Sports

NFL draft short on star power, heavy on linemen

Look at the names of the players projected to go high in the 2013 NFL draft, which begins with Thursday night’s first round from New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Look closer. OK, now look just a little bit closer.

Recognize anybody?

A draft class that has been described by some as deep in talent appears to be lacking something at the very top: stars.

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Actually, there is a Star — Star Lotulelei, a defensive lineman from Utah who could go in the top 10 — but most mock drafts don’t seem to be delivering any of the bankable, popular names that we’ve seen from drafts past, and then see on TV as celebrity pitchmen in national advertising campaigns. No Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. No Cam Newton or Matt Ryan. Not even someone like Ndamukong Suh.

This year, the players predicted to join NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the stage Thursday night and smile for the cameras are a collection of exceptional offensive and defensive linemen, with a few cornerbacks and maybe a quarterback or wide receiver sprinkled into the mix.

“But the big names? Where are they? There are none,” said Heath Evans (third-round draft pick, 2001), who spent part of his NFL career with the Patriots and is now an NFL Network analyst. “You’re guessing. The only position that I would be willing to bet on in this whole draft class is offensive guard, and the tackle position is strong.”

Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson, Jonathan Cooper, and Chance Warmack are considered the best offensive linemen in the draft. Only the hardest of hard-core college football fans would have known any of these players a month ago, and fewer still could probably say where they played their college ball. Joeckel is from Texas A&M, Fisher from Central Michigan, Johnson from Oklahoma, Cooper from North Carolina, and Warmack from Alabama. Some college football blue bloods, for sure, but the positions they play lend themselves to almost complete anonymity.

The last four No. 1 overall picks have been well-known quarterbacks: Luck in 2012, Newton (2011), Sam Bradford (2010), and Matthew Stafford (2009). Five years ago, the Long boys went 1-2: offensive tackle Jake Long to the Dolphins, defensive end Chris Long to the Rams. That’s also the year Ryan, the former Boston College standout, was the first quarterback taken, at No. 3 by the Falcons.

One thing this draft class is lacking is a gotta-have quarterback. Geno Smith (West Virginia) might go early; so might Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib. Or they might not. It’s a bad quarterback class, which usually has a trickle-down effect.

“It’s such a quarterback-driven league that when there is a weak quarterback class, it drags down the whole thing,” said former quarterback Danny Kanell (fourth-round pick, 1996), now an analyst for ESPN. “If you’re a team and you’ve had a rough year and you’ve got a top-five pick, chances are you had a bad quarterback and you want a new guy.

“People are wondering, ‘Where’s the guy this year?’ There really isn’t one.”

Many thought it would be Matt Barkley, who chose to return to Southern Cal for his senior season despite being projected as a possible top-10 pick last year if he had made himself eligible. The preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, Barkley struggled through spotty play and then a season-ending shoulder injury; now he isn’t expected to go in the first round.

At least people have heard of Barkley. If Goodell stands at the podium and announces that Joeckel (as expected) or Fisher or most anyone else is the first pick of the first round (the Chiefs own the pick), there will be plenty of people watching who say, “Who’s that guy?”

Of the players expected to go in the top 10 by those doing the mock drafts, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner might be the most familiar; he was part of two national championships with the Crimson Tide.

Want more proof that this year’s draft class is thin on famous faces? Look at the Heisman Trophy results from December. Of the top six finishers, four (including winner Johnny Manziel) are still in school, and only one is considered a first-round talent. But even Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has his detractors.

“When you see the first freshman win the Heisman Trophy, it’s great for that freshman, but it’s not necessarily good for the rest of the country,” Kanell said. “And it’s a sign of weakness in that draft class.

“It’s definitely a weaker draft in terms of franchise players, playmakers, big names. I mean, you’re looking at seven out of the top 10 picks are either going to be offensive or defensive linemen, and interior guys for the defense.

“It’s not like there’s a huge pass-rush specialist that everybody is salivating over. They can be cornerstones of a franchise, but fans just don’t get fired up about the big boys.”

Because of the perceived lack of game-changing star power at the top, there has been very little chatter about teams attempting to trade up, like there was last year, when Luck and Griffin went 1-2, and any team with a need at quarterback was expected by their fan base to come up with creative trade proposals. If anything, teams are looking to trade down, since there is lower-round value to be found.

Across the board, it’s a weaker skill group. There might not be a running back taken in the first round; the highest-rated wide receiver, Tavon Austin of West Virginia, isn’t expected to go until the mid-teens, unless a team selecting higher feels it can’t pass up his penchant for big plays. But even that is a risk, Evans said.

“Most people have Tavon Austin as their No. 1 [wide receiver], and this guy is a 5-8, 174-pound football player. And this is the star of the wide receiver class?” Evans said. “Despite his big-play potential, give me one player in our business that at 5-8, 174, has done anything productive consistently.”

It’s clear what this draft doesn’t have. It’s also clear what it does. So get ready to hear a steady stream of linemen getting called to the podium Thursday night, and a whole bunch of pancake-block highlights being shown on the telecast.

“When you’re talking about offensive linemen, if they’re top-10 guys, they could have 10- or 15-year careers, and you still might not ever hear their names,” Kanell said. “They might make three or four Pro Bowls, but they’re offensive linemen, and you just don’t talk about them a lot.”

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