NEW YORK - In one of the strongest drafts in years, perhaps decades, any of a handful of players could go on top. Eli Manning would prefer not to be No. 1 - unless the San Diego Chargers trade the pick.
Manning appears the clear-cut choice to be the first name announced by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue today. The Mississippi quarterback - through his father, Archie, and his agent - has made it just as clear he doesn't want to play for the Chargers.
Manning, brother of Colts star Peyton Manning, the first overall choice in 1998, even has hinted he would sit out the 2004 season if San Diego selects him and doesn't then deal him elsewhere.
Did someone say John Elway, who made the same threats to the Colts, eventually forcing a trade to Denver in 1983?
"We've made all our comments. I'm not in control of what happens next," Eli Manning said Friday. "My dad has said it all. I just have to sit and wait.
"We felt strongly about this. We didn't plan on it becoming public, and it is something we have to deal with."
Manning's stand has added more juice to the NFL's off-season showcase event. Throw in a sensational crop of wide receivers, a strong collection of defensive backs and depth at many positions, and this weekend's proceedings should be intriguing.
A number of teams, particularly the Giants (No. 4), Redskins (No. 5) and Browns (No. 7), are enamored with Iowa tackle Robert Gallery. They also think he won't last beyond the first three picks, so each team has spoken to San Diego.
Gallery says his favorite pro tackles are Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace and Tony Boselli, all high first-round choices - Pace was No. 1 overall in 1997 - and if he emulates any of them in the NFL, he'll be worth the investment.
And if the Chargers chose him, would he have any problem with that?
"Being No. 1 is obviously a huge deal for anyone," Gallery said. "Especially for an offensive lineman. It's what I've been shooting for. There's no team I'll say I want to be on, but I do want to be the top pick."
Just as many clubs are eager to draft Pitt receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who in just two seasons of college ball established himself as a premier playmaker. Another wideout, Texas' Roy Williams, has jumped way up in the ratings, with the Raiders (No. 2) showing strong interest in him, Fitzgerald and Gallery.
Miami tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., whose father is a Hall of Famer, is in the mix, too. So is Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It's possible the first half-dozen picks all will be offensive players: Manning, Roethlisberger, Gallery, Winslow, Williams and Fitzgerald.
Among the best defensive players, none of whom have been mentioned for the top spot, are Oklahoma tackle Tommie Harris, Virginia Tech cornerback DeAngelo Hall, and Miami safety Sean Taylor.
"I hope I make a big impact right away," Hall said of his prospects in the NFL. "I want to get the playbook down and know what I have to do and, no doubt in my mind, I can do it.
"I want to match up with the best: Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison. I want the best so I can prove myself."
He also would like to be chosen very high so he can buy his mother a house in the Chesapeake, Va., area where he grew up.
Hall kidded Winslow on Friday about how he shut down the tight end when the Hokies played the Hurricanes. But Hall also said Winslow is one of the best players he's ever faced.
And Winslow wants to emulate his father, whose game tapes he began watching when the younger Winslow was 5.
"I imagined this when I was younger," he said of being a first-round draft pick. "This is a dream come true."
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