Saban uses college ties for successful draft

Just a few weeks ago, as evaluations for the 2005 draft reached the stretch-run stage, word began to leak from the Miami Dolphins' inner sanctum that the Nick Saban coaching staff had adopted a significantly more active role in the preparations for the lottery.

Now let's not misconstrue here. It's not as if a bunch of Dolphins scouts, perhaps feeling that their roles had been usurped, were carping about the shift in emphasis. Not like the guys paid by owner Wayne Huizenga to evaluate college talent felt cut off at the knees. It was nothing of the sort, nothing remotely resembling dissension, just a casual observation that the coaches were more involved, that's all.

And it was, given Saban's recent background, hardly unexpected.

Fact is, not all that long ago, when Jimmy Johnson was calling the shots in Miami, the player evaluation process pretty much worked the same way. So it only made sense that Saban, steeped in the college game, would lean on one of his own strengths. And that he would rely heavily on the collective knowledge of a coaching staff with tentacles that reached deep into many campuses and with great college contacts.

For years in Dallas, and later during his Dolphins stint, Johnson followed a very successful formula. Let the scouts perform much of the heavy lifting early on, doing the all-important legwork, filing reports on prospects, developing the initial data base. Then, when the coaching staff finished the season, and was available to travel to campuses for firsthand analysis, get the assistants involved in the scouting side of the operation.

It isn't as if Johnson left the blueprint behind, buried in a desk drawer or stuffed away in an unmarked manila folder at the back of a dusty filing cabinet, when he exited the club six years ago. But he didn't have to, frankly, because Saban is a smart guy and he fully understands the importance of making informed, knowledgeable decisions in the draft.

He also comprehends this time-honored and much-tested principle: When it comes to the league's annual flesh market, familiarity doesn't so much breed contempt as it does solid draft classes. Operating in his first draft since he beat the bushes for Bill Belichick as a first lieutenant on the Cleveland Browns' staff in the mid-'90s ("He sent me everywhere," Saban recalled before last weekend's draft), the first-year Miami coach took full advantage of his SEC ties to help fashion a very solid draft, indeed.

Just as Johnson and his assistants tapped into their enormous network of college contacts -- relying on prospects who had played for them, players they had perhaps recruited, or just mining information from coaches with whom they had formed relationships while at the University of Miami -- so did Saban and his aides. Again, it wasn't as if the Dolphins' personnel staff was shunted aside, since its information formed the foundation for where the Miami assistants began building. But in the end, Saban counted on familiarity as the first rule of drafting.

"I don't think it's just a coincidence that [the Dolphins] took me, and that I had some big games against LSU and against coach Saban," acknowledged former Auburn tailback Ronnie Brown, the second overall choice Saturday and Saban's inaugural selection in his new job. "Believe me, [Saban] knew a lot about me. And he knows exactly what he is getting by drafting me."

Make no mistake: Saban and his coaching staff knew a lot about virtually every one of the six picks they exercised in the draft.

Never mind simply scouting. They became the consummate Boy Scouts, ratcheting up the "Be prepared!" credo to lofty heights. And because of that, Saban certainly earned a merit badge in the first draft under his command.

As evidenced by the fact that 15 of the 32 first-round picks, nearly half, came from the SEC or the ACC, every NFL teams taps into the South for prospects. Twenty first-round picks were from schools below the Mason-Dixon Line. Armed with only a half-dozen choices, Saban had to invest them where they served the Dolphins best, but he still managed to spend half his selections on former SEC players. As for the three non-SEC players in the Dolphins' 2005 draft class, well, Saban and his staff did their homework on them, too.

Take fifth-round choice Anthony Alabi, an offensive tackle from TCU, and a player the Dolphins staff at first knew only by reputation. Because he had heard good things about Alabi and his overall athleticism, Saban dispatched offensive line coach Hudson Houck to Fort Worth for the TCU "pro day" auditions. Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, arguably the country's premier reporter in terms of draft coverage, noted Houck was the lone NFL line coach in attendance at the workout.

For information on seventh-rounder Kevin Vickerson, a defensive tackle from Michigan State, Saban leaned on old relationships he and one of his Miami assistants, Bobby Williams, another former Spartans head coach, nurtured during their respective tenures in East Lansing.

