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Court has NFL on hold

By Jody Foldesy



Just five days remain until the 2004 NFL Draft, and Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams still can't answer their most crucial question:

Are they in or out?

Today's appeals hearing at the federal courthouse in New York City will determine whether Clarett and Williams will break the league's experience barrier. Because the NFL has barred players less than three years out of high school — and because it would like to continue to do so — their's is perhaps the biggest story in a draft brimming with intriguing angles.

A decision on Clarett and Williams — as well as a few unheralded players who took advantage of Clarett's recent court victory — should come sometime this week. Until it does, NFL clubs also wait in a strange limbo.

"Yeah, it is different," Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said in recent days. "But there's nothing you can do, so you don't worry. If they're in, they're in. If not, they're not."

The ruling, of course, isn't just about Clarett and Williams. Clarett is a former Ohio State running back who might go in the second or third round; Williams a Southern California wide receiver who should land in the first round. But more significant than the impact either might have is how the draft landscape would change in coming years if they're allowed in.

"[The initial ruling] didn't have much effect this year, because Clarett sued and only one legitimate player took advantage of what happened," Casserly said. "In coming years, it could get very interesting."

The draft's other key story lines include the fate of Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning, brother of superstar Peyton Manning; a glut of big, talented wide receivers; a tight end and safety who defy their positions' typical draft-day projections; and another big class of first-round talent out of the football factory in Coral Gables, Fla.

The issue vexing the San Diego Chargers, who own the No. 1 pick, as well as the clubs who might trade up to that spot is this: Will Manning enjoy the type of career his brother has carved in six NFL seasons?

No one wants to be the team that passed on Eli Manning. Clubs know he's "a leader, smart and tough," as Washington Redskins vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato put it, that "made other players around him better" at Ole Miss. But is he the next Peyton Manning? That's unknown — and perhaps unfair.

"It's not fair to compare a guy to [Peyton Manning], just like it's not fair to compare a guy to [the Tennessee Titans'] Steve McNair," Casserly said. "They're co-MVPs."

Regardless, Eli Manning is one player who will make this draft memorable five years from now. Another is superb Iowa tackle Robert Gallery, another potential No. 1 or No. 2 pick. But already a number of personnel chiefs believe the depth and quality of the wide receiver pool will define this draft.

Said Titans general manager Floyd Reese: "The thing that is impressive is the size —which is incredible size in some cases — the athleticism, [the fact that] they can catch the ball, [that] they've been very productive, and [that] it's not one or two guys. You might have six or eight who fit that profile."

The group includes Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald, Texas' Roy Williams, Mike Williams, Washington's Reggie Williams, Oklahoma State's Rashaun Woods, LSU's Michael Clayton, Wisconsin's Lee Evans and Ohio State's Michael Jenkins.

Still, not everyone is ready to call this "the Year of the Wide Receiver."

"No way," Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said with a laugh. "They're some solid prospects, but let's don't send them to Canton yet."

The Hall of Fame also won't be accepting Miami tight end Kellen Winslow or safety Sean Taylor anytime soon, but the pair could go top-five — where one rarely sees a tight end or safety. These two guys are so talented that they might help change the financial mindset that has evolved in the cap era.

"The old thinking was, 'Why should I pick this tight end with the 10th pick when I can get the same thing with the tight end at the 60th pick?' " Reese said. "Then here comes [the Baltimore Ravens'] Todd Heap and [the Giants'] Jeremy Shockey and you look and say, 'These guys are different. They're a different breed.'

"It's the same thing with Sean Taylor. In some years the best safety on the board might be a converted corner. Now you are seeing some guys who are tremendous physical specimens, who can run, and who have played the position at a high level."

It's no surprise Winslow and Taylor both played at Miami, which has produced at least four first-rounders a year since 2001. This year is no different: Other Hurricanes expected to go in the first round are defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebackers Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams, and guard Vernon Carey could join them.

"They recruit hard, they evaluate well, and kids want to go there, because they win, they're on TV — all those things that come with a rich tradition," Cerrato said of Miami.

Of course, if past drafts have taught personnel chiefs anything, it's that the future can't be foretold. Draft-day trades, surprises and mistakes live on for years, and there's a good chance this weekend will be remembered for something totally apart from the aforementioned story lines.

"You don't know until several years down the road," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "I don't think anyone could have predicted last year's [offensive] rookie of the year, the wide receiver for Arizona [second-rounder Anquan Boldin]. I've seen Hall of Famers come out of the ninth, 12th, 20th rounds."

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