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NFL Draft Is Guessing Game at Best

When Keyshawn Johnson was taken by the New York Jets with the first pick in the 1996 NFL draft, it was assumed he would be a superstar.

Keyshawn has had a good career: three Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl ring and nearly 10,000 yards receiving.

But subsequent events have demonstrated he certainly wasn't the best player in that draft and no better than No. 3 among wideouts. Certainly not as good as three players ahead of him in a mock redraft of 1996: Ray Lewis, Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens, who for all his off-field notoriety has been a star on it.

But that's the norm.

What potential NFL players do in college and then in workouts often has little relationship to what they can do on the field, so at best, the draft is a guessing game. Every team, from top to bottom, has had its duds in high places--the top teams just pick badly less often.

There are a lot of reasons for that, none more than the seeming obsession with what happens OFF the field from January to April, when prospective draftees are poked, prodded, interviewed and Wonderlic-ed.

So even the best scouts often forget what made the players prospects: the way they can play.

"Competitiveness is the most important aspect and that's sometimes hard to test," says Gil Brandt, the longtime personnel director for the Dallas Cowboys and now the NFL's draft adviser. "The only measurement you can use at all is something that's relevant to the position he plays. We spend a lot of time and money measuring things that have no relevance to what a player will do."


Take linebacker Zach Thomas of the Dolphins, a fifth-rounder in '96 who makes it into the top 10 in the mock redraft, along with safety Brian Dawkins of the Eagles, a second-rounder, and Owens and linebacker Tedy Bruschi, both third-round choices. Thomas went low because he seemed a little slow and certainly was a little short at 5-foot-10, but Brandt says he's the most competitive player he has ever seen in nearly 50 years of scouting.

Talent for the position?

Emmitt Smith, Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis, Nos. 1, 4 and 5 on the career rushing list, all were (and are) slow by running back standards, 4.6 seconds or worse in the 40-yard dash. Walter Payton, No. 2 on that list, wasn't super-fast either. Tiki Barber, who at age 30 last season had the second most combined yards rushing and receiving ever, ran a 4.55 in college--nine years ago.

But all are quick, the relevant standard for a running back.

So we go back 10 years.

After Johnson was taken by the Jets, the Jaguars took linebacker Kevin Hardy. Defensive end Simeon Rice went to Arizona at No. 3 and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden to Baltimore at No. 4.

Then came mistakes, the first by the New York Giants.

They took Cedric Jones, a defensive end from Oklahoma, who unbeknownst to them was blind in one eye (now THAT should have shown up in the predraft tests). Jones' vision problems precluded his playing on the left side, so the Giants shifted their young right end, Michael Strahan, to the left side, where he thrived.

The Giants seem to have been shocked into taking Jones. They really wanted Ogden or Rice, and expected one of the teams ahead of them to take Lawrence Phillips, the troubled but talented running back from Nebraska. No one did and New York was stuck, a little confused, and took Jones.

The Rams then took Phillips at No. 6 and New England selected wide receiver Terry Glenn at No. 7 against the wishes of coach Bill Parcells, who later, in training camp that year, referred to Glenn as "she." Now Parcells, always comfortable with former players, has Glenn in Dallas and had Johnson there for two years after coaching him with the Jets.

Phillips is remembered for his off-field problems. But he wasn't very good on the field, either, averaging 3.4 yards a carry in four seasons with four teams. He, Jones and Tim Biakabutuka, taken eighth overall by Carolina, are the three real busts from that top 10, Biakabutuka in part because of a series of knee injuries.

No. 9 was tight end Rickey Dudley by Oakland and No. 10 offensive tackle Willie Anderson by Cincinnati. Dudley was OK, no more; Anderson is a three-time Pro Bowler.

That's about par for the top 10 in any draft: the good, the bad and the ordinary.

So are the unexpected accomplishments of players taken much lower, as Owens certainly proves. Draft again today and No. 1 could be Owens, the 89th pick.

More probably it is Lewis, taken 26th overall by Baltimore; he dropped because he was a little undersized for a linebacker. The unmeasurables--leadership and, as with Thomas, competitiveness--have made him a two-time defensive player of the year, a Super Bowl MVP and the most dominant linebacker of his era.

Make Harrison No. 2, although he was 19th overall and the fourth receiver chosen. Owens is No. 3, but in retrospect perhaps someone saw the potential personality problems that disrupted his tenure with the 49ers and Eagles.

Owens, after all, was the 12th receiver taken in what turned out to be a receiver-laden draft. In achievement he is up there with Harrison, ahead of Johnson and a distinguished group that also includes Glenn, Eric Moulds (24th) Amani Toomer (34), Muhsin Muhammad (43), Bobby Engram (52), and Joe Horn (135).

Toomer, who in his prime had five straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, partly makes up for the Giants' choice of Jones in the first round. That's another standard draft story: We all emphasize the first round, but many teams make up for flops there by doing better later.

Continuing the redraft, keep Ogden at fourth overall, then go with three lower-rounders: Bruschi, who went to New England with the 86th pick; Dawkins to Philadelphia at 61; and Thomas to Miami at 154.

Bruschi was an undersized defensive tackle who led the nation in sacks at Arizona. Years after the fact, coach Bill Belichick, then the assistant head coach under Parcells, recalled the discussions about drafting him.

"The conversation was, 'Look, we're taking him," Belichick said. "We're taking a good football player. We don't know what we're going to do with him exactly, but we figure we'll find something.'"

They did.

Make Rice No. 8. With 119 career sacks, he could be higher in the redraft. But like many players chosen high by the Cardinals, he didn't blossom until he got out of Arizona and landed in Tampa.

No. 9 is Eddie George, who was taken 14th, and make Anderson No. 10, right where he was taken. Like many Bengals, he didn't get his due until the team improved under Marvin Lewis, but he's now a perennial at the Pro Bowls.


Make him the wild card. Anywhere from three to 11.

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