Top of 2005 draft remains unsettled

While Alex Smith seems to have emerged as the No. 1 prospect, this year's draft is still extremely unsettled at the top.

Updated: April 21, 2005, 12:41 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

On the eve of the 1991 draft, a fax from the representatives of Raghib "Rocket" Ismail arrived at the Dallas Cowboys' headquarters, even as high-ranking franchise officials were concluding their final late-night strategy session before the lottery.

The lengthy missive detailed the contract offer the Notre Dame star had received from the Toronto Argonauts, provided Cowboys owner Jerry Jones the chance to match it and strongly suggested that if he didn't, the fleet wide receiver was headed to the CFL to begin his professional career. The letter was promptly filed precisely where a lot of the Cowboys' draft scouting reports ended up that year.

In a garbage can.

Dallas didn't want Ismail. Fact is, choosing first, the Cowboys didn't really want many of the top-rated prospects in what might rank as one of the most anemic talent pools in draft history. Faced with the flimsy, Dallas went with the familiar, opting for defensive tackle Russell Maryland, whom coach Jimmy Johnson had recruited at the University of Miami. Remember, this was 14 years ago and, because franchises were not as anxious about having the No. 1 choice signed before the draft started, some intrigue still existed. So, when commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that Maryland was the initial selection, most pundits gasped.

And Johnson and Jones smiled.

How come? Because they knew that while Maryland was unremarkable, he was also unimpeachable, a solid, blue-collar interior defender who would have a productive, even if mostly unspectacular career. He was the money market fund of first-round picks, a player in whom you could make an investment with low risk because you knew there was going to be a modest but meaningful dividend. The payback: Five seasons helping to anchor the Dallas defensive line and a leader on three Super Bowl title teams.

"Would he have been the first pick in many drafts?" Jones noted a few years ago in reviewing the Cowboys' draft history. "Maybe not. But he was the right pick for us."

And that feeling is the essence of what many franchises, particularly those with slots in the top 10 of the first round, must find a way to do this year. In a draft class that is dubious at the top, and all but bereft of "must-have" prospects, teams must find a player who is the right fit for them, and who will not slip into the ignominious category of first-round bust.

Certainly the top eight to 10 players in this weekend's draft are more talented than the motley crew from the opening stages of the '91 lottery. The biggest problem for 2005 isn't so much that the draft is unstocked but that it is uncertain, with ill-fitted pieces and teams scrambling to locate square pegs for square holes. The conundrum, however, remains the same: getting the optimum fit.

"If you're in the [top] mix, you've got to score a 'hit,'" said San Francisco rookie coach Mike Nolan, whose team has the initial selection. "You have to get a player who helps you very quickly and who does things the way you're going to do them. If you're one of the teams at or near the top and you get to a certain point of the season and your pick isn't playing for you, then you didn't do your homework."

Going back again to that '91 draft, revisiting the carnage of an awful first round, it's clear that accomplishing the feat of merging skill and scheme isn't always an easy thing to do. What ensues in such a fluid situation, when teams are still scrambling in those last days leading up to the draft, are high-round high jinks.

Teams panic, make "reach" picks and suffer the consequences.

Consider the choices that ensued after Maryland went off the board: safety Eric Turner (Cleveland), cornerback Bruce Pickens (Atlanta), linebacker Mike Croel (Denver), corner Todd Lyght (Los Angeles Rams), defensive tackle Eric Swann (Arizona), bookend Tennessee offensive tackles Charles McRae (Tampa Bay) and Antone Davis (Philadelphia), strong safety Stanley Richard (San Diego) and wide receiver Herman Moore (Detroit).

Other than Moore, there aren't exactly any Hall of Fame candidates in the bunch, and, in fact, there are more rejects.

The group certainly featured its share of stiffs. The Falcons chose Pickens only after desperately attempting to bail out of the No. 3 pick and finding no takers. The Nebraska cornerback held out until October. In his first workout after signing his contract, Pickens concluded a set of sprints by collapsing to his knees and regurgitating his breakfast. After watching him play, Atlanta officials wanted to upchuck. Richard, the ninth pick, proudly nicknamed himself "The Sheriff." A couple of years later, a forlorn San Diego personnel official lamented that the safety "should have been arrested" for impersonating a player. While Swann had some solid years when healthy, his injuries made him more of an ugly duckling in the big picture.

There have been other draft years, before and after the limp lottery of 1991, in which the quality at the top was suspect and the overall No. 1 pick was not very clear-cut. That was obviously the case in 1988, when Atlanta chose Aundray Bruce, still regarded as one of the draft's most notorious washouts. In '96, when Keyshawn Johnson went to the New York Jets with the initial choice, there was considerable disagreement over the identity of the top prospect. One year later, when St. Louis grabbed left offensive tackle Orlando Pace, it came after much deliberation over two or three other prospects.

"What you always want to do is settle on a particular player, not settle for a guy," one NFC college scouting director said earlier this week. "We're probably going to get a little of both this year and that's not a good thing."

Said Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe: "It's so undefined at the top, more so than in most years, and that's a problem. When the top teams don't know what they are doing, yeah, that isn't a good sign."

One obvious area in which this year's draft has some advantage over years in which there was a lack of agreement on the top pick is that a consensus seems to have galvanized around Utah quarterback Alex Smith. Whether the 49ers choose Smith remains to be seen. But he has become, for sure, the hot player several teams covet. If the 49ers were to select California quarterback Aaron Rodgers instead, Smith would be a guy many clubs would try to move up to secure.

In that regard, at least, 2005 isn't quite as unnerving as 1991, when Maryland certainly was more a compromise than a clear-cut choice at the outset of the draft. The similarity is that, as the Cowboys did 14 years ago, teams must find a way to cut through the fog still hovering over draft rooms and identify a subset of prospects who are good fits for them.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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