Finding blue-chip players in the annual NFL college draft this weekend will be like picking stocks in a bear market.
In contrast to last year, when three quarterbacks (Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith) and two running backs (Edgerrin James and Ricky Williams) were the first five picks, there may be only one quarterback (Chad Pennington) drafted on the first round and none of the running backs are considered franchise-type players.
Only four players -- Penn State defensive standouts Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington, Alabama offensive tackle Chris Samuels and Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick -- are considered consensus can't-miss players.
They will be the first four players selected when commissioner Paul Tagliabue starts the two-day, seven-round draft at noon tomorrow in New York.
After that, there's not even any consensus among the scouts on the identity of the fifth-best player.
The league has invited Virginia running back Thomas Jones to draft headquarters in New York along with the Big Four, but some scouts have defensive tackle Corey Simon of Florida State listed as the fifth-best player.
"It's a tough draft because it's not a deep draft," said Mark Hatley, the Chicago Bears' vice president of player personnel. "It's a second-, third- and fourth-round draft. There's about 50 players all rated about the same. Names will be flying all over the place. Guys could go at the bottom of the third round or the bottom of the first."
Bobby Ross, the coach of the Detroit Lions, is just as perplexed.
"This has been the most unclear year to me of any that I've had," he said. "It's a little harder to predict than in previous years."
What the scouts fear is that this could be a draft similar to the one in 1992 when two defensive players, Steve Emtman and Quentin Coryatt, were the first two players picked by Indianapolis.
The next eight players were Sean Gilbert, Desmond Howard, Terrell Buckley, David Klingler, Troy Vincent, Bob Whitfield, Tommy Vardell and Ray Roberts.
None of them turned out to be a future Hall of Famers, and Howard, the Heisman Trophy winner that year, and Klingler, were spectacular busts.
Complicating the situation is the fact the NFL pays the rookies depending on where they were drafted. It doesn't matter if they're not as good as players drafted in the same spot last year, they want as much money.
That means the fifth player drafted will want to match Ricky Williams' $8.8 million signing bonus, the sixth player will want to match Torry Holt's $5.4 million signing bonus, and the seventh player will want to match Champ Bailey's $5.2 million signing bonus.
That's big money for a player who may not be much better than one selected 10 spots later.
It also explains why some teams, including the Ravens, who have the fifth pick in a four-player draft, are willing to trade down.
Meanwhile, the Jets, who have four first-round picks, continued their trading frenzy late last night by dealing a second-round pick to the 49ers to move up from the 16th to 12th spot in the first round, a surprisingly high price to pay to move up just four spots in the middle of the round. The rebuilding 49ers now have two firsts, two seconds and five of the first 65 picks.
The cash-strapped 49ers will likely keep trading down to collect more picks in the middle rounds, where they can find productive yet salary-cap-friendly players.
By the middle of the third round, the rookies will be signing for the $193,000 minimum first-year salary, with signing bonuses in the $400,000 range.
One feature of this year's draft is that teams are studying players' off-the-field character very carefully in the wake of a rash of off-the-field incidents.
Tom Coughlin, the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, said: "No question, it will be an issue this year. That's all that was talked about at the league meetings [last month], over and over and over again."
The teams seem to be more forgiving of one-time incidents that didn't involve violence. Warrick, for example, wasn't downgraded, because he was suspended for two games last year after paying $21.40 for $412.38 worth of clothing.
And the scouts seem more concerned about the injury status of Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis than the fact he was put on three years' probation and paid a $1,000 fine for shoplifting a $109 shirt in an Atlanta store in 1997.
On the other hand, wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who was involved in the department store incident with Warrick, got more scrutiny, because the offense wasn't his first. He was kicked off the Florida State team, because he had been charged previously with misdemeanor battering for hitting his father's ex-wife and had academic troubles.
Coles said he has learned his lesson. "It makes you want to stay away from things that get you in trouble," he said.
Then there's Florida State's Sebastian Janikowski, who's rated one of the best kickers in recent years but has a reputation for partying too much. He was arrested in January and charged with attempting to bribe a police officer to keep him from arresting a friend.
"I tell everybody I'm trying to grow up," Janikowski said. "College kids always do stupid things. You learn from your mistakes."
As the scouts rate the players, they have to try to figure out which players won't make the same mistakes again.
TV: Tomorrow, noon-7 p.m. on ESPN, 7-10 p.m. on ESPN2; Sunday, 11 a.m.- 1 p.m. on ESPN, 1 p.m.- conclusion on ESPN2
Total selections: 254
Round 1 -- No. 5, No. 10
Round 3 -- No. 75
Round 5 -- No. 148
Round 6 -- No. 186, No. 191
How Vito Stellino sees the first round
No. Team Player Pos. School
1. Browns Courtney Brown DE Penn State
2. Redskins LaVar Arrington LB Penn State
3. Redskins Chris Samuels OT Alabama
4. Bengals Peter Warrick WR Florida State
5. Ravens Travis Taylor WR Florida
6. Eagles Corey Simon DT Florida State
7. Cardinals Thomas Jones RB Virginia
8. Steelers Plaxico Burress WR Michigan State
9. Bears Brian Urlacher LB New Mexico
10. Ravens Jamal Lewis RB Tennessee
11. Giants Ron Dayne RB Wisconsin
12. Jets Shaun Ellis DE Tennessee
13. Jets Bubba Franks TE Miami (Fla.)
14. Packers Julian Peterson DE Michigan State
15. Broncos Chad Pennington QB Marshall
16. 49ers Keith Bulluck LB Syracuse
17. Raiders Sylvester Morris WR Jackson State
18. Jets John Engelberger DE Virginia Tech
19. Seahawks Rob Morris LB Brigham Young
20. Lions Shaun Alexander RB Alabama
21. Chiefs Dez White WR Georgia Tech
22. Seahawks Chris Hovan DT Boston College
23. Panthers John Abraham DE South Carolina
24. 49ers Rashard Anderson CB Jackson State
25. Vikings Darren Howard DE Kansas State
26. Bills Ahmed Plummer CB Ohio State
27. Jets Stockar McDougle OT Oklahoma
28. Colts Jerry Porter WR West Virginia
29. Jaguars Cosey Coleman G Tennessee
30. Titans Deltha O'Neal CB California
31. Rams Adrian Klemm OT Hawaii