After top 4 spots, it's take your pick

3 QBs, Williams still solid bets, but board jumbled by Faulk deal

NFL draft

April 16, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Quarterbacks still figure to go 1-2-3 and running back Ricky Williams of Texas is likely to be picked in the fourth spot in tomorrow's NFL draft.

After that, it's anybody's guess what will happen because the St. Louis Rams scrambled the draft board yesterday by acquiring veteran running back Marshall Faulk from the Indianapolis Colts.

The trade sent scouts all over the league scurrying to their draft boards to assess the ramifications of the deal.

Among other things, it means the Colts plan to replace Faulk by drafting one of the top two running backs with the No. 4 overall pick.

Their first choice is Williams, the Heisman Trophy winner, but if there is a surprise and he's gone, they'll settle for Edgerrin James of Miami.

It also means that James, who had been penciled in the sixth spot for the Rams for weeks by most draft observers, now figures to fall a spot or two.

Instead, the Rams could choose between cornerback Chris McAlister and wide receiver Torry Holt with the sixth pick.

It also means that teams interested in trading for James will try to entice the Chicago Bears at No. 7 and the Arizona Cardinals at No. 8 into trading down.

The New England Patriots, who are desperate for a running back to replace Robert Edwards, whose career may have been ended by a freak accident suffered playing flag football in Hawaii before the Pro Bowl, are offering two first-round and two third-round picks to move up.

But that would mean a drop to the 20th spot, and the Bears may be reluctant to drop that far. The Bears, who want quarterback Donovan McNabb, would like to trade down a few spots and go for Cade McNown.

If they stay in the seventh spot, they are likely to take the player the Rams pass on -- McAlister or Holt.

The Cardinals, who never expected James to be on the board at No. 8, are likely to grab him themselves.

Another ramification is that the New Orleans Saints, who tried to trade up for Williams, will now most likely stay in the 12th spot.

This could all play out with the Colts and Cardinals being the big winners in this draft. They have the chance to pair a stellar young quarterback -- the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Cardinals' Jake Plummer -- with one of the top two running backs. If Williams and James live up to their billings, those two teams could have their backfields set for years.

Then again, first-round running backs are never sure things. Of the 29 backs drafted in the first round in the 1990s, only Emmitt Smith led the league in rushing and only three played in the Super Bowl.

That's why the Rams traded for Faulk, who has proved he can play.

The reason for the Faulk trade is that coach Dick Vermeil of the Rams has short-term concerns. His job is on the line this year, and he figures Faulk can make an immediate impact.

"It won't take this guy five minutes and he's ready to go," Vermeil said.

Faulk's not a long-term answer because he has played five years, and most running backs have a short shelf life.

But Vermeil liked the fact that he only had to give up second- and fifth-round picks for him and he was able to keep the No. 6 overall pick for McAlister or Holt.

Vermeil said of Faulk, "Players like this make offensive coaches and head coaches look a lot smarter. Hopefully, we can put him in the same category someday that we're putting Eric Dickerson in.

"I think it's also smart not to pass up opportunities when they exist. I don't want to end up [saying], `I wish I would have.' "

Oddly, when the Rams were in Los Angeles in 1987, they traded Dickerson to the Colts after he got into a contract dispute. The Rams' first order of business will be to negotiate a new deal for Faulk.

Even though he has two years left on the contract he signed as a rookie, Faulk has made it obvious he won't play this year without getting a deal with a big raise on the $2.2 million salary he's due in 1999.

The Faulk deal and all the fallout from it overshadowed the fact that this draft will be remembered as the year of the quarterback.

Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith figure to be the first three players drafted by Cleveland, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. It's likely to be the first time since 1971 that quarterbacks have gone with the top three picks. That year, Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini went 1-2-3.

The Browns tipped their hand that they want Couch by entering negotiations with his agent, Tom Condon. To give the club some leverage, a Browns spokesman said yesterday that they're also talking with the agents for Smith and McNabb.

But barring any snags in the talks -- Couch figures to top the $48 million deal with an $11.6 million signing bonus that Manning got last year -- Couch will be No. 1.

The Browns will then cross their fingers and hope Couch lives up to his reputation. Although he had a good career at Kentucky, he doesn't have the strongest of arms and isn't rated in the John Elway-Troy Aikman class.

"I've definitely had some sleepless nights over this thing," said Dwight Clark, the Browns' personnel chief.

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