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Even without star power, draft still has enormous impact

Last year's NFL draft, stocked with pop-idol personalities, crackled with a celebrity cachet that nearly made the pro football spring rite more the stuff of Entertainment Tonight than ESPN.

For instance, even before he was drafted into the pros, former Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart was on People magazine's list of "100 Most Beautiful People." Not to be outdone, USC running back Reggie Bush did a beefcake photo shoot for GQ. And a Sports Illustrated cover featuring former Texas star Vince Young hailed him as "Superman."

Along with those leading men, the 2006 draft had an intriguing supporting cast in players such as Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler, Maryland tight end Vernon Davis, Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk and North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams.

By comparison, this year's draft class appears, well, a little uninspiring — at least when it comes to star power.

"Last year, you kind of had the cover boys of the national championship game (between USC and Texas) with Bush and Leinart. Vince on the Texas side. Cutler slipping in from underneath at the quarterback position," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "So I think you had the confluence of some high visibility football players that played for high visibility teams who also happened to be top five picks."

ESPN's draft guru, Mel Kiper Jr., said that while there may have been some conspicuously talented players at the top of the 2006 draft, there also was plenty of sirloin to go with the sizzle.

"Last year's draft had it all," Kiper said, describing the 2006 crop as "phenomenal."

"You would be hard-pressed to find a (first-round) bust and normally by this point, you already have a couple of guys who haven't surfaced. The majority of those first-rounders were key contributors."

Of last year's 32 first-round picks, 25 either became starters or received substantial playing time as rookies.

"This year's draft is a little different, certainly not as glamorous at the top," Kiper said. "But it has a lot of good players at certain positions."

The most compelling story line of the 2007 draft revolves, as it often does, around two top quarterbacks, LSU's JaMarcus Russell and Notre Dame's Brady Quinn. But beyond that, little about this class — besides Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson — has generated much pre-draft hype.

Some point out, though, that a draft doesn't have to ooze celebrity to be productive.

Ravens coach Brian Billick noted that several of Baltimore's 2006 picks, who may have been considered relatively low-profile, were important contributors to the team's 13-3 playoff finish last season.

"There are not any sexy names on that list. (But) it got sexier," Billick said. "Dawan Landry (at safety), (Haloti) Ngata (at defensive tackle), Sam Koch at the punting position — when we got these guys, no one was jumping on the table, talking about, 'Oh boy, we got this or that.' But, now you can recognize (it). I think the sexiness runs out about eight or nine players deep (into the draft) in my experience because that's who everybody knows."

Broadcasters responsible for keeping a national audience engaged during the marathon live telecasts of the draft on ESPN and the NFL Network said they're not worried about any dampening of public enthusiasm because of a dearth of household names.

"We don't think that names or the individual star power has as much to do with (viewership) as does the interest fans have in their teams," said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger.

"Maybe this is a draft that really speaks to the issue that you really don't know what you have until three or four years down the road," he added.

Jay Rothman, ESPN senior coordinating producer for the draft and Monday Night Football, said that the optimism fans draw from the draft is an important popularity driver.

"In the Alex Smith-Aaron Rodgers draft, we had much more of a faceless, nameless draft than we do this year," Rothman said, referring to 2005, when Smith, now starting in San Francisco, and Rodgers, the backup in Green Bay, were the top two quarterbacks. "And that time, it turned out to be the most watched draft in history until we broke the record last year."

More than 36.3 million viewers tuned in to ESPN or ESPN2 for some portion of the weekend draft coverage last year, according to the network.

This year's draft is similar to 2005, Rothman pointed out, with Russell and Quinn in a race to be the first quarterback selected, with Russell the favorite so far.

"We had reality TV before that term was ever coined," Rothman said. "We'll have five players in New York (waiting to be selected) and another dozen that we'll be doing live shots with. You have the drama of where are the marquee players going to wind up. On a larger scale, that means so much more than the names themselves."

The draft is its own star, its closest watchers say, that eclipses the specific roll call of any given year.

"It doesn't matter whether it's a glamorous draft or not because fans know that every year there will be guys who come out of the fifth round who will turn out to be better than players who go early," Kiper said. "And people take the attitude that there will be guys taken who will impact their team and the NFL, so it's a big deal no matter what."