In five years covering the NFL Draft for FOXSports.com, I've had my fair share of draft-day misses. Nobody was higher on JaMarcus Russell than I was.
Before the '07 draft, I wrote the following on this very site of the doughy Raiders gunslinger: "A proven leader with a rocket arm and freakish physical abilities, he'll lead the Raiders back to the playoffs in 2-3 years." So that hasn't quite worked out.
Like being tagged in a Facebook photo from a night I don't remember, I shiver in embarrassment just seeing the words "leader" and "lead" in the same sentence describing the former top overall pick.
In that same year, I had Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch rated as the sixth-best player in the entire draft. When he was selected 33rd overall by Arizona, I said it was one of the great draft steals of all time and pegged him as an opening-day starter.
Branch, of course, has yet to start an NFL game in three years, has recorded 27 career tackles in 31 games and has just two sacks to his name. And, oh yeah, everyone has defensive tackle as the Cardinals' chief 2010 draft need. Ho hum.
The list goes on. Erasmus James (18th overall in 2005), Jimmy Williams (37th in 2006) and Kentwan Balmer (29th in 2008) -- I was very high on all of them. None has quite worked out.
A real man comes clean with this stuff. And if I'm anything, it's a real man. (Please ignore the Ke$ha and Lady Gaga albums recently downloaded on to my iPod.)
Yet, for all those draft day misses on my resume, I've got twice as many hits. I was one of the biggest Joe Flacco guys around leading up to the '08 draft, had eventual second-round pick Ray Rice listed as a top 15 talent that same year and wrote on Day 2 in 2006 that Denver "came away as the clear-cut winners of the fourth round for snagging two first-day talents in undersized Louisville sack machine Elvis Dumervil and UCF wide-out Brandon Marshall." I stop strangers on the street to tell them about that one.
Anyone can give you the Top 50 talents in a draft. That's easy. It's uncovering the true diamonds in the rough -- the later-round gems --that takes a bit of skill. Over the years, I've nailed some great ones.
The FOXSports.com video guys had to cut me short during a four-minute rant on Mount Union unknown Pierre Garcon in 2008. A year earlier, I liked a tight end out of tiny Western Oregon named Kevin Boss. In '05, I was bullish on a running back taken on the second day by San Francisco, writing after Day One culminated: "Due to an injury-plagued college career, I'm not exactly shocked that Miami's Frank Gore went undrafted today. But I'm certainly a little surprised. He's got first-round talent and at the very least, should make a better pro running back than Carolina second round selection Eric Shelton."
How's that for some Miss Cleo-like stuff?
This year? I'm high on a lot of guys. I'm especially high on five first-round talents that there has been a lot of debate on.
Terrence Cody, DT, Alabama: I love the guy. All 350 pounds of him. If I'm a 3-4 team without a run-stuffing clog in the middle (Miami, New York Jets and San Diego), I'm considering him in the first round.
Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State: Character schmaracter. The only "crime" Bryant is guilty of is being a knucklehead. Sure, he has missed a few practices. And yes, he lied to the NCAA -- something I don't take lightly. But that punishment was absurd. Bryant has Randy Moss-like talent. And that's not hyperbole. He can go as high as 11 to Denver or 12 to Miami. If he slips to the 20s, it's Moss '98 all over again. Taking Golden Tate or Arrelious Benn over him would be no different from taking Kevin Dyson over Moss.
Jimmy Clausen, QB, Notre Dame: He has been described as everything from a "punk" to "immature." I see a guy who threw 29 touchdowns and four interceptions with no future pro offensive linemen or running backs on his roster. I also see several gutty game-winning, fourth-quarter drives and comebacks. If I'm Buffalo GM Buddy Nix and Clausen's sitting there on the board at No. 9, I'm looking at a three-headed monster featuring Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trent Edwards and Brian Brohm -- and I'm not letting the Notre Dame quarterback slip any further.
Sean Weatherspoon, LB, Missouri: Is there such a thing as a character blue flag? If so, I've got them all over Weatherspoon, as engaging and likeable a young man as you'll meet. He also had 400 tackles in four years at Mizzou, plays both OLB and MLB, and can squat 700 pounds. I have him going as high as No.15 to the New York Giants. If he slips to the second round, it's a mistake a lot of teams will regret.
Sergio Kindle, DE/OLB, Texas: In most mock drafts I've seen, Kindle is ranked behind Michigan's Brandon Graham and TCU's Jerry Hughes when it comes to 3-4 OLBs. I'm a Kindle guy and like him more than both Graham and Hughes.
The rest of the "high" list:
Tim Tebow, QB, Florida: How could I not be high on him? Covering the college football beat for FOXSports.com over the past four years, I saw a guy who won more big games than any other player in the game, demanded the respect of teammates and opponents alike and captivated a nation with every jump pass or fourth-and-short run. I'll let Todd McShay tell you about all the negatives. I'll focus on the positives. He'd make a great fit in Cleveland behind Jake Delhomme. I think he gets taken before Colt McCoy.
Roger Saffold, OT, Indiana: In my latest mock draft, I've got Saffold going in the first round to Dallas at No. 27. Most mocks I've seen having him going in the second. He'd be a steal for a team looking for a guy who can likely play guard right away or is willing to work with someone at OT. If Detroit takes Ndamukong Suh second overall, Saffold with the 34th makes sense.
Kareem Jackson, CB, Alabama: Tough, physical and aggressive, the "other" corner alongside Javier Arenas in Tuscaloosa the past few years will be an impact player. Though I'm a little concerned about Jackson's abilities to adapt to the NFL's pass interference rules, I think he's smart enough to figure it out. He could be the second cornerback taken after Joe Haden. I've got him going in the middle of the second round to Houston with the 51st overall pick.
