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NFL draft huge, but still crapshoot

It has become a cliché to say this, I know, but I still cannot believe how big the NFL draft has become. It's like Christmas -- the draft has expanded and diversified and invaded small countries and now it's a three-month celebration. In February, you already have people on SportsCenter arguing who the Seattle Seahawks should take. There have to be two dozen or more NFL draft preview magazines. There have to be 2,000 mock drafts on the Internet. Mel Kiper is everywhere.

I don't say this with disgust in my voice: I love the draft. Heck, I was one of the original draftniks. My parents' generation skipped school to watch World Series day games. My junior and senior years of high school -- 1983 and 1984 -- I skipped school to watch the draft. Somehow that doesn't sound as quaint. But it's true; the draft used to begin on a Tuesday. The draft was a low-budget operation on ESPN back then -- it was not unlike watching a local PBS telethon.*

*I remember that in one of those years, the draft show basically had one sponsor -- the NFL Helmet Phone. In my memory, that was the only commercial they played, hour after hour after hour. The plot of the commercial was simple: There was a guy standing next to what vaguely looked like an NFL helmet. And then, the plot twist, the guy reached down and picked up a phone receiver from the top. He put it to his ear to prove it was a real telephone receiver and -- this is the part that is still stuck in my brain a quarter century later -- he said: "Look! It's a real conversation piece!"

Funny thing, the only real advances in technology during the mid-1980s was turning ordinary household items into telephones. This was around the same time as the remarkable Sports Illustrated sneaker phone. I still desperately want one of those phones and you would think as an SI writer I could get one. But, so far, no one has come through for me.

In many ways, those two drafts of my childhood should tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the unsteady nature of the draft. The '83 draft is one of the most remarkable in NFL history. Six Hall of Famers were taken in the first round (John Elway, Eric Dickerson, Bruce Matthews, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Darrell Green) and another nine first-rounders became Pro Bowlers.

Put it this way: I used to watch the draft with my friend Robert, who also skipped school. Robert was the world's biggest Jets fan, and he, like every other New Yorker, wanted the Jets to draft Dan Marino. Well, by some miracle, Marino was available when the Jets' turn came up, and all those New Yorkers on TV were chanting "Ma-ree-NO, Ma-ree-NO," and Robert was doing the same. Then commissioner Pete Rozelle went to the microphone and said, "The Jets take as their first-round selection.... quarterback ..." and Robert started jumping up and down like a madman.

"... Ken O'Brien of California Davis."

And while the New Yorkers on TV shouted the loudest "NOOOOO?" in the history of planet Earth, Robert collapsed to the ground, apparently dead. But this draft was SO good, that even when teams made monumental blunders like taking Ken O'Brien over Dan Marino, they did not completely flop. O'Brien actually turned out to be pretty decent at times; he led the NFL in passer rating in 1985 and took the Jets to the playoffs that year.

So that was the 1983 draft. The '84 draft, meanwhile, was a disaster. There were zero Hall of Famers taken in the first round. There were zero quarterbacks taken in the first round. There were busts and sad stories galore -- Dean Steinkuhler was one of the greatest college offensive linemen ever at Nebraska and the second-overall pick, but he was merely a workmanlike offensive lineman in the NFL. Kenny Jackson was the fourth pick, and he never caught more than 40 passes in a season. Tennessee wide receiver Clyde Duncan lasted only two years in the NFL. Defensive back Mossy Cade had a troubled life off the field. Safety Don Rogers died after using cocaine, eight days after basketball star Len Bias had done the same. It was rough for most of the players selected in 1984.

Here's the thing I remember, though: The hype leading into the '84 draft was about equal to the hype leading into the '83 draft. Yes, in '83, the hype was all about the quarterbacks while the '84 hype was about wide receivers and linebackers, but the excitement level was more or less the same. Everyone thought they were getting a great player, a franchise-changing player, and that's the beauty of the NFL draft. That's also the crapshoot part of it. Sometimes you get Darrell Green. Sometimes you get Pete Koch. You never know.

And even though the draft is now a million times bigger than it was then, even though the ESPN draft show is now a multi-million dollar Disney production with crews on three continents and George Lucas special effects, even though there are more people working now in the draft-analysis industry than in newspapers, even though every single player who ever even thought about the NFL has been thoroughly tested, probed, examined, interviewed, interrogated, appraised and Wonderlicked, the story has not really changed. Some players will make it big. Some players will flop. Some drafts will be great. Some drafts will be awful. And there's really no way to tell.

Take Jason Smith, offensive tackle from Baylor. There is some talk that Smith will be the No. 1 pick in this year's draft. I just looked at 10 mock drafts, and none of them has Smith going lower than second. The feeling seems to be that Smith has the size, strength and balance to be one of the greats. I've read over and over that he bench pressed 225 pounds 33 times at the combine, and while I don't really have anything to judge it against, it certainly sounds amazing.

Here's the thing, though. I've watched Baylor play quite a lot because I live in a place where they show Big 12 games all the time. And as far as I can tell, Baylor was pretty bad last year. And, as far as I can remember, I never once noticed the Bears had this preposterously good offensive lineman. That's not to say that Jason Smith is anything less than brilliant; I don't watch offensive linemen. Who does?*

*I remember years ago, going to write about a Louisiana Tech-South Carolina football game. And the sports information director told me Louisiana Tech had perhaps the best offensive linemen in America. I did not believe him especially; so I trained the binoculars on the left tackle. And the sports information director was right. The offensive tackle was mesmerizing. Every running play he knocked his defender backward about 10 feet. On passing plays, he ran his man away from the quarterback. I don't think his man got a single tackle the whole game. That was Willie Roaf, who will go to the Hall of Fame someday soon. It was entertaining.

Thing is, Louisiana Tech still lost the game, and I'm certain that if I had not been watching Roaf, I never would have noticed him.

My point is this: If you were watching a college basketball game featuring the player likely to be the No. 1-overall pick in the draft, you would probably notice him. If you were watching a college baseball game with the No. 1-overall pick in the draft, you would probably notice him, too. But I probably watched 10 Baylor games in the past three years, and I never once thought, "Man, that offensive lineman is amazing."

Maybe that's just a failing on my part. But it seems to me that in football, so many pieces have to fit together. The situation has to be exactly right. The player has to stay healthy. The system has to fit. What would have happened to Tom Brady if he had been drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals? What would have happened to Akili Smith if he had been drafted by the New England Patriots? I remember an NFL coach telling me he would have drafted Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning because Leaf "has this look in his eyes."

I remember the Cincinnati Bengals trading up to the No. 1 spot to get running back Ki-Jana Carter, and then watching him blow out his ACL in his first preseason game. I remember the Kansas City Chiefs trading up to the No. 6 spot to get defensive tackle Ryan Sims, and then watching him get pushed around like he was George McFly. I also know that in the past 15 years or so, players such as James Harrison, Priest Holmes, Brian Waters, Jeff Saturday, Jake Delhomme, Kurt Warner, Antonio Gates, Tony Romo, Wes Welker and Rod Smith were not drafted at all.

So, yes, the NFL draft is big now, huge, but overall it hasn't really changed all that much. You might get a great player. You might get a bust. And, look, it's a real conversation piece.

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