INDIANAPOLIS -- Pity the poor San Francisco 49ers, who suffered through a 2-14 season to get the top overall selection in April's draft and now are sorting through a draft class that others around the league say doesn't have a player worthy of being the top overall pick.
When USC quarterback Matt Leinart opted against entering the draft, that left two players who did leave school following their junior seasons -- Utah's Alex Smith and Cal's Aaron Rodgers -- as the top quarterbacks available. The 49ers certainly need a franchise quarterback. But two scouts said here Thursday at the NFL's scouting combine that neither Smith nor Rodgers is as good as any of the four quarterbacks chosen in the first round of last year's draft -- Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and J.P. Losman.
"I think this is, at the top, a bad draft," said one scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn't think his superiors would want to see him bad-mouthing the available talent and de-valuing his team's first-round pick.
The scout said that while there are good players available -- like Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards, Oklahoma defensive end Dan Cody, Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, West Virginia cornerback Adam (Pac Man) Jones and running backs Cedric Benson of Texas and Auburn teammates Ronnie Brown and Carnell (Cadillac) Williams -- none is a clear-cut No. 1 choice.
The lack of marquee players at the top of the draft probably will keep the 49ers from receiving tempting offers to trade the first pick.
"If the teams can't agree on who the top picks are, I don't think anyone will want to go up and get that pick," Buffalo Bills President Tom Donahoe said.
Even those who defend this year's available talent talk about its depth, not its quality at the top.
"There aren't as many names, but that doesn't mean it won't be an outstanding draft," New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said. "That doesn't mean the quality isn't there. We feel those middle rounds are going to be outstanding rounds."
The Cleveland Browns gave agent Joel Segal permission to pursue a trade for defensive tackle Gerard Warren, the third overall selection in the 2001 draft who is yet to become a dominant NFL defender. The Browns might switch to a three-linemen, four-linebacker defensive alignment in which Warren would not fit in particularly well. The Browns would like to trade Warren before having to pay him a roster bonus on Wednesday . . . .
The Denver Broncos released guard Dan Neil, who has started 104 games over the past eight seasons. The move saves the club $1.74 million on next season's salary cap . . . .
Tailback Marshall Faulk agreed to a reworked contract that cleared about $1.5 million in salary cap space for the St. Louis Rams. The new deal pays Faulk $6 million over the next two seasons, with a $2 million signing bonus and a $2 million salary in each season. That means that Faulk, in effect, accepted a $2 million pay cut from the $6 million in salary and bonuses he was to receive next season. Coach Mike Martz previously said that Steven Jackson, not Faulk, would be the team's starting tailback next season. The new deal probably sets the stage for Faulk to retire following one of the next two seasons . . . .
The Dallas Cowboys signed cornerback Lance Frazier and guard Ben Noll, both rookies this past season, to one-year contract extensions . . . .
Talks between agent Ralph Cindrich and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers about a restructured contract that would keep quarterback Brian Griese with the club are scheduled to continue here today. Buccaneers General Manager Bruce Allen also is negotiating with agent Drew Rosenhaus about a reworked deal for defensive end Greg Spires. Both could be released next week without altered contracts . . . .
The Giants are facing decisions about whether to release wide receiver Ike Hilliard and safety Shaun Williams before roster bonuses to them are due . . . .
The Giants went 1-6 this past season after Coughlin made Manning his starting quarterback, that after going 5-4 with veteran Kurt Warner as the starter. But Coughlin says the experience that Manning gained will be invaluable heading into next season.
"You have to go through the process -- one step forward, one step backward," Coughlin said. "The whole idea is to get him on the field, go through the ups and downs, have him pick himself up off the ground when things don't go well. I felt in the last three games, especially, there was definite progress. There were things that were priceless. You can't pay for those experiences."
With Warner voiding the remaining season on his contract and on his way to the Chicago Bears or another team via free agency, the Giants plan to add a veteran quarterback to back up Manning and continue mentoring him.
"It is important," Coughlin said. "We have some in mind" as candidates . . . .
BYU guard Scott Young tied the combine strength-test record by doing 44 repetitions of 225 pounds . . . .
