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Never too early to talk draft
Posted: Tuesday November 03, 1998 11:16 AM
The NFL draft is still five months off, but the Cleveland Browns are on the clock, and it's never to early to start the speculation.
With the '98 season already halfway over, the playoff picture isn't the only thing coming into focus -- the league's worst teams are starting to line up for what will be the '99 draft order.
Two intriguing subplots should make the top five picks very interesting this year: first, the strategy Cleveland will take in building its franchise; and second, the position the Redskins are in with two picks potentially in the top four or five, thanks to Carolina signing defensive tackle Sean Gilbert in the off-season.
Before we digress too much, here's how my top five falls:
1. Cleveland: Tim Couch, QB, Kentucky
The key to the draft is Couch, the talented junior who faces the same decision Tennessee's Peyton Manning faced two years ago. Couch saw Manning stick around for his senior year and lead his team to a Southeastern Conference title, but he's also seen Manning's rookie struggles in Indianapolis this year.
One reason he might leave early is the opportunity to not only be the top pick, but to go to a solid team -- the league will have Cleveland competitive from the start, instead of some 2-14 team you might normally find with the No. 1 pick.
At the same time, Couch might want a guarantee he'll be the top pick before he opts to leave early, and Cleveland might not be able to give him that. By the time Couch must decide, the Browns might not have named a coach or general manager -- would a team commit to its quarterback before it has someone to coach him?
An interesting note, along those lines: sources told me that 49ers director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato has been to see Kentucky twice this season. Cerrata is considered a front-runner to follow Carmen Policy to Cleveland's front office, and considering that the 49ers won't pick until late in the first round, you have to wonder if he's scouting for San Francisco or Cleveland.
Couch already had a seven-figure insurance policy out this season, but don't think he's a lock to leave early. If he returns, he's a state hero for life, though his entire offensive line will graduate this year. His coming back is a more serious option than people think -- last year, Ricky Williams wanted to come out, and all he wanted was assurance he'd be a top-five pick, but he didn't get that and stayed in school.
There's a dropoff at quarterback after Couch and Culpepper, but this year, teams' paranoia that a good QB might slip away might make second-tier quarterbacks like UCLA's Cade McNown and Washington's Brock Huard go much higher than they might in other years.
Across the league, there's a greater need for quarterbacks than there's been in recent years. Not only is there a tremendous lack of quality at the position, but several key veterans -- John Elway, Dan Marino and Warren Moon, to name a few -- are nearing retirement.
It seems the top three picks are set, with the order depending only which teams pick at second and third. The Eagles, who still haven't found a replacement for Ricky Watters, should be thrilled to get Texas' Williams to build their offense around and then would stick with young Bobby Hoying or a free-agent veteran at quarterback.
Washington will take a quarterback with its top pick, and Culpepper will be there. Look for the Redskins to give rookie Skip Hicks plenty of carries in the second half of the season -- if they're comfortable with him as the heir apparent to aging Terry Allen, they can use their second high pick on Bailey, who is the best athlete in the draft. Darrell Green is aging, and scouts see Bailey as a Charles Woodson-type cornerback who can double as a return specialist and even dabble on offense.
With the fifth pick, Florida's Kearse gives Indy a great athlete who fills a glaring need as a pass-rush edge guy. If Kearse leaves early, he projects higher than Ohio State's Andy Katzenmoyer, who looks to have fallen out of the top five.
Another draft note -- Arizona has San Diego's first-round pick -- potentially as high as No. 6 -- from the trade that let the Chargers take Ryan Leaf. Look for the Cardinals to use both first-round picks (theirs should be around No. 15) on offensive tackles to help address a horrible offensive line that's limited quarterback Jake Plummer all season. Georgia's Matt Stinchcomb fits well with their first pick, and Wisconsin's Aaron Gibson may still be available when they pick again.
What's just as impressive about the top five picks is who's missing -- Carolina has really set the franchise back a year or two with the Gilbert trade. Three things to consider -- first, Carolina expected Gilbert to lead their defense, not be the non-entity he's been so far. Second, they had no idea they'd be this bad, making the pick they gave up so high -- maybe top 20, maybe 15, but not a top-five pick. They gave up next year's pick, too, which could be pretty high again. And finally, they didn't think they'd be searching for a quarterback. If nothing else, they don't have to worry about wasting a first-rounder this year.
Gary Horton is a former NFL scout and college coach who now heads up The War Room, a publication offering an insider's perspective into the NFL. His weekly column appears on Tuesdays throughout the season.
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