Sam’s Sports Bar & Grill in Hillsboro Village has 20 television sets. Last Saturday, 18 of them were tuned to variations of Major League Baseball, NBA and NHL playoff games and NASCAR racing from Talladega.
But significantly, Sam’s two “big screens” were tuned to the NFL Draftofficially, the 67th Annual National Football League Player Selection Meetingwhich, according to some radio wag last week, has now become the fourth-most-watched sports television event after the Super Bowl, the NCAA basketball tourney and the World Series.
This claim might be a tad dubious, but certainly there is no question that football is America’s national pastime. It replaced baseball a long time ago, and the fact that ESPN devotes a full day of coverage to the draft’s first three rounds is a definite indication of its still-mounting popularity.
The atmosphere of the live broadcast from Madison Square Garden is a cross between a political convention and Let’s Make a Deal, including breathless and rowdy fans crowned as Cheeseheads and covered in warpaint. Every 15 minutes or so, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, looking like everyone’s favorite corporate CEO, approaches the podium to announce the latest selection of college talent. Meanwhile, the fully dedicated ESPN coverage, featuring a dozen on-site and field reporterswith Chris Berman as prime hostprovides instant dissections of soon-to-be NFL hopefuls: their upsides, downsides, outsides and insides.
It’s all pretty daunting, really. Beyond the higher-profile college playerssuch as No. 1 draft choice QB David Carr of Fresno State, who was selected by the expansion Houston Texansyou have to be a full-time sports reporter to keep up with the incredible amount of available detail on the newest batch of NFL talent.
Probably the leading purveyor of facts and figures on the hundreds of hopefuls is Mel Kiper Jr., who first made his name years back offering independent talent assessments and is now a staple of ESPN draft coverage. Kiper’s print and online evaluations are nothing less than impressive, with authoritative thumbnail sizeups of little-known athletes from schools like Valdosta State and Duquesne. Kiper can tell you a guy’s clocked time in the 40-year dash, his injury history and even if he ever smoked pot or was otherwise guilty of “team violations.”
Joel Buchsbaum, a lesser-known but equally capable guru, does the same thing with the same intensity for Pro Football Weekly, a national bible of information on the NFL. (Published in the Chicago suburb of Riverwoods, PFW actually supplies the player data for ESPN’s official draft Web site.) “Joel gathers information from college teams and pro scouts, and he’s very thorough,” says Jeff Agrest, PFW senior editor. “He even evaluates a young player’s character and psyche, ’cause the pro teams are into that these days. He also has sources who attend the NFL Scouting Combine.” Agrest laughs. “You should see Joel’s apartment. He’s got four TVs and piles and piles of videotape and media books.”
A huge effort is made by these experts in compiling “mock” drafts, in anticipation of who the pro teams will actually select. “We’re often wrong,” says Agrest, “because things change on draft day.” True enough. But a cursory browse comparing the Kiper and PFW picks with the way the first three rounds went down proved that if the gurus don’t get the exact names in the right slots, they quite often astutely assess team needs.
Case in point: Agrest predicted the Titans would take University of Miami safety Edward Reed in Round 1. “It’s a need,” he said, “especially with the defections of Marcus Robertson last year to Denver and Blaine Bishop to Philadelphia just recently.” Instead, Reed was chosen by the Baltimore Ravensa team desperate to shore up its defensive backfield after similar free agent defections. The Titansafter dropping one position in the draft order from 14 to 15 in exchange for a later pick from the New York Giantswent with University of Tennessee’s hulking DT Albert Haynesworth.
The Titans chose wisely, not only because they recently lost Jason Fisk and Josh Evans off their defensive line, but also because they simply couldn’t resist the idea of Haynesworth lining up with Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter. And let’s face it: Good pass defense usually begins with a strong rush, which makes defensive backs of any quality even better.
But Agrest’s instincts were correct, after all, because in Round 2 the Titans grabbed Clevan (“Tank”) Williams with the 45th overall pick. Williams is a 6-foot-2-inch, 223-lb. safety from Stanford, noted for occasionally erratic performance but also with impressive size, big-play ability and the credentials to otherwise have been a potential first-round choice.
