THANKS TO THE abundance of cable channels, everybody had a chance to watch the NFL combine this year - adding to the knowledge culled from watching countless college games, visiting an inexhaustible number of Web sites, and listening to an endless array of experts.

Thanks to the information highways, everyone has an opinion about who the Eagles should pick in the first round Saturday.

Everyone, that is, except general manager Tom Heckert.

"Because it's just so random," Heckert said during a press gathering at the NovaCare Center yesterday. "Like right now, I can't tell you who we're going to pick. But somebody else has us picking 13 different guys."

As intriguing as the pick is the science that goes into it, and the pressure to sell it to the public afterward. As Heckert said, "Nobody in the NFL is going to say, 'We had a bad draft this year,' " because no one will know how good or bad that draft was until 3 years from now.

Or more.

"I guess the funny thing is when you get criticized for the draft or praised for the draft that year," Heckert said. "It's just kind of crazy."

Yet we will do it come Sunday, and the Eagles' front office might even do a little compare and contrast with other teams as well, Heckert said.

But that doesn't mean anyone knows anything yet. Way back when, I remember Mel Kiper Jr. blasting the Jets as an organization that "clearly has no idea" what it was doing for drafting undersized Virginia defensive end/linebacker Jeff Lageman. Lageman went on to have a productive career.

How many would have taken Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper or Cade McNown over Donovan McNabb in 1999? And there was that running back, what's his name?

Lord knows the Eagles have their misses. Can you say Jerome McDougle? Freddie Mitchell?

Their entire 2001 draft?

"We know it's going to happen," said Heckert, who joined the Eagles a month after that draft. "Obviously we try to limit the number of misses on those guys."

One way is through what is called self-scouting. Sometime this July, the Eagles will take a hard, harsh look at who they picked and why. But they won't look at this weekend. They'll look at the draft before this one, and the one before that, and maybe the year before that, too. They'll look at the grades they gave to those players in college, and compare them to the grades they've received as pros.

"We'll go back and try and figure it out," Heckert said. "Where we do find the mistakes is usually on the nonathletic side. Maybe the guy was not as intelligent as we thought he was. Or his work ethic is not quite what we thought it was. Did we draft guys who didn't fit into our scheme the way we thought they would?

"There's a bunch of variables . . . but to find a pattern is really kind of tough."

Maybe, but Heckert did a nice job there putting down the parameters. Look back on Mitchell, No. 1 from the 2001 draft, and therefore not Heckert's. Not as intelligent as they thought? Well, there was a lot of talk about his struggles with the playbook, about being in the wrong place on the field on routes.

Work ethic? Well, Freddie thought himself a star.

Fit into their scheme? Hardly.

"We do so many psychological tests on these guys," Heckert said. "There's so many variables. They do mental, they do character, they do work ethic. They do competitiveness. And you have to pick and choose over what has been validated over the course of it.

"I think the offense and defense schemes are a lot more complicated. With the blitzes and all that stuff. It's not you get the ball, you run the ball. There's so many pass protections and routes and moving guys out of the slot. And a lot of times now you want guys to play more than one position if they can. Then you get nickel defenses completely different than our regular defenses. And it's something they just don't do in college. So you just have to make it an educated guess that the guy is going to be able to pick it up or not."

And yet, with all this, there will be misses come Saturday and Sunday. Some big, some small, some livable, some that might cost more than the player his job.

Because after all the games, all the tests, all the interviews, it comes down to an opinion. *

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