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FROM THE end of the college football season to the draft in late April, NFL prospects are run through a gauntlet of tests, workouts and interviews as each team sorts through the talent and figures out where players fit on its draft board. But over the four months, just how much movement up and down those boards is there? To find out, SI asked five men with the final say on their respective team's draft order--two of whom agreed to talk for the record--to track the interest in highly rated Louisville defensive lineman Amobi Okoye since his last college snap in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2.
THE BROWNS set up their first draft board in December, based solely on players' on-field performances. The chart is revised before the scouting combine in February and again in early April, then refined in the week before the draft. Cleveland's personnel staff completed spring draft meetings on April 14, but late last week general manager Phil Savage was still tweaking his board. "Where a guy starts in December and where he ends up in April are never the same," he said. "The period in there is what we call 'the fog of confusion,' where we're trying to figure out exactly what kind of player and person the guy is."
The 6'2", 302-pound Okoye is seen by most clubs as a tackle in a 4--3 defensive scheme, though there are some who think he can play right end in a 3--4 alignment. He reminds several personnel people of versatile Chargers defensive lineman Luis Castillo, but with more potential. Okoye, whose family emigrated from Nigeria when he was a child, became a starter at Louisville as an 18-year-old junior in 2005 and earned All-- Big East honors last season; he graduated in December with a degree in psychology. At 19 years, 322 days on Saturday, he'll be the second-youngest player ever drafted--and if he debuts in the season-opener he could be the youngest player in NFL history.
On the draft boards of the five teams SI surveyed, Okoye ranked anywhere from 13th to "in the top 50," as one player personnel director put it, at the close of the college season. In the intervening four months, thanks to his consistent performances in the Senior Bowl, at the combine and in campus workouts, he climbed steadily in the eyes of some execs and solidified his high ranking in the minds of others.
One club that uses a 3--4 had listed Okoye 35th on its first board in early February but has bumped him up to 19th on its latest chart because of his perceived versatility. The team that had slotted Okoye 13th after the season moved him to 11th after the Senior Bowl and to eighth last week. Colts president Bill Polian wouldn't specify where Okoye ranked throughout the process other than to say he started on Indy's board as a first-rounder and finished as one. Savage said Okoye didn't move much on the Browns' board, but because they're a 3--4 team, and he felt Okoye was best suited to the 4--3, Cleveland put him in the low end of the first round. The fifth team that shared its opinion of Okoye, a 4--3 defense club in the NFC, said he'd risen from "top 50 to top 25" thanks to three factors: the scarcity of good defensive linemen in the draft, the solid image Okoye projects as a player and as a person, and his youth. "Entering the NFL at [his age] is a great thing," this NFC personnel man said. "He's still maturing into his body, and whoever picks him will be able to sculpt him to the frame of the position they're drafting him for."
ONE POSSIBLE black mark against Okoye was the report in Pro Football Weekly that during team interviews at the combine, he, Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson and Clemson's Gaines Adams admitted to having used marijuana. But none of the five NFL decision makers SI interviewed expected Okoye's stock to be affected much, if at all. Indeed, hard-liner Polian applauded the players' honesty. "When you look into it [with Okoye]," said Polian, "I believe there's a certain amount of youthful indiscretion there." A knowledgeable source said none of the three players tested positive for banned substances at the combine.
"He's a unique player to grade because of his age," said Polian, whose staff was finalizing its draft board last Friday. "We talked to people in baseball and the NBA about the difficulties of a kid adjusting to life in the big leagues at 19. How's he going to withstand the rigors of the NFL world at that age? No one knows. But the best predictor of future success is past success, and he's been consistent on our board because, at 18 and 19, he's played well against players three years older than him."