Misdirection rules as draft approaches

The Baltimore Sun

The NFL draft onslaught began even earlier this year.

Everyone seems to have some draft insight. They all seem to know what each team needs to do and many even pretend to know what each team will do.

According to a team executive ...

An official in the front office indicated ...

The math teacher of a kid who walks the general manager's dog said ...

Outside of the Super Bowl, there's more written and said about the NFL draft than any other sporting event in the country. And we haven't seen anything yet. The next 10 days will be an information tsunami of Wonderlic scores, 40-yard dash times and college stats.

All the while, the coaches and executives of your favorite teams will drop little hints about which players they might covet, which holes they might fill, which picks they might trade away.

To make our lives easier, I asked Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome how much of the news and info fans receive leading up to the draft is reliable and how much of it bunk.

"Probably 90 percent of it," he said with a smile, "is smoke and mirrors."

And there you have NFL draft hype summed up in fewer than 10 words, packaged perfectly between quotation marks.

In 1 1/2 weeks, your favorite pigskin puppeteers will crowd into "war rooms" and act like real army generals. They strategize, plan tactics and various approaches and, yes, rely heavily on subterfuge.

It's actually kind of funny because everyone in the NFL is fully aware of the Operation Misinformation that leads up to the draft, yet they still play along.

Newsome sat between coach Brian Billick and Eric DeCosta, the team's director of college scouting, at the team's Owings Mills headquarters yesterday and met with members of the media. For 50 minutes, they talked about the draft, discussing positions and names and philosophies.

The word "process" was used about a dozen times to describe just how complicated it really is, and for nearly an hour, nuggets seemed to slip out, one by one:

Many good offensive linemen are available ... outside linebackers, too.

There are seven or eight first-day wide receivers, and many will be available at the 29th slot, where the Ravens are slated to make their first selection.

A year ago, the Ravens traded for a third-round pick and - who knows? - that might be the thing to do this year, too.

By draft day, six quarterbacks will have visited the Ravens' training complex.

So if you're reading between the lines, the Ravens want to shore up the line, give quarterback Steve McNair another target, find McNair's eventual replacement and maybe find an heir to Ray Lewis' throne, too.

That's a lot for less than an hour of talking. Did Newsome really say that? Or perhaps the better question - did he want everyone to hear that?

"Nothing I said today will allow you to know what we're going to do at the draft," Newsome revealed after we'd scribbled furiously in our notebooks for the better part of an afternoon. Then to punctuate his point, he laughed and said, "I said we might take a quarterback at 29."

Whether you're a reporter, a fan or a team executive, you have to laugh a bit, too, when you think about the game this has become. We all play along, knowing that an agent's lips don't move unless he has an agenda, that all college players think they're first-rounders and that team officials regard their draft board as state secrets.

"Nobody really wants to tip their hands," Newsome says.

What no one laughs at is this: The Ravens play the game better than most. There's really no need for them to leak bad information, to trick other teams or mislead their fans this year. Unlike most teams, the Ravens don't feel they have to make picks based solely on need, which makes it almost impossible to predict what they might do.

Billick explained that a team with a big hole on its roster will stack the draft board with certain positions. That's why it's easier to guess what some teams might do. But the Ravens feel they're entering this draft with the ability to simply take the best player available, regardless of position. "There's no stacking going on," Billick says.

That doesn't mean team officials will coast through the draft.

Newsome said he's religiously reading about each team every night, trying to find clues that might tip off another team's strategy. He says he even knows which newspaper beat writers to read, which ones have the best sources and might have draft information that originated somewhere behind the scenes.

But he knows better than most that you have to navigate through a lot of drivel to get remotely close to any team's actual game plan.

Much of what fans read about the draft between now and the first pick will be a patchwork of guesswork and information designed to mislead.

The only real truth to be found might be this: Don't trust anything until it's said from the draft-day podium.


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