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Is 'best player available'always best?

It's a debate that rages about this time every year: Should a team draft for need or take the best player available?

A number of clubs will be making that decision when the NFL draft begins at noon today on ESPN.

Oakland, Detroit and Cleveland have the top three picks, barring trades. All three teams need quarterbacks, and LSU's JaMarcus Russell and Notre Dame's Brady Quinn will be available for two of them. But most NFL scouts and draftniks rate Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson as the best player in the draft, with Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson not far behind.

If either Johnson, Peterson or Quinn slides down the board, can a team that covets a different player bypass any of them?

The "best player available" theory prevails for most teams, for a simple reason: Pick a guy to fill a hole now who's not as talented as you'd like, and you'll just be replacing him eventually anyway.

"I take the best player because at the end of the day, what's my worst case scenario? I've got a lot of good players," said Charles Davis, a draft analyst for NFL Network. "If I'm saying I've got to have a left guard and the highest rated left guard on the board is really a third- or fourthround guy and I'm picking him in the second, I'm reaching. Am I really helping my team by taking a guy I could get two rounds later and wasting a chance to get another great player? I don't think so."

Davis said he would have no problem drafting the highest-rated player on the board even for a team that was well stocked at the same position.

Not everyone shares this opinion.

"I believe in taking the best player, but you can't draft a player you don't need," said ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. "If you have a ton of money spent at linebacker, you can't draft a linebacker. You're drafting the best available player at a position of need in the NFL right now."

Whether teams want to fill a need or take the best player, this draft provides an opportunity to do both. While the class lacks the star power of last year, there is plenty of talent to go around. Here's a position-by-position look at the draft prospects:

>Quarterbacks

*Top shelf

JaMarcus Russell, LSU, 6-foot-5, 256: A big, mature signal caller with good mobility and tremendous arm strength that allows him to deliver high-velocity throws with a mere flick of his wrist. With more polish he has the potential to become an elite starter.

Brady Quinn, Notre Dame, 6-3, 232: Despite his detractors, he has the physical tools, mentality and leadership skills to be a solid starter at the pro level.

*Second tier

Trent Edwards, Stanford, 6-4, 231: A smart pocket passer with good size and a strong, accurate arm.

John Beck, Brigham Young, 6-2, 216: On the rise because of decision making and accuracy.

Drew Stanton, Michigan State, 6-3, 226: A tough competitor with arm strength and ability to make throws on the move.

Kevin Kolb, Houston, 6-3, 218: Puts great zip on deep throws and has the mobility to make plays out of the pocket.

Troy Smith, Ohio State, 6-0, 222: Heisman Trophy winner has arm strength and a knack for making big plays.

*Sleepers

Matt Moore, Oregon State, 6-3, 193: Could surprise with live arm and athletic ability.

Jordan Palmer, Texas-El Paso, 6-5, 231: Not as talented as older brother Carson but has NFL-caliber physical tools.

Isaiah Stanback, Washington, 6-2, 216: Has arm strength and mobility to be a worthwhile developmental prospect.

Toby Korrodi, Central Missouri State, 6-3 1/2 , 234: Intriguing small-school prospect because of rifle arm and compact delivery.

Jeff Rowe, Nevada, 6-5, 222: Has physical and mental tools to be a good developmental prospect.

***

>Running backs

*Top shelf

Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma, 6-1 1/2 , 217: Forget questions about his durability. He's an aggressive runner with the total package of size, speed, power and toughness to be one of the most dominant ball carriers in the NFL.

Marshawn Lynch, California, 5-11, 215: Complete, every-down back with speed to outrun defenders and strength to break tackles. He's also a good receiver.
Second tier

Antonio Pittman, Ohio State, 5-10 3/4 , 210: Patient runner with vision and burst through the hole.

Kenny Irons, Auburn, 5-10 5/8 , 203: Runs hard, has good acceleration and makes people miss.

Chris Henry, Arizona, 5-11, 230: Big speed back with potential to become a star if he harnesses considerable natural ability.

Brian Leonard, Rutgers, 6-1, 226: Toughness, instincts, vision and competitiveness give him a chance to make it as a tailback or fullback.

Brandon Jackson, Nebraska, 5-9 7/8 , 206: Strong runner with good balance to absorb hard hits and keep on going.

Michael Bush, Louisville, 6-1, 243: Broken leg hurt stock, but when healthy he's a powerful runner with agility of a smaller back.

Lorenzo Booker, Florida State, 5-10, 189: Dazzling athlete who is fast, elusive and a big-play receiving threat.

