Friday, April 27, 2007

For months the hype has been building and now the speculation about who will go where has become a shrill crescendo with Mel Kiper Jr. and his disturbing hair leading the masses. Before the draft everybody seems to have all the answers. Mock drafts have been completed and supposed picks have been scrutinized. If history is any indication of what to expect the pundits will be wrong. All it takes is one unexpected pick and the entire house of cards comes crashing down.

Last year the Houston Texans eschewed hometown hero Vince Young and collegiate superhero Reggie Bush in favor of defensive end Mario Williams. It wasn't exactly a bad idea given the volatile nature of so-called skill players who try to jump from college to the pros but the Texans could have traded down a few picks and landed Williams. They would have secured an extra pick or two late in the draft and saved a few million in bonus money.

This year everybody is certain that the Raiders will take rocket launcher JaMarcus Russell with the first pick in the draft. The Raiders do indeed need help at the QB position but a sterling young athlete like Russell is going to need lots of help if he's going to shine. The Raiders also need a receiver who is willing to actually play in real games and they need help on the line too. They spent their top pick last year on burly Robert Gallery but the highly touted lineman out of Iowa struggled at the left tackle spot all season long.

Al Davis is squirrelly. He loves to play psychological games even when they aren't necessary. He could draft himself with the top pick just to make headlines. That's probably not going to happen but Davis might pass on Russell just because everybody thinks they know what the Raiders will do. Some think that Davis might trade down but unless somebody pulls a Mike Ditka and gives the Raiders every pick they have, it's highly unlikely Davis will step out of the limelight. The Raiders will probably wait until their time is ready to expire before announcing their pick just to milk every minute of camera time.

The top four team in the draft are so bad drafting the high is not going to help. The Raiders could use new blood at every position. If they trade down and pick up an few extra selections in the middle rounds they could build a strong core of players who will support a winning team for years to come. The Detroit Lions are bad but they should be prohibited from making any first round selections until Matt Millen has been bound, gagged and dropped into the murky waters of the Detroit River.

The Browns and Buccaneers tied for the third pick but the Gruden lost the coin toss and ended up with the fourth selection. It doesn't really matter since the two teams think they have opposing needs. Of course both of those teams are further away from being competitive than they think. Unfortunately the value of their selections won't be evident until Detroit reveals its pick. Then the rest of the league can calculate the value of the remaining players and make an offer. Trading down might not be as attractive for these two because the offers might not be worthwhile.

The Browns are in an interesting spot. Should receiver Calvin Johnson remain available at the number three spot, the Browns will be getting calls from other teams. The Buccaneers might be forced to swap picks with the Browns just to ensure they have a chance at acquiring a big time play maker. Based on all the current evaluations, Calvin Johnson is the one player who will be able to step into the NFL and have an immediate impact. He's big, strong, fast and has the sheer athleticism to beat the best corners in the league. If he improves his game in training camp he could be the best receiver in the NFL as a rookie.

Adrian Peterson is the only other impact player available in the draft but there's no guarantee he'll be great. Unlike Johnson, he doesn't possess an obvious physical advantage. Peterson could be the next Larry Jonson or even a LaDainian Tomlinson but he could also be another Curtis Enis, KiJana Carter or William Green. So many teams have been burned by outstanding collegiate backs that it's hard to blame a team for passing on Peterson. Besides, the key to a great running game is in the front five. If a team has a great line they'll move the ball regardless of who is back there.

Like most drafts, once you get out of the top five it's a guessing game. Carolina's Steve Smith is one of the most dynamic players in the NFL but he was drafted in the third round. At 5'9" and 180 pounds, he's too small to be an elite receiver but somehow he defies conventional wisdom. Tom Brady was a sixth round draft pick who wasn't athletic enough to succeed in the modern era. Three Super Bowl victories and a pretty nifty efficiency rating has him bound for the Hall of Fame in a few years.

Joe Montana was too small; Jerry Rice was too slow; Dan Marino was too dumb; Warren Moon was too black…many great players were overlooked in the draft. It makes you wonder why so much effort is put into analyzing these players. It's hard too tell who's going to rise to the challenge of excelling at the next level. Scouts and analysts make a science out of the process but in the end everything seems to come down to hard work and good coaching. Tom Brady is successful because he works hard and he's in the right system, Tim Couch was a failure because the opposite was true.

Teams always hunt for the "sleeper" a player who isn't on anybody's radar duribng the draft but eventually goes on to break records. Too often those "sleepers" are the product of a superior environment. Experts give Mike Shanahan credit for finding great running backs in the middle of the draft but the reality is that the Broncos have a great offensive line. Notice how the running backs suddenly become less productive when the line isn't healthy?

Bad teams never seem to find the mythical sleeper. In fact bad teams are a graveyard for draft picks. Tim Couch was a "can't miss" selection. Now he's out of the NFL. His confidence was rattled in his stint in Cleveland and now he's nowhere to be found. The Bengals destroyed their fair share of QB's but Marvin Lewis resisted the temptation of throwing Carson Palmer to the Sharks. He held the top pick back until the rest of the team was playing better and put Palmer in the middle of a decent offense.

That's why the best tonic for a bad team isn't the top selection, but a number of picks later in the draft. A team with two third round picks will likely find a stout lineman to shore up that front line. Until the weaknesses are properly addressed one or two star players won't change the won/lost ratio.

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