This is how dramatic the NFL's 61st annual draft was last
weekend: The most interesting story line unfolded on the
hardscrabble west side of downtown St. Louis on Sunday morning,
as Rams officials awaited the arrival at their offices of their
first pick, running back Lawrence Phillips. Would
battered-women's groups picket, protesting the selection of a
20-year-old man on probation after pleading no contest to
assaulting a former girlfriend? Would Phillips be suitably
repentant in the glow of one of his most rewarding days? And
would he heed the advice of his media coach, former sports
anchor Andrea Kirby, and prove to be as adept at handling a
horde of reporters as he had been at running through packs of
would-be tacklers while starring at Nebraska?
No pickets. Very repentant. Great posture, nice smile and warm
and fuzzy answers.
A vanilla couple of days, a vanilla draft. From the time last
Saturday when the New York Jets made Southern Cal wideout
Keyshawn Johnson the No. 1 pick, this draft was the most
predictable in memory. Experience tells you to expect a shocking
trade-up early on, as the San Francisco 49ers did last year when
they jumped 20 spots to select UCLA wideout J.J. Stokes. It
tells you teams will jockey for the chance to pick a franchise
quarterback. Not in 1996, when there were no such players to be
had. "Here's how predictable this draft was: We asked our
coaches to rank the offensive linemen in the order they thought
they would be taken," said St. Louis vice president of football
operations Steve Ortmayer. "They picked the top 11 exactly how
they ended up falling."
Sure, the Oakland Raiders leapfrogged eight spots into the ninth
position so they could choose Ohio State tight end Rickey
Dudley. And it was surprising to watch Phillips last until the
sixth pick, because the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had the second
choice, turned out to be poor poker players and the Baltimore
Ravens, picking fourth, were scared off by Phillips's past.
Those eye-openers aside, here's what NFL draftniks were asking
April 28, 1996
--Will the Dallas Cowboys pick anyone America has ever heard of?
Other than Kavika Pittman and Stepfret Williams, of course.
--Will megamillionaire Jets owner Leon Hess have to take out a
loan from Bill Gates to pay for all the offense he has
stockpiled through free agency and the draft? Including
projected contracts for wideouts Johnson and second-round pick
Alex Van Dyke of Nevada-Reno, Hess in 1996 will pay about $32.75
million in combined salary and bonuses to seven players.
--What was Rams owner Georgia Frontiere doing working the phones
at the club's draft table in New York? It seems that Frontiere
had had some dental work done in New York last Friday. When the
dentist said he couldn't complete the work until Monday,
Frontiere sauntered over to the festivities. Hey, it's her team.
After the 30 teams had completed the task of choosing 254
players, here were the clubs whose draft haul appeared to be the
most intriguing--or the hardest to figure.
Rams. "Baltimore blinked," St. Louis assistant head coach Johnny
Roland said on Sunday. "Its loss is our gain." Ten days earlier
Ravens owner Art Modell had said he would take Phillips with the
fourth pick. Check that. When the Arizona Cardinals surprisingly
took Illinois defensive end Simeon Rice with the third pick (and
not UCLA tackle Jonathan Ogden, as expected), Modell said he had
a dilemma. Or, depending on your perspective, an out. In today's
NFL nobody is more image-conscious than Modell, who has been
excoriated for moving his team out of Cleveland. The Ravens went
for Ogden, and at No. 5 the New York Giants were in the market
for everything but a running back. Sitting sixth, the Rams put
aside Phillips's off-field problems and pulled the trigger.
"Because we feel [Phillips's criminal behavior] wasn't a pattern
and because he's been dealt with legally, we think he deserves
another chance," said Rams president John Shaw. "We give second
chances in our society."
With his other first-round pick Ortmayer penciled in
wideout-kick returner Eddie Kennison, an underachiever at LSU.
But as Tampa Bay Bucs coach Tony Dungy said of Kennison, "He
enters the NFL as the best return man in the league." St. Louis
had Kennison, who has run a 4.9 in the 40, rated as the
third-best player in the draft, stunning when you consider that
many teams had Kennison ranked no higher than the fourth-best
receiver in the pool. Ortmayer used an early second-round
selection to take a quarterback for the future, Tony Banks of
Michigan State. (Banks was the first signal-caller drafted,
marking the first time since 1988 that a quarterback wasn't
chosen in the first round.) And when the Rams dealt running back
Jerome Bettis to the Pittsburgh Steelers later on Saturday,
Ortmayer had the second-round pick he needed to draft tight end
Ernie Conwell of Washington. Everything had fallen into place
for St. Louis.
If Phillips had been gone when the Rams' number came up, and as
late as last Saturday morning there had been indications he
would be, Ortmayer was prepared to take Michigan running back
Tim Biakabutuka. Last Friday, Phillips spent three hours with
Jacksonville president David Seldin, and Phillips's agent, Mitch
Frankel, said a Jaguars representative called him the next
morning to say Phillips was their man. Jacksonville, however,
was merely bluffing in an attempt to entice another team that
wanted Phillips into trading up to get him. When there were no
takers, the Jags went the safe route, choosing Illinois
linebacker Kevin Hardy, and the Phillips free fall began.
Phillips faces at least seven more months of court-mandated
counseling for anger control, which requires him to attend
weekly individual- and group-therapy sessions. "I've kept a lot
of anger bottled inside me," Phillips said on Sunday. "I used to
think counseling was bad, but everybody can use it. I talk out
my anger now. I made a mistake, and it's up to me to repair it."
