Who Will Be No. 1 in the NFL Draft?

Saturday is the National Football League's annual draft, and who will go first is anybody's guess. New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden offers a preview in his conversation with Tony Cox.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Saturday is the NFL's annual draft. Who will go first is anybody's guess. Earlier, NPR's Tony Cox got the inside scoop from William C. Rhoden. He's a New York Times sports columnist and regular NEWS & NOTES contributor.

TONY COX: So Bill, when you look at this year's draft, there are some studs to sure; but overall, how does this class compare to last year's group led by Vince Young of Texas, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart from USC?

Mr. WILLIAM C. RHODEN (Sports Columnist, New York Times): Well, I mean, last year, Tony, was just so dramatic. I mean, you had Reggie Bush and Leinart with USC, and they played against Vince Young in one of the great college football games of all time. It was just really dramatic. You don't have that kind of drama in this draft. We may look back on JaMarcus Russell as one of the great finds in this draft.

COX: More so than, say, Troy Smith or Brady Quinn?

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah because, well, I think you have the similar thing this year with Brady Quinn and JaMarcus as you had with Vince Young and Leinart. You know, people are debating, well, who's going to be the best pro? Well, Vince Young can't really throw. And of course now, you know…

COX: You're right. Right.

Mr. RHODEN: …in retro we know that's a joke.

COX: That's good.

Mr. RHODEN: You know, you'd be taken out and hung for saying that. But on paper now, and I think because of Vince Young and because of what Vince Young did down the stretch, people look at JaMarcus - and I think they're not quite as quick to write him off. But people are still kind of infatuated with Brady Quinn because of Norte Dame and he's a little more traditional and…

COX: Well, then let me ask you this. Do you take a quarterback, whether it's Quinn or JaMarcus Russell, over a position player like Calvin Johnson, the receiver from Georgia?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, you know, that's the thing. Calvin Johnson is a tremendous talent. And if I were the Atlanta Falcons and Michael Vick, I'd give my entire salary to get him on the team, but you almost have to take what seems to be a great quarterback. And if you're Oakland and you're the Oakland Raiders, number one if I'm JaMarcus and Brady, I'm praying - please, God, don't let…

COX: Don't send me to Oakland.

Mr. RHODEN: Please don't send me to Oakland. But one of those guys is going to get the unlucky task of going into the hole there. But no, I think the rule of thumb is that you have to draft an outstanding quarterback. And I think that Quinn and Russell are really going to have very outstanding careers in NFL and you've got to take them.

COX: Let me move on to another topic because character counts, to borrow a well-known phrase. But how much is character going to count in this draft, given the NFL's recent crackdown on bad-boy behavior, you know?

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah. Yeah. They've thrown the down the gauntlet. They've said as you said, character is it. I mean there are two really good defensive players at Florida - who come out of Florida who probably are going to be really hurt by the draft.

You've got a kid named Jarvis Moss and a kid named Marcus Thomas who were really, really outstanding players, but because they had some off-field issues and you look at their scouting report and they'll say, you know, could have character issues. And if you are an NFL agent, you will be doing your clients a huge disservice for not telling them, hitting them over their heads, hey, listen, you can't be a jerk. You can't, I mean…

COX: And get drafted, right? Well, listen, Bill, speaking of character, a couple of guys come to my mind - separate from the draft, now moving into another area - you think of when you talk about some character issues. And one of them - the basketball season is closing and baseball is heating up in the other.

Now Kobe Bryant wanted Shaq gone, but he couldn't have wanted this in it's place, one and about to be done again in the playoffs for the Lakers. And then there's Baby Bonds, otherwise known as Barry, inching ever closer to the homerun title, even though at least half the country seems either to not care or to not like the idea at all. And then, lastly, there's A-Rod. Let's not forget how much New Yorkers hated his guts last year, but now he's Mr. April on a record-setting homerun pay.

Mr. RHODEN: That's right.

