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Awakening from a nightmare to take one more shot at Round 1

I have a persistent nightmare around draft time. I will burn out my youth by working round the clock, bringing my mock draft absolutely up to tip top shape, file it to the magazine editors, watch the Sports Illustrated on Sunday deadline go sailing by and then ... and then... get trapped in the announcement a day later that the first team drafting has locked up its man and it ain't the one my Mock Draft sez it's going to draft.

With the deadline passed, I am powerless to move. Thus the announcement earlier this week that Miami is drafting Jake Long at No. 1, rather than, sob, Vernon Gholston, who never really had a chance, has turned your faithful narrator into a clown.

Worst of all, the mood of my loyal readers is not anger, as it should be. It's sorrow. A fine mind burned out at the still productive age of 93. A lifetime's work wasted.

Here's what happened. Bill Parcells told me the talks between himself and ex-Chief guard Tom Condon, Long's agent, were progressing. Gholston? Not a word about him. Aha, sez the crafty Z. A set-up that I knew well. Setting the world up with Long while Parcells snatches Gholston from under the noses of many who crave him.

I place another call to Condon. "We've been talking," he says. Right, and you'll be talking while he drafts the other guy. Ah, Fra Diavolo, do I know this vicious game or don't I? I am the man who will nail this ruse while others fall into the trap. I'm the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo. I am LeCarre's Smiley and Fleming's Bond rolled into one package. How can my readers get so lucky?

Then Parcells agreed to a deal to draft Long. My suicide attempt was foiled when the Redhead snatched away the soup spoon I was trying to swallow. I give you now my, sob, amended top of the draft, since quite a few lives have been affected by this unforeseen change in fortunes:

1) Dolphins -- Jake Long, T, Michigan

Miami needs a ... sorry, I just can't go through with it. See above.

2) Rams -- Chris Long, DE, Virginia

"We'll take whichever Long falls to us," Scott Linehan told me at the League meetings. Jake would have been preferred. Howie's kid will give them a dozen years of maximum effort.

3) Falcons -- Matt Ryan, QB, Boston College

The scouts love Glenn Dorsey, the disruptive defensive tackle from LSU. The coaching staff would like to start the new regime with a hot young quarterback in place. This is a debate that will rage right up until draft day.

4) Raiders -- Darren McFadden, RB, Arkansas

Al Davis reverts to his roots and goes for the player most capable of producing the deep strike. McFadden's 4.33 qualifies, but it could be a strikeout if the baggage he carries (two night club tiffs) becomes excess baggage.

5) Chiefs -- Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State

Trading Jared Allen to the Vikings now moves DE to the forefront on the need list, and an offensive lineman will come later. Gholston's workouts have been off the charts. He runs a 4.65 40, and his bench press of 37 reps tied Jake Long's mark for best at the Combine. Dorsey's name has arisen, for those who equate DT with DE. Ryan Clady's name is in the mix, if KC wants to go O-line now and save the defense for their 17th pick. Brett Favre is a name not to be overlooked, if they feel they can somehow find him and lure him out of retirement, and the name of Felidia has arisen, for those who like fine Italian food.

6) Jets -- Ryan Clady, T, Boise State

Damn! Gholston's gone and we oh so wanted him. Dorsey? Hmmm, would be dynamic in the middle, no question, and if we draft him, then New England couldn't -- those are the rules -- but Clady's a terrific O-lineman, a complete tackle, one of the Boys from Boise. Why not?

7) Patriots Glenn Dorsey, DT, LSU

They're a base 3-4 defensive team, but Bill Belichick likes to throw in a lot of 4-3 on pressure downs. And with the dynamic, disruptive Dorsey lining up next to All-Pro Richard Seymour, the Pats will have enough pressure to make lives miserable.

8) Ravens -- Keith Rivers, LB, USC

Do you fortify an already powerful defense with the most gifted, nifty-footed linebacker on the board, or try to trade up for Matt Ryan -- or hope the BC quarterback falls to you at No. 8? If Dorsey is still there, he'd be too good to pass up as well.

