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Gabbert, Newton are both top-five picks, and more NFL draft truths


The draft, the only thing you can love in this wasteland of an offseason, starts one month from today. I'm here to give you 10 truths about what's still a very cloudy draft, with an assist from draftologist Mike Mayock. I also want to discuss five other things on my cranium this morning, as Myron Cope was fond of saying:

• The NFL has a specific line in the sand as we head into what could be a long, hot summer of negotiating -- or not negotiating.

• What in God's name made Marty Schottenheimer agree to coach something called the Virginia Destroyers?

• John Elway, worker bee.

• Today's a big day for the NFLPA and its potential plans for an alternative draft event to the Radio City shindig the league puts on.

• There's another Top 100 from NFL Films to get excited about.

We'll get to those in a bit. Before I give you my 10 verities about a very uncertain draft, let me report that I looked at 10 mock drafts in the past few days, and I saw nine different 1-through-5s, with four different number ones. This isn't altogether unprecedented a month out, but the past three drafts haven't had drama like this one is set up to have. Jake Long was a pretty solid pick a couple of weeks out for Miami in 2008, Matthew Stafford a lock to Detroit in 2009 and Sam Bradford (once he checked out medically) a sure thing with St. Louis last year.

But the fact-finding over the past couple of weeks has yielded these truths:

1. CamBlaine are going in the top five. "A month ago,'' NFL Network's Mike Mayock said Saturday, "I had significant questions about Cam Newton. But now, after studying him, I've bought into his skill set. Mechanically, he's more advanced than Tim Tebow or Vince Young were entering the NFL. Now I have to buy into the kid. After God and family, in whatever order you have them, if football's not next on your list of life priorities, then I don't want you. If he's that entertainer and icon guy, well, that's the hard part of figuring out this pick.''

But Mayock feels as I do: Someone in the top five is going to fall in love with Newton and take him. Carolina? Can't see it, not with arch-conservative Jerry Richardson having to sign off on it and GM Marty Hurney, who still likes Jimmy Clausen, having to bypass a more sure thing defensively in favor of a quarterback. I doubt Denver, at No. 2, will pull the trigger on a passer. Now Buffalo or Cincinnati -- either could go Newton. But I do not think it will be No. 5 Arizona; I hear the Cards don't like him. And Gabbert will not get past Arizona.

2. The quarterback order is confounded by Ryan Mallett. Some teams, including one with a major quarterback need, are deathly afraid of all the off-field noise about Mallett. Much of it is unsubstantiated, but I was read a report by a personnel man on Mallett the other day, and it was scathing. I think he has just as much of a chance to go in the second round as in the first, and most people in the know think Washington's Jake Locker will be the third quarterback picked, after Gabbert and Newton. After these four? "Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder, or Ponder and Dalton,'' said Mayock. More about Dalton in my Tuesday column. I think he could go anywhere from 25 to 75, and probably more toward the 25 end of things.

3. There's a chill around Marcell Dareus. I've been operating under the impression that the best defensive tackle in the draft would go one, two or three, and he probably still will. When scouts and GMs begin to go over players for the fourth and fifth time, and when they parse the words in their individual interviews, they're going to get nervous. Maybe that's what this is with Dareus. I can't put my finger on why, but he's cooling off in the eyes of several people I trust at the top of the draft. I still think he'd be the best pick for defensive-front-needy Denver or No. 3 Buffalo.

4. The Bills like Von Miller and Patrick Peterson a lot. Not saying they'll take either. Just saying they're high on both, and even though GM Buddy Nix has been at every top quarterback's workout, Buffalo-watchers think it's more likely the team will go defense.

5. The rules of top picks aren't the rules anymore. With a rookie wage scale likely to be in effect this year, Mayock's right when he says: "There are younger GMs who don't necessarily think the way the veteran guys do. A solid player might be picked higher than normal now, even if he's not at the traditionally more valuable position.'' It's the Logan Mankins theory -- if a very good guard is on the board against a good tackle, take the guard who's going to be better longer. That's why it's not inconceivable that Patrick Peterson, a corner, goes number one or two -- if he's the cleanest guy in the draft.