Donahoe and Bills Coach Mike Mularkey said Thursday that trade talks with the Cardinals about a deal that would sent tailback Travis Henry to Arizona for left tackle L.J. Shelton had not progressed in recent days. Others around the league, however, expect those discussions to intensify in the coming days . . . .
The Philadelphia Eagles apparently plan to put the cash and salary-cap space gained by Thursday's release of outside linebacker Nate Wayne into their effort to re-sign middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter before the unrestricted free agent market opens Wednesday.
Clarett Says He's Loyal to Ohio State
During his nearly 20-minute meeting with reporters here Thursday, former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett declined to answer questions about his recent allegations of improper payments and benefits being provided to players at the school. But he repeatedly expressed his loyalty to the program and the school.
"I love Ohio State," Clarett said. "I've been a Buckeye. I'm going to continue to be a Buckeye and continue to support them . . . . I don't feel like I have a problem with Ohio State. I don't know if they have a problem with me. When I went back a couple weeks ago, everything was fine. It didn't seem like anyone had hard feelings against me."
Clarett credited his attorney, David Kenner, with helping to forge the new outlook that has led him to take his share of the blame for the off-the-field incidents that led to his departure from Ohio State after leading the school to a national championship as a freshman.
"He wasn't scared to tell me my faults and the wrong-doings I had," said Clarett, who has been out of football for two seasons. "He helped me out a whole lot . . . . I made some mistakes that are obvious to everyone in this room, and I paid for them."
Clarett said he does not regard challenging the NFL in court as one of those mistakes, though.
Last year, a federal judge ruled in Clarett's lawsuit against the NFL that the league's draft-eligibility rule -- requiring a player to be at least three years removed from high school -- violates antitrust laws. That decision temporarily opened the draft to college freshmen and sophomores and high school players. Clarett entered last year's draft and attended the 2004 scouting combine. But the ruling was overturned on appeal, and the league managed to keep Clarett and former USC wide receiver Mike Williams -- who entered the draft after the initial decision in the Clarett case -- out of last year's draft.
"I really didn't expect that one to come," Clarett said Thursday. "I didn't expect the overturn."
He indicated that he'd spoken to Williams a few times over the past year, and said: "I probably felt [worse] for him than for myself. I started it. He got kind of caught up in my web."
Clarett and Williams are eligible for this year's draft, and Clarett is in the rare position of participating in his second scouting combine.
"I've been through it before," he said. "As I'm going through this process, all the other guys are coming up to me and asking me, 'What are we going to do next?' " Unlike last year, when he showed up out of shape and angered some NFL people by declining to work out at the combine, Clarett appears to be in good condition and plans to work out Saturday. In fact, he said he won't have a pro-day workout for scouts later in the draft-evaluation process if he does well Saturday.
"I'm just putting everything on the table out here," Clarett said. "If I do a great job here and I feel like I'm comfortable with the way I worked out, I won't work out anywhere else."
Clarett is not regarded as being among the top runners available in this draft, and probably would have to dazzle the NFL's talent evaluators just to hear his name called on the draft's first day (which includes the initial three rounds of the two-day, seven-round affair) in April. But he said he's taking a positive approach and isn't worrying about that, and he considers himself to be on even footing with the best tailbacks available.
"I think I am," Clarett said. "But I don't know who makes the rankings and, to be honest with you, I really don't care. The fact of the matter is that when you step on that field, it doesn't matter where you were drafted at -- Tom Brady, for example, Kurt Warner, Priest Holmes, you can go on and on. It doesn't matter where you were drafted. That matters financially. But when it comes down to playing on that field, you can ask anybody who I've ever played against, I don't joke around and I handle my business." . . . Williams is viewed as a likely top-10 selection in April even after sitting out this past season following his exclusion from the draft and the NCAA's denial of his petition to have his collegiate eligibility at USC restored.
"People have a pretty good idea about Mike Williams, only being out a year," Mularkey said. " . . . I think everybody has a better feel for what he's capable of doing, and the non-football issues work a lot more in his favor than they do with Maurice."
But Williams nevertheless must demonstrate to the NFL's decision-makers that he will be able to knock the rust off his game. "When you sit out a year of football," Donahoe said, "it's still difficult to judge where a player is."