By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - For passionate fans of the National Football League, the annual draft of college players has always been celebrated as something of a cross between Halloween and Christmas.
This year's restocking of teams with college players begins Thursday and poses a unique element of trick or treat for players and fans, who often come to the Radio City Music Hall draft extravaganza dressed in team uniforms.
Top prospects such as quarterback Cam Newton of Auburn, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus of Alabama and linebacker Von Miller of Texas A&M are sure to go early in the first round, but to which team is not the only suspense in this draft.
Due to a contentious labor dispute between team owners and NFL players that has spilled into the courts, it is not clear when the Class of 2011 will join their new teams and if there will be games for them to play in this year.
They may also not know for some time what kind of salary they will command from their NFL teams.
"This is one of the most unusual drafts of all time," former Dallas Cowboys personnel chief Gil Brandt, now a senior analyst for NFL.com, told Reuters on Wednesday at a charity event where prospective draftees led inner-city youngsters through football drills.
Brandt believes the uncertainty surrounding the draft extended to the evaluation of players. At present, teams have been unable to sign free agents, leaving them unsure about what needs they might want to address through the draft.
"There's a lot of good players and a lot of difference of opinion on the players," said Brandt. "And because of free agency (questions), you don't know what you're going to get or when you'll get it."
In any event, Heisman Trophy winner Newton, a strapping, strong-armed quarterback, was widely expected to be taken by the Carolina Panthers with the first pick of the draft, with Dareus and Miller soon to follow in the first round.
"I'm a believer that Cam Newton is going to be a very good football player," added Brandt. "If I had my choice that's who I would take."
Other leading targets for NFL teams include wide receiver Julio Jones of Alabama, quarterback Blaine Gabbert of Missouri and cornerback Patrick Peterson of LSU.
The draft among the 32 NFL teams will be conducted over three days with the first round held on Thursday, rounds two and three on Friday and the last four selected on Saturday.
There will be 254 selections in all, including 32 compensatory choices awarded to 16 teams that lost quality free agents last year.
Michael Lombardi, an NFL Network broadcaster and former NFL personnel chief for the Eagles, Raiders and Browns, said the draft featured a wide assortment of quality defensive linemen and a lot of quarterbacks who could go in the first round.
"As for quarterbacks, I think there's a few that deserve to be taken in the first round and some others that might benefit from supply and demand, the urgency that teams have to get a quarterback," Lombardi told Reuters.
Besides Newton and Gabbert, other signal callers that could hear their names called early include Ryan Mallett of Arkansas, Andy Dalton of Texas Christian University and Christian Ponder of Florida State.
"There's a residual value that gets placed on a quarterback that rises them to a level that perhaps is not perhaps where they should get drafted," said Lombardi.
"The quarterback is always paid the most in the round and he's going to go earlier in the round. I think people have the belief they would rather be 15 picks early than one pick too late."
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Frank Pingue)