9) Bengals -- Sedrick Ellis, DT, USC

Cincy hasn't seen this kind of player on its interior defensive line since the days of Tim Krumrie. Speed is Ellis's best attribute; he has a great burst off the ball. He'll make everyone better on what was a disappointing unit last year.

10) Saints -- Mike Jenkins, CB, South Florida

Could use Keith Rivers, but he'll likely be gone. The top corner is available if the Saints want him. The decision will be between the explosive Jenkins and Troy's kineticLeodis McKelvin, who coach Sean Payton says represents the safer choice.

11) Bills -- Devin Thomas, WR, Michigan State

Surprising that the best wideout is still left, but it's a great fit for the Bills, who need someone to complement Lee Evans on the other flank. The defensive coaches could win the argument, though, and then the pick will be a cornerback.

12) Broncos -- Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Illinois

Mike Shanahan collects running backs, and this rugged, 225-pound north-south slasher fits the coach's preference for quick, decisive thrusts. Oregon's Jonathan Stewart would also have been a good fit for the Broncos if not for his recent toe surgery.

13) Panthers, Derrick Harvey, DE, Florida

The Panthers are looking for an active pass rusher to take Mike Rucker's spot on the right side of the line. Harvey, a 6-5, 270-pounder with 4.85 speed, would be a nice bookend to Julius Peppers. He had 81/2 sacks and 17 tackles for losses as a junior last year.

14) Bears, Jeff Otah, T, Pittsburgh

Dynamic run blocker, a reincarnation of ... that's right -- Jimbo Covert, another tackle out of Pittsburgh and first-round pick by Chicago, who cleared the way for a lot of those Walter Payton yards. At 6-6 and 340, Otah's a bit bigger than Covert.

15) Lions, Branden Albert, G, Virginia

At 6-7, 315, he slides over to tackle, with the power and athleticism to handle the move. (Albert started two games there last season.) Harvey's a possibility if the Lions decide to go defense, Mendenhall if they're looking for a runner -- if either is available.

16) Cardinals, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Tennessee State

Sensational combine workouts and a big-time Senior Bowl, but he was strangely unproductive in some games for the 5-6 Tigers. Explanation? "He was probably bored," says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt.

17) Chiefs (from Vikings) -- Leodis McKelvin, CB, Troy

Where's the offensive lineman you promised? Oh this will never do, never do at all. I mean Troy? Why not draft Helen Of. You say what? He's the best pure cover corner on the board. A natural. Smooth and instinctive. Sorry, the O-line is still an area of crucial need.

18) Texans, Chris Williams, T, Vanderbilt

Houston's quarterbacks are perennially under pressure, and the Texans are finally addressing the problem at the ground level. Williams is the consensus No. 4 tackle in the draft, a tall, smooth, athletic type with fine pass-blocking instincts.

19) Eagles, Aqib Talib, CB, Kansas

He's higher on Philadelphia's board than on other teams'. A size-and-speed guy (6-1, 202 and 4.44 in the 40), he plays with a kind of arrogance that makes him liked or disliked by the scouts. There's no middle ground.

20) Buccaneers, James Hardy, WR, Indiana

How much longer can Joey Galloway carry the receiving load for the Bucs? Hardy, with his outstanding size (6-5, 217) and athleticism, is a perfect complement. He's not a burner, but that's no problem -- the 36-year-old Galloway can still leave 'em behind when he has to.

21) Redskins, Phillip Merling, DE, Clemson

An unusual pick for the Skins, who are generally attracted by the flashy athlete. Merling is an unspectacular, fundamentally sound wingman who isn't highly rated as a pass rusher but will give new coach Jim Zorn an honest day's work.

22) Cowboys, Felix Jones, RB, Arkansas

Every draftnik with a pencil is predicting Jerry Jones will turn to his alma mater, though an 8.7 yards per carry leads me to believe this guy could be long gone. Dallas could also package its two picks to move up for McFadden, or take Oregon's Jonathan Stewart.

