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The NFL draft, if you do it right, is investigative reporting. It's seeing through the con and also the 40 time. It's not watching the athlete on the field, it's somehow following him home to see what he does off of it. It's more personality test than Wonderlic test. At the scouting combine, teams will ask players, "If someone passes you, at high speed, on the highway, do you chase them or let them go?" Or they'll ask, "Would you rather be a cat or a dog?" It makes me wonder how they keep their jobs.
It's like what's going on in Chicago. The Bears, I'm told, are afraid of Braylon Edwards because they swung and missed on another Michigan receiver, David Terrell. And also because they've seen Edwards drop a ball or three. But the draft shouldn't be about fear, it should be about research. You talk to people. You find out that Braylon Edwards is so hyper before games, he can not sleep. That, the night before games, he'll call his mother and father at 2 a.m., wide awake. That, because of it, he tends to drop passes early in games, because he's still foaming at the mouth. "I'll never forget his first Notre Dame game," says Edwards' father, Stan, a former NFL player. "He was hyperventilating; his mouth was caked white. Took him a whole quarter to come down. So he'll drop the first or second ball to him sometimes. It's like clockwork almost. Gets it out of his system."
Brett Favre gets overexcited early in games just like that, but it takes some probing to find these tidbits out. You think Lovie Smith talked to Edwards' dad? See, now I understand why Tom Coughlin, when he took over the Jaguars, nearly hired our colleague, Chris Mortensen, to help him with research. Football is the one sport for which heart and character is arguably more relevant than skill. And so, when it comes to Saturday's top 10 picks, teams need to throw away the 40 times and pay more attention to a players' life and times.
Like I did.
The only time he'll sit still, in fact, is when he pops in a video tape of Jerry Rice. His father has compiled an extensive football video library, and Rice is the one player who gives Edwards the chills. He noticed how Rice would run just as hard in practice as in games, and that became Edwards' approach at Michigan. That's why he wore Rice's No. 80 his first two years in Ann Arbor. That's why sometimes he'd head to the track, after practice, and run extra sprints by himself. That's why Michigan coach Lloyd Carr says no one is as gung ho as Braylon Edwards.
The kid has been thinking like a pro player for years. In college, he got a massage after every game, which is what the NFL studs do. His dad, who used to play for the Oilers and Lions, introduced him to the Rams' Torry Holt, and Holt took him out to the field to tutor him. Holt let him have it, too, critiqued his pass patterns, and Edwards wasn't offended at all. Now, every day, he's working on hitches and digs and post corners, working on disguising his routes. He's proud to have Randy Moss's downfield speed, but also wants the route-running feet of Marvin Harrison.
He's also the kind of kid who cried after Michigan losses, who played his junior season with a broken finger, but never mentioned a word of it. After games, while wearing a suit and tie, he'd throw passes to little kids in the Michigan parking lot. When the Lions' M&M Boys, (Matt) Millen and (Steve) Mariucci, interviewed him this spring, they asked if he'd mind going to a team that already had Charles Rogers and Roy Williams. And Edwards answered: "No offense to those guys, but I love the game too much, and I'm gonna play." This could be the one player in the draft who has it all: Rice skill, Rice heart. The 49ers, 20 years later, should draft the reincarnate.
He's the son of a principal and took so many AP courses at his San Diego-area high school that he didn't even need to show up for his senior year. He got an Econ degree at Utah in only four semesters, and not only was he book smart, he was football smart. He sat in on Urban Meyer's game-plan meetings, where the coaching staff would ask him to help with the scheming.
On the field, the game was all his. The Utes used a triple-spread option offense, apparently fairly complicated, and he ran it like a charm. Before the snap, he looked like Peyton Manning Jr. He's also the furthest thing from pretentious, his posse consisting of four guys who look like accountants. He's basically the anti-Ricky Williams, which is just what the Dolphins need right now.
Pac-Man Jones is the son of a dead man. In fact, he's the first male in his immediate family to make it to the age of 21.
His father was murdered at 19, and his father's brother was murdered at a similar age. That's why Pac Man takes his little brother, "Squirt," wherever he goes. He takes nothing for granted: not life, not football. He may look like a thug and talk like a thug, but he has been virtually adopted by his college strength coach, Mike Barwis, a strength coach who says, "Pac-Man has what no other corner has in this draft: a burning desire, the passion of a warrior."
Now let me tell you about strength coaches. They're the people who know if a player is phony or not. Strength coaches do not hang out with slackers, and they do not promote slackers. If a strength coach says a kid is a keeper, then you elevate that kid in your mind, elevate him high into the first round. Strength coaches know. God, do they know.