6. Tyron Smith's starting to look like the top tackle -- but he might not get picked first. He's 20. He doesn't have the 52 career starts of Boston College's Anthony Castonzo, or the size and athleticism of 6-foot-8 Nate Solder of Colorado, but I'm hearing more and more he has the most upside. Problem is, if you're a team with an immediate need at tackle, you're not taking Smith, because he might take a year or two to settle in.

7. As I wrote the other day, there's no clear No. 1 receiver. Julio Jones is gaining on A.J. Green, but teams may not be able to overlook how quickly Green gets in and out of cuts, and how many catchable balls Jones didn't catch at Alabama. At least one of them will be gone by No. 6 Cleveland, which has to take a receiver.

8. The fear around Nick Fairley is real. More and more I hear the "one-year wonder'' stuff. Mayock on Fairley: "Two years junior college, one year OK at Auburn, one great year. So what should you think?'' That, plus Dareus has passed Fairley on most draft boards.

9. Ditto with Da'Quan Bowers. Friday is a very big day for the Clemson defensive end, who, like Fairley, is trying to ride one college season to the top 10 of the draft. Friday at 9 a.m., Bowers works out for teams at Clemson, and his agent, Joe Flanagan, says Bowers has eight team visits scheduled after that. He will need to look healthy at the workout and perform convincingly in any further physicals, because, as one scout told me this weekend, "He's failed at least two team physicals that I know of'' on the heels of meniscus surgery after the season. Three months ago, Bowers was a candidate to be the first pick in the draft. Now, like Fairley, he has a chance to tumble a bit.

10. Surprise guy of the first round? Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget. "You know why you're not hearing about him? Because the teams that like him are hiding their interest,'' one scout said. I've heard teams who think he can be a five-technique tackle like Tyson Alualu (10th pick last year) or a three-technique disruptive influence. Whatever, he should go in the middle of round one.


About the players' event at the draft...

The players association has a meeting today to determine what form their draft night event will take. There's a slight chance there will be no event at all. Slight. But it's more likely something will happen, and it could be something different from what leaked out a couple of weeks ago -- all the draft choices being called up and greeted by a veteran player or two from the team that picks him. But I was told Sunday it still could take some form similar to that, and plans are fluid, with several options to be discussed today.

The one thing I feel sure about, though, is that it will have a welcome-to-the-family feel, with current players welcoming new players to pro football. And aside from a potential live-TV element, it also will have a live-streaming portion to it, which the players have used several times in the past few weeks to get their message out to the public. Their unfiltered message.

One last point: A couple of agents told me over the weekend that the league is going directly to prospective rookies, not through agents, to invite players and families to the draft in New York. However the invitations come out, the prospects are already feeling conflicted. Check out the tweet from Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn (@AJaClay) over the weekend: "Just got my invitation to radio city on April 28th!!! Decisions decisions!''


The NFL is bound and determined to not be under the thumb of a federal court judge in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Whenever the players and owners sit across the table from each other again, I'm told the owners won't bend on one thing: The desire to be rid of federal-court oversight in the new CBA. There had been rumblings of this going back to the mediation days in Washington, and more out of the league meetings in New Orleans last week. I was conversing Sunday with a source close to several owners and I said, "It's obvious they don't want to leave their legal fate in the hands of a judge like David Doty.'' The source shot back: "They don't want to leave their fate in the hands of a judge, period. After having the last two decades, basically, with federal oversight in the Eighth Circuit, their attitude basically is this: No other leagues have the courts lording over them. Why should we?''

I was told Sunday night by a second source that this is a vital issue for the owners. I'll explain why. Since the NFL reached a bargaining agreement with the players in 1993, each successive agreement has been an extension of the same agreement, so the basic rules have been the same. One of the rules is that federal judge David Doty has overseen any appeals between the two sides over the past 18 years.

