One week to go, so let the mind games begin Posturing, PR by teams disguises intentions

April 14, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It's time to play the draft game in the NFL.

With the NFL's 61st collegiate draft -- the first involving a Baltimore team since 1983 -- set to start at noon Saturday in New York, the teams are doing their best to send out false signals and use smoke screens to disguise their intentions.

This is normal the week before the draft, but two factors have made it more confusing than ever.

The first is that there's no obvious franchise choice at the top of the draft.

There are a group of players -- including wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson of USC, linebacker Kevin Hardy of Illinois, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden of UCLA, running back Lawrence Phillips of Nebraska and defensive lineman Simeon Rice of Illinois -- bunched closely together in the ratings.

"You can shake up the first seven or eight guys in a can and pour them out," said Joe Mack, assistant general manager of the Carolina Panthers.

"How you shake them up depends on which team winds up with the first pick," said Billy Devaney, director of player personnel for the San Diego Chargers.

This means that the teams at the top of the draft can trade down a few spots, grab an extra pick and still get a top player.

The other factor is that two of the teams that want Phillips, the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams, have two picks in the first round and could trade up.

Phillips is a risk because he is on probation for assaulting his ex-girlfriend last September.

The New York Jets, the team with the first pick, aren't believed to be interested in Phillips. The baggage he brings could make it difficult for him to cope with the spotlight in New York, and the team's owner, Leon Hess, may be hesitant to approve his selection.

But the Jets apparently wouldn't mind trading the first pick for the two ones from either the Rams or the Ravens, so they made a production out of bringing him to New York last week.

Dick Haley, Jets director of personnel, said: "I don't believe there's a downside to Lawrence Phillips."

He then managed to say something negative about Johnson, one of the two players the Jets are likely to take -- Hardy is the other -- if they can't trade the pick.

"He does talk too much," Haley said of Johnson.

Was Haley really bluffing? We'll see how it plays out this week.

But the Jets have leverage with the Ravens. The Rams could trade with the Arizona Cardinals for the third spot to grab Phillips right in front of the Ravens.

The Rams likely won't give up the sixth and 13th picks for the No. 1 spot, but might do it if the Jets will kick in the first pick of the second round.

Ravens owner Art Modell said trading up is a remote possibility, but no longer rules it out.

Regardless of how it all turns out, league officials may hope Phillips doesn't wind up being the top pick. Already, three high-profile players -- Michael Irvin, Bam Morris and Quentin Coryatt -- have been arrested in the last month. So the NFL didn't invite Phillips to draft headquarters in New York along with the other top picks, in an attempt to keep him out of the limelight as much as possible.

But team officials like to focus on Phillips' football talent.

John Becker, a scout for the Rams, said: "He could come from Mars, and if he has talent, I don't really care where he's from or his past problems."

The team that drafts Phillips will have to pay him $5 million to $7 million in a signing bonus, so it can't afford to have him slip up in the future.

Besides Phillips, there are several other good running backs in the draft, including Tim Biakabutuka of Michigan, Eddie George of Ohio State and Leeland McElroy of Texas A&M.

There's also a vintage group of wide receivers, led by Johnson, Terry Glenn of Ohio State, Marvin Harrison of Syracuse, Eric Moulds of Mississippi State and Eddie Kennison of Louisiana State.

"It's the best receiver class I've been involved in, and this is my 11th draft," said Bill Kuharich, New Orleans Saints vice president. "As far as quality and depth, it's probably the strongest class."

It's a different situation at quarterback. There are no franchise quarterbacks, and none may be selected on the first round for the first time since 1978.

NFL draft

When: Saturday and next Sunday

Where: Madison Square Garden, New York

TV: ESPN, noon-7 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-1 p.m. next Sunday. Additional coverage on ESPN2.

Format: Seven rounds -- first three on Saturday, final four next Sunday

9+

How Vito Stellino sees the first round

No. Team ............ Player .............. P ....... College

New York Jets .... Keyshawn Johnson .... WR ...... Southern California

2. Jacksonville ..... Kevin Hardy ......... LB ...... Illinois

3. Arizona .......... Jonathan Ogden ...... OT ...... UCLA

4. Ravens ........... Lawrence Phillips ... RB ...... Nebraska

5. New York Giants .. Simeon Rice ......... DE ...... Illinois

6. St. Louis-a ...... Tim Biakabutuka ..... RB ...... Michigan

7. New England ...... Daryl Gardener ...... DL ...... Baylor

8. Carolina ......... Terry Glenn ......... WR ...... Ohio State

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