Big-name Players Play Minor Roles On Day 2

Saints Pick Wuerffel, Setting Up Duel With Shuler For Starting Qb

April 21, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Darnell Autry, a budding thespian, played the leading role in a bittersweet NFL draft drama yesterday.

Autry, a theater major at Northwestern, was one of the big losers in the draft when he slid to the fourth round before the Chicago Bears selected him with the ninth pick of the fourth round after he passed up his senior year to enter the draft.

That means Autry will likely be playing this fall for the $131,000 minimum salary after he gets a modest signing bonus.

If Autry had stayed in school and moved up to the second round next year, he would have made a lot more money, but he didn't sound disappointed at the unfortunate turn of events for him.

Maybe he's already a good actor, but he said, "Good things come to those who wait. All I ask for is an opportunity to play and contribute."

He also insisted he had no second thoughts about coming out of school.

"No, sir, not at all. I'm too grateful for having the opportunity and I'm excited about the future. I was OK with it. I didn't have huge expectations on when I was going to be drafted. No one knew. I was being patient, knowing it would pan out," he said.

The only positive for Autry was that going to the Bears means he can continue to attend classes at Northwestern and work toward a degree.

Although he led Northwestern to the Rose Bowl a year ago, Autry was just the latest big-name college player who wasn't rated as a blue-chip prospect by the scouts. Even though he rushed for 1,675 yards and 1,386 yards the past two years, he didn't have either the dazzling speed or the ability to break tackles that wow the scouts.

Another junior running back, Alex Smith of Indiana, who rushed for 1,248 yards last season, suffered an even more frustrating fate. He left school and wasn't even drafted so now he'll have to try and make it as a free agent.

But it's not unusual for big-name college players to drop to the second day of the draft.

The other prime example yesterday was the Heisman Trophy winner, Danny Wuerffel of Florida, who led the team to the national championship, but doesn't have a big arm.

He was taken with the 99th pick -- the third selection of the fourth round -- by the New Orleans Saints, which explains why coach Mike Ditka had predicted he'd be selected before the 100th pick.

Wuerffel's selection sets up an interesting duel with Heath Shuler for the chance to replace Jim Everett as the Saints' quarterback.

The Shuler vs. Wuerffel battle will be a study of contrasts. Shuler -- the third pick in 1994 by the Washington Redskins -- has much more athletic talent than Wuerffel, but lacks his intangibles.

"The guy's a winner," Ditka said of Wuerffel. "He's a true winner on every level he's ever played. I know you're going to hear all those so-called experts say that `he can't, and he can't and he can't' but you've got to look at all of the cans. I think the greatest criteria for evaluating anyone is on what you've done."

Like Autry, Wuerffel sounded upbeat even though he lasted until the fourth round.

"I wasn't expecting anything, but I was prepared for everything. I'm really excited about the place and time that I went," he said.

He didn't even complain about being downgraded by the scouts.

Wuerffel was the third quarterback taken in the draft after Virginia's Jim Druckenmiller, who went to San Francisco on the first round, and Jake Plummer of Arizona State, who went to Arizona on the second round.

Quarterback Pat Barnes of California, who was coached last year by San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci, who went for Druckenmiller, was selected 11 picks after Wuerrfel by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Unlike Autry and Wuerffel, most of the players drafted yesterday are household names only in their own households. There are more suspects than prospects.

But in the salary cap era, these players can be valuable and almost three-quarters of the players drafted on the second day last year made NFL rosters. That's because they mostly play for the $131,000 minimum and they save teams money under the cap. Two rookies cost about the same as one five-year veteran making the $275,000 minimum.

Of course, some players were simply underrated and make it big after being drafted on the second day. The Denver Broncos' Terrell Davis, a sixth-round pick in 1995, and the Miami Dolphins' Zach Thomas, a fifth-round pick last year, are just two examples.

Five teams, the Ravens, Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and Bears, had eight picks on the second day. By contrast, the San Francisco 49ers and the Broncos, who only selected a total of three players, had a combined total of one pick. The 49ers didn't have a pick the second day.

Jimmy Johnson, the coach of the Dolphins, wound up with 14 picks and predicted 10 would make the team.

The Seattle Seahawks had a total of only five picks, but two of them, Shawn Springs and Walter Jones, were among the first six players selected, so it was considered a successful draft.

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