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LAST YEAR'S DRAFT PACKED WITH IMPACT
MORE THAN HALF THE 2004 FIRST-ROUND DRAFTEES STARTED AT LEAST 10 GAMES

This is the time of year NFL teams are looking for golden-armed quarterbacks, road-grading offensive linemen and block-busting linebackers.

The draft presents the opportunity to get those special players who can make bad teams better and good teams stronger.

It's not unusual for rookies to step in and play right away. But the 2004 draft produced an unusually high number of impact players.

Seventeen of the 32 first-rounders started at least 10 games, including five who started all 16 contests. If not for injuries, the numbers would have been higher.

"I think most people thought the 2004 draft was very strong going in, but it turned out to be a lot stronger than anyone imagined," said Gil Brandt, the renowned former Dallas Cowboys player personnel chief who works as a draft analyst for NFL.com. "There were a lot of expectations with that group because of the overall depth of that class, and I think the players lived up to it."

Here's a review of what teams got from last year's first-round picks:

1. San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers, QB, N.C. State. Chargers drafted quarterback Eli Manning and traded him to the New York Giants for Rivers, who saw action in just one game after a prolonged contract holdout in training camp opened the door for Drew Brees' breakthrough season. Grade: Incomplete.

2. Oakland Raiders: Robert Gallery, OT, Iowa. Gallery had a good, but inconsistent season as a 15-game starter at right tackle. The 6-foot-7, 320-pounder has all the tools to be great when he moves to left tackle, his natural position. Grade: B.

3. Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Pittsburgh: Cardinals coach Dennis Green called Fitzgerald the best player in the '04 draft. Fitzgerald didn't always perform to that level, but his team-high 58 catches, 780 yards and seven touchdowns provided a glimpse of how good he can be. Grade: B-plus.

4. New York Giants: Eli Manning, QB, Mississippi. Giants gave up a lot to get Manning, who got off to a shaky start but showed signs of potential greatness toward the end of the season. Grade: C.

5. Washington Redskins: Sean Taylor, S, Miami. Although his season was marred by a DUI arrest (which led to a one-game benching) and accusations of spitting on a Cincinnati player, Taylor was as good as advertised. He intercepted four passes and brought a physical presence to the secondary. Grade: B-plus.

6. Cleveland Browns: Kellen Winslow, TE, Miami, Fla. A broken leg ended his season after two games. There is still hope in Cleveland that his career will rival his Hall of Fame dad's. Grade: Incomplete.

7. Detroit Lions: Roy Williams, WR, Texas. Despite missing two games with an ankle injury, he finished with 54 catches, 817 yards and eight TDs. He has the size (6-2, 215), speed and charisma to be a superstar. Grade: A-minus.

8. Atlanta Falcons: DeAngelo Hall, CB, Virginia Tech. After missing first six games with a hip injury, he developed rapidly as a shutdown corner with elite playmaking skills. Grade: B-minus.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars: Reggie Williams, WR, Washington. Had a quiet season, catching just 27 passes while starting 15 games. The talent is there to be a feature receiver if used properly. Grade: C.

10. Houston Texans: Dunta Robinson, CB, South Carolina. After tying for third in the NFL with six interceptions and displaying exceptional coverage skills, Robinson is well on his way to becoming one of the NFL's elite corners. Grade: A.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Miami (Ohio). The NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year broke Dan Marino's 20-year-old rookie records for pass completion percentage and passer rating. His 13-0 regular-season record as a starting quarterback set another league mark. Grade: A-plus.

12. New York Jets: Jonathan Vilma, MLB, Miami. Defensive Rookie of the Year overcame lack of size with speed, toughness and intelligence. Led revitalized defense with 107 tackles and added three interceptions and two sacks. Grade: A-plus.

13. Buffalo Bills: Lee Evans, WR, Wisconsin. Vertical threat gave the Bills a dimension of big-play speed they lacked since Peerless Price's departure. Evans got better with every game, finishing with 48 catches, 843 yards and nine touchdowns (six in December). Grade: A-.

