The draft is two months away, and lots of things will change along the way, but I did ask a number of club executives and coaches what their impressions of the draft class was at this point in the process. Remember the old adage: "You can only make a first impression once." Well, the Combine is the first impression for many of the 300-plus participants.
I got three strong opinions from people who sat through countless hours of evaluations, interviews and discussions with their staff members, and there is a pattern of opinion that is worth mentioning and then a plan that should follow -- if the impression of this draft holds water a month from now.
One GM got the ball rolling for me as I sat in the stands with him during the workouts and said, '"This draft class looks like it will not have more than 15 players with a real first-round grade." I ran that concept by another team's personnel director and his response wasn't much different, but it had a plan behind it. He said, "I would love to have four picks between 33 and 60." The third guy I spoke with was a head coach whose team has a ways to go, and he felt there were only a handful of difference makers and wants very much to move down in the draft, or as he said, "way down and get some extra guys to build up the core of this team." I proceeded to watch the workouts and interview players all weekend with an eye on the concept of second-round players who could be great bargains.
As I look at the draft class from this perspective, I start to get excited about the talent pool that should be available in the second round. With all the guys working out as well as they did in Indianapolis, and when you consider the cost difference between a first- and second-round pick, you quickly realize that the money difference may be a lot greater than the talent difference. Before I get into the potential second-round players, let me just show the difference in the money for a first-round guy over a second-round selection based on the 2004 draft class.
Avg. sign bonus | First yr. base salary | Pct. of rookie pool
Round 1: $2.795 million | $440,800 | 35.7 percent
Round 2: $1.333 million | $237,000 | 15.2 percent
So as you can see, if a smart club executive walks out of the Combine with the gut instinct that after the top 15 picks the next 45 players are all about the same, it makes a lot of sense to have four picks between 33 and 64 (which is the second round) rather than one pick in the first round and one in the second. What these clubs might also be thinking about is getting up into that range of picks by moving their third and fourth to grab a second. Still, now is not the time to worry about draft day strategy, but rather to study the talent pool and arrive at a decision about where the real value is going to be.
For the moment, let's eliminate the obvious players that have little to no chance of ever dropping out of the first round. One or two might slip, but for the most part, this is the core of the first round:
QB -- Matt Leinart, Vince Young, Jay Cutler
RB -- Reggie Bush, DeAngelo Williams, LenDale White, Laurence Maroney
WR -- Santonio Holmes
TE -- Vernon Davis, Marcedes Lewis
OT -- D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Winston Justice, Eric Winston
OG -- Max Jean Gilles
C -- Nick Mangold
DE -- Mario Williams, Tamba Hali, Mathais Kiwanuka
DT -- Haloti Ngata, Broderick Bunkley, Rod Wright
LB -- AJ Hawk, Chad Greenway, Bobby Carpenter, Demeco Ryans
S -- Michael Huff
CB -- Jimmy Williams, Ty Hill, Alan Zemaitas
With these 29 names eliminated from the list for the time being, I went through the rest of the top draft picks, watched some of them workout and talked with coaches and scouts about the differences between the first-round names and who was left to select. Three days in Indianapolis led me to believe the NFL decision-makers may be on the right track about this draft class.
The more athletes who run sub 4.4 times, bench press weight through the roof and impress in their position drills, the more I like the band of players working their way into 30-60.
As for quarterbacks, look at Brodie Croyle in this range. Running backs are led by Joseph Addai who tore up the 40-yard dash and was versatile at the Senior Bowl. There is excellent value in the wide receivers in the second round, and it is probably safe to think at least three of these four will be sitting there waiting for a team: Sinorice Moss, Chad Jackson (4.32 40), Maurice Stovall, or Derek Hagan. The tight end population is intriguing with Leonard Pope and Anthony Fasano. Want a guard? The second round should have Davin Joseph and Deuce Lutui to pick from, and they can play right away in the NFL. The tackle list will still have Marcus McNeil (6-foot-7 and a 5.08 40) along with Jonathan Scott, Ryan O'Callaghan and Andrew Whitworth, who really helped himself in Indianapolis. At center, Greg Eslinger is an excellent selection.
On defense, start up front with Gabe Watson and OShinowo Babutindi at tackle. The defensive ends are a decent looking group also with Kamerion Wimbly, Darryl Trapp, Victor Adeyanju and Ray Edwards. The coaches have told me the linebacker list in the second round is their favorite group with probable players Ernie Sims, Thomas Howard, D'Quell Jackson and Abdul Hodge who could all be first-round guys -- but some of them have to be taken here. The corners with real good grades are Kelly Jennings, Ashton Youboty, Dee Webb, Jonathan Joseph, and the safeties could be Ko Simpson, Darnell Bing and Donte Whitner.
Finally, I hope all of these second-round probables go in the first round for their sake, but the GMs, coaches and scouts usually sort the draft out pretty quickly and get parameters to go by as they plan for their teams' drafts.