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    The ups and downs of the NFL draft

    [size=18px]The ups and downs of the NFL draft[/size]

    Speculation, rumors, workout numbers affect top prospects.

    By John Branch

    Sunday, April 16, 2006

    So much happened during the spin cycle from January to April, yet none of it seemed to matter for quarterback Vince Young.

    At the beginning, Young's performance for Texas in the Rose Bowl caused talent scouts to place him immediately at the head of the NFL's draft class, next to Southern California running back Reggie Bush, though neither had announced plans to leave college after their junior seasons.

    On April 7, Young was paraded around the Texans' facility in Houston.

    But in the days between, his reputation repeatedly dipped and arced: rocked by sudden doubts about everything from his arm motion to his intelligence, then rejuvenated by an impressive throwing exhibition in front of an estimated 130 NFL team officials at the University of Texas.

    Young's turbulent venture is typical of the process for many potential draft picks. The months between the last college football game and the first pick of the draft — April 29 this year — are flooded with the murky waters of hype and spin, which sometimes threaten to drown out talent and ability.

    All it takes to change the perception of a player is a good time in the 40-yard dash or a bad score on an aptitude exam, whispers of a dazzling workout in front of scouts or damaging gossip floated by someone with an agenda. At stake are millions of dollars in contracts and, possibly, the long-range championship aspirations of franchises.

    In the end, the biggest draft question is not just who will be chosen by whom. It is also whether the preceding buzz really matters, or whether the past few months have been little more than an alluring sideshow for the news media and fans.

    "You focus nothing on the media coverage of the ups and downs," Charley Casserly, the Texans' general manager, said in a telephone interview. "You make your own evaluation. It's totally ignored."

    Others are less dismissive. To them, the swings of speculation are something to watch, if not follow.

    "In a perfect world, we would be more even-keeled," Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson said. "But I will say that we all get carried away with the numbers sometimes and chase the ghosts."

    Teams, of course, direct the draft hype, too. The day before Young visited the Texans, Bush was their guest. Each was marched through the headquarters and trotted before cameras and reporters. The Texans will select only one of them — or, perhaps, neither.

    Asked if teams, in general, use smokescreens to hide their intentions, Casserly said: "There is an element of that in this, no question. There always has been."

    Predicting the draft is a foggy endeavor. It entails trying to assess the strengths and weaknesses of hundreds of college football players, and matching them with the mostly private thoughts and perceived needs of 32 NFL teams in a preordained draft order.

    This exercise befuddles even those paid as draft analysts. Three weeks before last year's draft, Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN, the most famous of the lot, predicted correctly two of the first 21 actual selections. The player many thought would be chosen first, California quarterback Aaron Rodgers, was selected 24th.

    But an inability to solve the draft puzzle does not slow — and may inspire — the fascination that manifests itself in everything from talk-radio rants and numbing blogger analysis to draft-specific magazines and hours of scuttlebutt on "SportsCenter."

    Helping whet the appetite for draft news is a cast of agents, general managers, scouts and other so-called experts, each with a motive to draw or to deflect attention, to inform or to confuse. "This is the 'World Series of Poker' meets sports," agent Don Yee said. "It is reality TV at its finest."

    Players manipulate the system by choosing how and when to perform. The top prospects often skip the NFL scouting combine in February, seeing little advantage in competing against hundreds of others. Instead, they force teams to come to them to witness well-scripted workouts.

    In extreme cases, players warn specific teams that they will not play for them, as Archie Manning did two years ago with the San Diego Chargers in steering his quarterback son Eli to the Giants.

    Teams, while guarding their draft-day intentions, invite players to their headquarters for tours, interviews, testing and hobnobbing. Some invite reporters; others try to keep the visits secret, further muddying their motives.

    Agents, who get a cut of their clients' contracts, try to attract attention for their players — "I'm just a carnival barker," agent Gary Wichard said — and steer them through the humbling analysis. The search for the perfect draft choice is largely a search for imperfections.

    "Players get destroyed," agent Ben Dogra said. "You could say you're going to draft the pope, and someone would say he's too old. Draft Santa Claus, and someone would say he wouldn't fit down the chimney."

    Riding shotgun are the news media and the fans, who hyperanalyze and spread every tidbit of information, much of it floated anonymously.

    "There's not much of a governing body here," said USC coach Pete Carroll. "It's gamesmanship. This is competition for everybody."

    Two years ago, USC defensive lineman Kenechi Udeze was widely considered a top-10 draft pick. Weeks before the draft, concerns over a past shoulder injury arose quietly after word spread that Udeze had skipped a medical evaluation. Carroll called teams to assure them that Udeze was healthy, but he fell to No. 19.

