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Notebook: Draft perception and reality

INDIANAPOLIS -- Until the actual event itself rolls around on April 23, the NFL Draft remains a matter of outside perception. Top five prospects? Depends who you ask. Deep draft? Depends what position you are talking about.

Just like most fans and outside observers, many of the key decision makers in the NFL are in the initial phases of their draft preparation. Some guys, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick for example, were still playing games just a couple of weeks ago. Others, like new Browns Head Coach Romeo Crenneland new 49ers boss Mike Nolan, are still digesting their own rosters, never mind being anywhere near establishing anything even resembling a final draft board.

Two months away from the draft, players at every position will rise and fall as workout numbers file in and teams analyze and overanalyze players. With the bulk of the combine yet to unfold, two months of Pro days still to come and endless individual workouts to schedule, projecting the NFL draft at this point is a pure crapshoot. But that certainly doesn't keep people from trying. From the endless mock drafts that blanket the Internet to the big boards of "draft experts" like ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, opinions on the pool of talent that the 32 teams will be choosing from in late April vary.

As far as San Francisco's Nolan is concerned, the guy who ultimately will have final say as to what happens with the first overall pick in the draft, those early perceptions about the 2005 draft relate very little with what will be the final product come April. Nolan doesn't put much credence in the school of thought that his team holds the most valuable pick in a year where the top-level talent worthy of that pick simply may not be there.

"It's much like coaching in my opinion, the perception is one thing and the reality is another," Nolan said. "As time has gone on the last month or so, to me, I'm very confident there's going to be value with the [top] pick. Each day that feeling on my behalf gets stronger and stronger. I don't see it as a weak draft by any stretch of imagination. Like I said, in the past month that [feeling] has been strengthened. A month ago, I was kind of worried myself. But as we've gone along, I'm very confident that a lot of teams will benefit from this draft."

And if that value does play out, Nolan believes the trade market for the top picks will be higher than what many people perceive at this point.

"Perception is one thing, reality is another," Nolan reiterated. "It's still early. I am very confident that the pick will have a lot of value, not only to us but I think to a lot of other teams.

"Right now there are four of five guys from where we are on our board that at this point are worthy of that. But as it goes along, with the pieces of information that we get here this week and the process that you go through with all the campus workouts, those names will adjust and somebody else might come into the mix. Like I said, I feel very good and very confident that it will be a good draft."

But Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe, for one, isn't so sure.

"All drafts are crapshoots, but this one may be more than a lot of others," Donahoe said. "There doesn't seem like there is any consensus on who the better players are when you talk to personnel people. Usually when you come to the combine you have some idea who the top five to seven guys are. Who that is right now, I couldn't venture a guess."

Donahoe also isn't so sure too many teams will be jockeying to move into the top draft spot the 49ers currently inhabit.

"If teams right now can't agree on who the top players are it's not likely that somebody is going to want to go up and get that pick," Donahoe said. "And there still might be. We have a combine to go through. We have the interviews to go through. We have the spring workouts to go through. There may be some players who emerge as the clear-cut top guys that somebody feels they may need to go get. I don't know at this particular time that somebody can say that. Based on that premise that there isn't a clear-cut No. 1, why would somebody want to go get that pick? You would have to really target somebody that you felt that you had to get."

For now, though, all these opinions are simply perceptions. Only time will tell, and that might even mean waiting three years to see how the 2005 draft class pans out and what the talent level of this year's pool really is or was.

Numbers and Notes
The No. 1 overall pick has come on the offensive side of the ball 48 times as compared to just 15 defensive selections. That offensive frequency is anchored by the selection of a quarterback 24 times, a scenario that is a possibility in 2005 with San Francisco holding the top pick while potentially seeking a franchise quarterback among the likes of Cal's Aaron Rogers and Utah's Alex Smith. Running back is another hot position in this year's talent crop with as many as five potential first round picks and the three top guys, Auburn teammates Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams and Texas' Cedric Benson, all potentially coming off the board in the top 10 picks. With a deeper middle pack of talent in the draft and not as many clear-cut top prospects, there is always the potential that one or more teams with the top picks could move down in the draft. In fact the top pick has been traded 13 times in the history of the draft. The Patriots were involved in two of those trades, acquiring the top spot in 1984 to select wide receiver Irving Fryar and moving down in a trade with the Cowboys in 1991. Just a day after former Patriots and Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe reunited with Bill Parcells in Dallas, Buffalo Head Coach Mike Mularkey reiterated the thinking in the team's decision to go with unproven second year passer J.P. Losman for 2005. "We just felt like we needed a little more mobility. I think we knew what we had with Drew. We think this is a step forward." Many in the football world are still reacting to the reported trade of Randy Moss to the Raiders that is expected to be made official on March 2. "[It's] surprising," Donahoe said. "We had heard the night before that it wasn't going to work and then something obviously changed that. He's a very talented player. With he and Jerry Porter it gives them a dimension to their passing game that causes problems for other people."

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