Tony Hunt, Penn State, 6-1 5/8 , 234: Big back who sets up blocks well and is physical when running downhill.

*Sleepers

Dwayne Wright, Fresno State, 5-11 1/2 , 228: Power back runs with strength and toughness.

DeShawn Wynn, Florida, 5-10, 218: Tough inside runner with quickness to bounce outside and make people miss.

Alonzo Coleman, Hampton, 5-9 7/8 , 206: Has instincts to find holes and quickness to get through them.

Kolby Smith, Louisville, 5-11, 215: Career backup is interesting because he's strong, elusive and catches the ball well.

Garrett Wolfe, Northern Illinois, 5-7 1/2 , 186: Despite size, he's worth a look because of major productivity.

***

>Wide receivers

*Top shelf

Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech, 6-5, 239: Physical freak is a matchup nightmare because of his great size and speed, reliable hands and off-the-charts athleticism. Barring injury, he has a chance to be a special player in NFL.

Ted Ginn Jr., Ohio State, 5-11, 178: Has explosiveness and game-changing speed to become a force as a receiver and kick returner.

Robert Meachem, Tennessee, 6-2, 217: Big receiver can stretch the field with surprising speed.

Dwayne Bowe, LSU, 6-2, 221: Physical target with good hands, speed and route-running ability.

*Second tier

Sidney Rice, South Carolina, 6-3 1/2 , 197: Raw redshirt sophomore has physical skills to make an immediate impact as a deep threat.

Aundrae Allison, East Carolina, 6-0, 198: Speedster has a knack for getting open and making difficult catches.

Dwayne Jarrett, Southern California, 6-4, 214: Tall possession receiver is strong and can make big plays in the red zone.

Steve Smith, Southern California, 5-11 3/4 , 197: Smooth, fluid route runner with a feel for finding soft spots in coverage.

Craig Davis, LSU, 6-1, 202: Has size, speed, explosiveness and hands to be a productive playmaker.

Jason Hill, Washington State, 6-0 1/2 , 204: Highly productive (18.3-yard career per catch average) and makes tough catches in traffic.

*Sleepers

Jacoby Jones, Lane, 6-2 5/8 , 210: Has speed to stretch the field, is dangerous after the catch and has big-play capability as a kick-return specialist.

David Ball, New Hampshire, 6-1, 201: Lacks great speed, but no receiver in draft was more productive -- his 58 TD catches shattered Jerry Rice's NCAA record, his 23 100-yard games tied Rice's all-time mark and his 4,685 yards (on 299 catches) were eight shy of Rice's record total.

James Jones, San Jose State, 6-0 5/8 , 207: Lacks elite speed, but he's a strong runner capable of turning short passes into long gains.

Laurent Robinson, Illinois State, 6-2, 199: Smooth route runner has size, hands and speed to get noticed.

***

>Tight ends

*Top shelf

Greg Olsen, Miami, Fla., 6-5 1/2 , 257: With great size and speed, he could develop into an elite receiver.

Zach Miller, Arizona State, 6-4 1/2 , 255: Smart, sure-handed receiver should make smooth transition to NFL.

*Second tier

Ben Patrick, Delaware, 6-5, 250: Division I-AA stud, who began his career at Duke, could make an impact in the NFL as a blocker and receiver.

Matt Spaeth, Minnesota, 6-7, 262: Has size and strength to be a fine NFL blocker and smarts and hands to be a good receiver.

Martrez Milner, Georgia, 6-3 7/8 , 252: Has talent to become school's fifth NFL tight end since 1999.

*Sleepers

Michael Allan, Whitworth, 6-6, 255: Division III prospect with speed and athleticism to develop into a productive receiver.

Kevin Boss, Western Oregon, 6-6 1/2 , 253: Big target with 4.7 speed and good hands (134 career receptions and 19 touchdowns).

***

>Offensive linemen

*Top shelf

Joe Thomas (T), Wisconsin, 6-5, 310: With outstanding athletic ability and footwork, he has all the physical tools and intangibles to be a great NFL left tackle.

Levi Brown (T), Penn State, 6-5, 321: Can use size and agility to dominate in pass protection and be efficient in run blocking.

*Second tier

Joe Staley (T), Central Michigan, 6-5, 305: Could develop into a starter because of his mobility, toughness and instincts.

Ryan Kalil (C), Southern California, 6-2 3/4 , 300: Sound technician with intelligence, toughness and athleticism.

Justin Blalock (G), Texas, 6-3, 321: Drives defenders off the line with power and leverage.