The rest of the choices were veritable layups. Brown had pounded the LSU defense, and Saban knew how difficult it was to prepare for him. Second-round defensive end Matt Roth of Iowa had played against LSU in this year's Citrus Bowl. Linebacker Channing Crowder of Florida, who had a pair of sacks against LSU this season, had been unsuccessfully wooed by Saban as a high school senior. This time, Saban didn't have to sell Crowder on playing for him. He just had to choose him.

"I hope he's as excited about having me as I am to be joining up with him," Crowder said. "Having played against his teams, I think I know what he's about, and I want to be a part of that. He knows Southern football. And he knows football players, period."

Cornerback Travis Daniels, the fourth-round choice, played for Saban in Baton Rouge. The Dolphins nabbed Daniels, in part, because they missed out on another former LSU cornerback, Corey Webster, whom Saban was prepared to take in the second round, only to have the New York Giants choose him three slots ahead of the Miami pick.

Rest assured, though, that for as long as Saban is in Miami, he won't allow many talented players, particularly those of whom he has intimate knowledge, to slide past him. That is one reason why Saban desperately, yet fruitlessly, sought to amass additional choices by trading down in the first round.

As impressive as the inaugural Saban draft class is, as solid a foundation as it presents the Dolphins, this remains a franchise that requires an extreme makeover. Just imagine what Saban and his staffers, who had the second-fewest number of picks in the draft, might do with a full complement, or more, of draft selections.

The guy who wrote the book on effectively using assistant coaches in the draft process, who harvested draft bounties by connecting with his college contacts, Jimmy Johnson, collected a couple of Super Bowl rings during his NFL tenure.

With Saban having demonstrated last weekend that he already has a built-in draft edge, don't bet against his duplicating that kind of success.

Around the league
• Saban wasn't the lone first-year coach to reel in an estimable draft class. This year's lottery marked the first, at least in modern draft history, in which each of the first three franchises in the selection order featured a rookie head coach. In the big picture, it looks as though all three handled themselves well.

San Francisco's Mike Nolan – who, like Saban, had the final call on his team's choices – had a few eye-raising selections, but not many. The conventional wisdom is that, when you have 11 draft slots, as did the 49ers, you can take a few chances. That might be true if you are a team like, say, Philadelphia, the defending NFC champion, which chose shrewdly with its 11 picks. But San Francisco won just two games in 2004 and each of its selections should have been viewed as a prized commodity, an opportunity to add a viable prospect to a threadbare roster. That's why it was imperative for the 49ers to draft "sure things," not gamble choices on guys with red flags next to their name.

Two of the San Francisco selections -- tailback Frank Gore (Miami) at the top of the third round and wide receiver Rasheed Marshall (West Virginia) in the fifth -- look like borderline risks. Gore might be a steal, since the former Hurricanes standout possesses some of the best pure running skills of any back in the draft, but he will be only as good as his two surgically repaired knees permit him to be. Marshall is an exceptional athlete, but the former Mountaineers quarterback will have to make the transition to wide receiver. Few teams had him rated as high as a fifth-round prospect.

In Cleveland, where general manager and proven draft manipulator Phil Savage had the final call on choices, first-year coach Romeo Crennel got some players and some playmakers who should help him start the Browns' reversal of fortunes. The Browns likely netted two starters in first-round wideout Braylon Edwards of Michigan and second-round choice Brodney Pool, the former Oklahoma free safety. While we might disagree, the Browns brain trust feels it landed its starting quarterback of the future in Charlie Frye of Akron. And we absolutely love the fifth-round pick, defensive end David McMillan of Kansas, an undersized player with a huge motor.
Final review: Having three rookie coaches leading off the draft certainly had no negative impact on the proceedings.

• Since the Washington Redskins' decision to choose quarterback Jason Campbell with the 25th pick in the first round drew so much attention -- almost as much scrutiny as the story in which we reported that the club had specifically targeted the former Auburn star with that slot -- let's take another look at it and try to put in into historical perspective. In choosing Campbell, the Redskins became just the third franchise since 1970 to invest first-round picks on quarterbacks within three years of each other. Washington, of course, selected incumbent starter (for now) Patrick Ramsey with the final pick of the first round in 2002.

