- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS — Without JaMarcus Russell, the quarterback position would consist of Brady Quinn and Everybody Else.

Without Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, no running back would be taken in the top 20.

And without Jamaal Anderson and Alan Branch, the crop of first-round quality defensive linemen would be thin.

But like last year, when six of the top 10 players chosen were underclassmen, this year’s NFL Draft has been bolstered significantly by the addition of 40 early-entries, 36 of whom were invited to this week’s scouting combine.

“Every year with the juniors, it’s becoming a domino effect,” Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Speilman said. “When a good group of juniors comes out, it makes the senior class the following year a little weaker. But then the juniors from the next year come out.

“They’ve made this a very good draft class. Especially on the first day, there will be a lot of quality that will be able to come out and help teams win ballgames next year.”

The first players taken at quarterback, running back, tight end, receiver, defensive line and cornerback could all be underclassmen, and as many as 16 will be given first-round consideration. Since 2002, an average of 10.2 underclassmen has gone in the first round.

In the opening 10 picks of the draft, LSU’s Russell, Oklahoma’s Peterson, Michigan’s Branch, receivers Calvin Johnson of Georgia Tech and Ted Ginn Jr. of Ohio State, and Arkansas defensive end Anderson could be selected.

Later in the first round, Cal’s Lynch, Ohio State receiver Anthony Gonzalez, Southern Cal receiver Dwayne Jarrett, Georgia defensive end Charles Johnson and Miami tight end Greg Olsen could be tabbed.

Twelve underclassmen — including the first three players — went in the first round last year, and 14 non-seniors — including the Washington Redskins’ Sean Taylor — were chosen in the 2004 first round.

“There are always good players coming out,” long-time NFL talent evaluator Gil Brandt said. “It’s happening every year now. But the four-year players are the backbone players of the draft.”

Indeed, seniors Joe Thomas (Wisconsin) and Levi Jones (Penn State) are building block-type offensive tackles and Notre Dame’s Quinn has the advantage of working with Charlie Weis for two years. All three players could be gone by the 10th pick.

But undoubtedly realizing how some position groups didn’t have senior star power, several juniors opted to leave college early even though they could slip into the second or third round.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said running back, receiver, defensive line and quarterback became deeper with the additional star power.

Peterson, who gained 1,012 yards in seven games last fall, could go as high as third to Cleveland, but if he slips, Denver could make a play to trade up and draft him. Lynch could go to Green Bay at No. 16 if the Packers elect not to re-sign veteran Ahman Green.

“Because of the junior influence, it’s a good group,” Kiper said. “If this was just a senior running back group, we’d be in trouble.”

Johnson combined for 28 touchdowns for the Yellow Jackets despite playing for a sub-par quarterback. If Cleveland opts for Peterson, Tampa Bay will gladly take Johnson to complement quarterback Chris Simms. Jarrett (41 touchdowns), Ginn (multi-dimensional threat) and LSU’s Dwayne Bowe (12 touchdowns in 2006) are also expected to go in the first round.

“That was position was terrible but now with six of the eight being underclassmen, it’s pretty good,” Kiper said.

Clemson senior Gaines Adams is getting competition at defensive end from Anderson, who had 13.5 sacks in 2006. Florida’s Jarvis Moss is also first-round quality.

And the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Russell, coming off a season at LSU where he threw 28 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, will likely be the first quarterback chosen.

“From a physical skill set perspective, I’ve never seen a college quarterback with more ability than JaMarcus,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “You put the tape on and it’s frightening. He can make every throw.”

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