Art Rooney Jr., who put together all those great Steelers drafts
of the 1970s, used to have this objection to the
best-available-athlete theory of drafting. "You can find all the
great athletes you want in the Olympics," he'd say, "except that
half of them are women and the other half don't like football."
Well, Rooney would be happy now because the best-availables have
gone the way of the blacksmith. Free agency has changed the NFL,
so you draft a guy to fill a specific need, plug him in and hope
that he'll give you 50 to 60 snaps a game right away. If you
draft the best available athlete and bring him along slowly,
then maybe in three or four years, when he's ready to make his
move, his contract is up and it's sayonara. "You look for early
ability to play," says Bengals player personnel director Pete
Brown. "To develop a player for someone else is self-defeating."
Free agency will occasionally bring in a veteran who can put a
team over the top--Reggie White with the Packers, Deion Sanders
with the 49ers and, to a lesser extent, the Cowboys--but the
draft is still the proven source of success. The nucleus of
strong teams remains homegrown talent.
"The more you study free agency, the more you realize the money
you're wasting," says George Young, the former general manager
of the Giants who left the club in January to become the
league's senior vice president of football operations. "A guy
coming in from the outside might not fit your chemistry. A
player has a comfort zone with the people around him; he fits in
a niche. He goes to a different team, maybe the niche isn't
there. I remember studying George Allen. He did as good a job of
picking up veterans as anybody. But as good as he was at fitting
them in, he never won it all.
"There are seven rounds of the draft now, and you can't afford
to make many mistakes. People have more patience. A lot fewer
draft choices are cut than there used to be."
This year's crop of players is deep and talented. The richest
talent areas are at running back, offensive line and secondary,
which could eat up half of the first-round picks. "Usually you
get eight or so premium players on top, then there's a
drop-off," says Bengals coach Bruce Coslet. "This time you've
got the Big Five, but the rest of the first round is solid, too.
There's quality through the next three rounds."
The Big Five will probably go in this order: quarterbacks Peyton
Manning and Ryan Leaf, then defensive end Andre Wadsworth,
cornerback and Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson and running
back Curtis Enis. Which team takes which is another matter. Once
you get past the two quarterbacks--the Colts haven't said for
sure which they'll take with the first pick, leaving the other
one for the Chargers--the next three spots in the draft order
are up for grabs. This is Deal Week in the NFL, and the action
this year figures to be near the top.
The Cardinals are willing to trade out of the third spot, but
their asking price is so high--two No. 1s, plus veterans--that
other teams have been scared off. The Raiders, picking fourth,
with a creaking secondary and the worst defense in the league
last season, seem a natural for Woodson, rated the best
defensive back to come out since Sanders in 1989. Strangely
enough, Oakland is also talking trade. Seems that Al Davis is
nervous about Woodson's agents, the Poston brothers, who held
out last year's top pick in the draft, tackle Orlando Pace,
until the third week of the exhibition season.
The Jaguars, with the ninth and 25th picks in the first round,
are one of the teams trying to move into the Bears' spot, at No.
5, but say they won't give up both first-rounders for Enis.
(Woodson might be another story.) The Patriots also have two
picks in the first round--Nos. 18 and 22--and, having lost their
premier runner, restricted free agent Curtis Martin, to the
Jets, they would love to get Enis. But New England also says it
will part with only one of its top picks to move up. Though they
have only one first-round choice (No. 14), the Panthers are in
the hunt for Enis too, unless they have to surrender that
selection to complete a trade for Redskins defensive tackle Sean
Gilbert, a franchise player who has already agreed to terms with
Finally, there are the Rams, who, as they did last year, have
the sixth pick and are desperately trying to put together a
package to move up. St. Louis would like Enis, but coach Dick
Vermeil says that the price of moving up is higher than it was
last year, when he sent the Jets first-, third-, fourth- and
seventh-round selections in the '97 draft for the opportunity to
Teams aren't the only ones moving up and down the draft board.
Without fail, there's at least one player each year whose stock
drops and drops. Last year it was Alabama linebacker Dwayne
Rudd, who figured to go in the top eight but fell all the way to
the Vikings at No. 20. "I kept pinching myself," Minnesota coach
Dennis Green says. "I kept thinking, Do we really have a shot at
him? But a guy drops, and then the next team starts figuring,
What's wrong with him? So they pass, and so does the next one
and the next. Rudd kept dropping, and finally I phoned him in
New York and said, 'Hey, were you in a car accident last night?'
Then we got him, and all he did for us was run like a deer and
hit a ton."
Prediction: This year's free-faller will be Marshall's Randy
Moss, a 6'4", 200-pound wideout who ran 4.31 and 4.44 40s for
NFL talent scouts in a 25[degree] windchill, a player who made 90
catches for 1,647 yards and 25 touchdowns last year (plus six
receptions for 173 yards and a score in the Motor City Bowl) and
at one time was called the best athlete in the draft. The
negatives: a guilty plea to two counts of battery while in high
school and a positive test for marijuana while in college, plus
a reputation for doing many wonderfully athletic things on the
field but not many tough ones. Against Mississippi in the Motor
City Bowl, he caught an 80-yard touchdown pass on the Thundering
Herd's first play, but then a pair of 5'9" cornerbacks took
turns pressing him on the line, and his game went kaput.
They aren't the top-rated players at their positions, but Dr. Z
is intrigued by these five prospects.
John Avery, RB, Mississippi
Too small at 5'9 1/2", 184 pounds, the scouts say, but I heard
that about Warrick Dunn last year. Avery is a blazer (4.37 at
the NFL combine) with a terrific burst and great cutting
ability. He reminds me of Dalton Hilliard, a second-round pick
out of LSU in 1986, who ran for 4,164 yards during an eight-year
career with the Saints.
Ron Rogers, MLB, Georgia Tech
The knocks are that he's too slow and too stiff. All he does is
make tackles and stuff holes. Always around the ball. A player.
John Wade, C, Marshall
An old-style run blocker with fine pop coming off the ball. Pass
blocking? He can learn that.
Kailee Wong, DE, Stanford
Leaped off the charts at the combine, most notably running a
4.62. I don't get snowed by numbers, but he's a player, too,
with terrific hustle.
Eric Ogbogu, DE, Maryland
A pumped-up 245-pounder, the scouts say, but can this guy rush
the passer? He convinced me in the Hula Bowl, where he had four
sacks, a couple of the scratching, clawing variety.