    That is the way players are categorized in the symmetry of the draft: some rise, others fall. Some bristle at such barometers.

    "Players will ask, 'Am I moving up?' " agent Ethan Lock said. "And I say: 'From where? Where were you?' Moses hasn't come down and said where they rank. There is not a unified draft board in the sky."

    Most teams do not sit down to rank the players and match them with their needs until April, some not in earnest until two weeks before the draft. Until then, the speculation has little context.

    "Some of the rumors out there are true and some are not," said James Harris, the Jacksonville Jaguars' vice president for player personnel. "I imagine people hear about some of the workouts, then I imagine that some of the agents put information out there so that their player's stock appears to be on the rise. Then somebody doesn't run well, so his stock supposedly drops. But for us, it's more of a process."

    Gil Brandt, the former vice president for player personnel for the Cowboys and now an contributor, said team analysis is far more comprehensive than anything performed by draftniks. The perceived spikes and dips of players tend to be much smoother arcs in the teams' eyes.

    "By and large, the grade that the full-time scouts give to players, they are pretty much on the money," Brandt said.

    Still, there is some truth to the predraft hype; if the months of analysis meant nothing, the draft could be held in January.

    Last year, DeMarcus Ware, a little-known defensive end from Troy University, was said to have had a strong Senior Bowl and a good performance at the combine. In mock drafts, he climbed steadily from a projected middle-round choice to a possible first-rounder. The gossip even underestimated his value; on draft day, the Cowboys chose Ware with the 11th pick.

    This year, LenDale White, the bullish USC running back, may be caught in a bear market. Widely considered a top-15 choice in January, concerns about his weight and speed — and last week, reports of a hamstring tear — have led most prognosticators to drop him to the second round.

    Rumors further the perception. Most Web sites devoted to the draft base their analysis on anonymous sources. The reports often have a gossipy tone, ranging from speculation about strength of workout performances to strength of character. Several recent reports said Florida's Chad Jackson had passed Ohio State's Santonio Holmes as the top receiver in the draft. They did not say by whose measure. But in the NFL draft culture, that type of speculation is common, leaving questions about the impact of such statements.

    "No impact," said Joel Segal, an agent who represents Holmes, Bush and a couple of other potential first-round picks. "Prognosticators don't impact the draft."

    Perhaps not directly, though the Packers' Thompson scans mock drafts, partly for fun, partly for clues.

    Those mock drafts have had the Texans choosing Bush since they lost their last game to San Francisco, a contest deridingly called the Bush Bowl. Only the spiked interest in Young created any second thoughts.

    Yet last Monday, the Texans hosted North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams. Bob McNair, the team's owner, told The Houston Chronicle that Williams could have as much impact on defense as Bush would on offense. Casserly said, "He's worthy of the first pick in the draft."

    Truth or tease? Either way, it was spin. And the murky cycle continued.


    First-round draft order

    Selection order for the first round of the NFL draft to be held April 29-30.

    Team 2005 record

    1. Houston Texans 2-14

    2. New Orleans Saints 3-13

    3. Tennessee Titans 4-12

    4. New York Jets 4-12

    5. Green Bay Packers 4-12

    6. San Francisco 49ers 4-12

    7. Oakland Raiders 4-12

    8. Buffalo Bills 5-11

    9. Detroit Lions 5-11

    10. Arizona Cardinals 5-11

    11. St. Louis Rams 6-10

    12. Cleveland Browns 6-10

    13. Baltimore Ravens 6-10

    14. Philadelphia Eagles 6-10

    15. Denver Broncos* 13-3

    16. Miami Dolphins 9-7

    17. Minnesota Vikings 9-7

    18. Dallas Cowboys 9-7

    19. San Diego Chargers 9-7

    20. Kansas City Chiefs 10-6

    21. New England Patriots 10-6

    22. Denver Broncos** 13-3

    23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-5

    24. Cincinnati Bengals 11-5

    25. New York Giants 11-5

    26. Chicago Bears 11-5

    27. Carolina Panthers 11-5

    28. Jacksonville Jaguars 12-4

    29. New York Jets*** 4-12

    30. Indianapolis Colts 14-2

    31. Seattle Seahawks 13-3

    32. Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5

    * from Atlanta Falcons

    **from Washington Redskins

    *** from Denver Broncos

    The ups and downs of the NFL draft

    "If at first you don't succeed, parachuting is not for you"

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