14. Chicago Bears: Tommie Harris, DT, Oklahoma. A starter from Day One, Harris has the explosive quickness and strength to be a disruptive force for years to come. Grade: B.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Michael Clayton, WR, LSU. Clayton was the most productive member of receiver class. Showing a maturity beyond his years, he led all rookies with 80 catches, 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. Grade: A.

16. Philadelphia Eagles: Shawn Andrews, OT, Mississippi. Andrews opened the season as a starter at guard, but a broken leg ended his year after one game. Grade: Incomplete.

17. Denver Broncos: D.J. Williams, OLB, Miami. Starting 15 games on the weak side, Williams (team-high 114 tackles) was an even better sideline-to-sideline playmaker than Broncos imagined. Grade: A.

18. New Orleans: Will Smith, DE, Ohio State. Only four starts, but Smith showed great promise as a pass rusher (7 1/2 sacks) and is one reason team sack leader Darren Howard is on the trading block. Grade: C-plus.

19. Miami Dolphins: Vernon Carey, OT, Miami, Fla. For a team with a bad offensive line, it needed more from Carey. He might be moved to guard after a mediocre showing at tackle. Grade: D.

20. Minnesota Vikings: Kenechi Udeze, DE, Southern California. Udeze had just five sacks, but he has the physical tools to be a two-way force. Grade: C.

21. New England Patriots: Vince Wilfork, DT, Miami, Fla. A strong postseason capped a rookie year in which he showed potential as a dominant run stuffer. Grade: B-minus.

22. Buffalo Bills: J.P. Losman, QB, Tulane. A broken leg in preseason limited him to four cameo appearances. Now the starter, he'll get a chance to show off his exceptional athletic skills on a full-time basis. Grade: Incomplete.

23. Seattle Seahawks: Marcus Tubbs, DT, Texas. Seahawks still think he'll become a top run stuffer, but he didn't show a whole lot last season. Grade: D-minus.

24. St. Louis Rams: Steven Jackson, RB, Oregon State. Jackson rushed for 673 yards on just 134 carries with four touchdowns playing behind Marshall Faulk. Jackson should become powerful workhorse now that he's been promoted to starter. Grade: B.

25. Green Bay Packers: Ahmad Carroll, CB, Arkansas. An 11-game starter, Carroll struggled for the NFL's 25th-ranked pass defense. Teams exploited his lack of size and experience. Grade: C-minus.

26. Cincinnati Bengals: Chris Perry, RB, Michigan. Injuries limited him to just two games. With Rudi Johnson on the team, Perry will have no more than a supporting role. Grade: Incomplete.

27. Houston Texans: Jason Babin, OLB, Western Michigan. A defensive end in college, Babin's steady improvement has raised the Texans' hope that he'll become a quality outside pass rusher. Grade: C-plus.

28. Carolina Panthers: Chris Gamble, CB, Ohio State. Had some rough spots, but overall he had a very solid first year. His six interceptions tied for third in the NFL. Grade: B-plus.

29. Atlanta Falcons: Michael Jenkins, WR, Ohio State. On a team that needed production at wide receiver, Jenkins provided only seven catches. Grade: D-plus.

30. Detroit Lions: Kevin Jones, RB, Virginia Tech. The steal of Round One, Jones led all rookie rushers with 1,133 yards. He was explosive runner the Lions had lacked since Barry Sanders retired. Grade: A.

31. San Francisco 49ers: Rashaun Woods, WR, Oklahoma State. His 22.9-yard average was good, but his seven total catches were not. Dropped too many passes, and his toughness and work ethic were questioned. Grade: F.

32. New England Patriots: Ben Watson, TE, Georgia. A season-ending knee injury in Week One prevented Pats from utilizing his tremendous athletic ability. Grade: Incomplete.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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