Too Early to Think Draft?

While the Steelers and Seahawks prepare for Super Bowl XL, the other 30 teams (and VU) are looking ahead to 2006 and eyeballing the draft -- despite still being three months away.

As the 2005 NFL season winds down with next week's Super Bowl and the annually anti-climactic Pro Bowl, the 2006 season is beginning to wind up. The Senior Bowl is underway this weekend and the eyes of NFL scouts are centered on many of these athletes. A strong performance can vault a player from potentially being a second- or third-round pick into the first round.

There is seemingly little to no rationale to explain it, but the stock of players who have seen action in 40-plus college games can be enhanced or negated by their performance at the all-star games or the Combine. Two years ago, Phillip Rivers went from a late first-round pick to the No. 4 overall choice and centerpiece of a trade that sent Eli Manning from the Chargers to the Giants. Last year, the speed displayed by Troy Williamson at the Combine was a large contributing factor to the Vikings taking him with the seventh overall choice, instead of taking a defensive player with that choice and waiting for another speed receiver like Mark Clayton of the Ravens with their second first-round pick.

The truth is that, while the season is still being contested, it's only by the Steelers and the Seahawks. Everyone else is already gearing up for free agency and the draft – evaluating their in-house talent and looking outside the organization at both free agency and the draft to shore up problem areas. The unprecedented coverage of the Senior Bowl practices this week by ESPN is a clear indication that the network hopes its draft coverage can come close to approaching the amount of on-air hours it devotes to such programming as the World Series of Poker, which went from eight hours in 2002 to 46 hours in 2005.

Not to be caught behind the curve, VU will begin publishing our own mock draft starting the first week in February and updating it as team needs change, free agency plays itself out and Combine, school-day workouts and individual workout numbers come back favorably or negatively for different players. Like the NFL, it seems that it is never too early to start looking at the future.

This brings us to the Vikings. The Vikes pick at No. 17, which is as close to the middle of the first round as a team can get. Last year, the Bengals got linebacker David Pollack at pick No. 17. Despite a protracted holdout, by the end of the season, he had rounded into a solid starter who was building a reputation as a playmaker. In 2004, Denver took LB D.J. Williams with that pick. In 2003, the Cardinals took WR Bryant Johnson with No. 17 – one pick after the Steelers took Troy Polamalu and 37 picks before the Cardinals went back to the wideout well and took Anquan Boldin. Other recent notables at No. 17 include CB Phillip Buchanon, guard Steve Hutchinson, Sebastian Janikowski (you got to love the Raiders), center Damien Woody and LB Brian Simmons

Unlike last year's draft – when nobody seemed willing or able to move up in the draft to grab the top picks and pay the money needed to sign them, this year could be much different. It seems clear that USC's Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush and Vince Young of Texas are going to be the top three picks. Those three picks are currently held by the Texans, Saints and Titans – three teams that could surely use those players, but also teams that have a lot of holes. Trading down could be an option for one or all of them.

Once trading starts at the top, anything could happen. The frenzy begins in earnest as teams start targeting individual players and, at pick No. 17, teams in the bottom third of the first round could be willing to move up and take a chance on a player they covet but may not have a chance to lock down.

In NASCAR, they say "Gentlemen, start your engines." The same is true for the NFL. Once the Super Bowl is done, it's off to the races for 2006 – ready or not.

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