Whereas other sports (and large unions like the steelworkers) have disputes settled by impartial arbitrators and the settlement is final, the NFL and its players have an arbitrator -- law professor Stephen Burbank of the University of Pennsylvania Law School -- but his decisions are not always final. In 2009, Burbank ordered Michael Vick to repay $16 million of his Atlanta signing bonus back to the Falcons when he defaulted on his contract due to his dogfighting conviction. Doty overruled Burbank, allowing Vick to keep the money. More recently, Burbank ruled mostly for the owners in the $4 billion network TV case, and Doty a month ago ruled for the players, meaning the owners couldn't use TV money during a lockout.

The 1993 CBA expired March 4. Now that there's a new deal to be negotiated, the NFL, whenever it talks with the players again, will contend that it's fine having a third party (even a different one than Burbank) decide cases between the two sides. But they'll draw a line in the sand over having any judge be the backstop to the arbitrator they choose.

I don't see this being a major issue for the players, because it so rarely comes into play. But when it does, it can be a doozy of a decision. Owners were furious that Vick got to keep his bonus -- but in part, the owners had themselves to blame because of the liberal language the league put in the 2006 extension. That language made it very hard for the league to recapture most bonuses already paid to players. But the players will certainly try to use this as a chip to be bargained whenever the two sides talk again.

Now we have to see who wins the next couple of legal proceedings. If a federal judge in April agrees with the players that an injunction should be issued to bar the owners from locking the players out, and if an appeals court agrees, then the players would have no great motivation to negotiate a new deal, because the rules of the 2010 league year would apply in the new league year, and business would go on as normal. But if the injunction is not granted, that would motivate the players and owners to talk.

I'd take NFLPA board member Mike Vrabel's idea and put it into action: Put some players and owners in the room and let them have at it.


Marty, Marty, Marty.

I talked to the 67-year-old Schottenheimer Saturday night, and I understand perfectly why he's going to coach the United Football League Destroyers in Virginia Beach, beginning next week: It's a perfect way for him to get back in football without it taking over his life 12 months a year. The UFL season, from the developmental start in April to the final game in late October, is a seven-month grind. Schottenheimer would still have time to golf in Palm Springs in the winter and follow his son Brian's games with the Jets in the fall.

"It's not the same pressure-cooker as the NFL,'' he told me from Palm Springs, "but it's got the other things about football I love. You build something. You watch it grow. You help players develop. Believe me, when [UFL commissioner] Michael Huyghue approached me about two and a half weeks ago, this was the furthest thing from my mind. But he came out here, we visited, we played golf, had dinner, and we thought about it. I talked to [wife] Pat and said to her, 'Frankly, I don't see a downside. Do you? Tell me if you see a downside.' She said, 'I don't.' And so all of a sudden, I'm on another life adventure.''

The 67-year-old Schottenheimer coaching football, and making a few bucks doing it, seems the right thing for him to do. Coaches today don't seem to age the way they used to. I think it's because they stay in better shape year-round.


Elway's been a pleasant surprise to John Fox.

I noticed this at the Scouting Combine. John Elway, the new vice president of football operations for the Broncos, was everywhere. In the interview rooms talking to players, out in the stadium watching the workouts. Same thing at the league meetings. Chatting with other GMs and coaches. When I sidled up to new Denver coach John Fox to ask him about it, he went on like he'd discovered gold.

It was an off-the-record conversation, but it surprised me how much Fox seemed to legitimately like and admire Elway as a club executive, so I reached out to the coach Sunday to ask if I could write about it. He called back and told me, "It's not BS, what I told you. It's real. This guy works. I have fallen in love with him. A lot of people probably thought it was going to be [just a job with a title] and he wouldn't be all in. But he is.

