Most mock drafts have Auburn RB Cadillac Williams going in the top five or 10
If there's any consensus in thought on this year's NFL Draft, it's that there is no consensus.
Most everyone agrees that this is the most difficult "NFL selection process" to predict in years. Mock drafts are adjusted daily and every university "Pro Day" produces a new riser at the top of the chart. As March prepares to give way to April, home month of the draft, there is no clear-cut pick at number one overall, let alone the top 10.
All of that may be true (or it may not), but that doesn't mean the 32 NFL teams are wading into the draft blindly. There is some apparent consensus; the competing mock drafts may shuffle the names a bit at the top, but they're not exactly throwing any wild cards in there.
Most analysts see a lot of offensive players going in the opening hour of the draft, and you'll see repeated references to a certain group of quarterbacks (Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers), running backs (Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams) and wide receivers (Braylon Edwards and Mike Williams).
There may be more mystery to this year's draft than you'd find most Aprils, but it's nothing deserving of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
"The mock drafts that I've seen pretty much are consistent," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "There are no secrets anymore. There are going to be some players here and there who really make a push here with their final workouts. Somebody will emerge for sure. But it's an interesting field right now. I do think there is some consistency, but there's always going to be a sleeper who fits in there."
This is an item of delightful speculation for draftniks everywhere and one of critical importance for the draft-runners at One Buccaneer Place. The Buccaneers, who haven't picked in the top 10 in the draft in more than a decade, have the fifth overall selection this year. Barring a trade, Tampa Bay is going to play an instrumental role in how the Williamses Browns, Rodgers and so on fall out.
It might be easier for Buccaneer fans here in late March if the top five picks were predictable, such as it was in 2003 when most draftniks expected QB Carson Palmer to go first, followed by WRs Charles Rogers and Andre Johnson and then DT Dewayne Robertson (as they did). If the Bucs were facing that situation at number five, they could head into the draft reasonably expecting to get a highly-valued prospect at cornerback (Terence Newman), defensive tackle (Johnathan Sullivan), quarterback (Byron Leftwich) or offensive tackle (Jordan Gross).
This year's list of top prospects available at number five doesn't appear to be as varied at first glance. But that does not mean the Buccaneers are in a bad position. If one accepts the above list as the likely pool of top-five picks – and this should definitely not be viewed as speculation that the team actually feels that way – then help at one of three key skill positions could be on the way. What's particularly intriguing to Gruden is that there is no definitive notion as to where Rodgers and Smith will go.
"There's a chance that a quarterback could be there," said Gruden. "If you've got a chance, you're in range to get a quarterback, if you like him and he's there, you've got to strongly entertain that. So we're going to do our work on those two guys for sure."
When assessing the prospects of an upcoming draft for your favorite team, it's easy to get caught up in what you believe to be the specific position needs. However, it's just as easy, using the power of hindsight, to see why a team should pay more attention to its overall player rankings than those perceived needs.
To put it differently, could any team, no matter how much it liked its current running back, pass up on LaDainian Tomlinson with a top-five pick in 2001, given the player he has become? How high would LB Julian Peterson go today if the 2000 draft were held again? Certainly higher than 16th. Rework the 1987 draft with the benefit of hindsight and Rod Woodson probably goes first, ahead of Vinny Testaverde, Cornelius Bennett, Alonzo Highsmith, et al.
If the Bucs were convinced that a Tomlinson, Peterson or Woodson was still on the board at number five, wouldn't they have to take him regardless of the position? Or at least strongly entertain the notion?
And if that position happened to be quarterback, perhaps the most important spot on any team?
"You never know," said Gruden. "There's a chance one of these great young prospects falls to number five. Like [Ben] Roethlisberger did last year – he slipped a bit and then made his impact felt in Pittsburgh. You don't know what can happen. That's why you've got to rank them and you've got to be loyal to your ranking on draft day."
See, the Bucs will have their rankings ready well before draft weekend, no matter how much head-scratching goes on among the draftniks. Mock drafts are a heck of a lot of fun, and even quite well-informed in some cases, but they have little hope of accuracy. Generally, the mocks go awry after the first few picks, and that's understandable. It's unlikely that one analyst could have a good grip on the secret motivations of 32 teams, and any little surprise in the early going of the draft can blow up the rest of the round.
And, really, the Bucs don't need a full consensus to be formed before the draft. They just need to be certain about which players they like, regardless of position.