It’s April, and I’m excited. No, not because of Barry Bonds and baseball season. Not because the Terps won the national championship. Not even because NBA games now actually mean something. I’m excited because the NFL draft is just around the corner.

Ok, it’s still two weeks away. Yet like a kid waiting for his birthday, I’m giddy with anticipation. I can’t wait for it to arrive.

For those 15 draft hours, the NFL will wake from its six month slumber and rule the sports world once more. ESPN will stop showing highlights of the Expos and Marlins and concentrate on some good ol’ fashioned pigskin. All will be right with the world.

In anticipation of the event, I’ve prepared a position-by-position look at the prospective draftees, beginning this week with defense.

Defensive Ends: This year’s crop of end rushers is a good one, if undersized. Julius Peppers is a mauler, and should be a lock to go to the Panthers with the second pick. Behind him, Kalimba Edwards and Dwight Freeney provide great speed from the edges, but they could be forced to move to linebacker due to their size.

Top of the Class: Julius Peppers, North Carolina

Solid Picks: Kalimba Edwards, South Carolina; Dwight Freeney, Syracuse

Might Surprise: Alex Brown, Florida

Sleeper: Grant Irons, Notre Dame

Defensive Tackles: Ever since the Baltimore Ravens marched to a Super Bowl championship by sandwiching opposing running backs between the gargantuan duo ofÊTony Siragusa and Sam Adams, defensive tackles have been at a premium. There are some good ones in the draft, but not enough to satisfy demand. As a result, look for some lower-ranked DT’s to sneak into the first round.

Top of the Class: Albert Haynesworth, Tennesee

Solid Picks: John Henderson, Tennesee; Wendell Bryant, Wisconsin; Ryan Sims North Carolina

Might Surprise: Larry Tripplett, Washington

Linebackers: By far the weakest group of players in the draft. We might see only one, or none, go in the first round. Still, many a good linebacker has come from middle rounds, so there could be hope for this group.

Top of the Class: Napoleon Harris, Northwestern

Solid Picks: Robert Thomas, UCLA; Saleem Rasheed, Alabama

Might Surprise: Larry Foote, Michigan

Cornerbacks: The 2002 Draft will provide the NFL will a very solid crop of cornerbacks. As with the defensive ends, there is a clear blue-chipper in Quentin Jammer. Dallas, picking sixth, could find a plethora of bidders hoping to trade up to corral the Longhorn. Knowing Jerry Jones’ penchant for collecting draft picks, I would say that there’s a very real possibility of the Cowboys moving down.

Top of the Class: Quentin Jammer, Texas

Solid Picks: Phillip Buchanon, Miami; Lito Sheppard, Florida

Might Surprise: Rashad Bauman, Oregon

Safeties: In Roy Williams and Ed Reed, NFL teams are presented with two of the best safeties to come out of college in recent memory. While Williams is a heavy hitter and the more impressive physical specimen, Reed is great in coverage and a proven leader, having led Miami’s defense to the national championship. Both should go in the first round, and both have the potential to be very good pro players.

Top of the Class: Roy Williams, Oklahoma

Solid Picks: Ed Reed, Miami; Lamont Thompson, Washington State

Might Surprise: Tank Williams, Stanford

That’s all for now. Next week I’ll be back on the offensive, bringing you the Joey Harrington Question: Can this Duck fly with the big birds? Can he escape my inane puns? All this and more answered next week in part II of my draft preview.