April 27, 1997

Down they went, one-two-three. The tenants of the top three
spots in the 1997 NFL draft all vacated the premises. Call it
the Year of the Great Trade Down. New York Jets chief football
operations officer and coach Bill Parcells, who originally sat
at No. 1, also found his new home at No. 6 uncomfortable and
dropped even further, to No. 8. The New Orleans Saints and the
Atlanta Falcons, who in March had traded down from the second
and the third positions, respectively, then said they wouldn't
mind moving out of their new slots, Nos. 10 and 11, if the deal
were right. They wound up staying put.

Even the Oakland Raiders, who had climbed to the No. 2 spot,
came close to trading down to the Detroit Lions' No. 5. For
weeks the Baltimore Ravens had a FOR SALE sign on their No. 4
spot but couldn't find any buyers. All you heard up and down the
NFL was people saying, "Gee, we'd love to trade down." It used
to be everyone was looking to trade up.

In the space of 72 hours last week, the No. 6 spot belonged to
the St. Louis Rams, the Jets, the Tampa Bay Bucs and finally the
Seattle Seahawks, who had truly coveted it from the start. This
wheeling and dealing left the Rams at No. 1 and netted New York
four extra picks (one in the third round, two in the fourth, one
in the seventh) and Tampa Bay one (a third-rounder). What was
going on here, anyway?

Caponomics. Free agency. Huge rookie signing bonuses. The
play-it-safe mentality, which translates to a fear of making a
blunder at the very top of the draft. The lingering memory of
Bill Walsh's dazzling array of trade downs in 1986, which got
the San Francisco 49ers a hatful of starters and the nucleus of
a team that won three Super Bowls. It all figured in.

In a candid moment during his later years with the New York
Giants, whom he coached from 1983 to '90, Parcells mentioned
that he didn't much like high first-round choices. "You can
never sign them," he said. "They come to camp late, and they're
not ready to play, and they've got all that money. It tears your
team apart. I'd rather not have them around."

Well, he had no choice on the Giants, who ran their draft by
committee and never traded their first-round pick. Ditto when he
was coach of the New England Patriots the past four years. But
on the Jets, Parcells is the man. He runs everything, which
meant a double-dip downward last week, giving him, as he put it,
"the ability to acquire young, fixed-cost players, and a volume
of them."

Fixed-cost players? Has rent control hit the NFL? Is this the
answer to runaway inflation, a message to the agents that the
days of the huge rookie package are over? Or is it merely a
juggling of some teams' priorities? After all, to trade down
you've still got to find clubs willing to trade up. The
Seahawks, backed by the millions that owner- in-waiting Paul
Allen is pouring into the team, were only too happy to grab the
third and sixth spots on the board.

"The salary cap enters into the draft like never before," says
Carolina Panthers general manager Bill Polian, whose club had
the 27th pick and kept it. "At this stage of free agency, teams
have spent themselves to the very edge of the limit. From now
on, going into the draft you'll have to look at where each team
stands in relation to the cap, which ones will spend the $6
million bonus and which ones will trade out of it.

"I count four things that go into the trade-down mentality,"
Polian says. "One, the first guy drafted probably will hold out,
which means he won't be able to help you right away. Two, people
want to draft more for need now than with the old
best-available-athlete outlook. Three, you're going to have a
player for a limited number of seasons, and then you'll lose him
[to free agency]. Finally, you can pick up a veteran and plug
him into a spot, and he'll be a lot cheaper than a top draft

The Raiders' cap expert, senior assistant Bruce Allen,
disagrees. "Trading down is defeatism," he says. "People want
multiple players rather than a top guy--they want a few base
hits rather than a home run. You've got to dare to be great,
dare to challenge, dare to win. I really believe that. Besides,
all you're doing is just spreading the same money around. If you
trade down, then pick up extra choices, your total will be the

"Not true," Polian says. "It's that huge bonus for the high pick
that kills you."

Save money, collect extra picks, keep the wealthy prima donnas
out of your camp--that's the message in the Year of the Great
Trade Down.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of man opening up series of matrushka dolls made in image of football player]

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