KAPOLEI, Hawaii (AP) — NFL great Deion Sanders took quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Cam Newton with his first skill position picks in the Pro Bowl draft Wednesday, going for passers early before focusing on defense in building a team for one win.
Jerry Rice chose New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham and then Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy with his first two picks, giving active player captain Drew Brees his top target early to go along with two Saints offensive linemen picked Tuesday.
“I wouldn’t rather be with anybody else, obviously,” Graham told reporters after being picked. All five Saints in the Pro Bowl ended up on Rice’s team.
The picks kicked off the three-hour process of divvying up 60 players for Sunday’s all-star game. The draft played out on a beachside estate used for weddings and luaus on Oahu’s west side, adjacent to the plush Ko Olina resort where the players are staying for the week with their families.
About 1,000 fans attended the draft, which had cheerleaders, mascots, lei for each player and colored surfboards used as draft boards.
The game is being played in an “unconferenced” format for the first time, straying from its usual AFC vs. NFC teams. Sanders and Rice picked captains and their first 11 players each on Tuesday.
The new format is meant to liven up the Pro Bowl, which has been criticized by fans and even Commissioner Roger Goodell for the quality of play.
The draft embraces the popular hobby of fantasy football and put many players in the interesting situation of having to watch two of the NFL’s biggest personalities pass them up.
“It looks like I’m waiting,” Chicago wide receiver Brandon Marshall said after watching four receivers come off the board — including his teammate, Alshon Jeffery. “This is sad — real sad.”
Sanders retorted: “Somebody get him some aspirin.”
Eric Weddle, a San Diego safety who was the third safety picked, said he didn’t mind having to wait in a lounge area with the other players while Sanders and Rice took 2 minutes each to make picks, with breaks for commercials in the live telecast.
“It doesn’t really matter — just chilling 17 hours in here right now,” Weddle said. “When it comes to Sunday, I’ll be on the field in the fourth quarter and ready to wreck shop.”
Defensive end Mario Williams became the first player to be assigned when he was the last player at his position off the board.
“Just be careful where you throw the ball,” Williams told Brees afterward.
Williams said things played out largely how he anticipated, with teammates picking one another and Sanders playing mind games.
Other players assigned included Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle and New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski to Rice. Sanders was assigned tight ends Jordan Cameron of Cleveland and Jason Witten of Dallas, along with Jacksonville linebacker Paul Posluszny.
“There’s been some questionable picks,” Posluszny said.
Quarterbacks Nick Foles and Alex Smith were the last players taken. Sanders selected Foles, and Smith was then assigned to Rice as the final pick — nine years after being the top choice overall in the NFL draft.
Rice then forced a trade on Sanders as allowed under the rules, taking Sanders’ sixth-round pick of Indianapolis linebacker Robert Mathis, sending back Brian Orakpo.
Rice had said since being named captain that he wanted Mathis on his team, while Mathis and Sanders have traded jabs on Twitter after Sanders asserted he only wanted young players on his team.
Sanders picked wideouts Dez Bryant and A.J. Green, while Rice chose Josh Gordon along with Jeffery.
Luck playing for Team Sanders puts him on the same team led by his head coach in Indianapolis, Chuck Pagano. Luck said that will help him as players get accustomed to Pagano’s style.
Beyond McCoy going second to Rice on Wednesday and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles being a captain for Sanders, neither manager took a running back early, preferring to pick defenders and receivers. Rice later took DeMarco Murray and Matt Forte, while Sanders took Eddie Lacy and was assigned Washington’s Alfred Morris.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/oskargarcia