Ben Grubbs (G), Auburn, 6-2 3/4 , 314: An athlete with rare quickness and has the smarts to play center.

Tony Ugoh (T), Arkansas, 6-5, 301: Has elite skills and will become an NFL starter if he maximizes potential.

Arron Sears (G), Tennessee, 6-3, 319: Good size and strength, and is quick off the snap.

Josh Beekman (G), Boston College, 6-2, 309: Physical blocker plays with a tough, aggressive and nasty attitude.

Ryan Harris (T), Notre Dame, 6-4 1/2 , 305: Excellent mobility and can be dominant when he plays with intensity.

*Sleepers

Allen Barbre (G/T), Missouri Southern, 6-4, 293: Has speed (4.84 seconds in 40-yard dash), quickness, agility and length to become a future starter.

Drew Mormino (C), Central Michigan, 6-3, 305: Plays with good technique and leverage at the point of attack.

Elliot Vallejo (T), Cal-Davis, 6-7, 327: Raw prospect is intriguing because of tremendous size and overpowering strength.

***

>Defensive linemen

*Top shelf

Gaines Adams (DE), Clemson, 6-4 3/4 , 261: Elite pass rusher with outstanding speed and quickness off the edge.

Amobi Okoye (DT), Louisville, 6-2, 305: Very mature 19-year-old with size, strength and explosive burst off the snap to be a disruptive force for years to come.

Jamaal Anderson (DE), Arkansas, 6-5, 288: Top-notch prospect with strength to play the run and quickness and agility to rush the passer.

Alan Branch (DT), Michigan, 6-5 3/4 , 324: True run-stuffer with uncommon strength, athleticism and size.

Adam Carriker (DE), Nebraska, 6-6, 296: Physical technician with size and strength to play in 3-4 scheme.

Anthony Spencer (DE), Purdue, 6-2 7/8 , 261: Has physical tools along with toughness and versatility to play in any defense.

*Second tier

Jarvis Moss (DE), Florida, 6-6 1/2 , 258: Could be an outstanding pass rusher because of excellent upfield speed.

DeMarcus "Tank" Tyler (DT), N.C. State, 6-2, 306: Super strong and uses quickness off the ball to shoot gaps and make plays in backfield.

Justin Harrell (DT), Tennessee, 6-4, 314: Tough competitor with size and strength who plays hard on every snap.

Charles Johnson (DE), Georgia, 6-2, 270: Has size, strength and athletic skills to be a force against run and pass.

Marcus Thomas (DT), Florida, 6-2 3/4 , 314: Has talent to be a disruptive defensive tackle in NFL but is a character risk.

LaMarr Woodley (DE), Michigan, 6-1 1/2 , 265: Strong at point of attack and knows how to pressure quarterbacks.

Victor Abiamiri (DE), Notre Dame, 6-4, 267: Has strength, competitiveness and deceptive pass-rush skills to develop into a solid, well-rounded end.

Paul Soliai (DT), Utah, 6-4, 344: Powerful two-gap player who clogs middle against the run and collapses pocket.

Brandon Mebane (DT), California, 6-1, 309: Instinctive, tough and fast enough to make plays in pursuit.

Baraka Atkins (DE), Miami, 6-4 1/2 , 271: Penetrating, versatile lineman is athletic and highly competitive.

*Sleepers

Quentin Moses (DE), Georgia, 6-5, 261: Top-ranked end before poor senior season, but he has first-round talent if he applies himself.

Ikaika Alama-Francis (DE), Hawaii, 6-5, 276: Late bloomer could develop into an effective NFL player.

Keith Jackson Jr. (DT), Arkansas, 6-0, 305: Son of former All-Pro tight end is athletic with surprising quickness.

Dan Bazuin (DE), Central Michigan, 6-3, 266: Expert penetrator had 63-plus tackles for losses (35 sacks) during college career.

***

>Linebackers

*Top shelf

Patrick Willis (MLB), Mississippi, 6-1, 242: Big-time playmaker with toughness, instincts and amazing speed for his size. He's stout against the run and has range in pass coverage.

Lawrence Timmons (OLB), Florida State, 6-1, 234: Has athleticism and speed to make plays all over the field against the run and as a pass rusher.

Paul Posluszny (OLB), Penn State, 6-2, 238: Intelligent player who diagnoses plays quickly and attacks line of scrimmage.

Jon Beason (OLB), Miami, Fla., 6-0, 237: Outstanding athlete with speed and versatility to play in the middle or outside.

