NFL Draft: The Future Is Now



Thanks to changes in the game of professional football, such as unrestricted free agency and the ever-present salary cap, the only way an NFL team can be certain they'll have their stars long enough to make use of them is to get them and use them before they get too good and want too much money.

In short, for a team to perform well, it is pertinent that they draft well.

Take the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, for example. They came into the 2001 draft desperately seeking help on both lines, and came out with starting left tackle Matt Light (Purdue) and defensive line anchor Richard Seymour (Georgia), who helped to solidify the team's two biggest liabilities on their way to the Super Bowl title.

And it was just two years ago when the Baltimore Ravens fueled their offense with eventual 1,400 yard rusher Jamal Lewis of Tennessee and impact wide-out Travis Taylor, both of whom were first-round selections.

For a team looking to re-build their franchise on the run, they can take a lesson from the Chicago Bears' last two drafts. They managed to add super-human linebacker - and Pro-Bowler - Brian Urlacher and safety Mike Brown in 2000, and Michigan standouts David Terrell and NFL Rookie of the Year Anthony Thomas in 2001.

Of course, for many teams, the drafting of players has been an Achilles' heel. The mere mention of names like Mike Mamula, Akili Smith, and Ryan Leaf, all of whom were selected in the top six picks and received hefty salaries, is enough to make any general manager cringe before making his selection.

Drafting is nothing close to an exact science, but every class has its relative strengths and weaknesses. So here is a look at what the class of 2002 has to offer:



Quarterback

At number one on virtually every GM's wish list is Fresno State's David Carr. Unfortunately for the other 31 teams, the expansion Houston Texans have officially announced that Carr will be their selection with the draft's number one overall pick. Trailing not far behind him is Oregon signal-caller Joey Harrington, a Heisman Trophy finalist with outstanding game savvy. He figures to be an early-to-mid first round choice.



Running Back

As one of the weaker catalogues, running back really offers only two real first round possibilities in Michigan State's T.J. Duckett and Boston College's William Green, a pair of juniors. UCLA product DeShaun Foster and Miami Hurricane Clinton Portis may also find suitors within the second round.



Wide Receiver

While there may not be any Randy Moss-like players this year, the receiver class offers a ton of raw ability. Ashley Lelie (Hawaii) and Donte Stallworth (Tennessee) both boast unbelievable speed, while Jabar Gaffney (Florida) and Antonio Bryant (Pittsburgh) can both make an immediate impact as rookies. Looking for production? Louisiana State's Josh Reed has more catches over the past two seasons than any other prospect out there.



Tight End

A pair of youngsters, Jeremy Shockey of Miami and Dan Graham of Colorado, dominate the tight end scene. Shockey is an outstanding pass-catcher while Graham is a more complete all-around player, and both figure as first-round certainties.



Offensive Line

At tackle, two behemoths rule the ranks and are sure-fire top ten picks. Miami's Bryant McKinnie (6'8", 340 lbs) has never given up a sack and Texas brute Mike Williams figures as a better pro than former Longhorn teammate and last year's No. 2 overall selection Leonard Davis. There is also great talent at guard in Toniu Fonoti (Nebraska) and Andre Gurode (Colorado).



Defensive Line

This is definitely the draft's most talented position, as it is chock full of sheer ability with five players likely to go within the first 12 picks. Julius Peppers is already being compared to Hall-of-Famer Deacon Jones, and Tar Heel teammate Ryan Sims has been an extremely hot riser since his Senior Bowl performance back in February. Tennessee tackles Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson also look to continue their dominance in the pro ranks, while Wisconsin Badger Wendell Bryant is a high priority for teams looking to help their run defense.



Linebacker

Northwestern Wildcat, Napoleon Harris heads a weak crop this year as the only likely opening-round selection. He is a great pass-rusher and a good tackler, but may have trouble adjusting to the speed of the pro game.



Defensive Back

Unquestionably the most difficult position for NFL teams to fill, there is plenty of talent to go around this year, as the class of 2002 features a cavalcade of big hitters. Texas cornerback Quentin Jammer is as polished as any cover man can get coming out of college and Oklahoma safety Roy Lee Williams is already being billed as the next Ronnie Lott. Florida corner Lito Sheppard is a solid cover man and a lightning-in-a-bottle kick returner. A trio of national champions also makes the grade here, as oversized Miami corners Mike Rumph and Phillip Buchanan compliment two-time All-American free safety Ed Reed, a confident and bone-crushing hitter.



So out of all of these quality players, who will be the ones picked first? No one can say for sure, but an abridged projection of what the first round could look like is in the box below.