Top seven are top-shelf talents

This year's crop of can't-miss prospects is seven deep, while the Bengals, Dolphins and Broncos should be able to fill needs later in the first round.

Originally Published: February 18, 2004
By Mel Kiper Jr. | Special to ESPN Insider
YOU'VE GOT MEL | Kiper's Mailbag
Q: I remember commentators saying last year that there was a significant drop-off after the fifth-best prospect, current Dallas Cowboys CB Terence Newman. Where do you see that drop-off being in this year's draft class?
Randy, Washington, D.C.
KIPER: The drop-off this year occurs after six or seven players. It looks like the first six picks right now will be QB Eli Manning, WR Larry Fitzgerald, QB Ben Roethlisberger, OT Robert Gallery, TE Kellen Winslow Jr. and S Sean Taylor. Beyond that we'll likely see lots of variance in how teams rank the rest of their boards.

On my Big Board of the top 25 NFL prospects, the top seven all earn very similar grades: Fitzgerald, Taylor, Manning, WR Roy Williams, Roethlisberger, Gallery and Winslow. There is a drop-off at No. 8, but the prospects from Nos. 8-14 are bunched closely together in terms of draft grade. The next group of comparable grades includes Nos. 15-21, with Nos. 22-32 looking very much alike to finish out the first round.

The slotting of this year's talent will affect how teams deal with their first-rounders. A team trading down out of the top seven will need a significant return on that pick because it would be giving up a lot if it moves out of the top 15 or so. That's what happened last year when the Saints traded the 17th and 18th overall picks to Arizona for the No. 6 pick. New Orleans got quality DT Johnathan Sullivan while the Cardinals had to reach for WR Bryant Johnson and DE Calvin Pace. Arizona made that deal for salary reasons -- it did not want to pay big money to the No. 6 pick -- but you can bet most teams learned something from the Cardinals and won't operate like that.

Mel Kiper Jr.

Football analyst
Mel Kiper has served as an NFL draft analyst for ESPN since 1984. He is a regular contributor on SportsCenter and ESPN Radio and writes weekly for ESPN Insider.