Baseball may be known as the national pastime, but there’s little debate about which sport Americans are most passionate about, and that’s NFL football. In many sports markets across the country, the NFL is a topic that never leaves the airwaves, regardless of the time of year. It’s late April, the 2006 MLB season is underway, and in case you haven’t noticed, the NHL and NBA playoffs have already begun. But turn on your favorite sports radio station and the NFL draft will dominate all other topics in the world of sports.

The hot debate this year is what the Houston Texans will do with the number one overall pick. Will they take USC Reggie Bush’s must-see RB? Or is hometown boy QB Vince Young the way they’ll go? We know that Matt Leinart is no longer a lock to be the Saints’ number two, now that they have signed free agent QB Drew Brees. So is OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson a future saint? What will the Titans do, at pick three, if Steve McNair really stands his ground and refuses to return to Tennessee? There are so many interesting and drama-filled storylines that make this year’s draft one of the most intriguing in recent memory, and thus begs the million-dollar question: which projected first-round pick will have the biggest impact on the game? the NFL?

I think this is a very interesting question and one that can be debated until draft guru Mel Kiper gets a new hairdo. Everyone knows the Bushes, Leinarts and Youngs of the world. I have no doubt that all three of these players will eventually have good, if not great, NFL careers. What about the aforementioned D’Brickashaw Ferguson, the 6’6″, 312-pound OT out of the University of Virginia? He compares very well physically against some of the best OTs in the NFL. Walter Jones, Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas just to name a few. There’s also little doubt that Ferguson will be a very good player in the NFL. But a player who has flown a bit under the draft pundits’ radar, in my opinion, will not only have the most immediate impact in the NFL, but when it’s all said and done, he could be leading the draft class this year. His name is Michael Huff, DB from the University of Texas. Yes, that’s right, I said Michael Huff. Let me explain it.

There is no question that the NFL is a copycat league. Week after week and season after season, teams study what works and copy it. It is also a league of trends. Here are some trends that will help me explain how a DB, in Michael Huff, will be the biggest impact player in the first round of this year’s draft.

For one, take a look at how things have changed with running back. There is so much specialization at this position these days that a true number one running back is no longer essential in the NFL to win games. There are first and second down backs, third down backs, short yardage backs, red zone backs, speedy backs, and bruise backs, as well as blocking backs. The Giants had Lightning and Thunder, Atlanta had Dunn and Duckett, the world champion Steelers had “Fast” Willie Parker and The Bus, and the Broncos, who for years have had the best run scheme in the league, recently they have had a herd of runners. which gets 10-15 keys per set. So the importance of the league having a true number one endorsement has diminished over the years in the NFL. Just ask Edgerrin James. That is a trend that supports my case. Reggie Bush may end up sharing carries and never get a chance to be the man. If he becomes the Texans’ No. 1, he’ll no doubt share carries with current running back Domanick Davis. This trend harms his case because he is the player who will have the most impact.

Next, take a look at the QB position. Most of the time these days the quarterback is simply asked to manage the game, make as few mistakes as possible, and is told, “Whatever you do, don’t lose the game for the team.” They are not being asked to win games like before, but are being asked not to turn the ball over in critical parts of the game. You can win games in the NFL with a QB who just doesn’t make mistakes. They are no longer required to carry the team on their backs and win every game. Check out Ben Roethlisberger’s stats from Super Bowl XL. He finished 9 of 21 for 123 yards, 2 interceptions and zero touchdown passes. Those aren’t huge numbers or statistics you’d expect to see from a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But what he did was manage the game and he didn’t make any critical mistakes in the crucial moments of the match. So the number two trend in the league is to have a quarterback that just doesn’t lose games for the team. Therefore, quarterbacks often have the ball taken out of their hands and placed in the belly of one of the two best running backs on the team. Leinart and Young will deliver the ball a lot more than they will shoot it. That leaves them out of the race for the biggest impact player in this year’s draft.

That brings me to the third trend I see in the NFL. This is the trend I think more teams should embrace, the trend I’m counting on to prove my point that Huff is the man in this draft. The trend is going back to the days of having a hard-hitting safety running down the field making plays and wreaking havoc on opposition receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks. I’m talking about a safety who can defend the pass as well as fill the box and hit the back with the ball. A safety that makes the quarterback and receiver think twice before going over the middle, thus taking that part of the field away. Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater come to mind as old-school hard-hitting safeties who were impact players.

These days, take a look at the impact Troy Polamalu and Sean Taylor have had on their respective teams. Without Polamalu’s hard-hitting play, the Steelers are a very different team. Polamalu had 73 tackles, 18 assists, 3 sacks and 2 steals at safety for the Steelers last year. Additionally, he was second among all defensive players in the playoffs with 24 tackles. Taylor had 60 tackles, 10 assists, 2 steals and 10 assists defended for the Redskins a year ago. Once again, big numbers for a security. Other impact insurance companies are Ed Reed, John Lynch and Roy Williams.

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Let’s analyze Michael Huff’s vital signs. He is listed at 6′, 204 lbs. In Texas he played both SS and CB. A 6-foot safety who can hit and has the speed to run and cover is very hard to find. At the combine, Huff ran a 4.34 40-yard dash. Another fact that I find helpful to Huff is that he leaves Texas as a fifth-year student. He is mature and ready for the NFL. He’s a prime candidate at free safety in the NFL, but he has the speed to play corner. Plus, I’m sure the team that drafts him will immediately put 10-15lbs of muscle on his already stout 204lbs. framework. What specimen would that be at 6′, 220 lbs. In his senior year at Texas he had 109 tackles, 36 more than the 73 he had as a junior. That goes back to the level of maturity he’s reached after five seasons in learning to play.

I think looking around the league at the success teams have had with these safe playmakers makes Michael Huff a great pick for the San Francisco 49ers at pick number six. The 49ers finished last in total defense a season ago and gave up more than 390 yards of total offense per game. Huff would help in both areas and he would do it right away. Huff should be the first DB selected in this year’s draft and will likely face Virginia Tech’s Jimmy Williams for that honor. I think the days of having a hard-hitting safety to anchor your defense are back in the NFL and I like it. Michael Huff is the next big thing to hit the NFL and when I say hit, I mean it. Huff is the man in this year’s draft and he will be a fixture for years to come as an elite DB in the NFL.

The 2006 NFL Amateur Draft begins Saturday, April 29 live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City and can be viewed on ESPN. At noon the Houston Texans will officially be on the clock. Let the writing begin. For my part, I can’t wait.