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Best and worst draft decision-makers

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Next to red-zone play calling, the NFL Draft is the most over-analyzed production in pro football. There is such a glut of information on most prospective draft choices that every fan believes he's an expert. It makes this weekend seemingly transparent because every fan professes to know the talent available and their favorite team's draft needs. Yes, there are bad decision-makers in football, just like everywhere else. Bosses sometimes do silly things. Others, though, are astute evaluators. For example, Cleveland fans really don't have fond memories of Bill Belichick. Remember, he was the one who benched Bernie Kosar and then frustrated with losing tight end Kyle Brady, traded out of his slot in 1995. That extra pick became linebacker Ray Lewis the next season. Of course, the Browns weren't in Cleveland anymore, and Lewis was Baltimore's gain. So who are the key draft minds to watch this weekend? Here are the best, the worst and the rookie decision-makers to keep your eyes on.

Top 5 draft minds

1. Bill Belichick, Patriots head coach — Belichick is the Jimmy Johnson of his era. Like Johnson, who built the Dallas Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, Belichick loves the draft and knows personnel better than any NFL head coach. He is not afraid to trade down in order to acquire more picks, confident in his draft board. The big unknown this season is how much will he lean on Nick Caserio, the team's new personnel director, now with long-time friend and right-hand man Scott Pioli running Kansas City. Belichick loves to focus on instinctive football players. He took a chance on guys like Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi ... and don't forget that Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick. After losing Adam Vinatieri — the best clutch kicker ever — to free agency in 2006 to the Colts, Belichick drafted a very able replacement in Stephen Gostkowski during the middle rounds. 2. Bill Polian, Colts president — There is no general manager in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a shocking revelation considering their importance. The main argument against worthy candidates like Ron Wolf and the late George Young is the fact that many selectors believe the first GM enshired should be Polian, the man who helped build the Buffalo Bills into a dynasty back in the 1990s and now the Colts. With the sage help of the late John Butler and coach Marv Levy, he built the AFC dominant Bills of the 1990s focusing on speed and power and overall tough guys. Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith played forever it seemed. But to Polian's credit this venerable scout changed directions, basically altering his proven philosophy, after hiring Tony Dungy in Indianapolis. Dungy preferred high-level speed and quickness on defense and Polian adapted his selections to his coach's preference. Pass rusher Robert Mathis, the No. 138 selection in 2003, was an outside linebacker on most competitors' draft boards. Polian has hit on his last four first-round picks while also finding important starters in the later rounds. Polian doesn't miss at the top, either, taking Peyton Manning at the top in 1998 when half the league believed Ryan Leaf had a superior arm and more upside. He tends to ignore talented players who may be dogs as people and competitors. 3. A.J. Smith, Chargers general manager — He worked in the USFL with Marv Levy and Polian and has a strong background in scouting. He has strong convictions, but is also willing to take some risks (remember, Bill Parcells passed on Shawne Merriman) with character. DE Luis Castillo is another example of another risk (steroids) paying off.

TOP 25 DRAFT PROSPECTS

Aaron Curry The No. 1 pick often has to do with team needs instead of talent. All mock drafts aside, Scout.com's Chris Steuber ranks his Top 25 players in the draft.
He is best known for making Giants GM Ernie Accorsi blink during the 2004 draft when he took Eli Manning anyway, thus forcing a trade with New York. He is a value picker, getting quarterback Phillip Rivers in return, a player that some teams preferred to Eli. His defensive picks tend to be focused on speed and quickness, although he hasn't hit a home run in the secondary yet. Drafted all five starters along San Diego's current offensive line. 4. Kevin Colbert, Steelers director of football operations — Colbert really learned the business under his top college personnel man, Ron Hughes, with the Detroit Lions. What Bill Ford wouldn't give to have these two men back in the Lions' front office. Nothing fancy here, but the beauty of Colbert is that he knows top-notch talent and he trusts his draft board, considering the Steelers are rarely drafting in the top 10 of the draft. Remember the 2004 draft when he landed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at No. 11? Enough said. Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes are three No. 1 picks who all came in the bottom third of the first round. Colbert is a non-ego man who works well within his staff. 5. Ozzie Newsome, Ravens general manager — In my recent NFL draft-grading column, I missed a few of Newsome's gems like Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain and dominating nose tackle Haloti Ngata. Over the long run, Newsome has always been one of the league's very best evaluators, although he did allow former coach Brian Billick to influence him with quarterback Kyle Boller. Ozzie made amends with Joe Flacco last year. Since 1999, the Ravens have the third-highest percentage (41.8) of drafted players on their roster based through the 2008 season. Ozzie is a keen judge of the do-everything, outside linebacker like Terrell Suggs and Adalius Thomas. When previous owner Art Modell wanted troubled running back Lawrence Phillips, Ozzie steered him away and took Jonathan Ogden, the best left tackle of his generation.

