Everything still seems to be up for grabs today

In receiver-heavy draft, big question still centers on Chargers and Manning

Nfl Draft

April 24, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Inundated by courtroom drama and backroom theatrics, the NFL's 69th college draft lurches forward - ready or not - at noon today.

Maurice Clarett is out, Eli Manning is in but hedging, and the San Diego Chargers are tentatively on the clock.

What happens from there could make this one of the more entertaining drafts in recent history. There are wide receivers galore, rumored trades up and down the first round, and, of course, reputations waiting to be made.

It all starts with San Diego. Maybe.

The Chargers have the No. 1 pick by virtue of their feeble 4-12 record last season, but have sent clear indications they'd like to trade out of the spot. So far they've talked with the New York Giants (fourth pick), Washington Redskins (fifth) and Cleveland Browns (seventh).

When it appeared the Chargers had made a decision to take Manning and launch contract negotiations, the Mississippi quarterback's father, Archie Manning, asked them to pass on Eli. Then agent Tom Condon reiterated the position that young Manning did not wish to play in San Diego.

And somewhere in the rhetoric, there reportedly was the threat of sitting out the season if the Chargers take Manning.

Whereupon, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith told an ESPN reporter of the threat and turned it into a bigger story than Clarett being barred from the draft by the Supreme Court.

Smith's disclosure put the Manning family in an awkward spot and sent a chill wind into the proceedings.

Eli Manning was in New York yesterday for the draft, but shed no new light on the situation.

"We've made all our comments," he told reporters. "I'm not in control of what happens next. My Dad has said it all. I just have to sit and wait.

"We felt strongly about this. We didn't plan on it becoming public, and it is something we have to deal with."

According to some reports, the Giants have offered the fourth and 34th picks in this draft and a second-round pick next year for the chance to get Manning. They also like Iowa left tackle Robert Gallery, who could go second to the Oakland Raiders.

The Browns are the team most interested in trading up to get Gallery, and have talked to the Chargers. The only problem with that is that a Cleveland deal would send Manning to Oakland, which is in San Diego's division. That's not likely.

In a year that offers a deeper pool of elite players - probably 15 strong - several teams are jockeying to move into that area or away from it.

In addition to the teams at the top, the Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 9), New Orleans Saints (18), New England Patriots (21 and 32) and Philadelphia Eagles (28) all have explored the chance to move up.

Among those teams open to trading down are the Detroit Lions (No. 6), Houston Texans (10), New York Jets (12), Chicago Bears (14), San Francisco 49ers (16) and Dallas Cowboys (22).

Talk is cheap; moving up is not.

An early trend should develop today, and it will be toward playmakers. The first six picks in the draft could go for offense. Indicative of the times - passing could be even bigger in 2004 - quarterbacks and receivers could dominate the early picks.

Along with Manning, North Carolina State's Philip Rivers and Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger are projected to go quickly. The best class of receivers will be led either by Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald, a sophomore who made it into this draft, or Texas' Roy Williams.

Fitzgerald is believed to be headed to Arizona with the third pick, where he would be reunited with new Cardinals coach Dennis Green. Fitzgerald served as a ballboy with the Minnesota Vikings for four years when Green coached there.

"The whole organization he's starting to build there [in Arizona] and the people that he's bringing in are people I'm familiar with," Fitzgerald said. "So it would be great."

Williams is rated higher, however, on some draft boards. His stock rose when he ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash in his personal workout this spring. Fitzgerald's best time was a 4.47. A minuscule difference, perhaps, but important to NFL scouts.

Williams not only is quick, but also big (6 feet 2, 212 pounds) and physical.

"That's the way the game is," he said. "You go out there against [the Ravens'] Chris McAlister and everybody saw how [New England's] Ty Law did everybody in the playoffs, so you've got to be physical if you want to be a wide receiver, or any other position in the NFL."

The receiver pool is so deep that as many as seven could be drafted in the first round. It would have been eight if Southern California sophomore Mike Williams had gone into the draft on the coattails of Clarett, the Ohio State running back who sued the NFL - and was blocked - trying to change the eligibility rule.

Washington's Reggie Williams is generally regarded as the third receiver in the group, but he doesn't lack for confidence.

"I just believe I'm the best receiver out there," Williams said. "I feel I bring the most to the table."

Lawsuits and theatrics aside, the draft table is finally ready for the main course.

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