23) Steelers, Gosder Cherilus, T, Boston College

OK, it's a name that belongs on the back of a Pittsburgh uniform. But more than that, the 6-7, 315-pound Cherilus is the kind of pick the Steelers love to make -- a tough, hardworking, drive-blocking offensive lineman. I love this kind of pick too.

24) Titans, Limas Sweed, WR, Texas

Stewart, the Oregon running back, will get a long look. "Eddie George came back from the same toe injury [Stewart had]," Jeff Fisher says. But in the end the Titans will go with the safer pick, the 6-4, 219 Sweed, a serious target on the short fade to the end zone.

25) Seahawks, Kenny Phillips, S, Miami

The Seahawks could go a lot of different ways with their pick, including tight end, but there's just something about the history of safeties from the U. Phillips has solid measurables (6-1 1/2, 213; 4.43 in the 40) and good coverage skills.

26) Jaguars, Kentwan Balmer, DT, North Carolina

If there's one defensive tackle left on the board, Jack Del Rio's going to grab him. Balmer's a hard worker, but can he fill in for Marcus Stroud, who was traded in March to the Bills in a cap move? Possibly, but not for a year or two.

27) Chargers, Jonathan Stewart, RB, Oregon

If not for March turf-toe surgery, he'd be long gone by now. It's a gamble, but Norv Turner can afford to wait because Stewart will be used in the Michael Turner role, as a backup for LT. If Stewart regains his form, the Chargers have pulled off the steal of the draft.

28) Cowboys, Brandon Flowers, CB, Virginia Tech

And that should empty the cornerback storehouse. Extreme toughness is Flowers's trademark, which offsets a less-than-dynamic 40 time (4.55). But guaranteed, he'll make his presence felt on the field, either in the base defense or in the nickel.

29) 49ers">49ers, DeSean Jackson, WR, California

Mike Nolan thinks there's quality and depth at wideout even this late in the round, and the shockingly fast (4.29) Jackson could be his home run guy. The only knock against him is his size (5-11, 178), which might limit Jackson to duty as a combined wideout-returner.

30) Packers, Malcolm Kelly, WR, Oklahoma

Here's a big guy (6-4, 219) whose unimpressive 40 time of 4.54 will cause him to drop deep into the first round. But Kelly could be a valuable possession receiver, and what better gift for new starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers?

31) Giants, Dustin Keller, TE, Purdue

I was all set to hand them Dan Connor, the Penn State LB, but Jeremy Shockey began to make noise about wanting a trade. I think the Giants have had it with him and are ready for a speed-and-agility guy, though Keller might have trouble blocking NFL 'backers.

Your faithful scribe I fear is getting daftMessing with this nonsense called Mock DraftThank God I now can turn to something saneMailbag! My own dear comfortable domain!

• Frank of Seattle asks why wouldn't a team give away the top pick in the draft, to rid itself of the headache and the exorbitant cost? Oy! And I called this column sane. Well, you see, Frank, if some team actually sandbagged in such a manner, its fans would line up with pickaxes, and the first target at the club's offices would be anything with glass, and the second would be the window that says, "Turn in your tickets here."

But just to show that he still has some modicum of sanity left, Frank invites me to visit the Washington wine country. I think I mentioned in a previous column, Frank old boy, that I used to go with a lady cattle rancher from Benton City named Sharon Engstrom, and we did a good number on the wineries in that area, and even made it to the International Pinot Noir Festival in McMinnville, Ore. What was one great thing about Sharon? She had a cattle herding dog named Morgan who could jump as high as your head and never tired of messing with dog fanciers such as myself.

Joe of Missoula, Mont., is agonizing about why highly rated draft prospects fail. He cites Ryan Leaf and Pacman Jones, "guys that did not have the head or heart for the game." Fairly accurate call on Leaf. Jury's still out on Pacman, if he somehow, miraculously, rights the ship. Joe cites possible lack of desire, after they've banked the big pay check. Less common, but not out of the question. Finally -- bad coaching in a bad organization. Yes, too often than you'd like to believe. Usually QB's are affected most in this situation, but even kickers can be destroyed by overcoaching from a staff that didn't have a clue. All your reasons are valid. Not everyone is astute, and some are only dimly competent.

