things could get messy : From the Start, All the Makings of an Unusual Draft By THOMAS GEORGE Published: April 24, 2004 Only hours before the N.F.L. draft begins today at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, the San Diego Chargers continued to discuss trading the No. 1 pick. If they cannot complete a trade, they will select Eli Manning or Iowa offensive tackle Robert Gallery. The Giants and Cleveland have emerged as front-running teams for a trade. Advertisement The Chargers appeared to be leaning toward taking Manning, who has threatened not to play for the Chargers and may not walk on stage if Commissioner Paul Tagliabue calls his name. Manning's father, Archie, said it was possible that Manning would sit out the 2004 season and enter the 2005 draft rather than play for the Chargers. "By Friday night we'll know exactly what direction we want to go and what player we want to select," Chargers General Manager A. J. Smith said yesterday in a statement. "We'll wake up Saturday morning excited and ready to go to work." At a luncheon in Manhattan yesterday, Eli Manning said: "I'm not a guy that gets real nervous. I don't think my palms are going to be sweating. Obviously, you're kind of anxious. You're curious about what will happen. That's the feeling I have right now. I don't know whether the Chargers will pick me or trade me or draft someone else. There are a lot of things that can happen." In recent years, the team selecting first identified its pick at least a week before draft day, signed him to a contract the night before, made the pick, then watched him stroll across the stage, hold up the team's jersey and grin as cameras clicked and lights flashed. Not this year. No previous draft rivals today's affair for mystery, intrigue, confusion and combustion, not only at the top spot but throughout the first round. The top pick seemed simple a few days ago for the Chargers when they told Manning's agent, Tom Condon, that Manning was their choice and asked for contract negotiations. Manning and his family said no thanks. That triggered a mess at the top of the draft with at least three teams — Cleveland, Washington and the Giants — discussing a trade with San Diego. San Diego — a team with a new general manager, a coach, Marty Schottenheimer, who is under fire and a franchise that has toiled through three straight losing seasons and has threatened to move to Los Angeles, among other cities — is feeling the sting. In 1998, San Diego took as the No. 2 pick quarterback Ryan Leaf and in 2001 it traded its top pick — No. 1 over all — to Atlanta rather than select Michael Vick. "If you're the Chargers right now, you're sort of darned if you do and darned if you don't," said a general manager of an American Football Conference North Division team who requested anonymity. "They've got to answer to their fans and they have to answer to themselves," he added. "Do you draft a guy like this and try to convince him, or take Gallery or a trade and get more of a sure thing? One of their problems is they have been asking for unreasonable compensation in return for this pick. If that changes, you could see a trade even while they're on the clock. If it doesn't, it's likely Manning — and it's their headache." The Chargers are somewhat concerned about taking Gallery and leaving Oakland, a division foe, picking at No. 2, with the chance to draft Manning or use him in a trade. Given that possibility, the Chargers have indicated they would rather take the "headache" of drafting Manning. The two other top-ranked quarterbacks are Ben Roethlisberger of Miami University (Ohio) and Philip Rivers of North Carolina State. Both quarterbacks are 6 feet 5 inches, but Roethlisberger is faster and bigger. He has been compared with the Tennessee Titans' Steve McNair. Both players are considered top-10 picks. Once the draft begins, several teams are expected to attempt to move up to spots 5 through 10 to secure them. The top two receivers are Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh and Roy Williams of Texas. Oakland has hinted it might take Williams. If that happens, and San Diego takes Manning, that would create a scramble at the No. 3 spot, owned by Arizona, by teams frantically wanting to move up for Gallery. Those teams know the Giants would likely take Gallery at No. 4. Arizona would have to weigh its fondness for Fitzgerald with the chance to compile picks. Its best deal could be with the Giants, with Arizona moving down only one spot and still getting Fitzgerald and additional picks. Wide receiver is the glamour position in the draft — at least six of them could be first-round selections. Underclassmen could rule in the first round, with as many as nine becoming first-round selections. The University of Miami is expected to produce a record six first-round selections. At least the first eight selections in the draft are considered consistent Pro Bowl-caliber players. The rest of the draft has more quality players than last year's draft, analysts say. Starting from the top with San Diego, the action is expected to be furious. "Until you hear a name called with a team and he's actually picked, believe nothing, because April is liar's month in the N.F.L.," said Gil Brandt, a draft analyst. "This has the makings for one of the most memorable drafts ever."