*Second tier

Buster Davis (MLB), Florida State, 5-9, 242: Sideline-to-sideline playmaker plays bigger than his size and has a nose for the football.

David Harris (MLB), Michigan, 6-2, 245: Tough and strong at the point of attack and can fill holes and take on lead blockers.

Earl Everett (OLB), Florida, 6-2 1/2 , 238: Good athlete with speed, instincts and range to rush the passer, play the run and drop in coverage.

Stewart Bradley (OLB), Nebraska, 6-3 3/4 , 258: Very athletic for his size and has smarts and versatility to be productive inside or outside.

Justin Durant (MLB), Hampton, 6-0 7/8 , 229: Division I-AA prospect has a lot of natural ability and a willingness to hit anything that moves.

Rufus Alexander (OLB), Oklahoma, 6-0 7/8 , 232: Attacks plays, fills holes quickly and fights through traffic to reach ball carrier.

Brandon Siler (MLB), Florida, 6-2, 241: Has impressive foot speed and can plug inside rush lanes.

*Sleepers

Zak DeOssie (MLB), Brown, 6-4, 258: Son of former NFL player Steve DeOssie has size and smarts to play in the middle and athletic ability to move outside.

H.B. Blades (MLB), Pittsburgh, 5-10 1/2 , 237: A little short, but son of former NFL All-Pro safety Bennie Blades is a tackling machine with instincts, strength and athletic ability.

Tim Shaw (OLB), Penn State, 6-1, 233: With his speed, could be an effective blitzer on passing downs.

Michael Okwo (MLB), Stanford, 5-10, 231: His athletic skills, instincts and toughness can't be overlooked.

***

>Defensive backs

*Top shelf

LaRon Landry (S), LSU, 6-0 1/2 , 213: Smart and instinctive playmaker with elite physical tools to make a big impact. Has speed to cover wide receivers, range to play deep coverage and is tough and physical in run support.

Leon Hall (CB), Michigan, 5-11, 193: Excellent all-around corner who is tough, instinctive and physical in coverage and a solid tackler in run support.

Darrelle Revis (CB), Pittsburgh, 5-11 1/2 , 196: Big, physical corner with outstanding instincts and ball skills and brings added value as a return man.

Reggie Nelson (S), Florida, 5-11, 198: Has size, athleticism and speed to cover tight ends and slot receivers, reads quarterbacks well and makes big plays.

Brandon Meriweather (S), Miami, Fla., 5-10 5/8 , 195: Excels in man coverage, reads quarterback well and is aggressive against the run.

Aaron Ross (CB), Texas, 6-0 1/2 , 197: Has right combination of savvy, anticipation and athleticism to make a big impact at corner and as a return man.

Chris Houston (CB), Arkansas, 5-9 7/8 , 185: Fluid athlete excels in physical man coverage and has great closing speed on the ball.

Michael Griffin (S), Texas, 5-10 7/8 , 201: Big-time hitter with athletic ability, toughness and strength to play deep coverage and support the run.

*Second tier

Tanard Jackson (CB), Syracuse, 6-0, 200: Possesses size, speed, toughness and coverage skills to play in any defensive scheme.

Eric Wright (CB), UNLV, 5-10 7/8 , 192: Great athlete with ideal quickness, agility and speed.

Josh Wilson (CB), Maryland, 5-9, 189: Strong and physical for his size and has speed to run with receivers downfield.

Eric Weddle (S), Utah, 5-11, 203: Ball hawk is smart, tough and instinctive.

Daymeion Hughes (CB), California, 5-11, 192: Physical corner with exceptional ball skills.

Marcus McCauley (CB), Fresno State, 6-0 3/4 , 203: Despite poor senior year, he has physical ability to be outstanding in the pros.

Aaron Rouse (S), Virginia Tech, 6-4, 223: Physical player who can cover tight ends one-on-one, make plays on the ball in zone coverage and deliver big hits in run support.

*Sleepers

Corey Graham (CB), New Hampshire, 5-11 7/8 , 195: Turner-Carroll product is a good, competitive athlete with size, strength and toughness to make jump from Division I-AA to NFL.

Travarous Bain (CB), Hampton, 6-0, 182: Has physical skills and upside to develop into an NFL standout.

Daren Stone (S), Maine, 6-3, 218: Former Lockport High star is physical player who combines great size, quickness and leaping ability.

DeAndre Jackson (CB), Iowa State, 5-11, 196: Late-rounder because of knee injury but has talent to be a future NFL starter.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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