Dolphins. Here's Jimmy Johnson in his first draft as Miami's
coach: He holds the 20th pick, but his two favorite
mid-first-round linebackers--Kutztown (Pa.) University's John
Mobley and Texas A&M's Reggie Brown--have been selected 15th and
17th, respectively; his most attractive offer for the pick, a
trade with Dallas for linebacker Darrin Smith, falls through;
and now the Dolphins are on the clock. "Get Daryl Gardener and
Marcus Jones on the phone," Johnson says to his scouts as his
allotted 15 minutes begins to tick away. Both players are
defensive tackles. Gardener is a 6'6", 325-pound underachiever
from Baylor; the 6'6", 283-pound Jones is North Carolina's
career sack leader.
Johnson speaks with Gardener. "Listen," he says, "the only way
I'm taking you right now is if you move down here full time and
dedicate yourself. You meet me halfway, and you'll be a great
player. But I'm a hard guy. Don't ever screw with me. Are you
willing to come down here and devote yourself to our program?"
"I am, no question," Gardener says.
Without talking to Jones, Johnson selects Gardener. "Jones was
the safe pick, but I think Gardener has the biggest upside of
any player in the draft," he said. "Really, it comes down to
your philosophy. Do you want to be safe and good, or do you want
to take a chance and be great?"
Johnson has always been one to take chances. He started the
weekend with eight picks, and as a result of making three
trades, he parlayed them into 12 selections.
Buccaneers. In the 10 previous drafts Tampa Bay had made 23
first- and second-round picks, yet not one of those 23 had ever
appeared in a Pro Bowl as a Bucs player. You would think, as
high as this woeful franchise had picked over that span, it
would have accidentally selected a Pro Bowl-caliber player or
two. So you couldn't become too excited about what Tampa Bay did
with its first four picks. (For the record: The Bucs chose
California defensive end Regan Upshaw and Jones in round 1, took
Purdue fullback Mike Alstott in round 2 and dealt their other
second-round pick for the San Diego Chargers' first-rounder in
1997.) Even general manager Rich McKay was cool about it. "I
don't think we should say anything," he said, "until we win and
we prove we're doing the right things."
Director of player personnel Jerry Angelo, who has presided over
the Buccaneers draft room for a decade, offered a rare and brave
mea culpa about his organization's fortunes. "I've learned the
hard way that you've got to take fiber in the draft," he said.
"You've got to take guys you know will be in for curfew, guys
who don't need contract clauses to do off-season workouts. When
the heat has been turned on here, our guys haven't performed."
There's a sense, Tampa Bay staffers say, that Dungy is building
a program. Example: With the 41st pick, the Bucs wanted Penn
State wideout Bobby Engram. But with Tampa Bay on the clock, San
Diego general manager Bobby Beathard called for the third time
in a week asking for the Bucs' pick in exchange for that 1997
first-rounder. "Unemotional, logical decision," Dungy said. "We
loved Engram, but really, what's better? The 41st pick now, when
we've had three picks already, or a first-rounder next year?"
Tampa Bay on the right track, on a high-fiber diet? Scary thought.
Bears. Chicago outbid the Denver Broncos for the Rams' second
pick in the first round, No. 13 overall, and used it to get
cornerback Walt Harris of Mississippi State. Then, with the 52nd
pick, they stole Engram. Engram was hurt by a 4.56 time in the
40, but remember what Jerry Rice says about a receiver's speed:
He only has to be fast enough to outrun the defense.
"This guy's [Penn State's] alltime receptions, receiving-yards
and receiving-touchdowns leader, and he's the second-best punt
returner in school history," Bears coach Dave Wannstedt said on
Sunday. "He played in our climate--cold, windy, rainy--on grass,
in front of 80,000 people. We solved about three needs with this
Chargers. San Diego fans have to keep repeating, "In Bobby we
trust" and hope Beathard's strangest draft ever--and that's
saying something--doesn't turn out to be a disaster. With that
41st pick, San Diego took Virginia Tech wideout Bryan Still, who
has good speed (4.38 in the 40) but caught only 74 passes in
four years. He still would have been on the board when the
Chargers were due to pick nine slots later. Then, with the 50th
pick, San Diego took quarterback turned outside linebacker
Patrick Sapp, a project from Clemson.
49ers. Let's see if we have this straight. The Niners, with
gaping holes along the offensive line, and having already signed
former All-Pro defensive end Chris Doleman to a five-year, $12.5
million contract, trade up to pick a 25-year-old defensive end
who put on a football uniform for the first time in 1992. He is
Israel Ifeanyi, a Nigerian who is fluent in Ibo and English and
who had eight sacks in his two-year USC career. San Francisco
led the league in Nigerians drafted this year by adding wideout
Iheanyi Uwaezuoke from Cal in round 5.
Patriots. New England owner Bob Kraft may have created an
irreparable chasm between coach Bill Parcells and the front
office when he insisted that the Pats follow the draft board as
it was laid out by director of player personnel Bobby Grier and
his staff. Parcells won two Super Bowls with the Giants, had
called the draft and free-agent shots for three years in New
England and desperately wanted to use the Pats' pick, seventh
overall, to take a player who would fit into their defensive
front seven. But the board had Phillips and Ohio State wideout
Terry Glenn ranked first and second, respectively. That's why
Glenn is a Patriot. That's also why this will be Parcells's last
year coaching in New England.
"We spent millions in scouting and developing a system," Kraft
said on Saturday. "We can't ignore the system when it comes to
making a pick if we believe in our system."
Kraft will tell you that the player went where he was supposed
to go. Fitting for a most predictable draft.