Theme of NFL draft: Don't blow it!

The baseball draft is too obscure; basketball too predictable.

This weekend, however, is the only sports selection process that's interesting enough to watch on TV (ESPN) Â- the NFL draft, in which teams speculate on college football stars with the cold calculation of cattle buyers and the gut instincts of Tarot card readers. This year, most experts agree, features a special collection of talent, including 20 top-rate players, far more than have been available in recent years.

It's a chance for a team to dramatically revamp its roster in the span of 48 hours. It's also a time when a team can blow its future faster than you can say Akili Smith. (Smith, a quarterback from Oregon, was the third player chosen in 1999 and is now considered a bust.)

Jobs are on the line, stakes are high, and if you're a general manager or a director of player personnel, you have one thing on your mind: Don't blow it.

"The mission of everyone involved in a team's draft is to minimize doubt" about the player they are going to select, says Vic Carucci, the national editor of NFL Insider Magazine and a veteran of 23 NFL drafts.

But, he adds, "The thing that will always frustrate and make teams uneasy is that there is no tangible way to measure a player's heart and level of desire. You ... [can't] judge how the guy will react in the final minutes of a game on national TV with 70,000 people in the stadium."

It's not, however, due to lack of effort.

Teams poke, prod, and consult experts. They try to get inside a player's head and heart. They test players for intelligence using the 12-minute Wonderlic Test, which was developed by a Northwestern University psychology student in the 1930s. (The average football prospect's result, it turns out, is slightly above the average for the general population.)

Some teams give players psychological tests, the most notorious of which is administered by the New York Giants. It includes 471 questions and takes one hour, 45 minutes to complete. "We're interested in how people are able to adapt to a professional environment," says Joel Goldberg, the consultant who developed the Giants' test. "It takes a combination of focus, hard work, competitiveness, and an appropriate amount of intelligence."

Then there are other abstract considerations, such as a player's personal habits, marketability, and even looks.

Consider this year's top prospect, Fresno State quarterback David Carr, whom the expansion Houston Texans have already said they will select with the first pick. Although Carr is certainly talented, some question whether another quarterback, Joey Harrington of Oregon, has more ability. Analysts speculate that Carr is being picked in part because of his family values, charisma, and good looks so that he can be the face of the Texans Â- the same way Troy Aikman was the face of the Dallas Cowboys.

"Carr is more personable than Harrington," says Scott Wright, who runs the website "He'll be their poster boy and sell their jerseys."

But what NFL teams really love are hard numbers Â- how fast the prospect can run, how high he can jump, and how many times he can bench-press 225 pounds. The facts are obtained at the February NFL draft combine camp in Indianapolis, or during "pro days" at colleges in March, when scouts show up at campuses to clock the prospects.

Talent evaluators place an inordinate emphasis on a player's time running the 40-yard dash (even though it's a distance rarely run in a football game). This year's surprising speedster is Michigan State's T.J. Duckett, who's expected to be the first running back selected. Duckett, who weighs 250 pounds, ran the 40 in a blistering 4.3 seconds, catapulting him above Boston College's William Green on many teams' draft charts.

Conversely, Marquis Walker of Michigan, ran a 4.65 40-yard dash, somewhat slow for a wide receiver, which lowered his stock and perhaps dropped him out of the first round. Meanwhile, Donte Stallworth, a wide receiver from Tennessee, impressed scouts with his strength. He was able to bench-press 225 pounds 17 times Â- the same number of times as defensive lineman and sure first-round pick Albert Haynseworth, also of Tennessee.

Yet, times and bench-press statistics can be a dangerous crutch for a general manager. Sometimes the numbers don't translate into performance, or, as scouts are fond of saying, sometimes a player looks like Tarzan but plays like Jane.

So there's one other key thing an NFL team considers before choosing their guy: performance on the field. Scouts have been known to watch enough tape to melt down VCRs. They often have to do so on college campuses at strange hours, ad nausea, focusing just on the player in question, running tape over and over.

That remains the best way to predict how a player will perform in game conditions, analysts say.

"Watching game tape is the most important part," Carucci says. "It tells you about production and how a player matches up against the best competition."

But, Carucci adds, "It's a numbing experience.... I once spent a day with a scout, watching film. I decided right away that it wasn't the job for me."

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