Though draft has new flavor, clubs still eager to drink it up Fewer rounds, free agency mean different game

April 25, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

Call it Draft Lite.

Slimmed down to eight rounds and overshadowed by the Reggie White Derby and the Joe Montana soap opera, the NFL's 58th collegiate draft will start at noon today.

As part of the legal settlement between the owners and the players -- although it still hasn't been officially approved by federal Judge David Doty -- the draft has been cut from 12 to eight rounds. There'll be four today and four tomorrow.

The free-agent scramble started by the settlement obscured the draft this year. The frenzy of trade rumors and speculation about players' stock rising and dropping, which usually lasts several weeks, has been compressed this year into several days.

As George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, said jokingly: "I don't know anything about the draft this year. I just know about free agency, settlement agreements and things like that."

What's difficult to judge is whether the free-agent market has decreased interest in the draft among the fans, who have turned the draft into the biggest non-playing event in sports.

This is the sixth year the first day of the draft has been conducted on Sunday to give ESPN a bigger audience for its 6 1/2 -hour extravaganza.

For the first five years, it got an average cable rating (percentage of homes with cable television tuned into the telecast) of 3.7, although it dropped slightly from 3.9 in 1991 to 3.5 last year. To put that into perspective, ESPN gets an 2.9 for its usual Sunday afternoon fare of Winston Cup NASCAR races. The draft beats an live sporting event.

Mel Kiper Jr., the Baltimore native who has become a virtual household word in the sports world for his instant analysis of each pick on ESPN, argues the free-agent market has boosted interest in the draft. He says the sale of his draft guides has increased this year, and the free-agent signings have made the NFL more visible in the off-season.

The ratings for today's telecast will prove whether the fans think the draft is as big as it used to be, but the verdict is already in from the general managers.

They not only think it's as important as it used to be, but they also think it might become more important. For the scouts, the draft is less filling, but still tastes great.

That's because the salaries for the draft picks are now limited to 3 1/2 percent of the gross revenue. On a sliding scale, that means the top team gets to pay its picks a total of about $2.5 million, and the team at the end of the round gets to pay about $1.5 million. That's about eight rookies for a price of a veteran free agent.

With the teams trying to squeeze under the salary cap in 1994, it'll be important to have rookies filling up low-cost slots.

"If they [rookies] can play, they'll become more valuable because they'll be less expensive," said Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. "We're overpaying all these guys [veterans]. Every time you overpay a guy, you're going to have two or three not making as much. They're probably going to be young kids."

The salaries for the veteran free agents skyrocketed so much this year that teams can't fill their rosters with them. They'll need the younger players.

Even Ron Wolf, the general manager of the Green Bay Packers, who gave White the four-year, $17 million contract, said: "The draft is still the lifeblood of your team."

The scouts also expect rookies to become more productive because they're more likely to get to camp on time. With a limited pool to pay the rookies, there's no premium on holding out.

The time the rookies have missed in camp has been crucial to some of them in the past.

"They get off on the wrong foot, and some of them never recovered," said Dick Steinberg, general manager of the New York Jets.

As far as the quality of the draft goes, it seems to rate about average, with the 37 juniors improving its stock. Although some juniors who'll get bypassed in the draft made a mistake by coming out early, there are others who are among the most coveted players.

Three of the first four players who will be selected -- quarterback Drew Bledsoe of Washington State, linebacker Marvin Jones of Florida State and running back Garrison Hearst of Georgia -- are juniors.

"It's the same thing that's been happening the last several years," Steinberg said. "When you start off in the fall, it doesn't look very good, but when the new group declares, it looks pretty interesting."

There's been the usual frenzy of draft rumors sweeping the league the past few days. Reports of teams wanting to trade up, reports of teams wanting to trade down. Teams sending out smoke screens trying to disguise their true intentions. Any club official who dares to tell the truth about his team's plans is immediately sentenced to writing 100 times on the blackboard, "We're going to pick the best available athlete."

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