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IT MAY BE TIME TO SHUT DOOR ON NFL DRAFT

he NFL draft begins Saturday, and this year it presents a prime opportunity to clean out the garage, put up the screens, sit back and watch the grass grow. Anything will beat a day spent tethered to the television as the league divvies up a rather unheralded rookie crop lacking any semblance of a sure-fire No. 1 selection, never mind a consensus top 10.

The pickings are so lean at the top that ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper ranks Texas running back Cedric Benson as the fifth-best player on the board, touting him with this addendum: "Best blocker among this year's backs."

Doubtless Tampa Bay, which drafts fifth, would be less than enthralled with the idea of paying the best blocking back in the draft money on par with the $7.2-million signing bonus, $18-million contract Washington tendered free safety Sean Taylor out of the fifth spot last year. But that's how it works, with early draftees compensated based on the historical trend, which would make Benson something far less than a "value" pick. (Yes, granted, he can run, too. I'm illustrating a point).

General managers despise drafting early in the first round, and not just because it typically means the previous season was a bust. Drafting near the head of the class is fraught with extravagant uncertainty. Guess wrong and advance straight to salary-cap prison.

"One of the things that we've always said in our meetings and discussions is that, as a franchise, the No. 1 thing you want is to get out of the top 10 of the draft," Atlanta GM Rich McKay said while he was overseeing Tampa Bay. "It's just a nightmare in there."

How the first round progresses can corner a team into a choosing out of whimsy instead of filling an obvious vacancy. The Buffalo Bills took a flier on a running back ranked near the bottom of their wish list when they took Willis McGahee in 2003. But President and General Manager Tom Donahoe and his staff concluded none of the remaining players at need positions warranted first-round money. McGahee proved to be worth the risk, but the choice also highlights one of the draft's inherent faults. What you need isn't necessarily what you can get, at least not at an acceptable price.

Maybe the NFL would be better off without the draft, with welcoming new players into the league via widespread rookie free agency. I know. It sounds outlandish. But what would be the drawbacks other than ESPN filling the void with another 12 hours of Texas Hold 'Em?

The quest for parity could be maintained by assigning each team a rookie salary cap that corresponds to its finish of the previous season. San Francisco would be alloted the highest cap heading into this year's rookie free-agency period, followed by Miami, and right down the line. That way the worst club from the previous season be granted the financial wherewithal to outbid all others for an elite player.

But, in this case, the 49ers also would have the option of deciding no single player is worth the investment tied to executing the No. 1 overall pick. They could court a number of players, spread the money around, which is more likely to hasten their revival instead of, say, throwing a bundle at Mike Williams or Alex Smith.

And don't tell me that rookies will start flocking to the marquee franchises. It doesn't happen in veteran free agency. Money's a persuasive tool.

The trend's already leaning this way. The draft, a 17-round marathon following the merger, is down to seven. The Bills last year had four undrafted rookie free agents on the roster. Accumulating depth is more vital than ever.

You have to admit, it would be far more interesting if the rookie free-agency period opened at noon Saturday instead of waiting for the Bills to make the 55th pick sometime far into the night.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com