COX: Talk for me about redemption for athletes. Who gets it and who doesn't?

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, well, and you're missing three very compelling people. I mean A-Rod is not necessarily a character issue. Probably of the three, he's got the most stellar character. He just doesn't perform in the clutch. You know, the knock on A-Rod is that what he's doing now is what he's - he can always have these great numbers but his team is in last place, you know.

COX: Right.

Mr. RHODEN: But I think that the more deeper issue is with Kobe. You know, Kobe with the thing that happened in Colorado a few years ago, he's just kind of living that down a little bit, but now the issue is still, you know, he brought this stuff on himself. You know, he campaigned for this to be his team. Well, Kobe…

COX: Well, it is.

Mr. RHODEN: …it's your team.

COX: That's right. And look where they are.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah. Look where they are. It's your team, and it's going to be like that. I'm sorry to say, I think that - and in some ways he's just kind of like a Derek Jeter in that he won early but he's not going to - I think that's it for him. And then Bonds probably is the most compelling of them all in that, you're right, half the people hate him, half the people love him, but he's going to be your new home run champ, like it or not. And will he fire (unintelligible), no. I mean, I don't care if he has a trillion homeruns.

COX: It's not going to happen.

Mr. RHODEN: (unintelligible) people who just do not like him. They believe he cheated and there's nothing that he can say or do that's going to erase that fact. And then there's other people who say, listen, a home run is a home run. You know, the Hall of Fame is filled with characters and scoundrels. You know, he may be another one.

COX: He may be another one. Also speaking of character - this is one more before we get away - the sports world, really the writing world, lost a powerful voice with the death of David Halberstam this week. Here's a clip from an NPR interview that he did with the TALK OF THE NATION.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

Mr. DAVID HALBERSTAM (Journalist; Author): One of the things that's offensive about contemporary sports is the overacting, the over-clowning and preening in the end zone. The other day, it was a Monday Night Football game, and on the early plays one of the players, I guess a Dolphin, caught a pass for about eight yards and started doing a Super Bowl victory chant. I mean, and finally Dierdorf said finally to whoever the player's name was, it wasn't that great a catch. There much too much of Deion Sanders-ism. Too much preening on stuff that doesn't matter and detracts from what is real.

COX: Now that was some years ago, but you could make the argument that the problems still persist. Talk to us about the contribution of David Halberstam and why he'll be missed.

Mr. RHODEN: Halberstam is just such a giant. It's really just a terrible loss. He's 73 years old and he died tragically. And I guess what I admired about him so much, Tony, was that at 73 years old he was still a horse. He was still enthusiastic. He was still vibrant. He was still - he's want you want to be in this business. And it's funny that in the clip you mentioned he mentions the preening, and what I loved about David is that in this era of celebrity journalist, ESPN has kind of made many of us celebrities.

COX: Speak for yourself.

Mr. RHODEN: Well, I mean I don't want to act like I'm never on ESPN, you know.

COX: Okay. I understand you.

Mr. RHODEN: Everybody's - you know, it's all of us. (Unintelligible), you know. But David, as hard as he works (unintelligible), he's sort of like my colleague Dave Anderson - not a prima donna, has more depth in his pinky than many sports journalists have in their entire being. But humble, just about the work. And that's what I love about him. He could go from a presidential race to the war to the press box. His breadth was just so tremendous, and he never lost his enthusiasm for it. At the very end he was going to interview Y.A. Tittle for another book. Just a tremendous career, and just a tremendous blow to our industry.

COX: Our industry for sure, and a very great writer. Bill Rhoden, it's always good to talk to you.

Mr. RHODEN: The great Tony Cox, it's always a pleasure.

COX: We'll do it again after the draft.

Mr. RHODEN: That's right. Take care.

CHIDEYA: William C. Rhoden is NEWS & NOTES regular sports contributor and a sports columnist for the New York Times. He's also the author of "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Tribulations of the Black Quarterback." He spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.

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