"We went to a speaking engagement recently in Denver and one of the things John said is, 'I've discovered there's more than one 6 o'clock.' He's in at 7 most days, out at 7. When we met with players, his perspective was valuable; he understands what makes a player better than 90 percent of the people in the league. The bottom line is, he did it right. He played, he was a success in business, he raised his kids and now he's doing something he loves. I think he's going to be good at this.''

Let me make this point about what Fox just said: I've known Fox for a long time. Plenty of times -- and I mean plenty -- I'd ask him a question and he'd say we have to talk off the record for a minute, because he didn't want to lie, nor did he want to mislead me. So I do not take his words as him trying to butter up the boss, or paint a fake picture of the boss for public consumption. We'll see how it works out, but so far, so good.


You remember the Top 100 Players of All Time show from NFL Films last year?

Now there's going to be the Top 100 Players of Today. NFL Films is counting the last of its estimated 400 ballots from current players, who have been asked since January to name their top 20 current players in the league. Films is tabulating the results on a 20-19-18 etc., basis, and will start the countdown from 100 to 91 after the draft finishes airing on NFL Network on Saturday night, April 30. That show will re-air Sunday night, and the 10 successive countdown shows will run through early July.

This much we know:

• Quarterbacks will be the third-most common players on the show, which is sort of surprising.

• No kickers or punters in the top 100.

• It's a 5-5 defense-offense split in the top 10.

• There are two 2010 rookies, including Ndamukong Suh, among the top 100.

• And unlike the historical show, on which people from all walks of life introduced the players, this will have only current players and coaches introducing their own players, teammates and foes. You'll see Rex Ryan on Darrelle Revis, for instance, and Terrell Owens on Champ Bailey, and Bill Belichick on Jerod Mayo.

• Each show will be followed by an NFL Network post-show discussion, complete with social-media fan reaction from Facebook and Twitter, in effect arguing about where the players landed.

Interesting concept, but I'll be interested to see how it's justified to have the quarterback position be number three on the list of most players in the top 100.

"The 'deal' they claim the players walked away from, I know we've turned it into a slogan that it was the worst deal in sports history, but it really was The Worst Deal In Sports History. It would have been so bad. How could it make sense to do a deal where, in the first year alone, we have a five-percent rollback in our share of the revenue? And that's the best moment of the deal! From that moment on, the deal gets worse by the day!''-- Seattle offensive lineman and player rep Chester Pitts, in a column posted on Sunday.

"We gotta quit trying to make the game perfect.''-- Mike Pereira, the former vice president of officiating, and now a FOX analyst, responding to a question at the league meetings about what's next in instant-replay.

"What has he ever done that he's completed? What circle has he connected in any way?"-- Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis, on Chad Ochocinco's tryout last week with the Kansas City franchise of Major League Soccer.

Said it before and I'll say it again: I'd be surprised if Ochocinco's a Bengal whenever this season begins. "He's under contract,'' Lewis said at the league meetings last week.

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A clarification, some speculation, and a calming of the masses:

Last week in this stat space, I wrote that 20.5 percent of kickoffs went for touchbacks last year. That's the correct number of non-returned kickoffs, but they weren't all touchbacks. That percentage also includes non-returned onside kicks and kickoffs that went out of bounds before going to the end zone. The percentage of touchbacks actually was 16 percent.

Let's extrapolate. There were 7.94 kickoffs per NFL game last year. Let's call it eight. The average kickoff reached the 5.5-yard-line last year.

With the league voting to move the kickoff spot from the 30- to 35-yard-line in 2011, and keeping touchbacks placed at the 20- instead of the 25-yard-line, I think we can assume something that's contrary to those who think the kickoff return is an endangered species:

There won't be more than 40 percent touchbacks in 2011, and I'd guess it'd be closer to about a third of all kicks. At most. A couple of important factors are at play here. If the touchbacks were resulting in the ball being brought to the 25, you can bet that any kick four- or five-yards deep would almost automatically be downed. The 25 is a good place to start if you field the kickoff in the end zone. But with the ball being brought out to the 20, teams will be more likely to tell returners to return it as normal if it's fielded two or three yards deep.