The other two such instances? Seattle took Dan McGwire, brother of baseball slugger Mark McGwire, in the first round in 1991. Then, in 1993, the Seahawks tabbed Rick Mirer with their first-round choice. In 1982, the Baltimore Colts took Art Schlichter, who ultimately spent more time gambling on NFL contests than playing in them. The next year, Baltimore claimed John Elway with the first overall selection, then traded him to the Denver Broncos a few days later. That example cries out for an asterisk but, for the sake of historical accuracy, it has to be included. On only five other occasions since 1970 have franchises chosen first-round quarterbacks within five drafts of each other.

Chew on this for a while: The average time between first-round quarterback picks by the same team, leaguewide since 1970, is 12.1 years. In the past 12 drafts, Washington has taken three quarterbacks in the first round, with Heath Shuler (1994) joining Ramsey and Campbell. More reflective of how NFL teams invest in first-round signal-callers? How about the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted Terry Bradshaw in 1970, Mark Malone in 1980 and Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. There have been nine cases since 1970 in which a team selected a first-round quarterback, then went 20 years or more before taking another one. But not the Redskins. They apparently plan to keep drafting first-round quarterbacks until they get it right.

• Jason Campbell, by the way, told us he could commiserate with the agony Aaron Rodgers suffered as the University of California star plummeted in the first round. "He had to wait three or four hours, and I really felt for him," Campbell said. "But I had to wait nearly a week between the time the Redskins told me they were probably going to draft me and when they actually made the pick. I mean, I believed they were going to take me, all right? But so many people said they were bluffing, or that there was no way they could have targeted me that far in advance and [acquired a second pick in the first round to] pull it off, it makes you wonder."

As has been documented, Washington sent a contingent, one that included head coach Joe Gibbs, to Auburn just four days before the draft to interview Campbell for several hours. It is believed that Gibbs has never visited personally with a quarterback he didn't end up drafting. "When a man like coach Gibbs tells you something," Campbell said, "you figure he's shooting straight with you." Well, maybe. Don't try convincing Patrick Ramsey of that, though.

• There has been considerable speculation that New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, one of the game's true gentlemen, might retire after the 2005 season. So if this was Accorsi's final time helming the Giants' draft, a nod for having gotten about the most imaginable out of the fewest picks in the league.

In part because of last year's trade for Eli Manning, the Giants had only four selections, two fewer than the next closest franchise. But look at what Accorsi and the Giants did with those four selections: Cornerback Corey Webster (No. 2), as much documented here in recent weeks, would have been a first-round choice had he entered the 2004 draft as an underclass prospect. Despite an '05 campaign in which he was plagued by injuries, the LSU star rehabilitated his draft stock over the past month and was a late riser. Notre Dame defensive end Justin Tuck (No. 3) was projected by some as a first-round possibility. If he can bulk up and stay healthy, he should be one of the lottery's biggest steals. Mammoth tailback Brandon Jacobs (No. 4) of Southern Illinois has great quickness for a 267-pounder and could immediately become the short-yardage guy coach Tom Coughlin felt Ron Dayne might be in 2005. Defensive end Eric Moore of Florida State (No. 6) has some burgeoning pass-rush abilities.

Four picks, four guys who could all contribute as rookies and who should all become good players. That's the kind of percentage any team will take in the draft.

• Another NFC team that drafted exceedingly well but got far more credit for it is the Dallas Cowboys, who feel they had an even more productive bounty than most people think. All the Cowboys' top three choices -- linebacker Demarcus Ware (Troy), defensive end Marcus Spears (LSU) and linebacker Kevin Burnett (Tennessee) -- figure to start as coach Bill Parcells transitions to a 3-4 front. But the Cowboys' haul didn't end there. The team feels fourth-round defensive end Chris Canty of Virginia, who suffered a severe knee injury during the '04 campaign and recent damage to his retina, might be able to play this season.

Many teams considering Canty, one of the premier end prospects in the country going into 2004, thought he might need a redshirt year in the NFL to recover. But his knee rehabilitation is ahead of schedule and the Cowboys feel that, with corrective lenses, Canty's vision can be improved to 20-40. If that's the case, the Cowboys landed longtime bookends in Canty and Spears.

