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Thursday, April 18, 2002
Updated: April 19, 9:43 AM ET
 
Talent takes sharp drop in first round
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

When it comes to the annual draft, and particularly the first round of the all-important springtime lottery, one can set aside the age-old philosophical debate about whether the glass is half-empty or half-full.

Live Draft Coverage
Once again the ESPN family brings you wall-to-wall coverage of the NFL draft in whatever format suits your weekend schedule:

TV: ESPN and ESPN2 will provide 17 hours of live coverage beginning at Noon ET on Saturday and 11 a.m. ET on Sunday. Chris Berman and Mike Tirico anchor the shows, with Mel Kiper Jr., Chris Mortensen and former Cowboys and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson providing analysis.

Web: Log on to ESPN.com while you watch to get instant updates on DraftTracker, pick-by-pick analysis and to cast your votes in the broadcast's opinion polls. Plus you can listen to an audio roundtable discussion, hosted by Mark Malone, with NFL players Tim Brown (Raiders), Deuce McAllister (Saints), Matt Light (Patriots), Corey Chavous (Vikings) and Simeon Rice (Buccaneers).

Radio: If you can't be near your TV or computer, tune in ESPN Radio and listen to Saturday's coverage (11 a.m. ET) with Trey Wingo, Mark May, John Clayton and Sean Salisbury.
Half is half, no matter how hard you try to pretty it up, or rationalize it. And, as far as the majority of personnel directors and scouts are concerned this weekend, half ain't good.

Which by extrapolation means that the 2002 draft -- an undertaking that figures to include more angst than the latest episode of The Osbournes and perhaps as much bleepin' cursing ("Sharon, he can't play fricking quarterback, let alone play bass guitar, at this level, love!") as well -- will feature lots more suspects than prospects.

The consensus of the talent evaluators surveyed by ESPN.com over the last two weeks is that the second day of the draft nearly isn't as deep in 2002 as it has been in recent years. Far more significant, however, is that the first round will be depleted of viable impact performers by just about the midway point of the stanza.

"You get to around (pick) 15 or 16 and, wham, it just goes off the edge," said Carolina personnel director Jack Bushofsky. "The names suddenly run out and you're stuck staring at a bunch of second-rounds guys with half the (first) round still to fill out."

In short, folks, the glass is broken.

One area scout for an NFC team contended that the grades for the players in the bottom half of the first round are the best he has seen in years, but he is in the minority, and his club's draft board certainly doesn't jibe with most around the league.

If a franchise isn't choosing among the top 17-20 players in the first go-round, holds the conventional wisdom, it likely will be scrambling to fill its No. 1 spot with a prospect of lesser quality. As history has indicated, that is never a good feeling, and mistakes made by "reaching" for players can haunt franchises for years.

You get to around (pick) 15 or 16 and, wham, it just goes off the edge. The names suddenly run out and you're stuck staring at a bunch of second-rounds guys with half the (first) round still to fill out.
Jack Bushofsky, Carolina personnel director

Unfortunately, this looks to be another year when the supply is far shy of the demand. "You can probably draw a line somewhere about No. 17 or No. 20, because if falls off at that point, as far as the guys with (first-round) grades," said Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly, whose expansion club owns 13 choices overall in the draft. "It is a stronger draft, in terms of getting the right players at the right value, after that. In the second round, there are good players, guys with second-round grades. But some of those players will be pulled up into the bottom spots in the first round."

That means clubs will be paying out first-round signing bonuses to players with second-round grades. Unlike cubic zirconium, the faux first-rounders don't come with a reduced price tag, and teams can't haggle for a mark-down in negotiations. The first-round label always comes complete with a first-round sticker price.

Little wonder that the Oakland Raiders, right in the thick of the first-round no-man's land with the No. 21 and No. 23 choices overall, are burning up the phone lines attempting to deal to about the middle of the first stanza. Oakland officials Thursday morning phoned the Washington Redskins, who have the 18th choice, to lay the groundwork for a possible move up the board. The Redskins are hardly the only team that's heard from the Raiders.

Oakland also phoned the Atlanta Falcons, who have the 17th overall choice, to gauge their interest in a possible trade. The irony in a Raiders call to Washington is that, in addition to an interest in dealing down in the first round, the Redskins are also exploring chances of moving up for a shot at Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder has been personally calling teams - he offered Cincinnati his first- and second-round choices for the 10th pick overall, contingent on Harrington being available at that spot - both above and below him. So up or down? At this point, not even Washington officials know which way they'll go, or whether they'll stay put.

Such indecision, though, is inherent in a draft where the best value choices might be in the second or third rounds.

This is, indeed, a draft that screams for Jimmy Johnson to come out of retirement - well, for something other than his ESPN commentary on the proceedings, that is - because he was astute at assigning precise values to players and not wavering. While other personnel men were struck by inertia in the kinds of circumstances confronting teams this weekend, Johnson always found a way to maneuver and get a player where he should be gotten.

Down in the second half of a (first) round like this one seems to be, you're just hoping that something weird happens, that someone slides down to you who has no reason being there.
Ozzie Newsome, Ravens vice president of personnel

But wheeler-dealers like Johnson, and former Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf, are gone now. Instead of using their fingers to call around and cut deals, some team will cross their fingers, and hope for a smidgeon of good fortune.

"Down in the second half of a (first) round like this one seems to be, you're just hoping that something weird happens, that someone slides down to you who has no reason being there," said Ravens vice president of personnel Ozzie Newsome.

The early strength of this draft, for a second spring in a row, appears to be at defensive tackle. While the '02 lottery won't challenge the record six defensive tackles selected in the first round last year, four players from a position once deemed nearly impossible to fill could go off the board by the 12th pick. There is also good depth at wide receiver and on the offensive line. But this year especially depth is a relative term.

Most scouts agree there are about 8-10 elite prospects in the '02 talent pool and an equal number of players who should be legitimately projected as first-round picks. After that, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the proceedings in the bottom portion of the first round will become exceedingly more subjective.

A few teams may try to trade up out of the second round and into the bottom of the first, with Colorado tight end Daniel Graham a target of three or four franchises if he remains on the board around the 20th pick, but just as many clubs want to fall back. Loading up on second-round choices, in fact, may be the preferred way to go.

"It really is more a second-round draft," said Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo. "In the second round, more guys fit, and you're getting people with solid grades there. Plus, you're getting guys who are going to play for you."

The 2001 offensive rookie of the year (Bears tailback Anthony Thomas) and defensive rookie of the year (Pittsburgh linebacker Kendrell Bell) were both second-round choices. The leading rookie receiver, Chris Chambers, was the Miami second-round pick. Of the 22 positional players on the all-rookie team, 10 came from the second round or later.

This weekend could well produce a similar second-round bounty. Don't look, though, for much from the second day of the draft. The projected Sunday remnants don't look strong at all, and one AFC general manager joked that he might try to deal all of his second-day choices for an additional selection in the third round.

"Then I'd only have to work one day of the weekend," he said, "and it really would be a halfway draft for me."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.