the interactive nature of the Web, allows fans to chime in with their own opinions, sometimes knowledgeable, sometimes strange and sometimes abusive.

Example: A writer for a major Web site did his first mock draft in February and prefaced it by noting that it was far too early for real judgments, and that the order would change drastically. That didn't stop the bloggers who ignored his self-deprecating introduction from castigating him for giving player X to team Y and other malfeasances.

Mock drafts are a combination of information from a variety of sources. Or, in many cases, disinformation.

Most recently, for example, reports circulated that Vernon Gholston, the highly rated Ohio State defensive end/linebacker, was "sliding" as teams continued to analyze his game tapes. But a couple of respected personnel men think it's the opposite &

stories peddled by teams that pick lower and would like Gholston.

Those who know the drafting history of Bill Parcells, the new overseer of the Miami Dolphins, suggest the Dolphins could take him No. — because Parcells is constantly trying to find the next Lawrence Taylor. Gholston fits that mold, as did two other high picks by the Tuna: DeMarcus Ware in Dallas and John Abraham with the Jets.

But no one really knows.

"I have spent a lot of time with Bill, but he is not going to tell me, and he's definitely not going to tell you all," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said during his media briefing this week.

Gil Brandt, one of the architects of the modern scouting system during nearly 30 years with the Cowboys, says the reason that even the best personnel evaluators sometimes fail is simple.

"The hardest thing to do is figure out what someone will do when he suddenly gets rich," he says. "Will he work hard to get better despite the money? Or will he figure he has it made? None of us can really tell that because they'll all tell you they work hard? The best we can do is an educated guess."

The surest thing this year, in part because of his genes, is said to be Chris Long, the defensive end from Virginia and the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. As good as his father? Check back in a few years.

The best offensive lineman is supposed to be Jake Long, a tackle from Michigan.

But the recent track record of Big Ten tackles taken high is 50-50. Joe Thomas of Wisconsin, No. — last year to Cleveland, was an instant star. But Robert Gallery, No. 2 in 2004 to Oakland, is still trying to find a position.

Still, OLs from the Big Ten plus Notre Dame and Boston College come with a certain pedigree established over the years. Linemen from Boise State and Vanderbilt &

Clady and Chris Williams &

don't, although there's no reason to believe they might not turn out better than Jake Long.

How about quarterbacks this year? The top one is Matt Ryan of Boston College. But he's not rated as highly as the 2004 QBs (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger) or the 2006 guys (Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler.) And maybe he won't turn out as well as the ones in the second tier (Louisville's Brian Brohm, Michigan's Chad Henne, Delaware's Joe Flacco) who are considered late first/early second-round picks.

And look at QBs who will go lower &

Tom Brady,was a sixth-rounder, 199th overall in 2000, after all. One sleeper possibility: San Diego's Josh Johnson, whose TD-to-interception ratio last year was 43-1, an incredible number even in lower level competition.

All in all, the draft is an event that has spawned a cottage industry.

"It's a lot of fun because you can be on radio and you can write about it and the NFL loves that," Newsome says. "We've got the Super Bowl, we've got the combine and we have the draft."

And you can lie without being told you're dishonest.

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