Special to Page 2
WWFD. What would Frank (Deford) do?
I'm not sure, but I'm certain he's not curled up on his sofa, drink in hand, settling in for an afternoon of watching Senior Bowl practices. He's probably rolling his own cigarettes on the thighs of a Russian tennis player, or writing an award-winning piece on the next great Cuban shortstop, playing baseball in Havana with a cat's bladder and discarded pieces of gunmetal.
I, on the other hand, am in my living room with Mike Mayock, Michael Barkann and a notebook, ready for Day 1 of Senior Bowl practices. The NFL Network has allowed losers like me the opportunity to experience a life I never thought I would see -- one that allows for around-the-clock access to football. No more endless NBA highlights in January. No more pitchers and catchers in mid-February. Now I can click over and get an update on Josh Duhamel's fantasy team, watch highlights from the 1995 AFC title game, or see Rich Eisen and Terrell Davis together at a table for what must seem like a Groundhog Day-esque eternity to them. Wanna see Rich Eisen snap? Ask him a question about football on Feb. 6.
Startling admission No. 1: I love football, but I love the NFL draft even more. The draft had me at "with the 247th pick in the 1987 NFL draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Bob Ontko, LB, Penn State." If I were Tom Cruise, I would jump up and down on a sofa for the NFL draft. If I were John Cusack, I would lift a boom box above my head and play a Peter Gabriel tune.
For the past several years, my buddy Regner and I have been watching all 173 hours of NFL draft coverage together. We call it Draftmas, and wear the jersey of our favorite busts -- Rashaan Salaam (8 bucks and change on eBay) for me, Joey Harrington for him.
A word on busts: These guys have still done more in football (and at the bank) than I ever will, so the word "bust" is used very loosely here. Another word on busts: Steve Emtmann was not a bust, he just had injury problems. Bad play is one thing; injuries are another.
Startling admission No. 2: I paid more attention to the East-West Shrine Game than I did the AFC and NFC title games. My team, the Bears, had lost the week before, so I turned my attention to the college all-star games. Not much of note on this game, other than the fact that it featured Bruce Gradkowski (otherwise known as the guy who played every Thursday night this season on ESPN2 soon to be renamed the Total Gradkowski Network). It also featured a tight end named David Thomas, Vince Young's favorite target from Texas (who I think will be this year's Chris Cooley), and another draft phenomenon: The Next Mel Kiper Syndrome.
The first Next Mel Kiper of this year's draft season was Todd McShay, third man in the booth for the Shrine Game. McShay, part of the Scouts Inc. team that writes for ESPN.com, settled in after the first quarter, becoming more comfortable using
Draft Slang That for Some Reason Sounds a Little Dirty:
• "Stiff in the hips" (used to describe LBs or DBs who have trouble changing direction on the fly)
• "Flip the hips" (see above: One who can flip the hips clearly isn't stiff in the hips. Anyway.)
• "A knee-bender" (used to describe an offensive lineman adept at bending at the knees to gain leverage on an opponent)
• "Quick get-off" (describes one's ability to explode upfield quickly at the snap of the football)
• "Pocket integrity" (meaning the ability of an offensive line to keep a protective pocket around the quarterback)
But the Shrine Game was just a precursor to:
Senior Bowl practices, Day 1, Jan. 23, 4 p.m., NFL Network
There is perhaps nothing more overtly capitalistic than the Senior Bowl -- young men literally fighting and running for dollars before our eyes in a drama that would make Ayn Rand proud. This is, I think, the only truly meaningful all-star game in college or professional sports, because real money is at stake for athletes who don't yet have real money.
This was the North squad's first practice. It boasted several interesting prospects, including Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler, Virginia tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka -- and a booth that featured the aforementioned Barkann (reminds me a lot of the Fred Willard character in "Best in Show") and this year's second Next Mel Kiper, Mike Mayock.
Mayock had a cup of coffee as a defensive back with the New York Giants back in 1982-83 and is the NFL Network's resident draft guru. He uses Kiper-talk -- that strident, staccato delivery. He also spends a great deal of time lobbying for Jay Cutler. Unfortunately, Cutler is not cooperating during the telecast, spraying footballs all over Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
"That throw just demonstrates his arm strength," said Mayock after Cutler overthrew his wideout by about 15 yards on an out cut. Mayock, however, clearly knows football, and takes the time to explain not only what he's seeing but the culture of the Senior Bowl (a business trip) as opposed to some of the other all-star games.
Day 1 nonsurprise (and remember these observations are based solely on what the telecast showed): Ferguson looking terrific in one-on-one pass rush drills vs. Kiwanuka. Ferguson reminds me of a lighter Jonathan Ogden. As a Michigan resident, I hope the Lions give him some thought in Round 1 so the quarterback they inevitably reach for (probably Cutler) won't get killed.
A word about draft punditing: There are about 1,000 guys on Internet message boards who know more about these guys than me, so take what I say with a grain of salt. That said, Matt Millen is still doing this stuff for a living.
Day 1 pleasant surprises: Tye Hill, an undersized but lightning-fast DB from Clemson, covering everything on the field and holding his own against much taller receivers. Perhaps a future Chicago Bear? Also, Maurice Stovall, the tall WR from Notre Dame who lost weight, added quickness, and has shown an ability to separate and make plays.
