Here are the stories that kept our sports columnist watching through two days of speculator heaven.
Like many insane football fans, I spent my entire Saturday watching the NFL draft. Yes, all 12 hours of it. Am I insane, do I need a life, and is Chris Berman the most annoying man in America? The answer is yes. Part of the drama of the day was watching poor Torry Holt, the St. Louis wide receiver, sit in the ESPN studio for the entire first round, attempting to keep his sanity while trying to find something, anything, to say about Cal-Poly's sleeper inside linebacker prospect.
These are the stories that piqued my interest during the draft. It's by no means a complete account of the draft; rather it's the players and stories that kept me going through this annual two-day football marathon that will have to hold us over until the fall.
There are few players I want to see succeed more than Alex Smith. Exceedingly bright, articulate in interviews, Smith seems like a great guy or at least is smart enough to act like a great guy. Why, then, do I get the nagging feeling that he is going to be a big bust? Yes, Smith had a great season, racking up PlayStation numbers while leading his team to an undefeated season. He displayed an accurate arm, great mobility, and the ability to read defenses. So what's the worry? Well, for one, Smith almost exclusively worked out of the shotgun at Utah in a gimmicky offense. Urban Meyer's spread option attack works great at the college level, where an athletic quarterback can take advantage of less athletic defenses. Unfortunately for Smith, it'll get you killed in the NFL.
The adjustment to taking snaps under center is not as simple as learning how to stick your hands under a 320-pound man's butt. Smith will also have to perfect his three- and five-step drops, along with adjusting to reading defenses closer to the line of scrimmage. All of this takes time to pick up — which, along with making the adjustment from the Mountain West to the NFL, means Smith is in for a LONG season.
Smith's sub-par competition in the Mountain West is also a concern. Does this mean he won't be successful in the NFL? Of course not. After all, small conference quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich are certainly prospering in the NFL. Still, I would feel more confident in declaring Smith a no-brainer lock if he showed his stuff against a Miami, USC, or LSU — teams chock full of big, fast future NFL players on defense that can as closely as possible approximate what Smith will be in for at the next level.
That said, I hope I'm wrong, for Smith's sake — and the 49ers. The NFL just isn't as much fun when elite teams like San Francisco are down. I'm rooting for Smith to get the Niners back on top.
Guys who are 6-6, 242 pounds shouldn't be able to run the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds. Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones can, however, and it was that time, along with his also freakish 39 1/2-inch vertical jump that made Jones a first-round draft pick.
There is a long history of "Combine Freaks" in the NFL, workout warriors who blow scouts away on a stopwatch, only to get blown away on the field. I remember three years ago, in order to show off his arm strength, former Cal quarterback Kyle Boller threw a 70-yard bomb while squatting on his knees. As impressive as that athletic feat may be, it does not exactly translate into on-the-field success in the NFL, where the quarterback, unfortunately for Boller, is rarely asked to throw a "Hail Mary" sitting down. Three mediocre seasons later, Boller is in danger of losing his job.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were well aware of this history when they invested a first-round pick on Jones but did it anyway, so impressed by Jones's natural athleticism that they drafted him to play wide receiver, a position he's never played before.
I think the decision to draft Jones was made from a marketing point of view, with Xs and Os a much lesser concern. The Jaguars, a pro football team in a college-football-mad town, are a struggling franchise. Most of their home games are blacked out on local TV and the situation is so dire that 10,000 seats in Alltel Stadium will be "permanently covered" in order to ensure sell outs, hopefully.
If you're owner Wayne Weaver, what better way to bring immediate buzz to your team than by drafting a 242-pound freak who runs like an Olympic sprinter? The fact that Jones is very raw and will take a while to learn the finer points of the position, if he learns them at all, are almost secondary to the excitement that now surrounds the team.
For that reason, along with his obvious upside, Jones was a good pick. Will he be a success in the league? I think he will. Jones has so much natural ability and presents so many match-up problems (can you imagine 5-9 "Pac Man" Jones trying to cover him?) that I'll be shocked if he doesn't at least succeed as a consistent go-to-guy in the red zone.
In the days leading up to the draft, numerous draft "experts" knocked Mike Williams for being slow and overrated. The most egregious idiot, ESPN's Merrill Hodge, stated that Mike Williams "isn't worth a fourth-round pick." Why? Well apparently, he's too slow, can't get separation, (huh, he's 6-5 — he doesn't need much "separation"), and "struggled in college." News to me, since he's only the single most dominate wide receiver I've ever seen on the college level as a sophomore.
