NEW YORK Three years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles had the best draft in the NFL and the New England Patriots did pretty well, too, getting wide receivers Deion Branch in the second round and David Givens in the seventh.
That draft helped the Patriots and Eagles get to the Super Bowl this past season, and Branch was the game's MVP, catching 11 passes for 133 yards. Big spending on free agency doesn't guarantee victories (ask Washington), but drafting well almost always does.
''Not that you can't acquire players in free agency and do other things, but the foundation is the draft,'' says Bill Cowher, who has coached the Steelers to five AFC title games and one Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons as their coach. His 2002 draft wasn't bad either his top six picks are still with him.
That's why nearly every NFL coach and personnel executive has spent the last three months evaluating thousands of players available for next weekend's draft. In fact, the predraft period has become a season unto itself. The annual scouting combine in Indianapolis has developed into a major media event, even though the notion that imprecise times in the 40-yard dash or a few extra lifts should determine a player's value is widely debunked throughout the NFL.
It usually takes three years to evaluate drafts because first-round picks often fail and late picks such as Givens and Tom Brady (sixth round, 2000) often thrive, especially for New England. That makes instant evaluation of any draft almost impossible.
But three years can tell you something like the reason the Patriots and Eagles were in the title game last season.
Philadelphia's first three picks in 2002 were defensive backs: Lito Sheppard (26th overall), Michael Lewis (58) and Sheldon Brown (59). Their fourth how did he drop to 91? was Brian Westbrook, who is now one of the top all-purpose backs in the NFL.
Those players prove why instant analysis is almost useless. In the case of the Eagles, the ''analysts'' asked why they took three DBs when they already had three Pro Bowlers in the secondary in cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent and safety Brian Dawkins.
As it turns out, the ability of Sheppard and Brown allowed Philadelphia to let the aging Vincent and Taylor leave as free agents, losing big contracts to keep younger and cheaper players. And in 2004, they still had three Pro Bowlers in the secondary: Dawkins, Sheppard and Lewis.
That's been the standard for the Eagles. If you draft well, you can stay good and under the cap, a philosophy that's produced five straight NFC East titles, four straight conference championship game appearances and now a Super Bowl trip.
''That's why we consider the draft so critical,'' says Tom Heckert, Philadelphia's personnel director. ''If you develop players who are ready to step in, you can let the higher-priced older players go.''
The 2002 picks weren't the only good choices Philadelphia made.
In 1999, the Eagles used the second overall choice on Donovan McNabb, one of five quarterbacks taken in the top 12 that year. McNabb was the second of three QBs chosen with the first three picks. The other two, No. 1 Tim Couch by Cleveland and No. 3 Akili Smith by Cincinnati, are no longer in the league. Nor is No. 11 Cade McNown, chosen by the Bears.
That was the year the very loud radio talkers in Philly were worked up about Ricky Williams and organized an expedition to New York to try to put pressure on the Eagles to take him. Boos rained down from the gallery when McNabb's name was announced.
Williams sure worked out, didn't he?
In some ways, New England operates the same way as Philadelphia: Draft well and you can let higher priced veterans go, Ty Law being the latest example.
Like many other teams, the Patriots scout everyone as many as 4,000 players. But their draft board differs from most teams because personnel director Scott Pioli and coach Bill Belichick rate prospects on their ability to play in New England's system, not anyone else's. So there may be only 40 or 50 players on the final list.
For example, center Dan Koppen, their fifth-round pick in 2003, was 18th on New England's board, although he was the 164th overall choice. Givens wasn't as high he played primarily in an option offense at Notre Dame and caught just 72 passes in four seasons, 33 his senior year. But last season he had 56 receptions to lead New England.
Branch, who played at Louisville, missed seven games with injuries last season, but demonstrated his worth in the playoffs. He was the 65th pick overall three years ago, the 11th wide receiver taken, and he's been better than almost all of them.
The teams that draft well consistently use 40-yard dash times and other combine workouts as a guideline, but look more closely at a player's productivity in college. Consider that Jerry Rice was ''downgraded'' to 16th overall in the 1985 draft because he ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. This year's downgrade has been defensive end David Pollack, who was extremely productive at Georgia but whose arms are considered short by the standards of an NFL defensive linemen.
Most teams use a combination of workouts and performance and hope for the best. In recent years, New England and Philadelphia have been among the best at it, as results on the field demonstrate.
''I think that there are certain players that sometimes you can't even find the right word or the right identification, but you just know that they are playmakers,'' Belichick said last season, talking about Tedy Bruschi, a 250-pound defensive tackle in college whom the Patriots turned into a Pro Bowl linebacker.
''They have an instinct for the ball or an instinct for the situation. Tedy is one of those players. He's been a high producer at every level of football he's ever played, regardless of what position it's been at line, linebacker, special teams. Whatever he's asked to do, he's a good football player. He's the type of guy you want on the field in every situation.''
Want a secret to the draft?
Find guys like that.
With three titles in four years, the Patriots do it better than anyone.
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