Whine all you want; the Draft rules

There are more than a few fuddy-duddy sports columnists out there that will spend the next week complaining about the over-hyping of the NFL draft. They’ll begin by moaning about the fact that ESPN gives the draft complete, 14+ hour coverage, when, in fact, no feats of athleticism actually take place. Next they’ll point out that the thing is a crapshoot, that no team really knows if they’re getting the next Drew Bledsoe or the next Rick Mirer. They’ll agonize over the 15-minute wait between first round picks, and the inane chatter that must fill that time. At some point, they’ll take a stab at Mel Kiper Jr.’s copiously coiffed hair. They’ll whine endlessly about the commercialization of the sport, and hearken back to the good ol’ days, when the draft results came out in the morning papers, and nobody noticed until the rookies actually developed into NFL stars.

And then, you know what they’ll do next? They’ll tune in and absorb the hype just like all the mock-draft-reading potato-chip-eating Kiper-hair-appreciating wannabe-draftnik schmucks they just insulted. They may not take in more than the first 15 picks, but they’ll watch.

Why?

After the Super Bowl, the NFL Draft is the league’s most important event. No, there won’t be any real football taking place in New York City next Saturday. But there will be a renewed sense of hope for all 32 NFL teams. Because injuries and free agency make roster consistency so difficult, NFL teams have to replenish their rosters on a much more extensive basis than MLB, NBA or NHL teams. There are no minor leagues — with the possible exception of NFL Europe — so most rookies are expected to make an impact right away.

With that in mind, it seems to me that ESPN’s extensive coverage of the NFL draft is well warranted. Then again, I have been addicted to the draft since I was 10 years old. Washington defensive end Steve Emtman was the number one pick that year, and boy did I think the Indianapolis Colts were getting a franchise player. And boy was I wrong. But not all number ones break both knees and are forced into early retirement. Some of them turn out to be Michael Vick or Peyton Manning. Which leads me to a couple of observations about this years draft, starting with the quarterbacks:

Observation #1: Only one of the “marquee” quarterbacks in the draft will pan out.

Did I say Manning? Ye gods, I hope I haven’t angered football’s royal family. First we had Archie, then we added Peyton, and next in line is Eli, who most NFL draft pundits agree will be the first selection in 2004, whether or not the Chargers trade the pick. Behind him as first round locks at QB sit Ben Roethlisberger, a big arm from a small school (Miami of Ohio), and Phillip Rivers, a proven leader from N.C. State with a bit of a funky throwing motion. Who the best NFL quarterback will be, I don’t know. But I do know that at least one, probably two will be less than successful at the professional level. Between the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 and 2000 (the most recent draft year in which it is fair, in my estimation, to judge the success or failure of the players drafted) there were 55 quarterbacks taken in the first round. Of those 55, only about 25 can really be considered successful at the professional level. That’s less than 50 percent, for you English majors. Of the 31 drafts, 18 featured multiple quarterback selections in the first round. But of those 18 multiple-quarterback first rounds, only five featured more than one successful pro. Statistical gobbledygook, maybe. But damning statistical gobbledygook for two of three quarterbacks. Las Vegas will tell you the smart money’s on Manning, and I tend to agree.

Observation #2: Dissed on draft day = makes opponents pay

Kellen Winslow is a phenomenal talent. A great tight end who played college ball at the NFL’s unofficial 33rd franchise, the University of Miami. He’s the draft’s second most impressive physical specimen, after Iowa tackle Robert Gallery. But he probably won’t be one of the first five picks, and might not even crack the top 10. Why? He’s perceived to have an “attitude problem.” You remember, he’s the guy who compared football to war, and himself to a soldier. Not a smart thing to say. As a result, more than a few NFL teams are hesitant to draft him. They must have short memories. Remember Warren Sapp? He fell to the 12th pick because of “character issues.” Randy Moss? Plunged to pick number 21 for “problems with authority.” The funny thing about players who get snubbed for reasons like that is, they don’t just get mad at the teams that pass them up, they get even. If Winslow doesn’t go in the top 10, he’s a lock for Rookie of the Year.

Observation #3: Defensive tackles will go early, and often

Ever since the Baltimore Ravens’ Goose-powered Super Bowl run in 2000, defensive tackles have been at a premium in the NFL. Teams are desperate to grab the next Ted Washington or Warren Sapp, and thus overvaluing college DTs. In the last three drafts 14 DTs have been taken in the first round, more than any other position. This year’s crop is not as strong as last year’s, but don’t be surprised if four or five teams disappoint their fans and draft a drain-clogger.

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