And remember this: Kickoff team members can start only five yards behind the ball. Used to be they could get a running start for wherever the players wanted to, and that, for most teams, was about 15 yards behind the kickoff spot for the fastest on the kick team. Now that they can't start more than five yards behind the ball, they won't have the same head of steam built when the ball is booted. They'll still have the advantage of the ball being kicked five yards closer to the opposition's goal line, but it may not be the great advantage it'd seemed at first blush.

So if the average kick will land at the half-yard line, and if it pays for returners to take a gamble unless the kick is at least halfway into the end zone, I still see five or six returns per game, on average. Hardly a revolution.

One last kickoff point, from Competition Committee chair Rich McKay: "If you asked the Competition Committee to vote on this as a tactical matter, we're 7-0 against it. But if you look at it in terms of something to improve player safety, we're 7-0 for it. That's what this came down to.''

Last Monday, I took a couple of hours off from the NFL meetings in New Orleans to go to one of my favorite places to watch a horse race, the Fairgrounds. In the third race, a horse owned by Jake Delhomme and his family, Offseason, was running. Offseason is not very good. He went off at 29:1, but I had to bet the nag. So I put $5 on him to show. Offseason started slow, got slower and finished last, six lengths behind the field. Eighth out of eight horses. That left his career record:

Starts: 25. Wins: 1. Places: 0. Shows: 3.

Offseason's last 10 starts: 8, 7, 11, 5, 10, 6, 7, 7, 6, 7.

Not saying I know much about the racing game -- other than there's not many better days in the sun than one at the track, at least for me -- but it might be time to put Offseason in a permanent offseason.

When St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo visited the baseball Cardinals training camp this month, Albert Pujols signed one of his real bats, a black one, for him. Using a silver Sharpie, Pujols signed it to Spagnuolo, with "God bless you'' on it. And when Spagnuolo checked it out, he was surprised -- no, stunned -- to see that Pujols spelled the coach's often-misspelled last name correctly.

"I mean, nobody spells my name right,'' Spagnuolo said.

One more reason to put Conrad Hotels at the top of your travel list (if your bosses allow you to expense premium hotels every now and then, and if you travel to Chicago, Indianapolis and Miami, where Conrads currently are open). I sat down Saturday morning to do waaaaaay too many expense reports, and missing in my file was the hotel bill from my four-night stay at the Scouting Combine in February.

"File?'' Who am I kidding? My expense file is the outer pouch of the L.L. Bean rolling suitcase I use. I just pull all of the hotel and car-rental bills out of there every few months and start guessing.

Anyhoo, the Conrad bill wasn't there, and I called the hotel around 9 Saturday morning, and a cheerful operator named Adrian asked if she could help me. I told her my situation, and she said, "Give me your e-mail and I'll send it right away.'' Wow. That's service. But I waited 10 minutes, and no bill.

I called back and she said, "OK, I'll print it out and fax it.'' Some luck I was having. We just bought a fax machine, and it keeps ringing into voice mail before beginning the fax, so I had to call back and apologize profusely.

"No problem,'' said Adrian. "What I'm going to do is fax it through the computer. It'll go right into your e-mail. Just give me a couple of minutes.''

Five minutes later, it was there.

Now, I'm sure Adrian, being the operator for a large hotel in a city, has better things to do with her time than give some idiot who was careless with his receipts three attempts to locate a month-old hotel bill. That's what makes a very good hotel very good.

"I gave a guy $800 at highway ramp 2day where he begged, GOOD cause it will give him a new start/BAD cause he'll buy crack n booze with it?''--@jimirsay, Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay, at 3:19 p.m. Eastern time Saturday, in one of his typically eye-opening tweets on a quiet Saturday afternoon. It's either some surprising giveaway or, more typically, a song verse from a '60s or '70s rocker Irsay adores.

Makes you want to find out where Jim Irsay lives and hang around highway entrance and exit ramps, doesn't it?

