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Saturday, April 26, 2003
First round has projected twists -- and more

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It might be hard to convince players like Georgia linebacker Boss Bailey or offensive guard Eric Steinbach of Iowa, two prospects who had been projected as the premier players at their positions but who slipped into the second round Saturday, that the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft pretty much played out according to form.

Pundits went into the first round predicting a dramatic reshuffling of the draft board. What they ended up with was a crazed feeding frenzy on defensive linemen, several teams grabbing their quarterbacks of the future, an emphasis on defense in general, but a noticable dearth of quality at linebacker, tight end and tailback.

Asomugha? Who?
NEW YORK -- It wouldn't be a first round without at least one "who he?" type of prospect, and Saturday certainly featured such a player in University of California defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, who was selected by the Oakland Raiders with the penultimate choice in the opening stanza.

But while some fans were scratching their heads over the choice, those who studied the draft carefully knew Asomugha could squeeze into the bottom of the first round, and weren't shocked that the Raiders grabbed him.

Asomugha, 21, is the kind of big defensive back every team, especially the Raiders, want to get. At 6-feet-2 3/8 and 213 pounds, he played some free safety at California, but most teams projected him to cornerback. He ran an impressive 40-yard time of 4.48 at the combine in February, and that helped to enhance his already rising stock.

"We're always looking the for the combination size-speed guy at corner," said one Raiders source. "Long before everyone else jumped on the trend, we wanted big (defensive backs) outside, guys who were physical but who could also run. And this guy fits our mold."

A three-year starter, Asomugha actually played as an 18-year-old freshman for California. He lacks some instinct but, in Oakland, will get some time to develop. Given the Raiders' injuries at cornerback in 2002, however, they were not about to get caught short at the position again this year. And the Raiders coaches do not view Asomugha as being a big a developmental type of player as some other clubs might have.
-- Len Pasquarelli

And so what transpired here Saturday afternoon during a sometimes wild and occasionally wearying first round?

For once, it seemed, the folks who spend months pouring over the talent pool and trying to prognosticate the first-round process, were on target. The first stanza, for the most part, followed the trends that many felt would be fairly prevalent among the top 32 choices.

Because of six trades and a rare "pass" by the Minnesota Vikings on the No. 7 overall pick, only 17 franchises -- barely half the teams in the NFL -- chose in their original slots. A league-record 11 defensive linemen, including a half-dozen tackles (which tied a first-round high), went off the board. There were four quarterbacks, or as many as were chosen in the first rounds of the last two drafts combined, selected by teams looking to the future.

Of the 32 first-rounders, 18 of them were on the defensive side of the ball. Only a total of four linebackers, tight ends and tailbacks -- the draft's weakest positions, as defined by most scouts -- were selected. In only one draft since the 1970 merger (1973) was there as few as one linebacker chosen in the opening round. And the lone 'backer on Saturday wasn't Bailey, as anticipated, but rather Nick Barnett of Oregon State.

"Even with all the moving around, there weren't a whole lot of shockers," said Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe, who provided perhaps the most startling moment of the round when he snatched University of Miami tailback Willis McGahee with the 23rd overall selection. "In a draft like this one, teams' boards get pretty subjective and people focus on needs, but you still had good players going off in about the order most felt they would."

In fact, it was that subjectivity and emphasis on filling holes in a draft where one personnel director had just nine prospects with first-round grades on his board that spurred much of the trade action.

The 17 franchises that chose in their original slots represented five fewer than in the 2002 draft. The remaking of the board was exacerbated by the botched Minnesota-Baltimore trade, in which the Ravens were seeking to slide up three spots for quarterback Byron Leftwich, and which ended with the clock running out and the Vikings having to pass on a selection.

At one stretch of the first round, a mere five of 17 selections were made by clubs picking in the slot where they started the day. There was a run where seven straight choices were made out of slot. There was just one juncture of the first round in which there were as many as four straight picks in the slots where teams began the day.

Not surprisingly, much of the scrambling to move around was a result of the unusually deep defensive line pool. Seven of the 11 defensive line choices were made by teams who targeted front four candidates, then switched spots to get their man, and tackles again dominated the early going.

This year's first round continued a trend in which the draft was flush with quality tackles, a position that traditionally has been the most difficult to fill on a roster. It raises to 16 the number of tackles chosen in the first round the last three years.

Notable was that the New York Jets, who gambled by dealing up to the No. 4 spot the day before the draft, won that roll of the dice when Kentucky star Dewayne Robertson was available for them. Robertson was one of the truly hot players in the draft in the month leading up to the lottery, a dominating interior masher often compared to Warren Sapp of Tampa Bay, and at least two teams were attempting to move up even ahead of the Jets in an attempt to land the former Wildcats star.

"The game starts inside now," said New Orleans coach Jim Haslett, whose team moved up 11 slots, sacrificing a pair of first-round picks to do so, to grab Georgia tackle Johnathan Sullivan. "It's a big man's game. The way the game is played now, if you can't stop the run, you can't win. And those big tackles help you stop the run."

A hint at how essential the tackle position has become: New England took Texas A&M prospect Ty Warren at the 14th spot, even though he has been a difficult player to evaluate, because of injuries. But the Pats are switching to a 3-4 front in 2003, sorely needed a nose tackle-type player to be able to move Pro Bowl performer Richard Seymour to end, and felt Warren was a very good player when healthy.

After a few down drafts, the defensive end position resurfaced, with five picks in the first round, even though the first pass rusher didn't go off the board until the Baltimore Ravens stopped the fall of Arizona State standout Terrell Suggs with the 10th overall pick. In concert with the pass-rushers in the first round, a surprising five cornerbacks were selected, including the superb Terence Newman of Kansas State, who went to Dallas at No. 5.

Speculation had been that Newman, perhaps the most immediate impact player in this draft, might be passed by new Dallas coach Bill Parcells, who needed to add size to his front seven. But even with concerns about nerve damage to his left shoulder, Newman was simply good to ignore, allowed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

"He'll enable us to 'press' receivers more," said Jones, "and allow us to put our outstanding safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and to be a lot more flexible upfront."

The four quarterbacks chosen in the round represented the most in the first stanza since five went off the board in 1999.

In addition to top overall choice Carson Palmer (Cincinnati) and Leftwich (Jacksonville), the Ravens orchestrated a trade-down, just as they suggested they might, to take Kyle Boller, and Chicago, in a mild surprise, finished the quarterback run by choosing Rex Grossman with the 22nd selection. Chicago took Grossman despite having signed Kordell Stewart as a free agent.

"You can't ever have too many quality quarterbacks," said Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. "Rex was a guy we liked. We love his competitive nature, the fire with which he plays the game, his feistiness. He was just too good to pass up at that spot and, when we studied the draft, we felt like he might be there. It's part of the reason we made the (trade-back) deal that we did. It worked out well for us."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.