With the arrival of March the fun begins for NFL draftniks. And every year at this time they either know who the No. 1 pick will be ( Jeff George, Michael Vick, Carson Palmer) or the pool of quality candidates is so rich ( David Carr and Julius Peppers, Eli Manning and Robert Gallery) that the team selecting first is certain to get a cornerstone player. � That's why the upcoming draft is so weird--and why the San Francisco 49ers and their new coach, Mike Nolan, are in a tough spot. There isn't a can't-miss player on the board. "I don't remember a year like this," Buffalo Bills president Tom Donahoe said last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "I've talked to 10 people, and I've gotten 10 different answers on who they like at the top. It makes it hard on San Francisco. If the 49ers don't want the pick, it might be hard for them to trade it."
A year ago who would have thought that the names being bandied about at the top of the draft would be Ronnie Brown, Braylon Edwards, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith? At the same time who would have thought that the biggest power brokers in this draft would be Nolan, Scot McCloughan, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage? And what would the odds have been that the most famous player in the draft, Maurice Clarett, wouldn't be selected?
That's the 2005 draft in a nutshell. It's like The Gates. You're not sure what to make of it, but you know you haven't seen anything like it.
With the draft set for April 23 and 24, here's how SI sees the top four picks:
? San Francisco exhausts all attempts to trade down, then reaches around the corner for Rodgers, the Cal quarterback.
? Assuming he doesn't get a running back through free agency or in a trade, Saban, the Miami Dolphins' new coach, selects Brown, who split time with Carnell (Cadillac) Williams at Auburn. Brown has very good speed (4.47 seconds in the 40) for a 233-pound back.
? The Cleveland Browns aren't in love with this quarterback crop, but Crennel, the former New England Patriots defensive coordinator, has to have a passer. It'll be the mobile Smith, out of Utah.
? If any player is a lock to be among the first four picks, it's Edwards, the Michigan wideout. "He's probably the best player in the draft," Nolan says. The pick is held by the Chicago Bears, but last Saturday they signed free-agent All-Pro wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad to a six-year deal. The Bears will trade the pick.
"YOU'RE ON the clock," a reporter said to Nolan in Indianapolis last week.
"That's pretty cool," he said.