The Detroit Lions might very well have zeroed in on Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford as the top overall pick, but according to several general managers around the league, they could easily choose from among five different players.
Besides Stafford, other players who are considered legitimate possibilities for the choice are Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith, Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji, and Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo.
That wasn’t the case a year ago, when the Miami Dolphins selected offensive tackle Jake Long No. 1, or in 2007, when the Oakland Raiders made quarterback JaMarcus Russell the top pick. It wasn’t even the case in 2006, when the Houston Texans surprised everyone by using the first choice on defensive end Mario Williams rather than on running back Reggie Bush because both were universally seen as the top two players in the draft.
But this year, opinions are all over the lot. Not only is it a struggle to get multiple general managers or college scouting directors to agree on a clear-cut best overall player, but there also are discrepancies on who the best players are at each position.
It’s a large part of the reason the NFL has invited nine prospects to New York City to attend the draft at Radio City Music Hall. Last year, there were six, and they were taken with the first six choices. The likely No. 1 pick will be among this year’s group, but where they fall is anyone’s guess.
“You don’t have your eight or 10 where you say, ‘I know these guys are going to be taken off the board (in the first 10 picks),'” said an NFL general manager who requested anonymity. “I don’t even know if the two quarterbacks (Stafford and Mark Sanchez) are going off (in the first 10).”
Said another GM of a team choosing in the 20s: “In the past, I’ve felt like, one through 10, you’re feeling there are very few shortcomings on these players. I’m struggling if I’m sitting in one of those positions to pull somebody off the board. I feel much more comfortable about being in the 20s than I were to be in the single digits this year.”
A composite of how league talent-evaluators assess each of the players who could end up at the very top of the draft:
» Stafford: Tremendously strong arm, excellent accuracy, a super-quick release, and mobility … Inconsistency raises some questions, as has occasions when he has attempted throws that he shouldn’t while being pressured … Entering the draft as a junior, which has many GMs questioning his readiness for the NFL.
» Curry: Best of the linebackers and perhaps most talented athlete in draft … Enough versatility to play in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme … Receives high marks for strength, toughness, and range … Might not be enough of a difference-maker to warrant Lions’ choice … At 6-foot-plus, lacks ideal height and isn’t tremendously explosive.
» Smith: Probably has the fewest drawbacks of any prospect in the draft, although not rated dramatically higher than Virginia tackle Eugene Monroe … Shows remarkable athleticism for an offensive tackle … Strong enough be a highly effective run-blocker.
» Raji: Best at what is generally regarded as one of the better and deeper positions in the draft, which is rare for defensive tackle … Has the makings of an ideal anchor for a 3-4 scheme.
» Orakpo: Probably the best of a fairly limited group of defensive ends, although no one sees a consistently dominant pass-rusher in the bunch … Doesn’t always show quite as much explosiveness or aggressiveness as GMs would like to see from a potential top-five pick.
According to GMs, the inability to clearly identify the best player or 10 best players in the draft is a clear sign of a general lack of exceptional talent in the college crop.
“If 10 (GMs) tell you (otherwise), I think five of them will be BS-ing you,” a GM said. “For instance, there’s not a slam dunk at corner. You might say (there’s not a slam dunk) at linebacker, except for Curry. And that’s a good position, actually.
“I can hear this (being said) in somebody’s war room during the first round. ‘I’m not crazy about Brian Orakpo, but if he’s the best at a position I need, let’s take him. I’ve got questions about the corners, I’ve got questions about the linebackers, right down the line. But I’ve got to pick somebody.”
It figures to be a challenging draft, especially with teams seeking a true first-round value. It won’t be surprising to see many clubs using the full 10 minutes allotted each team to make a choice in Round 1.
Some of that will result from attempts to trade down. However, most is likely to result from struggles to arrive at a consensus organizational decision on the pick.
“My motto has always been, ‘There are good players and we’re going to find them,’ and I still mean that,” a GM said. “I just can’t say it quite with the conviction that I have in the past. They’re there, but it’s just not as clear a picture as some other years.
“Anybody who wins the office pool has got to be a lucky person.”