Here's our Emailer of the Week, ChadPawlingof Hoboken, N.J., who steered me, via a web address that had more symbols than the tomb of Ramesses I, to a Sam FarmerL.A. Times piece that referred to something I mentioned in my last column, the nervousness of some clubs about the fact that cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has only one kidney. Born with two, but one was non-functioning and was removed when he was 8, the story said. Kind of like my brain.

Todd of Minneapolis wonders whether Jared Allen is worth the first and two thirds the Vikings gave up, considering the guy's DUI arrests and suspension last year. Only if he is over his drinking problem. Otherwise we're looking at Love Boat II.

John of Fort Collins, Colo., wants to know what's the best drafting spot, considering the huge prices of the top few. Depends on the talent available. If Lawrence Taylor's on the board, you want to get him as high as you can, no matter how much he costs, figuring a first ballot Hall of Famer is worth the price, which will be creatively spread over the next 1,000 years or so. But there are also years in which there isn't much dropoff until you get to the seventh or eighth position, or even lower. Then a team can get the player it needs for considerably less money. But if you're angrily pounding the table and saying, "Come on, Z, give me a number for an average year," I'd say around five.

Kurt of Westlake Village, Calif., has just about answered the question for us. "I checked the first round picks going back 20 years. It seems that about six to nine picks per year turn out to be worth the spot they were taken and the money paid." Trade down, he says. "You get more volume and more money for free agents who have proven themselves." And for me, more money for my book collection and my military miniature and coin collections and my cigar box label collection, and maybe now you understand why I am not placed in any position in which I have to responsibly deal with any figures over $20.

Here's one I can shortstop after one sentence, and I mean you, Jeff of Rochester, Minn. "It always makes me wonder how you so call football experts get these college players wrong..." etc. That's it. Shtop der pwesses! And it always makes me wonder how e-mailers such as you so called experts ever lose money on the stock market or pick a horse race wrong or vote for the wrong presidential candidate or get lost on your way to the barber's or dial a wrong number or... Linda, make some hot soup, I'm going to lie down for a while.

Shane of Hastings, Neb., proves something that George Young used to say. "You know what religion most NFL scouts are? Hindu. They all believe in reincarnation. This guy's another Lawrence Taylor, this one's another Unitas." Chris Long reminds him of Justin Smith, 10 years younger. Vernon Gholston is "Mike Mamula all over again." Jake Long? "Reminds me of any number of Big Ten linemen who look great on Saturday and average on Sunday."

Chris Long plays the run better than Smith did. Gholston has more talent but, so far, less desire than Mamula had. Jake Long? You might be right there. But don't be so bitter. It's the draft, man. Biggest lottery in the world. Best flesh market this side of Constantinople. Have fun. Draw up 30 or 40 Mock Drafts yourself. Watch the TV coverage all weekend with a couple of cases of beer at your side. Invite your friends and girlfriends over.

Bob of Huntington Park, N.Y., wants to know how all the clubs, as well as this fat dude sitting in my own swivel chair, could have been so wrong, with their near hysterical praise of Iowa's Robert Gallery when he came up. Charley Casserly, who ran the Redskins draft in those days, explained the following to me. "Linemen are so well coached at Iowa that you make mistakes with them. You confuse technique with natural ability."

Kevin of Mercer Island, Wash., asks how the same Gallery graded out at RG last year, after being moved from tackle, and if he can be a solid seven-year guy at the new position. I didn't grade him highly at guard. Too stiff. Six more years at the position? That will carry him until he's 33. I guess it's possible, but he might get recycled a few times.

Jason of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, wonders if it's time for the NFL to implement a rookie salary cap. Ed Garvey, the former Players Association head, proposed it more than 20 years ago and it never got very far. The agents, for one, would go crazy. Gosh, that would be tough, wouldn't it? It made a lot of sense to me at the time and it still does, but the opponents said it would chase the great athletes away from football and into basketball and field hockey and water polo, in search of the real big money.