When Pac Man showed up in Morgantown, W.Va., he weighed 169 pounds and ran only a 4.5 40-yard dash. Now, I'm not big on 40-yard dashes, in general, but when I hear that in two years Pac-Man gained 21 pounds and improved his 40 time to a personal best of 4.27, I do a double take. He worked at it, lived in the weight room. "My assistant says he's me, that he's 'a black Mike,' " Barwis says. "Tell me who plays with more passion and energy. And he's a leader. He's telling guys in the locker room what he expects from them."
The kid plays offense, defense, special teams and tour guide. He takes kids from a local hospital and shows them around the Mountaineer football facility. The way Edwards is Jerry Rice reincarnate, this is Darrell Green reincarnate.
In fact, he decided to run at the last minute. Maurice Clarett, who was running to save his career, kept bugging Brown to compete with him, and, even though Brown would risk losing millions, he took him up on it.
And ran in the 4.3s.
Brown's just not afraid to be himself. He loved those Budweiser commercials featuring Leon, the self-absorbed football player, and so he showed up at practice last season with "Leon" taped to the back of his uniform. A reporter asked him an innocuous question, and Brown answered, "Leon got nothing to say." The reporter was incredulous until Ronnie turned around and said, "Gotcha."
On a serious note, Brown and college teammate Carnell "Cadillac" Williams have remained close friends even though they were battling to be picked in the top five. It shows the class of the Auburn kids. In real life, Brown's nothing like Leon.
He's also a real team guy, and it starts with his mother. She wore a jersey to games this season with her son's number on one side, and with Ronnie Brown's number on the other side. With quarterback Jason Campbell's number on one sleeve, with cornerback Carlos Rogers' number on another. The kid and his family have no pretensions.
But he ended up at Cal, and, right away, his coach, Jeff Tedford, felt he was the smartest QB he'd ever worked with. Then, after a bad game and bad loss to Oregon State, Rodgers showed his leadership skills, by taking all the blame. Said he'd embarrassed himself, his school and his family, when the truth was, his offensive line hadn't blocked a soul.
But he's also the one who said he'd guaranteed a win over USC. He's so confident, he comes off arrogant. You might say he has the strut that Alex Smith doesn't, but he's also from a very religious family. He's grounded, but just likes what he sees in the mirror.
He sat out a year, after hitching his wagon to Clarett, but it's not as if he was allergic to the gym. People need to know that Williams watched his Trojans win the national championship from an Atlanta workout facility TV. Yes, he could've been in Miami, could've partied afterward with the guys on South Beach. But instead, he watched the game while doing squats.
He's grounded, partly because he was taken in by an upper-middle-class family in Florida. And at the Football Writer's All-American dinner two years ago in Orlando, he danced all night with that family's 11-year-old daughter.
He's not Randy Moss, all right he'll go over the middle. He also knows how to push off without the referee seeing it (a Michael Irvin trick), and is a yes sir, no sir kind of guy in public. It is not an act.
He's Shawne Merriman, from right down the street. Not that you'd want to take a walk on his street. He grew up in a crime-ridden portion of Forrestville, Md., and was so embarrassed by the crack dealers that he didn't want a home visit from the college he loved, Maryland.
Once he became a Terp, he decided he was going to somehow give a jacket to every poor kid in the D.C. area. "I was one of those kids who didn't have one," he says. But what underclassman thinks like that? Merriman organized a coat drive that first year, handed out 5,000 of them to needy kids, had single mothers crying at the mere sight of him. Never told a soul in the media about it, either. It ended up leaking out the next year, when he rounded up 7,000 coats, but this is the kind of character teams are dying for.
Football wise, this is also a kid who has put on 100 pounds since his sophomore year of high school, who runs in the 4.6s. "I'm two different people," he says. "On the field, I'm a straight up aggressive dude who will try to knock you out. I'll knock you cold any chance I have. Off the field, I'm low-key There's no measuring heart. But if you could attach a machine to someone to measure heart, I guess you'd find the perfect player."
And the Redskins, who could trade back and still be able to nab Merriman, need heart more than most.
And now, this year, Miami has its new policeman's son, Antrel Rolle. Rolle says all the right things, wears a suit to team interviews, but I take a look at his rap sheet and I get nervous. Two seasons ago, he punches Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall after Miami's 39-game regular season win streak ends. Poor loser. Gets suspended. Then, in 2004, he gets arrested for allegedly striking a female police officer after a street fight on campus. He curses and swings his arms trying to get away from the cops. But his dad's a policeman in nearby Homestead, Fla, and, according to a state attorney, that "led to the decision to drop the case."
So, of course, the Lions should take the Auburn kid over the Miami kid. They'd better. These teams that draft, do they read the papers? Do they ask questions? Do they read Mortensen? Do they throw out the 40 times? Do they really want to know if a player chooses cat over dog?
I'm beginning to wonder.Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.