NEW YORK — The NFL Draft always is a guessing game. Never has it been accompanied by so much uncertainty.
Not just who will go first overall — the betting favorite is Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton — but who goes where and when beyond that. Will the Patriots trade down again and again, as they always seem to do? Or will the Jets trade up, as they normally do?
This year, the selection process has the added element of players being locked out by owners, and a judge temporarily blocking the lockout earlier this week. Should the league be forced to reopen for business before or during the draft, the result could be even more chaos.
“The world doesn’t stop spinning, we have to keep running and working,” Baylor guard Danny Watkins said Monday. “It’s just disappointing the timing of it, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
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Nothing except prepare for tonight’s opening round of the three-day extravaganza that has been the league’s only order of business since the lockout began March 12.
A record 25 players accepted invitations to attend the draft itself, and 13 were on hand Wednesday for an NFL event with youngsters.
A dozen of them spoke to the media afterward. After the young campers were done, Newton skipped out. The Auburn quarterback took a few minutes to high-five some kids and sign autographs before slipping out a side entrance with a few associates and into a waiting SUV.
The other players expressed little concern the labor impasse would affect the 2011 season.
“I can’t see the world without NFL football,” LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson said.
While matters are worked out in Judge Susan Richard Nelson’s court in Minnesota, the draft is the only game in town. There were concerns that pressure from the locked-out players would persuade many likely high-round draftees to skip the trip to New York.
Not a consideration, many of them said after gathering around Commissioner Roger Goodell during a pep talk to the youngsters of Play 60, the NFL’s youth health and fitness campaign.
One intriguing twist involves Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller, the only college player named as a plaintiff in the antitrust lawsuit.
Nine pros, including Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, are plaintiffs, too, but Miller can’t wait to share the joy with Goodell.
“I think he’s handled the situation well,” said Miller, projected to go in the top five and considered by some the most NFL-ready talent in the entire draft. “There’s no animosity between me and him. I love him. I plan on giving him a hug when I walk across the stage.”
Newton is expected to walk onstage first at Radio City Music Hall, when the Carolina Panthers open the draft. Several other quarterbacks are projected to go high, although only Blaine Gabbert of Missouri and Jake Locker of Washington are likely first-rounders.
The opening round probably will be dominated by defensive players, especially linemen. From tackles Marcell Dareus of Alabama, Nick Fairley of Auburn and Corey Liuget of Illinois to ends Da’Quan Bowers of Clemson, Robert Quinn of North Carolina and Ryan Kerrigan of Purdue, there’s strong interest in the trenches.
“One year it may be offensive lineman, next year it may be defensive ends, secondary,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “This year it is not as deep at the safety position as it has been in the past. All of a sudden, there are more defensive lineman than I’ve seen in a long time. You just never know.”
Miller is the top linebacker, and Peterson the highest-rated defensive back.
“I’ll be happy to play for whatever team picks me up,” said Miller, who was born and raised in Texas. “I hope it’s the Cowboys, though.”