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pakowitz 03-17-2003 01:15 PM

NFL Draft homework can be a crash course in huh?

Spring, when an NFL fan's fancy turns to times in the 40 and Wonderlic scores.

The run-up to the draft features a glorious rainbow of oddball prospects, baseless predictions and guesswork mockups to dive into - with none of the messy realities of actually watching the team as a distraction.

I could last be seen, rightly I thought, studying this year's defensive stars for the upcoming draft, which is just over a month away.

Surely a New Orleans team that finished last year 27th in total and passing yards allowed, and 26th in points allowed, would look to bulk up on that side of the ball.

Nah. The Saints are talking tight end.

Tight end?

So, you may as well meet the guy that Coach Jim Haslett is so high on - a hard-running Tennessee boy who also bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times during the university's recent Pro Day. His name is Jason Witten, a 6-5, 256-pounder in the Jeremy Shockey mold.

Now, I've got start all over.

Not that I'm a completist. There are others who spend months reading about obscure players, building mock drafts and formulating new rosters based on these imagined moves.

That ain't me. But I do check in on the prospective picks - and that sometimes means being able to rattle off the particulars from some tight end's bench press.

Tight end?

I'd been secure in the knowledge that the Saints were going to use one of their two first-rounders to take a defensive tackle, since that position is so deep in this year's draft. (The Saints are at 17 and 18, after receiving an additional pick from Miami in the Ricky Williams deal.)

The early consensus seemed to be that defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan out of Georgia would be at 17 followed by cornerback Andre Woolfolk out of Oklahoma.

I still like Sullivan, who earned first-team All-SEC honors this past season and spearheaded a defense that finished fourth in the nation in scoring defense.

But Woolfolk, who refused to play along at the combine, plummeted soon thereafter. Suddenly, he seems like (dreaded words here) a project player.

So, I'm neck deep in studying these guys - Woolfolk, for instance, makes sense if for no other reason that, at 6-1 and almost 200 pounds, he would add considerable size to a smallish cornerback crew - and Haslett jukes me.

Tight end?

Well, maybe: The Saints lost at least one game, the Detroit Debacle, because of a tight end.

There are arguments for others, when the team couldn't sustain time-killing, yardage-grinding drives. Incapable of the dink-and-dunk, all New Orleans knew how to do on offense last year was chunk it.

So, I hit the books on Witten - and he's by far the best tight end in this class: Long arms and soft hands, the scouting reports say. Above-average speed, but big bodied; that means he'll go wide or in the slot. Turns upfield immediately.

While he needs to work on route running, I think he'll be the first tight end taken. The question is who does it.

Witten says Pittsburgh and Cleveland are also talking to him about coming in for a look before the draft.

But you may as well ring up the New Orleans coach, he's that sold: "Coach Haslett came over to me and said he might like a big ol' country tight end like me," Witten told The Knoxville News-Sentinel. "I told him that would be fine."

Out go the stats on tackles, sacks and interceptions. In comes information on yards-after-the-catch. Just, you know, in case.

Even so, something tells me a tight end isn't going to do much to help a New Orleans team that gave up 20 or more points in every game last year - except the last one, which they lost anyway.

Even if Witten did have run times of 4.62 and 4.66 in the 40-yard dash.

Yes, I know that, too. Don't ask

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