Normally at this time of year we would all be talking about Auburn's Bo Jackson, the projected top choice in next week's NFL draft, the best pure running back prospect to come out of college since O.J. Simpson. We would be evaluating the talent pool—top heavy in runners and offensive tackles, shallow in defensive players—and everyone would be tuned in to the jockeying for position as teams try to trade up for one of the blue-chip quarterbacks or elephant-sized linemen.
But this isn't a normal draft. In 1986 everyone is checking a new statistic, one that came out of the workouts held by the combined scouting syndicates in New Orleans in January. That stat was a shocker and it has turned this draft sour. One out of six of the top college football seniors in New Orleans tested positive for drugs.
The positive tests have led to whispering campaigns and gossip mongering, all of which means some highly regarded players will get bumped, fairly or not, out of the early rounds. Other prospects, in the words of Cincinnati Bengals player personnel director Pete Brown, "will slide a long way." They will wind up in the middle or lower rounds. Some may not get drafted at all.
"It's a shame," New Orleans general manager Jim Finks says, "that good kids are going to be painted with the same brush."
Of the 335 players tested in New Orleans, 57 showed some level of substance use. Three of the 57 tested positive for cocaine. The others are presumed to have used marijuana and other drugs.
For the past five years, the syndicates have combined to stage postseason workouts. Part of the package has always been a complete medical workup, which included urinalysis as well as blood testing, but this time the numbers were higher. They also had more shock effect, coming as they did on the heels of the post-Super Bowl revelations of drug use on the New England Patriots.
NFL executives are trying to figure out how they'll handle the matter. Some clubs have flatly said they won't touch a player who tested positive—for anything. Giants general manager George Young, on the other hand, says each case has to be individually evaluated and studied more deeply. "We absolutely aren't soft on drugs," he says, "but if you're interested in a kid, you've got to find out if he's an addict or a onetime user, whether it involves questioning the people who know him at school or bringing him in and retesting him yourself."
Ernie Accorsi, Cleveland's executive vice-president for football operations, views the drug-test results as "an IQ test. They've been having the medicals for years. The players were notified in December about the workouts. For six weeks they knew they were going to be tested, and yet 57 of them turned up positive. Aside from the other problems, is a guy that dumb going to be able to remember his plays?"
Howard Slusher, the well-known player agent, says, "there's no question that there's a problem, but three out of 335 testing positively for cocaine is less than one percent."
The American Civil Liberties Union is upset that the figures became public. (The Boston Globe broke the story in March.) "You have drug testing in private industry," says Allan Adler, a legislative counsel for the ACLU, "but the information remains private. Now any notion that a player might have that there's a foolproof method of confidentiality...well that's a pipe dream. As far as the legal issue [is concerned], there's very little statutory law that covers this."
Each club got reports telling which players tested positive. The information about the number of affected players was leaked. The NFL Players Association's executive director, Gene Upshaw, sees the way the test results were handled as "highly unfair. This should come under the heading of doctor-patient privilege. To me the results coming out as they did is another tactic to control wages. It'll be an issue in our next contract talks."
Most clubs agree that they will have to take a long and serious look at any of the three players who tested positive for cocaine. But many doctors agree that marijuana also can have a deleterious effect on a player's ability to perform.
"Even small quantities of marijuana will impair someone's tracking ability, the ability to follow a moving object," says Dr. Armand Nicholi, the Patriots' special drug consultant.
The question of drug use has dogged the draft for several years now. Art Rooney Jr., the Pittsburgh Steelers' vice-president for player personnel, suggests that testing may do a lot to eliminate one unfortunate practice by club officials. "In the old days," he says, "if a team missed out on a pretty good player in the draft, they'd start a rumor. They'd say, 'Well, we could have taken him, too, but he's on drugs.' "
The drug-testing backdrop makes predicting a little tougher than usual, but there's no doubt Jackson will be the No. 1 choice. For a while there was talk that Tampa Bay, which has the first pick, might trade it for a mob of defensive players. Denver, which has no pick until Round 2, made a big push to trade up, but the Broncos finally gave up. "It would have meant tearing our whole defensive team apart," coach Dan Reeves said. "We simply couldn't afford to do that."
There are only seven or eight defensive players projected as first rounders ("The worst defensive draft I can remember in 22 years," San Francisco director of college scouting Tony Razzano says). Three of them, all linemen, are regarded as superstars—Tony Casillas of Oklahoma, Jon Hand of Alabama and Leslie O'Neal of Oklahoma State. As of Sunday, Atlanta figured to get Casillas with the second overall pick. The Falcons have been entertaining some tantalizing offers to trade the choice, but they are going to a 3-4 defense this year and they don't have a noseguard. The 280-pound Casillas, who keyed the defense that helped Oklahoma win the national championship on New Year's night, is regarded as the finest pure noseguard ever to come out of college; there has never been one projected anywhere near this high in the draft.
Now the picks get interesting. No fewer than nine backs rate as potential first-round choices. There's breathtaking speed in such runners as Jackson, Neal Anderson of Florida and Garry James of LSU. There are great pass catchers (e.g.. Iowa's Ronnie Harmon), exceptional producers (SMU's Reggie Dupard) and crunching big backs (Florida's John L. Williams and Texas A & M's Anthony Toney). And then there is Keith Byars of Ohio State.