1. I think there's no reason why testing for human growth hormone shouldn't be in a progressive drug policy, and I fully support it being included in the next CBA the owners and plays sign. I'd bet every clean player in the NFL wants it in the substance-abuse policy, too.

2. I think I'd be in favor of compensatory picks being higher -- sort of like the sandwich picks in baseball. I've thought this for a while, but came to a conclusion the other day when I saw the Panthers were getting the first compensatory pick for losing Julius Peppers to the Bears. The pick: 97th overall ... which is tagged onto the end of the third round, but, of course, is equivalent to the first pick of the fourth round. When I see that -- and when I see the Baltimore Ravens getting two end-of-the-fifth-rounders for Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards, I know the system's out of whack.

Not that it's unfair the Ravens get two fives for those guys, because they're usable players. But look at it this way. The Ravens get the 164th and 165th picks for losing Bannan and Edwards. The Panthers get the 97th pick for Peppers. If you traded the 97th pick, you'd get a little more in value than the 164th and 165th picks, but it'd be a good starting point for discussions. And Peppers for Bannan and Edwards is a mismatch. The NFL should value compensatory picks somewhere in the top 50 for the best players who are lost in free agency. There's not a Peppers every year, but when there is, the value must be higher.

3. I think I found an interesting post, written by United Football League commissioner Michael Huyghue, on The Huffington Post, about the lockout. Huyghue's an informed observer, having formerly been the GM of the Jaguars, and he's an attorney. "My recommendation, therefore, being an attorney myself, is to 'kill all of the lawyers,' '' he wrote the other day. "Having worked both as a general manager and as an agent in the past, my experience has been that third parties are sometimes necessary to break logjams between agents and GMs.

"While working for the Jacksonville Jaguars, I found myself in a dead-end situation with star quarterback Mark Brunell's agents -- Leigh Steinberg and later Frank Bauer. In both cases, I voluntarily removed myself from the negotiations and got the player to speak directly to the owner. Neither party was a professional negotiator, but each had a vested interest in the outcome. In the few times I used this strategy, I found it was much easier to get over an impasse and ultimately reach a meeting of the minds.

"Perhaps that might just be what is simply needed here. Perhaps if we give both [NFL counsel Jeff] Pash and [players union chief and attorney DeMaurice] Smith a brief respite from the rancor of these negotiations, something positive might happen. Why not let Jerry Richardson or Robert Kraft sit face-to-face with Drew Brees or Peyton Manning (after all, they lent their names to this litigation) to work out a resolution. Somehow, I think, as in the case with Brunell, we would get back to playing football in the NFL sooner, rather than later.''

4. I think that's oversimplifying things a bit, but it is something Mike Vrabel of the players executive board proposed, and something the NFL appears willing to do. That should be the next step, after the issuance of the injunction, or after the league wins in court in April, meaning the lockout stays in force.

5. I think I don't buy for a second the Broncos would take a quarterback with the second pick in the draft. Denver had a sieve of a defense last year, 32nd in the league. No team allowed more yards, and only one team was worse against the run. Unless Kyle Orton is on the trade block -- and I can't imagine Elway choosing to enter camp with Tebow as his starting quarterback, without serious competition -- this team has to go defense.

6. I think the one takeaway I had from Tony Dungy last weekend is that I can't see him coaching again. Not saying it's impossible. Just saying with the mindset he has right now, it's highly unlikely he would carve out the time to go coach again. Dungy has his son Eric at Oregon, and he loves going up there to see the games and watching Chip Kelly's practice. He's got young kids at home, and he's in the thick of the carpooling/kid activities world. Religious and corporate entities, and his All-Pro Dad group, want him to speak all the time, and he enjoys that.

And, at one point on the long bus ride back from the prison we visited with Michael Vick, Dungy started talking about something he and wife Lauren love to do together: Going into Tampa public elementary schools to read to children two mornings a week. "Lauren thinks the time to get to kids is at a young age, when they're still enthusiastic about everything,'' Dungy said. "She's right.''

