In topsy-turvy class, best value will be found with later picks

Nfl Draft

Saturday, noon (rounds 1-3), Sunday, 11 a.m. (rounds 4-7) * TV: ESPN, ESPN2 * Ravens' first three picks: 22nd, 53rd, 84th Pro Football

April 18, 2005|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Ever a game of risk and reward, the first round of the NFL draft this week offers more intrigue and less certainty than any other draft in the past decade.

"This is a horrible year to have a top-five pick," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, "because of the amount of guaranteed money you have to pay these guys up front against unknown production."

Indeed, the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins - teams with the first two picks Saturday - have indicated they'd like to dump those choices for the chance to gain more players and better value.

Assuming the first two picks go for quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of California and Alex Smith of Utah, the Cleveland Browns (third pick) and the Chicago Bears (fourth) are in position to collect the two surest players out this year.

That would be running back Ronnie Brown of Auburn and wide receiver Braylon Edwards of Michigan.

Mayock considers Brown the best player in the draft.

"When you look at Brown on tape, he's a 233-pound running back that has 4.45-to-4.48 speed [in the 40-yard sprint]," Mayock said. "It's straight-line speed; he's not a wiggler like [Auburn running mate] Carnell Williams. He's a one-cut kind of back, and zone blocking schemes make him particularly dangerous.

"He understands pass protection, and he's not afraid to put his face mask into a linebacker's chest. To add to it, he has the most natural hands of any back in the draft. He's a three-down back - he can carry 20 to 25 times, catch the ball on third down and pass protect."

Brown also has the temperament teams are looking for. He subjugated his own ego last year at Auburn, splitting playing time with Williams in the Tigers' undefeated season.

So how can the Dolphins pass on Brown at No. 2 when they have a pressing need at the position?

Word leaked in Miami last week that new coach Nick Saban is leaning toward Smith as the No. 2 pick on the premise teams can't afford to pass on a potential franchise quarterback.

Whether Smith fits that job description remains to be seen. One thing is certain, though. No team reveals its true intentions this close to the draft.

The Dolphins likely would best be served by trading down for more picks. They have only five selections now, and will get a sixth Saturday when they finally send cornerback Patrick Surtain to the Kansas City Chiefs in a long-discussed trade.

Anything goes at the top of this draft. The 49ers, the worst team in the league last year, have identified four players as their potential first pick. They are the two quarterbacks, Edwards and cornerback Antrel Rolle of Miami.

The selection of Rolle would not likely come at No. 1, however. That's a trade-down alternative.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who pick fifth, are one of the few teams to express a desire to trade up - ostensibly to get one of the quarterbacks. The Tennessee Titans, who pick sixth, are interested in trading down.

How those potential moves affect the Minnesota Vikings, who want a wide receiver to replace Randy Moss at No. 7, is anyone's guess. But the Vikings should be in place to take the second-best receiver, be that Mike Williams of Southern California, Mark Clayton of Oklahoma or Troy Williamson of South Carolina.

There figures to be an early run on offensive skill positions in the first round before teams settle into a defensive posture. Seven of the first 10 picks could go for offense. Eight of the first 11 picks a year ago went for offense.

"The reality is the sixth pick this year is not a whole lot different than the 16th," Mayock said. "The sixth pick last year was Kellen Winslow."

The bargains, then, are later in the round, as New York Jets general manager Terry Bradway acknowledged last week. The Jets own the 26th pick in the first round, and Bradway estimates there are just 18 to 20 players with legitimate first-round grades.

"There's some good players up there still, [but] you don't want to pay what they are going to make at [pick No.] 4 like we did a couple years ago," he said.

Rich McKay, general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, tried to put a positive spin on the uncertainty by pointing out the depth in this year's draft.

"There's as much value in the third, fourth and fifth [rounds] as there is in that top 10 as far as team-building," he said.

Will that uncertainty lead to a flurry of first-round trades?

Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' general manager, thinks not.

"What I think is maybe as a league, we all know who the eight to 10 players [at the top] are, the good players," he said. "Then there's a big-time fluctuation about who we think are the best players after that.

"That's what will lead people to just kind of stay home and pick the player they've put a lot of work into."

Not since 1991 has an NFL draft been so light at the top. That year, the first pick was defensive tackle Russell Maryland, and top 10 picks included cornerback Bruce Pickens, linebacker Mike Croel, cornerback Todd Lyght and tackles Charles McRae and Antone Davis. The first quarterback taken that year was Dan McGwire by the Seattle Seahawks with the 16th pick.

The deeper this year's first round goes, the more solid the picks.

"It's a bad year to be in the top 10, but once you get past there, it's a pretty good year," Mayock said. "From 11 to 40 or 50 is pretty solid."

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