King Kaufman's Sports Daily

When all the results from the NFL scouting combine are tabulated, there's one stat worth remembering: Ryan Leaf was once the second-highest pick.

By Salon Staff
Published March 2, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Every year after the NFL scouting combine, team personnel officials and scouts issue these hilariously sure proclamations about whose stock has gone up and whose has gone down. This year: Ronnie Brown of Auburn, way up! Maurice Clarett of the Columbus, Ohio, legal system: Down, down, down.

Brown had a fine college career despite being overshadowed by backfield mate Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. For all I know Brown could turn out to be the greatest back in NFL history after turning in a couple of blazing 40-yard dashes over the weekend in Indianapolis. Clarett started running his 40 on Saturday and is approaching the finish line as I write this. He may wash out in his first training camp. The combine just might have been a perfect preview of their careers.

But it's important to remember something about the NFL's personnel officials and scouts: These are the people who gave you Ryan Leaf, No. 2 overall pick. These are the geniuses who made Joe Montana a third rounder. These are the guys who had Ron Dayne ahead of Shaun Alexander five years ago.

This is the system that, in that same 2000 draft, resulted in quarterbacks being drafted in this order: Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi, Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger, Spergon Wynn, Tom Brady, Todd Husak, JaJuan Seider, Tim Rattay. See a pattern there? Me too. NFL starters are distributed randomly among the washouts and backups, with a guy some are starting to consider among the two or three greatest quarterbacks of all time having been considered the seventh best prospect that year.

"You see what happens when you take two years off football," Colts executive Dom Anile said after Clarett's pair of sluglike 40-yard dashes.

What, you get a half-second slower in the 40? Was that Michael Johnson's secret all those years he was dominating the sprint world? He was playing football between meets?

These are the people who brought you the 1996 draft, which featured, in order of selection, the following linebackers: Kevin Hardy, John Mobley, Reggie Brown, Ray Lewis, Randall Godfrey, Patrick Sapp, Steven Conley, Terry Killens, Tedy Bruschi, Donnie Edwards, Percell Gaskins, Ray Farmer, LaCurtis Jones, Earl Holmes, Eric Unverzagt, Whit Marshall, Zach Thomas and 10 more guys.

See if you can pick out the league MVP, the cornerstone of a defense that was the cornerstone of three Super Bowl champions, and the guy who made five straight Pro Bowls. Here's a hint: Skip down a bit.

By most accounts, Brown leapfrogged over not just Williams, but Texas back Cedric Benson, who hurt himself by not working out. Benson, like many others, will work out for scouts at his school's "pro day" this month.

The scouts and personnel officials have three or four years of game video to judge how well these guys play football, and their opinions bounce around like pinballs based on a pair of 40-yard dash times or the way the guy runs a rope drill.

It's one thing to kick the tires of a kid who's been playing at Pivnick Tech of the East Armpit Conference in Division II. But Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams and Cedric Benson have been playing in the high minors for most of this century, against pretty good, and roughly even, competition. There's plenty of evidence about what these guys can do on a football field.

Maurice Clarett -- just now puffing through those last few yards -- looked pretty bad on Saturday, but he played pretty well against Big Ten competition as a freshman. Sure, he was running behind five bulldozers, but he wasn't just running through huge holes. He made some great plays. He was projected as a third-round pick in part because of his attitude, though his lack of blazing speed was also a factor. Now, because of one slow day of running, his projection has dropped four rounds, and maybe all the way off the board.

For all anyone knows the scouts are making the right call by tossing Clarett and putting Brown on top. Clarett's not a guy I'd bet a lot on right now, and most people who've been watching a lot of Auburn games the last few years have been saying that Brown is a better NFL prospect than Williams, the backfield's star. Shoot, I haven't watched that much Auburn football, and even I thought Brown was the better talent.

But it's not like the scouts or anybody else really knows anything. Two words: Ryan Leaf.

"Every year we tell ourselves not to get crazy and move guys up or down our draft board based on the way they ran around in shorts," Ravens coach Brian Billick told the San Jose Mercury News. "Then we go crazy and push guys way up or way down based on the way they ran around in shorts."

It's a fun game, looking at old drafts and seeing how well the NFL sized up the talent. I'm fond of the 1997 running back crop, when Antowain Smith was taken ahead of Tiki Barber, who was followed by Byron Hanspard, who was taken before Corey Dillon. And then after Dillon, Sedrick Shaw, Troy Davis and Jay Graham got drafted while Duce Staley's name went uncalled.

This year's combine attracted unprecedented participation, partly because of the lack of sure-thing top picks, but more because of the event's higher profile thanks to its being televised. I'm sure the personnel people will say that more players working out at the combine over the next few years will lessen the chances of draft-day mistakes.

Here's a prediction: It won't. Ryan Leaf went to the combine. What do Jeremiah Trotter, Ahman Green and Hines Ward have in common? They were all taken in the third round of the same draft in which Leaf was the No. 2 pick.

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A clarification [PERMALINK]

On Monday I made a joke about the Oscars, goofing on the dumb announcement that Hilary Swank was the first woman ever nominated for playing a boxer by saying she had also been the first to be nominated "for playing a cross-dressing teenage girl from Nebraska who gets raped and murdered."

Reader Chris Wilder writes that Brandon Teena, the subject of the movie "Boys Don't Cry," was a transgender, not a cross-dresser. I asked the Rainbow Outreach Metro Omaha GLBT Center, among others in Teena's home state, to ask if that's a legitimate beef.

It is. I apologize for my ignorance.

"It is understandable that many people may think the two terms are interchangeable," wrote board member Brian Wyant in an e-mail response to my call. "However, there exists a difference. Regardless of sexual orientation, a cross-dresser (also known as a transvestite) is an individual who wears articles of clothing associated with another gender, while a transgender is an individual born into a body that does not match what they know and feel their proper gender to be."

Transgenders and intersex people -- whose anatomy cannot be defined as strictly male or female -- are "caught in society's unwarranted pressure on everyone to have both the physical and psychological attributes of a human being match only one of the polar extremes of gender: male or female," Wyant wrote. "In a world that frequently wants swift, simple answers to life's complex realities, it is always an ongoing challenge to increase awareness about the diversity and spectrum of human existence."

For more information, he passed along links to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Intersex Society of North America.

Previous column: John Chaney

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