Dungy legitimately lives his life on this philosophy: If you've changed the path of one wayward person today, you've had one of the great days of your life. He's really inspiring to be around.

7. I think this is the saddest story of the week: Barret Robbins sentenced to five years in prison.

8. I think Johnny Jolly sure has a funny way of showing how much he wants to return to the Packers, getting caught with 600 grams of codeine in his car Friday after being banned for possession of codeine this past season. Dude, you're going to blow your career. It may already be blown.

9. I think I'm already petrified about my mock draft for SI, and wishing/hoping/praying for Paul Zimmerman to get back to work so he can take this most stressful thing off my hands. Zim used to call me, as nervous as I ever heard him, a week before the draft, when his mock draft was due at the magazine. This was a man who lived his life with tremendous confidence. (If you knew him, you'd know exactly what I'm talking about.) But his angst was noticeable over the years around this time of year.

Draft time. Lying time. Not sure whether he should trust coaches and GMs, worrying whether he was getting the straight dope or getting duped. Last year, I was able to fix my mock up to four days before the first round, because it was on a Thursday night and we could change picks up to the previous Sunday. But this year, the mag has decided to make the draft preview a week earlier. So I'll file my mock on Friday the 15th of April, and have the ability to make changes up to Sunday the 17th. Uh-oh. Trouble. Too much can happen between the 15th and 28th for me to look anything but dumb, especially in a year with as much uncertainty as this one. C'mon Zim! Come back!

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. The passing of Elizabeth Taylor was put best by Dick Cavett on CNN: "We have the smaller trees left, but this may be the last of the redwoods.''

b. Want to see why Elizabeth Taylor was so great and so smoldering to half the men in the western world a half-century ago? See A Place in the Sun or one of her other great efforts in her prime.

c. Happy trails, Jeff Blumb, and thanks for all the help over the years. Blumb's the Packer PR czar who left the organization last week.

d. I love Butler. How do you not love Butler? All those kids stepping up and making free throws in the final minutes of the biggest game of their lives ... admirable.

e. Two straight Final Fours for a team from the Horizon League? That's one of the stories of the year. Good for Butler. I remember covering a Xavier-Butler Midwestern City Conference game in Hinkle Fieldhouse the day after the 59-below AFC title game in Cincinnati. Bob Staak, the Xavier coach, wore an overcoat on the bench. It was 48 degrees in Hinkle that night.

f. One of the emerging stars of this year's NCAA Tournament has to be VCU coach Shaka Smart. Kenyon College-educated with a master's degree, he instills a lot more than basketball lessons in his players.

g. I do not understand Arizona calling timeout with 18 seconds left against UConn in the West Regional final Saturday, down two; the Wildcats, 4 of 19 at that point from three-point range, rushed to throw up a three-pointer with 10 seconds to go. What?!!! All half, Arizona had attacked the basket and won battles inside consistently. Not only does their best inside player, Derrick Williams, rush a three-pointer with 10 seconds and miss it, but Arizona gets the rebound and throws up another three. That one misses too. Mystifying. I'm OK with shooting the three and going for the gutsy win if you've got no presence inside. But that's not what this case was.

h. Amazing thing about UConn, to me, is the team never gets the wide eyes. No sign of being scared or tight, even when the foe throws a big uppercut. Seems Arizona three or four times mounted a rally and overtook the Huskies, and every time, in the great din of a crowd loving Arizona, UConn came back to smoke the 'Cats.

i. UConn's 9-0 in tournament play this month -- 7-0 on the East Coast (New York, Washington), 2-0 on the West Coast (Anaheim). Now the Huskies move onto the south coast, sort of (Houston).

j. Anatomy of falling out of the hockey pennant race: The Devils have lost five of six to go out meekly, but it's how they've lost. In those five losses, they scored two goals.

