At some point, the NFL draft morphed into an all-out debate, a cacophony of voices and opinions. This year the topics that dominated the discussion were Reggie Bush versus Matt Leinart, and later Mario Williams, in the battle for the No. 1 pick; Leinart versus VinceYoung in a clash of quarterbacking styles; and the NFL viability of Jay Cutler,given his meager win-loss record as a collegiate starter.
All of those topics made for fascinating dissection, but as the league's two-day rookie job-fair extravaganza prepares to kick off in New York City on Saturday, have we overlooked the most obvious question of all? Who's the best pure football player with the highest probability of being a great professional?
In interviewing league personnel men, coaches and executives for the past two months, I've heard one name mentioned more than others, and it might surprise you. It's not Bush, as gifted a game-breaking talent as he is. It's not Williams, Leinart, Young or Cutler, all of whom have at least one or two significant question marks attached to their scouting reports.
It's Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk, who has inspired nary a negative word in the months-long predraft screening process. Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, one of the more respected personnel evaluators in the league, labeled Hawk "the safest pick in the draft.'' New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis, whose Saints have strongly considered taking Hawk with the No. 2 pick, said his personnel men believe Hawk is the best linebacker prospect since Junior Seau was the No. 5 pick in 1990 by San Diego.
And a handful of team officials have told me that Hawk is the one player in this year's draft who's guaranteed to start, and make an impact, immediately. I don't know about you, but I haven't heard that level of certainty about any other prospect in this year's draft, including Bush, who is considered a once-in-a-generation talent at running back.
People have questioned whether Bush can make enough of an impact with 15 to 20 touches a game. Williams, for most of his college career, wasn't even the best defensive end at N.C. State, and he has yet to show consistent production over an entire season. Some personnel men theorize that Leinart benefited greatly from the talented USC offensive system and that he's already as good as he's ever going to be. And Cutler has some mechanical issues and bad habits that even his staunchest supporters acknowledge will have to be worked out early in his pro career.
But Hawk, who most agree will be taken at No. 5 by Green Bay, is talked about within league circles as the obvious Defensive Rookie of the Year-in-waiting, a can't-miss talent in a first-round pool that always carries as much risk as reward.