Going into the 1985 season it was pick-'em between Byars and Jackson. Byars had it all—speed, pass-catching ability, overwhelming size, durability. A fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his right foot changed all that. His X rays have become required reading for every club with a high first-round pick. The cast came off his foot last Thursday and teams were waiting in line to get their own doctors to inspect him. His has become the most scrutinized foot since Cinderella's. The Houston Oilers, with the No. 3 pick on the board, have to make a big decision. Is he a gamble or another Earl Campbell? He gave his all for the Buckeyes. He tried to go on a very sore hoof, and now it could wind up costing him half a million bucks.
There also are some good quarterbacks, prompting some furious activity behind the scenes as teams try to trade up in the draft to get a shot at Purdue's Jim Everett or Iowa's Chuck Long, the best pair to come along since the Dan Marino year, 1983, when six quarterbacks went in the first round. Everett is regarded as the more polished of the two, the one who's ready to step in right now. Long, who led Iowa to the Rose Bowl last season, is more of a down-the-road project.
The Colts want Everett. They were worried that their No. 6 spot in the first round wouldn't land him, so they swapped picks, giving the Saints a third-round choice to move into the No. 4 position. Now all they have to worry about is Houston losing interest in Byars and trading its spot to a team that covets Everett. The Rams have expressed interest in Everett. So have the Chargers, who have only Mark Herrmann to back up an aging Dan Fouts. The Lions and, you won't believe this, the Vikings also are interested. Minnesota's Tommy Kramer has been a courageous quarterback but also has been injury-prone.
Illinois' Jack Trudeau (knee) and Brigham Young's Robbie Bosco (shoulder) figured as first-round selections until injuries put them in the question-mark category. Write down a sleeper QB who could make someone very happy—Washington State's Mark Rypien, 6'4¼", 234 pounds, big enough to see over those gargantuan linemen.
The other position where there's real quality is offensive tackle—huge, imposing players, led by a couple of 300-pounders, Brian Jozwiak of West Virginia and Jim Dombrowski of Virginia. "I mean these are really big people, corn-fed, not weight-room specimens," says Jets player personnel director Mike Hickey. To give you an example of how standards of size have changed, Temple's John Rienstra, another of the top-rated offensive linemen, is described as "a bit smaller, but quick." And how small is he? Only 6'4½", 280. Call it the Year of the Moose.
THE FIRST ROUND ACCORDING TO DR. Z
Runners have been in short supply the last two years, but no longer. At least half a dozen of the current backs could have been the top one on the board in '84 or '85.
1. TAMPA BAY
Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn
He weighs 222 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.19.
Tony Casillas, NG, Oklahoma
They wanted a QB, until they traded for Cincy's Turk Schonert.
Keith Byars, RB, Ohio State
Eight teams want to make a trade for this choice.
Jim Everett, QB, Purdue
The Colts need a quarterback and won't breathe easy until the Oilers have made their pick.
5. ST. LOUIS
Jon Hand, DE, Alabama
Going to a 3-4 and need big guy to play the power side.
6. NEW ORLEANS
Brian Jozwiak, T, West Virginia
Iffy. The running-back list looks inviting. Plus quarterback Chuck Long is a big temptation.
7. KANSAS CITY
Neal Anderson, RB, Florida
Byars is their No. 1 choice. Might take Hand, if available.
Chuck Long, QB, Iowa
Surprise, he's still there. Vikes wanted to trade up for him.
John Rienstra, G, Temple
RB a possibility, but Steelers hope one will be left in Round 2.
Anthony Toney, FB, Texas A & M
Buddy Ryan's personal choice. A big guy who can motor.
Leslie O'Neal, DE, Okla. State
Undersized pass rusher. Bengals defense was 22nd last year.
Garry James, RB, LSU
Defense is a big problem, but so is RB, and you go with quality.
13. SAN DIEGO
James FitzPatrick, T, USC
He and last year's No. 1, Jim Lachey, are the Twin Towers.
14. SAN DIEGO
Joe Kelly, LB, Washington
O'Neal a possibility, if he's still there. They might even go for another offensive lineman.
Jim Dombrowski, T, Virginia
A pleasant surprise. They never thought he'd last this long.
Doug Williams, T, Texas A & M
A 282-pounder who played on the same high school team as coach Hank Bullough's son.
Ernest Givins, WR, Louisville
The Falcons need his breathtaking speed and great return ability. Lots of instant excitement.
18. SAN FRANCISCO
Ronnie Harmon, RB, Iowa
Bill Walsh's type. Great in open space, and a fine receiver, too.
19. N.Y. GIANTS
Mike Sherrard, WR, UCLA
Size and speed. Also possible: Florida FB John L. Williams.
Tim McGee, WR, Tennessee
Rated by some as the best in the draft. Polished receiver.
Reggie Dupard, RB, SMU
The Bengals will be tempted to go for defense again (CB), but this guy's too good to pass up.
22. N.Y. JETS
Gary Walker, C, Boston U.
A raw 270-pounder who can run a 4.7. A sleeper.
23. L.A. RAMS
Will Wolford, T, Vanderbilt
Not a crying need, but John Robinson loves him.
24. L.A. RAIDERS
Walter Murray, WR, Hawaii
OL a possibility, but this puts more punch in three-WR attack.
25. TAMPA BAY
Gerald Williams, DE, Auburn
The offense was bad last year, but the defense was even worse. They've already helped the offense.
26. NEW ENGLAND
Mike Ruth, NG, Boston College
A furious, intense player who ran out of gas at times last year.
Mark Collins, CB, Cal State-Fullerton
Leslie Frazier's Super Bowl injury clouds DB picture. The Bears get the pick of the litter.
Note—Only 27 choices this season. The No. 1 pick in the draft was traded by Buffalo to Cleveland, which used it last year for Bernie Kosar in the supplemental draft.