k. Baseball predictions: AL division champs -- Boston, Detroit, Oakland (Wild Card: Texas). NL division champs -- Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Colorado (Wild Card: Atlanta). World Series -- Phils over Red Sox in six. MVPs -- Carl Crawford, Boston; Ryan Braun, Milwaukee. Cy Youngs -- Trevor Cahill, Oakland; Josh Johnson, Florida. Managers -- John Farrell, Toronto; Ron Roenicke, Milwaukee.

l. My rotisserie team, the Montclair Pedroias, will be playing from behind, from the looks of the rosters in my New Jersey-based league. My starting eight: Matt Wieters, Justin Morneau (big risk, I know), Dustin Pedroia, Alexei Ramirez, Pedro Alvarez, Carlos Quentin, Jacoby Ellsbury, Nick Swisher; Jose Tabata or Hideki Matsui as DH; Jon Lester, David Price, Trevor Cahill, C.J. Wilson my starting four, with Carlos Marmol, Joe Nathan and David Aardsma (fine by April 20) my closers. A lot has to go right for me not to purge the entire roster by the All-Star Break. When you draft two Buccos ...

m. But you know what I like about my team? The unexpected. Can Morneau be Morneau? Can Ellsbury steal 65 and score 120? Will I risk my Sox karma by relying on Swisher? If Alvarez is going to be the star my buddy Will Carroll says, will it be a fun August? Can Tabata hit .310 for the season, not for a couple of months? Is Cahill the starter I think he is? Will I rue passing on Alex Rios?

n. Coffeenerdness: Saw John Mara, Giants co-owner, hustling down Canal Street in New Orleans last Monday at the league meetings. I knew his dirty little secret. Mara always tells me I got him hooked on Starbucks. Well, the nearest Starbucks to the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans was four or five blocks away, in the lobby of the big Sheraton Hotel, and he had to break away from the pressing business of being on the league's negotiating committee and serving on the Competition Committee to get his java. Oh, I understand.

o. Beernerdness: Pretty Things Brewery heard me. They're back to stocking the 22-ounce St. Botolph's rustic brown ale in Boston again, after a big run on it during the winter. I like a beer that says on the label it was brewed in March 2011. That's what I call fresh. Makes you feel good about the beer you're drinking.

p. Saw the new Paul Giamatti film the other day, Win Win. Though filmed in Rockville Center, N.Y., it's based in a Jersey town, New Providence, with Giamatti his perfect typecast self, almost understandably unscrupulous to a degree. The story is very good, about a lawyer/wrestling coach in the hard times of today's economy, struggling with life when a tough high-school kid enters his world and makes it infinitely more interesting. Not a great movie, but interesting, with good development of characters. And anytime you see a Star-Ledger banner on the sideline of an athletic contest, I mean, you've got to love that. That's Jersey, baby.

q. Cannot wait to see Dwight Schrute and Ellen Page in Super. The previews had the movie audience the other day howling.

r. We've got another good fundraiser planned for the Matt Light Foundation, which annually tries to improve the lives of troubled high-school kids. Light and I, along with ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss, will host a $250-a-plate, fully tax-deductible discussion of the CBA stalemate and the NFL Draft on Tuesday, April 26, at the Liberty Hotel in Boston. The event is from 7:30-9:30 a.m.

Light, the veteran Patriots tackle, is an in-limbo free-agent and also the Patriots' player representative. He'll give you the inside story on wherever the negotiations are at that time. I'll provide some draft insight (we all hope), and Reiss, a veteran NFL beat man, will give an NFL perspective with concentration on the Patriots, with their three picks in the top 33 of the upcoming draft. Light will sign anything other than human bodies, I'm told, and take photos with all comers.

For tickets, or ticket information, contact Margrette Mondello at, or visit Light's foundation website, Hope to see you on the 26th. I know $250 is a lot, but I promise it'll be worth it. Light's a captivating speaker and excellent storyteller. There's nobody better on the Patriots than Reiss. And me? Well, I've got a nice dog at least. And I'll show up.