The Titans may have found another sleeper with third-round pick LB Rocky Calmus from Oklahoma. Calmus, at 6 feet 3 inches and 243 lbs., is an All-American, an All-Big 12 selection and the 2001 Butkus Award winner. His résumé is huge, but, believe it or not, he’s considered marginally “not strong enough” by NFL insiders. On the other hand, PFW characterized him thusly: “Great intangibles and work ethic. A coach’s dream. Very instinctive. A see-the-ball-and-run-to-it-type linebacker who makes plays and plays very hard.... A leader.” Sounds like a Jeff Fisher-type player, all right.
The Titans’ first three selections make it clear that Fisher & Co. want to improve last year’s too-porous defensea trend already established with the recent signing of free-agent safety Lance Schulters from the San Francisco 49ers. And their defense-minded draft day looks like an even better idea in light of developments in the new AFC South, in which the Titans will compete with Houston, Indianapolis and Jacksonville.
The Texans may be the best prepared expansion franchise in history. Even before the draft, they already appeared to be able to field a highly competitive squad. But now they added Carr, someone for him to throw the ball to in Florida WR Jabar Gaffney, and high-potential young offensive linemen Chester Pitts of San Diego St. and Fred Weary of Tennessee.
Indianapolis didn’t focus on offense, because that’s already their strength. But new Colts head coach Tony Dungy, brought in to work his defensive magic, took great strides in that direction with his first three selections: DE Dwight Freeney of Syracuse, DT Larry Tripplett of Washington and CB Joseph Jefferson of Western Kentucky. Jacksonvillewhich has struggled the past two seasons despite a modicum of talent on both sides of the ballwent for help in the trenches, selecting Haynesworth’s UT defensive-line mate John Henderson, Florida OT Mike Pearson and Purdue DE Akin Ayodele.
Otherwise, the biggest first-round surprisewhich seemed to most affect the projected order of the daywas the Detroit Lions’ selection of Oregon QB Joey Harrington. Experts thought the Lions would go with defense with their No.3 pick. But they’re opening a new stadium this year, and they went with a mature, gifted QB, who, if he’s not quite John Elway incarnate, still appears to have the intangibles of a winner (something Detroit only did twice last season).
Atlanta also raised eyebrows with the selection of bruising Michigan State RB T.J. Duckett. Not because Duckett isn’t goodhe could be a great onebut because they’d already recently signed gifted free-agent scatback Warrick Dunn, late of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They also have rehabilitating Jamal Anderson still on their roster, and are already spending $17 million on ball carriers this year. But if nothing else, the selection of Duckett sends a clear message to last year’s No.1 draft pick, Falcons QB Michael Vick: Learn to operate from the pocket, hand off to your considerably talented backfield and scramble only when you absolutely have to.
Then there were the Washington Redskins and new head coach Steve Spurrier, who, as if playing a game of hearts, led high and ruffed low. The ’Skins twice traded down from the No. 18 spot, ending up with the 32nd and final first-round pick. If they were angling for a few more draft picks and a QB as well, they got their wish when they selected Patrick Ramsey of Tulane. (Maybe Spurrier isn’t counting on the Danny Wuerffel experiment to work out after all.) In any case, he got in Ramsey a tough-minded competitor with old-school virtues and comparisons to Phil Simms.
Meanwhile, the experts scoffed at the Cincinnati Bengals’ first pick, OT Levi Jones of Arizona St., citing a team that needs defensive help before it integrates a new lineman to block for Corey Dillon. Receiving unanimous praise for smart shopping were the Oakland Raiders, who enhanced their defense immeasurably with two first-round selections, CB Phillip Buchanon of University of Miami and Northwestern LB Napoleon Harris.
If anyone was looking for trends in the draft’s first round, they might be found in the eight defensive linemen and six defensive backs. Yet of the 32 picks, the split between offense and defense was exactly even: 16 apiece. “There are 32 teams, each with a 53-man roster,” says Agrest. “And a lot of parity. Teams are cutting players for salary-cap reasons or losing them to free agency. There are needs everywhere.”
And there are a lot of new kids on the block waiting to fill any void. By the time the draft concluded on Sunday, there were 261 fresh-faced collegians ready to turn pro. Dozens more will sign with teams as undrafted free agents. Believe it or not, it’s less than three months till training camp opens. Then the great American Darwinian experiment begins all over again.