Day 1 possible names for our next child (from Mrs. Draft Geek): D'Qwell, D'Brickashaw
Day 2, South practice, 2:30 p.m. ESPN, 3 p.m. NFL Network
Regner and I are in the midst of a troubling discovery. On draft day 2006, I will be in Rochester, N.Y., playing indoor football as a member of the Battle Creek Crunch for a series of articles for Page 2. I calculate the bus ride, plus time at the arena, etc. and determine that I can at least celebrate Draftmas, Day 2, which is kind of like celebrating Christmas with your distant relatives on Dec. 28. However, coach Kubiak, if I happen to miss the trip because of a mysterious high ankle sprain, don't be surprised.
Day 2 was my day to evaluate tight ends, as I have convinced myself the Bears were one explosive TE (and a Steve Smith injury) away from the Super Bowl. That said, this year's draft class is loaded with TE talent. I was especially impressed with Dominique Byrd from USC, who upstaged L.A. counterpart Marcedes Lewis of UCLA. Byrd runs smooth routes for a guy who goes about 6-foot-2 and 260, and he brings a nasty streak to the run game. But many of the marquee tight ends are juniors, like my candidate to be this year's Mike Mamula, Vernon Davis of Maryland.
'This year's Mike Mamula' defined: Mike Mamula was a linebacker/defensive end out of Boston College several years ago who set the world on fire at the NFL scouting combine, became a first-round pick of the Eagles and subsequently didn't do a whole lot as a pro. Pundits must be in love with Davis; every time I log on to my computer, he has gotten bigger and his 40 time has dropped another tenth of a second.
There were some pleasant Day 2 surprises. One, that former NFL exec Pat Kirwan figured more prominently in the NFL Network's coverage. The other was Jerious Norwood, a Mississippi State RB. Norwood is tall and lean and runs high, but is also very smooth and athletic. He reminds me of a guy named Lamont Warren who played for the Colts in the mid-'90s -- a versatile backup who will make a roster and contribute.
Pleasant surprise No. 2: Thomas Howard, LB, UTEP. Howard is a physical specimen who was blowing by people in one-on-one pass-rush drills. Reminds me a lot of Chaun Thompson, now with the Browns. Howard will turn heads at the combine and rocket up the board.
This year's center who really helped himself: Nick Mangold, Ohio State. See Jeff Faine. See Jake Grove. Mangold looked strong in one-on-one drills and could slip into Round 1 with a good combine.
Quote of the day, Day 2: "There is a tackling epidemic in this country." Said by ESPN analyst Chris Spielman, on the nation's seeming inability to collectively keep its head up, wrap its arms and drive someone into the turf. In addition to his other problems, George W. Bush is apparently turning a deaf ear to our tackling problems.
Day 2 possible names for our next child (from Mrs. Draft Geek): Hank.
Day 3, 2:30-3:30 p.m., ESPN
Spielman is up in arms. Nobody was hitting out there, in his opinion. The 9-on-7 run drills that follow individual work are "thud" only -- meaning defenders form up on the runner but stop short of bringing him down to the turf, the logic being that most of the injuries happen on the last step. Spielman, however, equates the thud scrimmage to a pillow fight. One gets the impression that, for Spielman, it's not fun until someone is spouting blood from an orifice or losing a limb -- but given that Spielman was a favorite player of mine, it feels a little blasphemous to say that.
Two linebackers who helped themselves tremendously: D'Qwell Jackson, Maryland, and Chad Greenway, Iowa. Jackson is 6-0 and 227 but reminds me a lot of Al Wilson in Denver. He's a downhill player who just makes plays and probably worked himself into a late first-round selection, perhaps with a team like New England that needs to get younger at LB. Greenway solidified his status as the consensus "second-best LB in the draft" next to A.J. Hawk and reportedly also is dating Hawk's sister now. Anyway.
Day 3 possible names for our next child (from Mrs. Draft Geek): Marcedes.
Days 4 and 5, 2:30-3:30 p.m., ESPN
Never thought I'd say this, but I am losing interest. I'm also starting to talk like Mel Kiper, which is worrying my friends and family. I told my wife she has a lot of upside, then immediately regretted it.
The players are back in shorts, and the real contact work is over. Alabama QB Brodie Croyle might have snuck into the second round. He has shown the most poise, accuracy and touch of all the Senior Bowl QBs. Oklahoma wide receiver Travis Wilson has stood out, as well. His crisp routes, solid hands and good size have given him an advantage over the rest of a subpar WR class. Drops have hurt players such as Derek Hagan and Jason Avant.
After logging several days worth of Senior Bowl practices, I have learned that I still have much to learn about player evaluation. After all, I'm the same guy who thought Cade McNown would be an All-Pro quarterback by now. That said, I am also a guy who got paid to watch six hours of Senior Bowl practices. In the words of Don King, "What a country!" Regner and I are already looking forward to next year. And, who knows? We might even invite Frank Deford.
Ted Kluck is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com, and his first book, "Facing Tyson," will be released in the fall by the Lyons Press.