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Feeling a draft?


It's April 16, 2000. The second day of another NFL draft is underway. The quarterback prospects plucked so far include Chris Redman and Giovanni Carmazzi in the third round, Tee Martin in the fifth, and Spergon Wynn in the early sixth. Who? Precisely. But I'll bet you've heard the name of the quarterback who every NFL team passed on at least five times: Tom Brady.

More than half of all players selected before Brady are no longer playing in the league. How could this happen? How could all the sage football minds representing each NFL team overlook a player like Tom Brady, a three-time Super Bowl winner and two-time Super Bowl MVP?

This sort of thing happens every year in the NFL draft, and at every position. If you're lucky, your team finds the next Tom Brady. But if your team passes on a guy who turns out to be a Hall of Famer and instead selects a player who becomes a mediocre journeyman, its glaring lack of omniscience will never be forgotten, or forgiven. And no cliché about hindsight will appease angry fans.

So who is this year's Tom Brady? We won't know for a few years, and that's if a steal in the class of a Tom Brady even exists in this draft. But if you're a fan of football, you're sure to find a compelling story in the 2005 NFL draft, which airs this Saturday and Sunday, April 23 and 24, on ESPN.

There is a quarterback in this draft who has created a quite a buzz. Call me a bandwagon jumper if you like, but he's the guy that I'll bet is going to eventually out-produce every player selected before him. He won't achieve greatness at the quarterback position, though. He changed to receiver to maximize his draft status --- his arm strength is considered marginal --- and has played only one game at that position (the meaningless Senior Bowl). That's right, one game, and not even a whole one at that.

But this kid is different. He's an R.O.U.S. (Receiver Of Unusual Size) from the University of Arkansas named Matt Jones. Six weeks ago, Jones was considered a sixth- or seventh-round "project," but he recently blew the scouts away at the annual NFL scouting combine with an impressive display of receiving skills, a 4.37 40-yard dash, and 40" vertical leap. Now he's widely regarded as a first- or second-round certainty.

How's that? Jones is 6' 6", 242 pounds, and can run as fast or faster than any of the smaller track-star types in the NFL and jump as high as a professional basketball player. Measurements like these are unheard of in the NFL. When you combine them into a profile that includes versatility, good hands, toughness, and a solid, serenely confident character, you have yourself a first-round prospect.

So this year people are wondering more about where Matt Jones will be picked than who will be picked first. Of course, the more important question is: What will time tell us about the wisdom and foresight of selecting him? And that's what the NFL draft is all about: questions. A lot of questions can be answered by the players' height, weight, strength, speed, college production, and intelligence tests. But answers to some of the most important questions are elusive. Will the money change him? Does he really love the game?

This is the stuff that makes the NFL draft the ever-growing phenomenon that it is. It has spawned hundreds of websites run by amateur "draftniks" who ask for subscription fees as high as $40 per year --- and get them. There are "mock draft" contests everywhere. Campbell's (the soup company) is offering $100,000 to the contestant who can guess the entire first round correctly.

How did the draft become so popular? For starters, football is the most popular sport in America. And then there's the king of all NFL draft pundits, Mel Kiper Jr. Since 1984, Kiper has appeared on ESPN to provide viewers with concise factoids about all the players. Some find him grating, but you have to give him credit for helping to elevate the NFL draft into the big event it has become.

He did it in part by brazenly criticizing some NFL general managers and players immediately following selections he considered a "reach." In doing so, he made the draft process interesting. He made it watchable. He's often right in his calls, but he has made his share of embarrassing gaffes, too. In 1994, after the Colts selected future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk with the second overall pick, Kiper said "That's why the Colts keep picking No. 2 every year." Oops.

But that stuff is for the audience. The football personnel pros for every NFL team know what they're doing and don't care to hear arbitrary and premature grades. They work year-round to prepare for the April draft, watching countless hours of film, talking to college coaches, teammates, parents, and opponents. They interview the prospects, test them in a variety of ways, and even hire psychologists to administer personality evaluations. Finally they convene to debate their futures. They know their stuff.

So, what of the Buffalo Bills' plans? Unless they trade up, they won't make their selection until the second round, having traded their first-round pick for the opportunity to select their new starting quarterback, J.P. Losman, in last year's first round. But the word around the league is that if there's ever been a year to not have a first round pick, it's this one. There is no consensus about who the top 15 players are in this draft, and that's unusual.

Allow me to play the role of Mel Kiper Jr. for a moment and take a stab at the Bills' top pick this year: They will swap second-round picks with the Arizona Cardinals and exchange disgruntled running back Travis Henry for left tackle L.J. Shelton, a rumor that has withstood the test of time. With the higher pick (#44, up from #55) the Bills will select none other than WR Matt Jones, who is exactly the kind of multi-purpose talent Bills Head Coach Mike Mularkey craves.

If I'm right, I'll make sure I remind you in a future article. If I'm wrong, you'll never hear about this again.