Hear that bugle? It's sounds the end of draft questions. And here comes the next squadron.

First up, Robert of New Orleans. Stand at attention when you're addressing me! "Is there a way to determine steroid use from appearance?" Yes. Women with mustaches or beards. Men who weigh 290 or more with less than three percent body fat. Or more than 20 percent head fat. OK, you're starting to wobble, so I'll give you a reasonably straight answer.

The first time I noticed something odd was when I covered the Super Bowl and immediate pre-Super Bowl Steelers. Their bodies looked smoother, almost rubberized, like inflated balloons. I remember writing that they looked like nothing I'd seen before, like they were from another planet. No kidding, I really wrote this. I remember staring openly at Steve Courson, the guard and an admitted steroid user. He looked like he was inflated, or possibly pumped up with water.

Since then things were refined, and now the traces are tough to detect. They say undue amount of pimples on the back, and things I'm sure you've heard about, are tipoffs, but aside from too much bulk with not enough of a corresponding amount of body fat, I can't think of too many sure giveaways. Besides, human growth hormones have replaced steroids as the drug of choice.

Mark of Albuquerque isn't entirely happy about Dan Rooney openly endorsing Barack Obama as a presidential candidate. "I'd rather sports owners would keep quiet over those items and just direct their organizations," he says. I totally agree with you -- if they're endorsing McCain or any other George Bush lookalike. But the Obama boosters have an open invitation to be my guest.

Is this fair? No. Am I opinionated and biased? Absolutely. But for too many years I covered the Jets and sat at the dinner table at camp with a bunch of their coaches and argued politics, such as in the 1972 election, McGovern vs. Nixon. Only Mike Holovak, the backfield coach, was on my side, which was for McGovern. The others, the whole bunch of them, hollered and winged potatoes at me and told me to go back to Russia and tried to shave my head. No, just kidding, relax, just kidding. But it did get heated sometimes.

From Grant of Dusseldorf, Germany -- Does Troy Smith have a chance of stepping into Steve McNair's shoes at Baltimore? He might get the mechanics down, but few players could have McNair's heart.

From Gary of Philadelphia -- "I always thought McNair was a very good QB. Underrated. Very good leader. Played with guts. Do you have any good McNair stories?" Nah, aside from the ones everybody's heard, about being abducted as a child and raised by wolves in the forest. No, ha ha, sorry. No real stories, but I completely share your respect for him as a courageous NFL QB.

The same city, in which I was born, incidentally, produces an email from Guy T., who has some really nice things to say, and I thank you, but then has to introduce a confusing element at the end: "When you have something to say I always pay attention, but unfortunately it's not always about the sport. That's a shame. I guess it's no longer about just the sport."

Whew, you've got me confused. Is it a shame I don't write exclusively about football, straying occasionally into such esoterica as wine? Sorry, but I don't live in a box. Is it a shame that I don't pay attention only to the technical aspect of football? Ah, the heck with it. Just skip the parts that stray from the path. You ask if I ever get discouraged that the business end intrudes too often. Yeah, but even worse was the old era in which players got paid only a fraction of what they should have been making.

Anand of Kokomo, Ind., begins his letter, "Away from all the draft talk, a real football comment and question." OK, let me get ready for this. Helmet's a little tight. Uh, there, got it on... had to squeeze a bit. What's up? Forget about all these schemes, he says. It's all about one man beating the man in front of him. "Do you think this whole scheme thing is overrated?" Yes, in fact I think the whole game is over-coached, but that doesn't mean you can't outcoach or outscheme somebody. The Giants' put it to the Patriots, but it wasn't just a case of one man beating another. They rushed from different alignments, using different techniques and twists. The good coaches gear their schemes to the talents of their players.

Finally a non-football comment from Kathy of Santa Fe, N.M. "Of course the Olympics are absolutely political," she writes, and offers a complimentary word about the stuff I wrote last week about the protests. Well, thank you. I'm glad it reached somebody.

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