Bottom 5 draft minds

1. Mike Brown, Bengals owner — The Bengals have been striking out lately, and this is a franchise crying out for a solid football leader like a Polian or an A.J. Smith. Yes, Duke Tobin (son of Bill Tobin, who built the 1980s Bears) puts together the team's draft boards. But Brown makes too many of the decisions, frustrating coach Marvin Lewis, who is a loyal soldier. Carson Palmer is a bright spot, but don't forget Akili Smith and Ki-Jana Carter. Yes, they have had bad luck with David Pollack (neck injury forced his retirement), but the Bengals tend to take risky players like Odell Thurman. The Bengals lead the league in drafted players no longer in the NFL. The coaching staff has way too much influence at times, a bad idea considering they are not on the road scouting and don't always have good personnel judgments. 2. Scot McCloughan, 49ers general manager — McCloughan isn't totally responsible for the failures of first-round picks Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, but he did have plenty of influence over former coach Mike Nolan before being elevated to his current title. He could have said no to Smith's selection in 2005, a decision that has kept this once-proud franchise at a loser status level. Yes, you have to like the recent selections of tackle Joe Staley and linebacker Patrick Willis, but the bottom line is that this franchise, a former base for future Hall of Famers, has taken only one Pro Bowl-caliber player (Willis) in recent memory. Not sure how well he sees the total picture. 3. Al Davis, Raiders owner — At this year's owners' meetings, Al Davis chided me for being so negative toward him and his team in recent years. I replied that I took his side against former coach Lane Kiffin, who I wasn't sure was qualified to be a NFL head coach in the first place. The bottom line is that Al made that faulty decision when he couldn't persuade Steve Sarkisian to take the job. The Raiders scare too many good football people; just think what this team would be like with Sean Payton, another coach who said no. Davis, whose health isn't the best, remains the sole personnel decision-maker. It's been awhile since he's had someone like a Ron Wolf to help him at this important time. In this decade, the Raiders have missed in the first round on Derrick Gibson, Fabian Washington and Michael Huff. And who knows if JaMarcus Russell will ever be as productive as Rich Gannon. 4. Jack Del Rio, Jaguars coach/Shack Harris, Jaguars ex-vice president of player personnel — Owner Wayne Weaver stripped Del Rio of his personnel power and Harris was fired. New GM Gene Smith and director of player personnel Terry McDonough will be on the clock this year, and it could be a new beginning in Jacksonville. Yes, Reggie Nelson has turned out OK, but Del Rio really missed with Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones, who was turned into a receiver and has since been released, mostly because of drug issues. Receiver Reggie Williams, the 2004 pick, doesn't remind anyone of Jerry Rice and has had plenty of off-the-field problems as well. The problem with some head coaches is that they think they know personnel when they really don't. 5. Mike Shanahan, Broncos former coach — I realize that he's not "active" anymore, but he is being paid not to work these days because he messed up the personnel side in Denver. He dumped Ted Sunquist and hired "yes men," which was his undoing. Yes, he did find Jay Cutler in the 2006 draft and some above-average starters last year in tackle Ryan Clady and receiver Eddie Royal, but the Broncos are struggling from a lack of depth from the 2003-2005 washout drafts that produced only three starters.

Under review

There are some major new decision-makers this season. And they are in critical spots. It will be fascinating to see how well Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Denver and Tampa Bay perform this year. If there are no trades, the first three picks will be made by new front offices. DETROIT LIONS

Few know what to expect from CEO Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew in Detroit after seven years of Matt Millen. They did pull off a very good trade (two first-round picks) with the Cowboys last season for receiver Roy Williams, but they don't sound excited about having the first overall pick and being forced to pay probably $37 million in guaranteed money to that selection, particularly if it's Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Rams and Chiefs are in a pickle because offensive tackles Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe aren't considered in the class of former All-Pros like Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace. ST. LOUIS RAMS

Yes, GM Billy Devaney had major influence with the Rams last year, but now the three-decade-old influence of top executives Jay Zygmunt and John Shaw is gone in St. Louis. Yes, Shaw still checks in with Devaney and Kevin Demoff, but he no longer will be making key draft selections. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Scott Pioli, who used to work in New England with Belichick, now makes the decisions and you can bet he doesn't view anybody worthy of $35 million with the No. 3 overall pick. Pioli doesn't seem to be leaning on his holdover scouts from the Carl Peterson era. Like Belichick, Pioli hasn't been expansive with the local media — everything is top secret. CLEVELAND BROWNS

Like Pioli in K.C., mum's the word in Cleveland with former Jets coach Eric Mangini and new GM George Kokinis running their first draft together. The new Browns braintrust has the local fan base upset with talk of potentially trading fan favorite Brady Quinn and receiver Braylon Edwards. Mangini, like Pioli, also is a Belichick disciple. DENVER BRONCOS

With the exception of last year and the pick of the since-departed Jay Cutler, Mike Shanahan struggled with the draft in Denver. Now, the game's youngest head coach, Josh McDaniels, and former Falcons contract negotiator-evaluator Brian Xanders, 38, are teaming up to make the Broncos' personnel decisions. Neither man has ever had this much power and it should be interesting to see what they do this weekend. They already lost the biggest personnel battle of the year with Cutler, but they are armed with the 12th and 18th overall picks in the first round. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Finally, the Tampa Bay Bucs, who have had Rich McKay, Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen coordinating their front office for so many years, turn to Mark Dominik, the former director of pro personnel, and young coach Raheem Morris (five months older than McDaniels) to find a new beginning. It's another sign of youth getting their opportunity. Like Denver, Tampa Bay ownership is trying something totally out of character, considering this franchise has always gravitated toward stars in high places.

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