Nate Allen, S, South Florida: I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised if Nate Allen goes before the much-ballyhooed Taylor Mays of USC in next week's draft. I'm that high on the guy. An elite coverage safety, Allen was a three-year standout under Jim Leavitt and a defensive leader. I've got him going 50th overall to Kansas City. Anything lower would be very strange.
Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, CB, Indiana (Pa.): I've been talking up the uber-athletic Owusu-Ansah for three months now. What's not to like? He's arguably the best kick returner in the entire draft, runs a sub 4.4 40-yard dash and has done nothing but impress in interviews and workouts. Oh, and his first name means "Born on Sunday." Are you kidding me?! I've got him going 56th to Green Bay.
Dorin Dickerson, TE, Pittsburgh: Dickerson emerged in 2009, becoming quarterback Bill Stuhl's go-to target with 45 catches. He was ridiculous at the combine, running a 4.4 40 and showing off a 43-inch vertical jump. I can see Dickerson being used out of the backfield, split wide or at tight end. The possibilities are endless. If he's still around in the third round, some team's going to be very lucky.
Eric Decker, WR, Minnesota: A Biletnikoff finalist in 2008, Decker got his '09 season off to a torrid start before a season-ending foot sprain. Though he played in just eight games, Decker still was a first-team All-Big Ten selection. At 6-3, 220 pounds and blessed with terrific hands, Decker will see his stock hurt by lingering injury concerns. When completely healthy, he's a legitimate first-round receiving talent.
Reshad Jones, S, Georgia: Jones probably could have left Georgia after his junior year and been a third- or fourth-round pick last April. He didn't help his stock dramatically in Georgia's disappointing '09 season, but still remains an intriguing safety prospect. A smashing hitter with above-average coverage skills, he'll be a good pickup for a team in the third round.
Anthony Dixon, RB, Mississippi State: Sure, there's some tread on those tires. But this kid can flat-out play. Dixon, Mississippi State's all-time leading rusher (3,995 yards) and touchdown scorer (42) got Mike Hart-like carries in four years at Starkville. In this twisted world, that's viewed as a negative. His ability to produce, despite playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the SEC, is not.
Aaron Hernandez, TE, Florida: No, he's not a great blocker. And no, he's not going to out-body any linebackers over the middle. But Hernandez, fresh off a 68-catch season in '09, is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. As far as athletic pass-catching tight ends go, you won't find many better than Hernandez in this year's draft.
ROUNDS 4-7 (THE DEEP SLEEPERS)
D'Anthony "Boo" Smith, DT, Louisiana Tech: How do you not love a 305-pound guy named Boo Smith? In a draft loaded with DTs -- from Suh and McCoy to North Carolina's Cam Thomas -- Smith is the Day 3 guy I'm highest on. Having started 44 straight games at Louisiana Tech, Smith compiled 197 career tackles and 12 sacks. He's not the 3-4 run stuffer Terrence Cody is, but he's a solid Day 3 selection for a team with a 4-3 scheme.
Zane Beadles, OG/OT, Utah: A two-time first-team All-Mountain West performer at left tackle, Beadles was a standout four-year starter on the Utes' offensive line. His size and athleticism likely make him a better option at guard, but the fact he can play either spot makes him all the more valuable. In a top-heavy tackle draft, Beadles could be the Day 3 steal teams are licking their chops for.
Joe Webb, QB/WR, UAB: Webb was used both at wide-out and quarterback in Birmingham, but will most likely be a wide-out and special teams ace in the NFL. He had a solid week at the Senior Bowl and an outstanding pro day in March (4.4 in the 40/42-inch vertical), and he has worked out with several NFL squads over the past couple of weeks. I see Webb as a Josh Cribbs/Antwan Randle-El type. In the fourth or fifth rounds, he's an absolute steal. Perhaps Pittsburgh uses the fifth-round pick it acquired for Santonio Holmes to pick him.
Marshall Newhouse, OG/OT, TCU: TCU's defense got all the press last year, but its offense was pretty darn good, too. Like Beadles, Newhouse manned left tackle while in the Mountain West. An All-conference left tackle all three years in the starting lineup for the Horned Frogs, he projects as an NFL guard. The versatility and ability to play either -- like Beadles -- makes him an attractive third-day prospect.
John Conner, FB, Kentucky: Appropriately nicknamed "The Terminator," Conner is a former walk-on who eventually emerged as a team captain and workhorse. In today's NFL, where teams employ three to four running backs in a backfield rotation, I love what Conner brings to short-yardage situations. A straight-up beast, the steamroller is a throwback to the days when punishing NFL fullbacks had a place in the lineup. Conner averaged 5.1 yards per carry his senior year and played in a school-record 54 games in his career. He'll be an immediate contributor on special teams, a reliable short-yardage runner and a locker-room leader for a decade.
10 real no-names I'm high on
1. Sean Lissemore, DT, William and Mary
2. Carl Ihenacho, DB, San Jose State
3. Jeremy Horne, WR, Massachusetts
4. Duke Calhoun, WR, Memphis
5. Danny Batten, DE, South Dakota State
6. Matt Nichols, QB, Eastern Washington
7. Tyler Eastman, OT, Maine
8. Scott Sicko*, TE, New Hampshire
9. Juamorris Stewart, WR, Southern
10. Alex Henderson, RB, Northern Arizona
*Winner for best name in draft
So there you go. Print this out, put it in your back pocket, and enjoy the best three days of the NFL offseason next week. And when your team takes Jeremy Horne with a pick in the 220s, feel free to give a fist pump.
And when Terrence Cody eats himself out of the league by 2012, Tim Tebow is coaching high school football in northern Florida in 2015 and Scott Sicko is working in the cubicle next to you next fall, feel free to let me know all about it.
After all, I'm a man. I can take it.