Also on defense, Parcells already has apprised Ball State safety Justin Beriault, a sixth-round pick, that he will have a chance to start as the team tries to upgrade its interior secondary. On offense, tailback Marion Barber III, the former Minnesota star chosen in the fourth round, should immediately become the top backup to starter Julian Jones.

And here's the sleeper: Sixth-round pick Rob Petitti of Pitt. Coming off a subpar senior year, Petitti got out of shape, and he never ran well even when he was in prime condition. But he was a quality player at left tackle for the Panthers and the Dallas staff feels that, in time, he might be the solution to the Cowboys' lingering problem at the right tackle spot.

• During the congressional sessions on steroids this week, you might have heard NFL director of labor relations Harold Henderson and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw allude to the fact that several veteran players in the past were suspended for unwittingly ingesting banned substances in supplements that were purchased over the counter. True enough, it seems that almost annually someone is suspended and his defense is he didn't realize there was a banned substance in the supplement he plucked off the counter at the nutritional store in the mall. So if veteran players make such careless mistakes, it's reasonable to assume some youngsters will err similarly.

And that is precisely what happened to one middle-round draft choice in last weekend's draft, a player who tested positive for steroids at the combine, basically because he failed to check the label of the supplement he used in an effort to gain weight before the draft. As was the case with Northwestern defensive tackle Luis Castillo -- chosen by San Diego in the first round even after he tested positive for steroids and wrote letters to all 32 clubs explaining it was a one-time lapse of judgment -- this player's draft status did not suffer. The player, unnamed because he feels he has demonstrated remorse without having to do public penance, adopted a similarly proactive approach to that of Castillo after he was informed of the positive test. He had his college coach send letters to all 32 teams. He made available to every franchise a 16-page packet detailing the four years of clean tests he had taken in college. He basically got in front of the mess by conceding his misstep and aided teams in completing their due diligence on him.

"It was a difficult lesson for him to learn," the player's agent said. "But, believe me, he learned it. He found out what a lot of guys don't learn until they are in the league for a few years - that there are no excuses and that you are ultimately the one responsible for what goes into your body. The ironic thing is, he took the supplement to gain weight and it really didn't work at all."

• Kudos to commissioner Paul Tagliabue for the manner in which he handled himself during the congressional steroid hearings on Wednesday. Granted, compared with the manner in which Bud Selig and his seamhead-silly contingent were treated by the committee, the NFL representatives received kid-glove treatment. But in matters such as the suggestion that Congress might enact an all-encompassing national steroid policy, or that the NFL should perhaps consider outsourcing its testing, Tagliabue stood justifiably firm with his inquisitors. It was good stuff -- with Tags essentially saying, "Hey, look, guys, we're not baseball," without actually articulating those words -- and it played well.

The only quibble we have was the manner in which the NFL fudged the test numbers with the media the past few weeks. The spin from the league was that, since the testing began in 1989, only 54 players have been flagged with positive results. Turns out 57 other players tested positive but left the league. Even at 111, the fairly modest number of positive tests is admirable, and graphic illustration the NFL has been ahead of the curve, at least as much as possible, in this area. Then again, it's a little troubling that the actual number of positive tests was more than double what had been advertised.

• Having recently retained a new agent -- uh, maybe you've heard of him, some guy named Rosenhaus -- Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Dan Morgan is prepared to commence negotiations on a contract extension. The Panthers' first-round selection in the 2001 draft, Morgan is entering the final season of his original contract and is scheduled to have a base salary of $818,750.

It will be interesting to see just how Drew Rosenhaus, who figures to meet with general manager Marty Hurney in the near future, approaches this negotiation. On one hand, Morgan, just 26, is a stud middle 'backer, one of the quickest in the league. He was the NFC starter in the Pro Bowl three months ago, has averaged 8.2 tackles per outing and posted a mind-boggling 25 tackles (that was the count of the Carolina coaches) in Super Bowl XXXVIII. On the other hand, Morgan's ascent to star status has been curtailed by injuries and he has battled repeat concussions for the last couple of seasons. He has yet to play a full 16-game schedule and, in his four seasons, has missed an average of 5.5 games per year.

