The draft evaluation process is under way, and there are so many twists and turns on the journey to the end of April in New York City that it is impossible to predict which eight players are going to hear their names announced as the top eight picks.
I drew a line at the eighth pick for a number of reasons at this point in the process. As one GM said to me this week, I think there will be eight solid players at the top of this draft. A second reason to split the draft at that point is money. After looking at the rookie contracts from 2004, a few things were clear about the drop in value after the eighth pick. Draft picks No. 1 thru 8 averaged 50 percent of the rookie pool. The rest of the first-round contracts averaged about 30 percent of the rookie pool.
DeAngelo Hall was the eighth pick, he consumed 44 percent of the rookie pool, and his deal averaged $2.6 million. The next pick in the draft at No. 9 was Reggie Williams. His deal used up 33.8 percent of the rookie pool and averaged $2.09 million for the same six years. So, getting to the top eight is a significant place to be, and of course the higher the better.
But as I said, twists and turns on the journey have already started. Here's a look at where the future rookies are in their big race for the top. I'll check back in from time to time this spring and keep you posted.
When the race started, there were no juniors on the starting line, just seniors. NFL scouts were sending information back to their team headquarters, and the following eight players were running up front, according to the scouts I spoke with in the fall: QB Matt Leinart, OT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, LB A.J. Hawk, S Michael Huff, CB Jimmy Williams, RB DeAngelo Williams, DT Claude Wroten and OT Marcus McNeil.
Then came the announcements about underclassmen entering the draft race, and even though they got a late start, some of them raced up into the top eight right away. Enter RB Reggie Bush, QB Vince Young, DT Haloti Ngata, DE Mario Williams and a few others close to the top group, and the race was really on.
The Senior Bowl strengthened a few seniors like Ferguson and DeAngelo Williams from their performances at practice and caused the same effect that Cadillac Williams created last year when he elected to go to Mobile. Also, QB Jay Cutler entered the fray with a big jump in the eyes of a few teams. Quarterbacks can always make a significant move in a race for the top of the draft. Keep in mind that with every new name entering the elite eight, someone has to drop back. So a race that started with eight seniors back in November at this point has thirteen men in it as we head to the Combine next week.
I am not going to sit here and say if an athlete decides not to participate at the Combine he is sure to drop out of the top eight prospects, but for juniors who entered this process late, have less college playing experience, did not play in the Senior Bowl and elected to not participate in the drills and testing in Indianapolis, they aren't helping themselves -- unless of course they have something to hide. Last year, junior RB Ronnie Brown participated in everything and finished the race in New York as the second overall pick. The year before, OT Robert Gallery did everything he was asked to do and heard his name called second in the draft.
When I hear a potential top-eight selection say he will probably not participate because of unfamiliar surroundings and that he has to do some two-man drills with players he's not used to working with, a yellow caution flag goes up. My first question is: Who is this guy listening to for his advice? It's a race, and there are thirteen players at this point in the front pack. By the end of the combine, I guarantee there will be a few more in the pack. It happens every year when some corner or wide receiver pops a 4.3 forty time. Two years ago, two wide receivers and a corner made it to the top eight in New York. Last year, two wide receivers and two corners finished strong enough to get selected by the eighth pick. I'm sure there were a number of receivers who didn't see WR Troy Williamson coming until he passed them at the draft last year.
A word of caution to those who don't understand: They are in a race, and the Combine is a dangerous curve. I only mentioned one CB in this group of thirteen, Jimmy Williams from Virginia Tech. When March 1 comes and we understand the results from Indianapolis, the lead group will have grown to 15.
Finally, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and D'Brickashaw Ferguson are not going to slip out of the top eight picks unless they have a major injury over the next few months, but after that, I haven't seen a sure thing in this race. So now, the reality is there will be close to 12 players looking at the remaining five spots. Any player who doesn't make a move at the Combine can't be considered in the lead. My advice to the players mentioned in this article is: Compete every chance you can between now and New York. Oh! Did I mention a few running backs could also quickly move up to the front of this race, and another defensive end may run a 4.5 forty and a 3.9 short shuttle next week, swelling the group to 18 players? This is no time to try and save gas!