LINK (March 19, 2005) -- The one area of the NFL that has always been a mystery to me is the top half of the first round of the draft. Why we pay these college athletes with absolutely no professional experience so much money before they ever prove they can play in this league is a big question that continues to go unanswered. There is no other league competing for their services. If they don't play in the NFL, then their football careers are virtually over. So why we pay them so much money at the expense of paying proven veterans doesn't make much sense. Be that as it may, it is what it is, and it is critical for the draft-eligible players to work their way into the top half of the first round where the real big money is waiting for them. Basketball refers to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament for the final 16 teams left in search of the national title. In football, the road to the top 16 players is all about hitting a big personal payday. It begins with the position they play, their college production, their health and growth potential, the draft depth at that position, all-star game participation, the NFL Scouting Combine results, and their private workouts are all factored into making or breaking the top half of the first round. At this point their is still some information to be gathered but it is realistic to say 90% of the data has been collected and the top 16 players are close to being separated from the rest of the draft population. In the next thirty days there may be some shifting around but I doubt no more than two or three of my top 16 will change. A number of these players will make one more visit to the club facilities in order for team officials to get one more chance to talk with the players and possibly break a tie in the final grade or two individuals. I have spent time with tie breaker situations before and it is amazing how much effect a day in a facility can have on an organization. I have spoken with a number of coaches, personnel directors and scouts, and here's my first look at the top half of the first round. Next week I will add the bottom half of the round as more information and opinion comes in. I did speak with one GM of a top-10 team for over an hour the other day about two of these top 16 athletes. No stone will go unturned to complete the process, and still there's a 50-50 chance the player will be a bust in the next five years. 1. Alex Smith, QB, Utah: Say what you want about this draft class of quarterbacks as it compares to last year, but the truth is in six of the last seven drafts a quarterback was selected first, and Smith has moved slightly ahead of Cal's Aaron Rodgers after his Pro Day. If San Francisco wants to start negotiating with both quarterbacks, they are allowed to. Signing ability may be the final reason one goes first in this draft. 2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Cal: He may be slightly behind Utah's Alex Smith, but for some teams he's the top choice. Remember, last year Ben Roethlisberger was No. 1 a few draft boards but was the third QB called on Draft Day. Most believe these quarterbacks can win in the NFL, and teams that pass on them may not be in a position to draft a QB for years to come. That's what drives teams to take them so early in the process. How do you think the teams that passed on Roethlisberger last year feel now? 3. Ronnie Brown, RB, Auburn: There is not a lot of difference in the top three running backs and I have on my list. Texans GM Charley Casserly was on my radio show to break down the three backs. It is close, but the potential of Brown gives him the slight edge at this point. The people who challenge the decision to rank Brown on top ask, "How can a guy who couldn't be the full-time starter at Auburn could be the best back in the draft?" That is a good question. 4. Adam "Pac-Man" Jones, CB, West Virginia: Jones ran the 40-yard dash under 4.4 seconds, had a great vertical jump (38½ inches) and is slightly taller than originally thought. This would make it very hard for teams to pass on him. A club may want to move up a spot or two to grab him, and one may be willing to move down a notch, especially if they want a receiver or running back, knowing there are still two of each in the top 10 players. 5. Cedric Benson, RB, Texas: Benson still needs to complete his final private workout, but he is considered a complete back. He is not just a power back, but he also has vision and cutback ability, and that may be more important than his power quotient. What you get in Benson is that there is no conjecture about potential, which is a real comfort level for some organizations. It's hard to sell an owner on potential when a finished product is starring you in the face. 6. Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, RB, Auburn: He showed his love of the game and possibly the reason he kept Ronnie Brown on the bench for first and second downs most of his career by participating in the Senior Bowl. He could go first of the running backs if the right team is picking. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I guarantee the team that selects him will say he was first on their board. 7. Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan: I asked a GM last week if USC's Mike Williams played in 2004, would Edwards still be the clear-cut leader at the wide receiver position. He said, "Probably not." He looks like a sure thing, but he hasn't caught everything thrown his way. And when it comes to red-zone production, it could be argued that Williams has the edge. Scoring touchdowns is still the most important thing on offense. 8. Derrick Johnson, LB, Texas: I have had long conversations with the man who coached Johnson in college, Greg Robinson, and he knows what it takes to be a star in the NFL. He has two Super Bowl rings of his own, and he's also coached Marvin Jones, Mo Lewis, John Mobley, Ian Gold, Al Wilson and Bill Romanowski, along with many other linebackers. He says Johnson is rare and can line up in any defense and be great. He also made it clear that Johnson can stay on the field for every down-and-distance situation. Don't be surprised if he goes higher than No. 8. 9. Mike Williams, WR, Southern Cal: The year off hurt his status, but he is a scoring machine. What he did on a football field in college definitely translates to pro football. When a guy is 6-foot-5, can vertical jump 39 inches and has long arms, he is the biggest target a quarterback could ask for. Williams has very good hands, can break a tackle and can adjust in air to catch a ball behind him. If he doesn't score at least six touchdowns as a rookie, I will be shocked. 10. Antrel Rolle, CB, Miami (Fla.): Rolle has better size than West Virginia's Adam Jones, but he doesn't have the super fast twitch that some personnel people and coaches crave. Rolle will be very inviting to teams after Jones is off the board. And for those who believe the cornerback era is over with the new emphasis on defensive holding and interference, then I wonder why teams paid so much money for Gary Baxter, Samri Rolle, Ken Lucas and Fred Smoot? 11. Shawne Merriman, DE/LB, Maryland: With six of the top 13 teams either running the 3-4 defense or converting to it this season, Merriman looks like an answer to the OLB pass-rush issues. As one GM said, only two major colleges run the 3-4 defense, so it is always about conjecture when looking for 3-4 players. We know Merriman can do it and with a 4.67 time in the 40-yard dash, an incredible 40-inch vertical jump and weighs in at 274 pounds. He is definitely in the top 16. 12. Carlos Rogers, CB, Auburn: Rogers is gaining momentum in this draft process and he has all the measurables. As one defensive back coach said, "Any corner over six feet tall who can run the short shuttle in the 3.8 range is exactly what I'm looking for." The fear with big corners is they can't open their hips and change direction. Rogers can do it. 13. Alex Barron, OT, Florida State: As one personnel man said, "Barron isn't in the class of (Jonathan) Ogden, (Orlando) Pace and (Walter) Jones and may not have the passion for the game." But he did recognize Barron's rare athletic ability and size, and that along with a weak draft class at the position and virtually no unrestricted free-agent left tackles, it will be very hard to pass on him. Like him or not, Barron's a better prospect than close to half of the left tackles in the league. A guy who is at 6-7½ that can run a 4.6 short shuttle, 4.85 40-yard dash and vertical jump 38 inches can play a long time in the NFL. 14. Travis Johnson, DT, Florida State: Johnson has a very high opinion of himself, and at 6-4 and 296 pounds, he has the size to eventually live up to the self promotion. USC's Shaun Cody ran as fast, benched 225 11 more times and is the same size. The battle for the top DT may not be over yet. 15 Erasmus James, DE, Wisconsin: There were questions about James' health earlier, but now he is emerging as he top DE prospect by popular vote among those questioned by me in the last two weeks. I might add that two defensive coordinators strongly felt Georgia's David Pollack was their top choice, so this battle continues. For now, the 6-4, 268-pound James with his 4.79 40-yard dash time holds the top spot. But the 3.9 short shuttle, which is close to extraordinary for Pollack, keeps the Bulldog close to the lead. 16. Shaun Cody, DE/DT, Southern Cal: As one top-flight GM said to me this week, "You can't go wrong with Cody. He is versatile, plays hard every down, loves the game and his five blocked field goals tell you all you need to know about his ability to make a play." The top half may change slightly in the next few weeks, and the players to keep an eye on include WR Troy Williamson (South Carolina), DT Marcus Spears (LSU) and Pollack. These are the ones who have the best chance to break into the top half of the first round.