• If you're looking for an early area of strength in the 2006 draft, then take a sneak peek at the offensive tackle position, which, at this premature point in the evaluation process, appears to have both quality and quantity. The roll call begins with Virginia standout D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who almost certainly would have been the top-rated tackle and perhaps a top 10 selection overall, had he entered this year's lottery as an underclassman. D'Brickashaw is built like d'brick-a-house (yeah, go ahead, groan) and is a superb athlete with great feet and natural pass protection skills.

Other highly regarded tackles include Marcus McNeil (Auburn), Jon Scott (Texas), Andrew Whitworth (LSU), Eric Winston (Miami), Max Jean-Gilles (Georgia), Winston Justice (Southern California) and Jami Hightower (Texas A&M), among others. There were only two tackles, Jammal Brown (to New Orleans) and Alex Barron (to St. Louis), selected in the first round this year and only two players at the position were chosen in the opening stanza of the past two drafts.

It's still a year down the road, but the 2006 draft could rival the 1999 lottery, when five offensive tackle prospects went off the board in the first round.

• Detroit team president Matt Millen raised plenty of eyebrows when he chose wide receiver Mike Williams of Southern California with the 10th overall choice in the draft last weekend. As much discussed, it marked the third consecutive year in which the Lions invested a first-round choice in a wide receiver, with Mike Williams following Charles Rogers in 2003 and Roy Williams in 2004. All three, it should be noted, were top-10 picks.

Lost in the buzz surrounding the Lions' draft strategy, however, was another team that also has used three straight first-round choices to get wide receivers. Atlanta surrendered its 2003 first-rounder to Buffalo in a trade to acquire Peerless Price, and signed him to a contract that included a $10 million signing bonus. The veteran pass catcher, who has been neither peerless nor priceless in two seasons with the Falcons, has but six touchdown catches in 32 games. And Price apparently suffers from a retina problem he claimed affected his play in 2004 but for which he has yet to undergo surgery. In the '04 draft, Atlanta chose Michael Jenkins, who is said to have enormous potential but who played sparingly as a rookie and registered just seven catches. And last weekend, the Falcons tabbed wideout Roddy White with their first-round choice.

Atlanta officials like to refer to the ongoing evolution of quarterback Michael Vick in a new offense, and to the claim the West Coast passing game typically grows from the inside out, to explain the team's aerial inconsistency. But when you have a $130 million quarterback, and three straight first-round choices invested in wideouts, it reaches a point where the passing game has to stop making excuses and start making plays. That's certainly the case in Detroit, and it should be in Atlanta, as well.

• In the aftermath of the draft, it didn't get much attention this week, but Tony Dungy made a terrific move in adding Leslie Frazier to his Indianapolis Colts coaching staff as a defensive assistant. At least publicly, Frazier's role is undefined, but he likely will work with his secondary, his primary area of expertise.

The former Chicago Bears cornerback, who played on the great Super Bowl XX defense, was secondary coach in Philadelphia for four seasons (1999-2002), before being hired by Marvin Lewis as the Cincinnati defensive coordinator in 2003. For whatever reason, Lewis opted to make a change after last season, replacing Frazier with Chuck Bresnahan as coordinator.

Frazier had several interviews the past few months, but none developed into a job offer until Dungy presented him an opportunity. The hiring keeps a terrific guy and a bright defensive mind in the league, and it further bolsters an already-strong Indianapolis staff. Some might view this as Dungy doing Frazier a favor. But trust us, he did himself a big favor, too.

• Known for their quickness on the field, the St. Louis Rams apparently are prepared to carry over that same kind of speed to the bargaining table this year. Wasting little time, the Rams on Thursday, just four days after the draft concluded, signed fourth-round safety Jerome Carter to a three-year contract. The standout Florida State defensive back, who was the 117th player chosen overall, thus becomes the first of the 255 players selected last weekend to reach contract terms. The three-year deal is worth $1.239 million, ESPN.com has learned, and it includes a signing bonus of $319,000. The base salaries are the standard NFL minimums typically awarded to most rookies outside of the first two rounds: $230,000 (for 2005), $305,000 (2007) and $385,000 (2008). Compared to the 117th player chosen in the 2004 draft, Carter received a 6 percent raise on the signing bonus.