I cheered when the Lions, shocked that Williams was still on the board at number 10, snatched him up, even though they also drafted receivers Charles Rogers and Roy Williams with their first-round picks the past two years. They've taken a lot of flack for using three first-round draft picks on wide receivers in the past three years but to me, this seems like a brilliant move. First, Williams is a great insurance policy for both Rogers and Roy Williams, who have injury problems. Second, if all three receivers are healthy, the Lion offense immediately becomes a nightmare assignment for opposing defenses. Who do you double cover? Throw in free agent pick-up, tight end Marcus Pollard and promising second-year running back Kevin Jones and you've got an explosive offense, provided Joey Harrington can finally pull it together. Mike Williams's presence instantly improves any quarterback — ask Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart. If Harrington can't produce, Jeff Garcia is waiting in the wings, ready to prove he has something left in the tank.
Williams's size, strength, and speed (yes, speed), will make him a big time NFL playmaker. What most draft pundits overlook with Williams, though, is his nasty competitive fire. Williams's presence instantly gave USC a swagger and a winning attitude — he will do the same for the Lions. In an interview immediately after he was drafted, Williams called out the Bears and Bucs, two teams with wide receiver needs that passed on him. Don't think for a second Williams won't make those teams — and the rest of the NFL — pay for passing on him.
Speaking of winning attitudes, or lack thereof, I heard all I need to hear about Chicago's first-round pick, running back Cedric Benson when he answered the question, "what would you rather do, beat Oklahoma or win the Heisman" this way:
"If I could win the game entirely by myself — both offense and defense, punt returns, kickoffs, kicking field goals, do everything — then I'd take the win over OU, But for me personally, the hard work I've been through, growing up as a kid and the dream I've had, I'd love nothing more than to win the Heisman."
Not only is Benson selfish, he's also stupid. It's one thing to think in the back of your mind, "yeah, winning an individual award would be better than beating my archrivals, who I've never played well against, let alone beat," but to actually admit it should have automatically dropped him out of the first round. Leopards don't change their spots and losers usually stay losers. Look for Benson, a grind-it-out workhorse with a ton of mileage on him already, to be cut from the Bears in three years.
The story of the draft was watching poor Aaron Rodgers sit in the green room for four hours as his stock dropped, dropped, dropped. When the once possible number-one pick dropped all the way to number 24, Green Bay mercifully scooped him up, making him the de facto successor to Brett Farve. The conventional wisdom said that besides losing millions in signing-bonus money, this was actually a good situation for Rodgers. Sit a couple of years behind one of the all-time greats, and when the time comes, be granted the keys to the kingdom. Not a bad situation to be in, beats getting your head kicked playing for a horrible team, right? Maybe, maybe not. True, Rodgers won't have the immediate pressure of being thrown into the NFL fire, but what's worse: leading a team that has no real pressure to win right away or replacing one of the most beloved figures in sports, especially in rabid Green Bay?
Rodgers has his work cut out for him and will have to succeed where guys like Brian Griese (John Elway), Rob Johnson (Jim Kelly), and Quincy Carter (Troy Aikman) failed. Can he do it?
A lot will depend on how his new teammates react to him. Rodgers has a "confident" personality that can either be inspiring or grating, depending on how far he pushes it. These character issues, not his "mechanical" throwing motion or his high release, will make him or break him. After watching Rodgers react to his ordeal with dignity and class, I think he at least has a shot.
Early Entry Mistakes
You're a pass rushing specialist who has suffered mediocre-or-worse coaching during your college career. Your school, Notre Dame, finally wises up and fires its incompetent "molder of men," Ty Willingham, who failed in molding you or your teammates into great football players. His replacement, Charlie Weis, has three Super Bowl rings, an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, and outstanding assistants who are a vast upgrade over what you dealt with before. Their coaching ability should make you an immeasurably better pro prospect. What do you do? Declare for the draft. Welcome to the third round, Justin Tuck.
At least Tuck was drafted. Oregon State's 6-4 cornerback Brandon Browner thought his height would make him a shoe-in second-round pick at least. Then he ran a 4.65, 40 at the Combine, a horrible time for a cornerback. Whoops. Browner, only a redshirt-sophomore, cost himself an immeasurable amount of money by coming out two years too early. Kids, unless you know you can run a fast 40 in the Combine, please, for the love of God, stay in school.
Jason White and Matt Cassel
In perhaps the ultimate insult to injury, USC's back-up quarterback Matt Cassel was drafted while Oklahoma's Heisman Trophy winner, Jason White, was shut out, not even generating a sniff on the free agent market. Cassel, who was nothing more than mediocre in his brief garbage-time moments at SC, is still a better pro prospect than White, namely because of his 6-5 frame and his two working knees.
I feel bad for White. Nobody likes to see a decent guy like White get kicked when he's down. That said, White still has that bronze football player to fall back on, which is more than any of us can say. He'll do fine on the Oklahoma cocktail-and-rubber-chicken circuit once his football career is over, which is probably now. Welcome to the real world, Jason; it doesn't pay as well as the NFL but it's a lot easier on the knees.