Bills putting stock in QB Johnson

On The NFL

July 05, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Rob Johnson has yet to throw a regular-season pass for the Buffalo Bills, but they're convinced he's going to pay big dividends on their off-season gamble on him.

Even though Johnson threw just 38 passes in his first three seasons and started just one game, the Bills gave the Jacksonville Jaguars first- and fourth-round picks to get him earlier this year.

Johnson's one start was a gutty performance against the Ravens in the opener last year when he came back twice from a severe ankle sprain to complete 20 of 24 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-27 victory.

He gave way to Steve Matthews the following week because of his ankle injury, and then starter Mark Brunell returned. Johnson wound up throwing just four passes the rest of the season.

The Bills decided his showing against the Ravens wasn't a fluke and rolled the dice on him. They're so impressed with him that they're talking about giving him a long-term deal at $5 million a year with a $6 million to $8 million signing bonus.

Johnson's due to make only $350,000 this year, but the Bills don't want to risk him becoming a free agent at the end of this year.

"He's what we'd thought he'd be," offensive coordinator Joe Pendry said. "He has an accurate, strong arm. He's a good down-the-field thrower who can move around in the pocket and make plays."

One of the incumbent quarterbacks, Alex Van Pelt, said: "He's got all the talent in the world. It's going to be exciting to see how he develops."

Johnson said, "I've felt good, [but] I'll get a lot better. I'm not in peak form yet."

Johnson has had to live down a beach-bum image from his days at Southern California, but he's a dedicated worker who's one of the first players in the building each day.

"I've always done that," he said. "I don't have much of a life outside football. I like to be prepared. I might not always look like I care, but I do. I don't go around talking about it much, and I don't need anyone to tell me congratulations for doing it. I just do it."

The signing game

The way the NFL free agency system is set up, the veterans who have produced get the most money. They cash in when they become free agents after their fourth seasons.

The problem with the system is that players drafted on later rounds who become surprise players wind up paying the price until they become free agents and earn their market value.

That's why Jermaine Lewis, who signed a two-year deal with a $56,000 signing bonus with the Ravens after being drafted on the fifth round in 1996, isn't happy about the prospect of earning the third-year minimum of $216,000 (scheduled to increase to $238,000) now that talks on a long-term deal have broken down.

But Lewis probably wouldn't be much happier if he'd signed a three-year deal. The player drafted right after him, Zach Thomas of the Dolphins, signed a three-year deal with an $86,000 signing bonus.

He's also unhappy about making the minimum in his third year and dumped his agent, Joe Linta, even though Linta charged him a flat fee of $3,000 to negotiate the three-year deal worth $577,000 instead of charging him a percentage.

Another agent, Miami-based Drew Rosenhaus, convinced Thomas he'd get him a new deal, so Thomas switched, but Rosenhaus has struck out so far with the Dolphins.

The bottom line is that young players have few alternatives until they become free agents.

Young players will get a boost next year when the minimum for second-year players jumps to $250,000. The idea behind that is to give the teams less incentive to go with cheap young players and cut veterans making next year's $400,000 veteran minimum.

Supplemental draft

Two players, Oklahoma State defensive tackle Jamal Williams and Navy offensive tackle Mike Wahle, seem certain to be selected in the supplemental draft Thursday.

Williams, who had academic problems, might have been a first-rounder next year, but is unlikely to go in the first round in the supplemental draft because a team would have to give up its 1999 first-round pick to take him there. But he could go in the second or third round.

Wahle, who would have been a Navy co-captain this year if he hadn't been dismissed from the team, is a 6-foot-5, 302-pound offensive lineman (the 1997 Navy media guide listed his weight at 261 pounds) who'll likely go in the middle rounds. He has a lot of potential at age 21, and a National Scouting Combine report noted he has "good initial quickness will finish blocks," but he needs work on pass blocking because Navy didn't throw that much.

The Navy will give no details about his resignation from the academy, but his agent, Neil Cornrich, said he flunked an NCAA steroids test and was declared ineligible. He said Wahle later passed a more sophisticated Navy test, but the NCAA wouldn't lift its ban. Cornrich said Wahle has passed all the steroids tests in the NFL physicals he has been given.

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