Not surprisingly, Carter is represented by Sportstars, a Manhattan-based agency noted for negotiating speedy contracts but deals that hold up exceedingly well even after the draft market gets better defined. The Carter deal was negotiated by former NFL defensive tackle Dave Butz, one of several Sportstars agents.

Carter, 22, was a three-year starter for the Seminoles and, given the Rams' situation at safety, could contribute quickly. In 45 games, including 36 starts, Carter had 257 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, three interceptions and 11 passes defensed. He also posted 2½ sacks and two forced fumbles. Mostly an in-the-box safety in college, Carter will have to upgrade his coverage skills a bit, but he certainly has the tools to do so, including 4.48 speed in the 40. Carter was one of three defensive backs chosen among St. Louis' 11 selections.

• The Minnesota Vikings, who arguably have enjoyed the most productive offseason of any team in the league, had hoped to snag Ohio State kicker Mike Nugent in the second round of the draft. Unfortunately, for coach Mike Tice, whose kicking situation has been tenuous at best the past couple of seasons, the equally needy New York Jets took Nugent before Minnesota got a shot at him.

So now it appears the Vikings, who signed undrafted free agent Jonathan Nichols of Mississippi this week as a stopgap for mini-camps, will turn to a veteran kicker. Near the top of the list is 11-year veteran Doug Brien, who was released by the Jets after they chose Nugent. But the Vikings will also keep an eye on the situation in Chicago, where incumbent Paul Edinger is on thin ice. The Bears, at the very least, will bring another kicker to camp to compete with Edinger. There are even rumors the Bears might consider releasing Edinger before camp begins. The Vikings signed Edinger to a restricted free agent offer sheet two years ago, but Chicago retained him by matching it. Word is that, if Edinger is on the open market, the Vikings will be every bit as interested in him now as they were two years ago.

• The seven-year, $50.8 million contract cornerback Patrick Surtain signed upon being traded from Miami to Kansas City last week marked the second time in seven months agent Gary Uberstine was able to pull a rabbit out of a hat for a veteran player. At the midpoint of last season, and after a lengthy holdout, wide receiver Keenan McCardell was traded from Tampa Bay to San Diego. Just a few weeks ago, Uberstine negotiated a two-year contract extension that netted McCardell $7.6 million in so-called "new money" that he never would have realized from the Bucs. The deal Uberstine got Surtain, who should help solve the Chiefs' myriad woes in the secondary, is the third richest in the league for a cornerback.

Punts: Touted here a couple weeks ago as one of the best deep-snappers no one ever heard of, Jordan Hicks of Georgetown (Ky.) University signed with the Oakland Raiders this week as an undrafted free agent. Hicks, who also played defensive end, certainly has solid bloodlines. His older brother, Reese, is a guard on the Broncos' roster. His sister, Lindsey, was a three-year starter for the Purdue basketball team and is playing in Europe ... Veteran tailback Eddie George, who rushed for just 432 yards with the Cowboys in 2004, is weighing interest from Tampa Bay against the chance to return to the Tennessee Titans as the backup to Chris Brown ... Wide receiver Troy Brown, released earlier this offseason by New England, is seeking a speedy answer from Patriots officials as to whether they plan to re-sign him. Brown has opportunities elsewhere, with the Panthers believed to be among the several teams interested in him ... In a mini-camp experiment, the Rams have moved wide receiver Mike Furrey to free safety, where he got some previous experience in the Arena Football League . . . Chatty wide receiver Freddie Mitchell, whose days in Philadelphia are numbered, anyway, has asked the Eagles to release him. Team officials, who tried unsuccessfully to trade Mitchell during the draft, still hope to find a buyer who will cough up at least a low-round 2006 pick for him ... Contrary to reports, veteran tailback Dorsey Levens is not thinking about retirement. Working out in Atlanta, where he makes his full-time home, Levens is in excellent shape and is hopeful some team will seek a player of his leadership skills before camp begins. He joins veteran tailbacks Garrison Hearst and Tyrone Wheatley as older runners who might be able to fit as a role player for some club.

The last word: "If it's meant to be, he'll play in the NFL. And if it's not, he might be selling insurance. And if he's real unlucky, he might be pouring concrete." -- Ron White, the father of former Oklahoma quarterback and 2003 Heisman Trophy winner Jason White, on his son's tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.