You have to figure that there's a couple hundred stories every year in the NFL Draft, and for the most part, the media, with all our wisdom and well developed penchant for No. 1-itis, we focus on maybe a tenth of them. By now, with draft weekend just 10 days or so away, we're all nearly conversant in Philip Rivers (it's one L in Philip), Larry Fitzgerald (he's a former Vikings ballboy) and Kellen Winslow Jr. (he of the Hall of Fame pedigree).
But it's the second-tier prospects who carry first-day potential that most interest me as the three-month draft season builds to its climax. Those are the players who for the most part have flown well under the radar screen, but with impeccable timing are just now emerging as figures who could have more draft-day impact than ever imagined.
For instance, Georgia Tech defensive end Tony Hargrove. Bet you can't remember hearing much about Hargrove in 2003, can you? It's not surprising, since he didn't even play for the Yellow Jackets last season, after being one of 10 Tech players who were dismissed from school for academic failings in May 2003. But more on that later.
Hargrove, who won't be 21 until July, has had only one season as a starter in college (2002), wasn't invited to the Scouting Combine in February, and carries the weight of his academic troubles like a millstone around his neck. But he has personnel people within the league talking this month because he's an intriguing prospect who put up freakish workout numbers, has obvious upside to grow into, and has the good fortune to be coming out in a draft that is considered weak at defensive end.
By Thursday, Hargrove will have visited no fewer than 10 NFL teams in recent weeks, and there were a few more that tried to squeeze another one-on-one into his overcrowded schedule. San Francisco, Atlanta, St. Louis, the Giants, Indianapolis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Green Bay and Dallas all thought enough of the 6-foot-3 1/2 inch, 270-pound speed rusher to invite him in for a day.
What got everybody lining to talk to the former high school quarterback/cornerback was easy to decipher. At Georgia Tech's workout day on March 19, Hargrove put on a show, hanging up the kind of measurables that get NFL talent scouts drooling. His 40 times ranged from 4.59 to 4.68. He racked up an eye-opening vertical jump of 39.5 inches, with a 10 foot, six-inch broad jump, and really impressive times of 4.2 seconds on the short shuttle, and 7.1 on the three-cone drill. Add in his 30 reps of the 225-pound bench press, and a wingspan of 33 5/8 inches, and Hargrove rose to the stature of workout warrior.
Faster than you can say Mike Mamula, the NFL started taking notice.
For comparison sake, consider that Ohio State's Will Smith, the consensus No. 2 rated defensive end in the draft, couldn't match the workout that Hargrove turned in. Smith ran a fine 4.58 in the 40, but his vertical (38.5), broad jump (9' 9") and three-cone drill (7.42) all trailed Hargrove's.
"The kid had a phenomenal workout,'' one veteran pro personnel man said. "I think everybody's on to him at this point. There's a little bit of buzz about him after his workout. Because of the kid's athletic ability and the lack of pass rushing defensive ends in this draft, he be anywhere from the second round to a collegiate free agent on everybody's board. But his athleticism has people excited.''
Kansas City head coach Dick Vermeil is known to be a fan of Hargrove's potential, and the Chiefs had him in on Tuesday. Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio has made note of Hargrove's rapid ascent, as has Buffalo's general manager Tom Donahoe. And there are those among the Giants decision makers who believe Hargrove could some day develop into Michael Strahan's replacement. Colts general manager Bill Polian is even said to have predicted Hargrove will become a millionaire on draft day, which likely means a second or high third-round draft slot.
Teams that run the 3-4, like Houston, are intrigued with Hargrove's ability to play outside rush linebacker, and still be able to put his hand on the ground and generate pass rush in the 4-3 -- a rare combination in today's NFL. Once considered a likely second-day sleeper pick by many clubs, Hargrove ruined that plan with his workout, which exhibited his almost freaky blend of explosiveness, speed, strength and high motor.
