It's lonely at the top of this year's draft

ON THE NFL

March 30, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Buyer, beware!

That may be the theme of the NFL's annual collegiate draft.

With the draft only three weeks away, teams with the top picks seem to be more interested in trading down than picking a player.

Once Peyton Manning decided to stay in school, this draft was without any franchise players.

Sure, the highest-rated player, Orlando Pace of Ohio State, is being touted as one of the best offensive line prospects ever. He may even be better than Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' top pick and the fourth overall selection last year.

But left tackles, even though they're valuable, rarely decide games. The Green Bay Packers proved they could win the Super Bowl last year with a journeyman left tackle. His name was Bruce Wilkerson. Ever heard of him? It's much harder to win with a journeyman quarterback.

In the 1980s, the Cincinnati Bengals twice went to the Super Bowl with one of the best left tackles ever in Anthony Munoz. But they lost twice to the San Francisco 49ers, who had Joe Montana at quarterback. They won with Dan Audick and Steve Wallace at left tackle.

On top of that, the price tag for the top picks keeps going up despite the rookie salary cap. Last year's top pick, Keyshawn Johnson of the New York Jets, got a $6.5 million signing bonus. Ogden got a $6.8 million signing bonus.

For that kind of money, teams always fear they may draft the next Heath Shuler, who made $8.5 million in three years with the Washington Redskins and is now on the trading block.

That's why there has been so much talk about trading down this year.

The Ravens, in the fourth spot for the second straight year, were the first team to get on the bandwagon. They tried to get Seattle to give up second- and fourth-round spots in exchange for moving down to 11th.

The Seahawks balked at giving up the second-round pick, and talks stalled.

The Atlanta Falcons, who are projecting a $9 million to $10 million loss this year if attendance doesn't pick up, then jumped into the picture.

They had the third pick and didn't want to stay there. Seattle was willing to give up the second- and fourth-round picks -- once Atlanta agreed to swap thirds -- for the third pick, and they made the trade Friday.

That leaves the Jets, New Orleans Saints, Seahawks and Ravens with the first four picks at the moment. But it's still uncertain if it will stay that way or what order the players will go in. The Oakland Raiders, who have the 10th pick, are interested in moving up and could swing a deal since teams are so interested in moving down. Ravens owner Art Modell said Friday the team would hold onto the fourth pick.

Pace is the highest-rated player on the board, but Jets coach Bill Parcells likes defensive players. He could go for defensive tackle Darrell Russell of USC or defensive end Peter Boulware of Florida State.

Russell, meanwhile, didn't help himself at a workout Tuesday when he ran one wind-aided 40-yard dash in the 4.75-4.85-second range, then refused to run again. For the third time since the combine, he complained of a sore hamstring.

If Parcells passes on Pace, the Saints may not want him since they have Willie Roaf at left tackle.

And the Ravens, who were the first team to try to trade down, could now have second thoughts if Atlanta takes cornerback Shawn Springs and Boulware falls to them at the fourth spot. They could stay there, grab Boulware and swallow the steep price tag.

This all means there's a lot of confusion going in as teams wonder if there are any players at the top of the round worth a signing bonus of more than $6 million.

One executive, who is picking near the bottom of the round since his club made the playoffs, said, "I'm glad we're not picking up there. You could get burned up there this year."

In charge

Coach Dan Reeves is in charge in Atlanta now.

He has the total control that he couldn't get with the New York Giants, but Reeves found out last week that it's not easy for one man to run an NFL franchise in this era of confusing salary cap rules.

Reeves came up with the idea of making a big offer for a restricted free agent, cornerback Jason Seahorn of the Giants, after trading down with Seattle.

If the Giants didn't match the offer, he would get Seahorn for the 11th pick on the first round instead of the third pick. It would mean he'd get Seahorn and still have second- and fourth-round picks. He'd also steal a player from Giants general manager George Young.

But Reeves then found out from the Management Council that little maneuver was illegal. To go after a restricted free agent, a team must have its own pick in the round in which it gives up a choice or a higher pick. Once Atlanta traded down, it was no longer able to go after Seahorn.

It's not surprising Reeves wasn't aware of Article 19, Section 3, Paragraph C of the collective bargaining agreement. It's more complicated than the tax code.

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