"People always fall in love with measurables,'' said Atlanta head coach Jim Mora, whose Falcons have visited with Hargrove, a prospect in their own backyard. "You see a guy with his size and his explosion and ability to run and jump, and you say, 'Wow. I can make something of this guy.' It doesn't surprise me that people are talking about him in the second round.
"It happens like this every year with somebody this late. A guy gets momentum and a lot of team get onto him. And that's a position that people are always looking for. Your cover guys, your rush guys and your offensive tackles, in order to find them you have to create them a little bit. You sometimes have to reach up and take him on size and speed and potential. Big, good-looking athletes intrigue people. You find reasons to like those guys. And all it takes is one team to like him. All 32 don't have to like him. If one team believes they've got something with him, then they take him.''
Clearly some teams will shy away from Hargrove because he looks like the classic project player. With his limited game experience in college (24 games in 2001-2002, including 49 tackles, four sacks, and 13 tackles for loss in '02), year's hiatus from football, and academic dismissal from Georgia Tech, the consensus seems to be that Hargrove will go to a franchise that can afford to develop him for at least a year, thereby giving him something of an NFL red-shirt experience. Teams that are no position to take a first-day risk will pass on him. But rest assured, somebody will consider him a luxury they can afford in the second or third round, because pass rushers with his upside just don't grow on trees.
"If you had sat me down in August last year and told me that when April came around I'd be flying around the country visiting teams, I'd have looked at you and laughed,'' Hargrove said this week, just before leaving Jacksonville for Kansas City. "But now to be sitting here watching all this unfold, it just shows me anything's possible. If you really want anything bad enough you can always go get it.''
Hargrove is well aware that he has red flags to overcome in the NFL. Though he bears the stigma of flunking out at Georgia Tech, he's no dummy, as his sterling score of 29 on the Wunderlich intelligence test indicates. His class load last spring, when he was dropped from the Yellow Jackets program included Calculus, Accounting II, and financial management.
Still, he and nine of his teammates -- including star running back Tony Hollings, who was taken by Houston in last year's supplemental draft -- were ruled academically ineligible and asked to re-apply to Tech's program. Hargrove did so and was denied. From that point on, he decided the road to the NFL was easier than the road back to college eligibility, and he moved back home to Port Charlotte, Fla., in order to spend the year training for this month's draft.
"I think at this point I made a good decision, because things seem to be working out all right,'' he said. "I know there are rumors around, 'Oh, maybe he just didn't go to class.' But that's not true. I went to class. I put my time and effort in. It's just that the load was too much for me and I didn't have the help that I needed. If it was just me all by myself, that's one thing. But when there were 10 guys involved, then there was something going on there.''
Mora said he found it hard to believe that Hargrove flunked out, because he came across as such an intelligent person in their interview. Hargrove has made leaving exactly that kind of impression job No. 1 this spring.
"Every time I go into these meetings, I go in trying to look as sharp as I can look and be as intelligent as I know how to be, because I realize I have to go that much further,'' he said. "I've got to take that extra step to show them I'm about business, I'm about playing, and my numbers aren't just a fluke. I don't train like Tarzan and play like Jane. I train like Tarzan and I play like Tarzan.''
Maybe so, but the reigning law of the jungle in the NFL is that production usually carries more weight than potential. But once a year, come draft time, potential makes a real run at production in terms of being accorded equal status. And that's why a player like Hargrove, whose so long on upside and short on track record, can make the NFL Draft so very interesting.
"I don't want to sit on the back burner for three years and just be a project player,'' Hargrove said. "I want to make an impact from day one. I want to let some team know that, 'OK, they got a guy that maybe people just weren't sure about. But we got him because we knew it, and he came in here and he showed it.' I want to go in there and make people change their mind. Make them say, 'We don't have to wait this long to put this guy on the field. We need him to play now.' ''
Whether or not Hargrove gets his chance, we'll soon find out. But he's already reminded the NFL and its fans of one time-tested lesson: Come draft season, just as in a football season, it's not where you start out that matters, it's where you finish.