Though draft has new flavor, clubs still eager to drink it up Fewer rounds, free agency mean different game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Call it Draft Lite.

Slimmed down to eight rounds and overshadowed by the Reggie White Derby and the Joe Montana soap opera, the NFL's 58th collegiate draft will start at noon today.

As part of the legal settlement between the owners and the players -- although it still hasn't been officially approved by federal Judge David Doty -- the draft has been cut from 12 to eight rounds. There'll be four today and four tomorrow.

The free-agent scramble started by the settlement obscured the draft this year. The frenzy of trade rumors and speculation about players' stock rising and dropping, which usually lasts several weeks, has been compressed this year into several days.

As George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, said jokingly: "I don't know anything about the draft this year. I just know about free agency, settlement agreements and things like that."

What's difficult to judge is whether the free-agent market has decreased interest in the draft among the fans, who have turned the draft into the biggest non-playing event in sports.

This is the sixth year the first day of the draft has been conducted on Sunday to give ESPN a bigger audience for its 6 1/2 -hour extravaganza.

For the first five years, it got an average cable rating (percentage of homes with cable television tuned into the telecast) of 3.7, although it dropped slightly from 3.9 in 1991 to 3.5 last year. To put that into perspective, ESPN gets an 2.9 for its usual Sunday afternoon fare of Winston Cup NASCAR races. The draft beats an live sporting event.

Mel Kiper Jr., the Baltimore native who has become a virtual household word in the sports world for his instant analysis of each pick on ESPN, argues the free-agent market has boosted interest in the draft. He says the sale of his draft guides has increased this year, and the free-agent signings have made the NFL more visible in the off-season.

The ratings for today's telecast will prove whether the fans think the draft is as big as it used to be, but the verdict is already in from the general managers.

They not only think it's as important as it used to be, but they also think it might become more important. For the scouts, the draft is less filling, but still tastes great.

That's because the salaries for the draft picks are now limited to 3 1/2 percent of the gross revenue. On a sliding scale, that means the top team gets to pay its picks a total of about $2.5 million, and the team at the end of the round gets to pay about $1.5 million. That's about eight rookies for a price of a veteran free agent.

With the teams trying to squeeze under the salary cap in 1994, it'll be important to have rookies filling up low-cost slots.

"If they [rookies] can play, they'll become more valuable because they'll be less expensive," said Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. "We're overpaying all these guys [veterans]. Every time you overpay a guy, you're going to have two or three not making as much. They're probably going to be young kids."

The salaries for the veteran free agents skyrocketed so much this year that teams can't fill their rosters with them. They'll need the younger players.

Even Ron Wolf, the general manager of the Green Bay Packers, who gave White the four-year, $17 million contract, said: "The draft is still the lifeblood of your team."

The scouts also expect rookies to become more productive because they're more likely to get to camp on time. With a limited pool to pay the rookies, there's no premium on holding out.

The time the rookies have missed in camp has been crucial to some of them in the past.

"They get off on the wrong foot, and some of them never recovered," said Dick Steinberg, general manager of the New York Jets.

As far as the quality of the draft goes, it seems to rate about average, with the 37 juniors improving its stock. Although some juniors who'll get bypassed in the draft made a mistake by coming out early, there are others who are among the most coveted players.

Three of the first four players who will be selected -- quarterback Drew Bledsoe of Washington State, linebacker Marvin Jones of Florida State and running back Garrison Hearst of Georgia -- are juniors.

"It's the same thing that's been happening the last several years," Steinberg said. "When you start off in the fall, it doesn't look very good, but when the new group declares, it looks pretty interesting."

There's been the usual frenzy of draft rumors sweeping the league the past few days. Reports of teams wanting to trade up, reports of teams wanting to trade down. Teams sending out smoke screens trying to disguise their true intentions. Any club official who dares to tell the truth about his team's plans is immediately sentenced to writing 100 times on the blackboard, "We're going to pick the best available athlete."

Going into the draft, only two teams (the Giants and the Kansas City Chiefs), don't have first-round picks. The Giants used their first-rounder on quarterback Dave Brown in the supplemental draft last year, and the Chiefs sent their pick to the 49ers for Montana. There'll be 29 picks in the first round because the Philadelphia Eagles and Phoenix Cardinals each got an extra pick for losing a franchise free agent.

In the last few years, the first pick has not only been known, but he's also been signed by draft day. But there's no longer any rush to sign in advance because of the rookie salary cap.

Another reason no one is certain whom the New England Patriots will select first is that Bill Parcells, their new coach, seems to enjoy keeping everyone guessing.

He's been called the "Stealth Coach" working in a "bunker" because he's held only three news conferences in his first three months on the job.

In the latest one Wednesday, he refused to tip his hand and said nobody knows whether he'll take Bledsoe or Notre Dame's Rick Mirer with the first pick, or trade it.

"NFL insiders? They don't have a clue. There's no one who knows. No one. My wife has asked, and she doesn't have a clue," he said.

He ended the news conference by saying, "Any questions? I want to make sure I answer 'em all. I'm going back into the bunker."

Parcells will emerge from his bunker today and start the draft.

H

He'll have the first word, and Kiper will have the last.

HOW VITO STELLINO SEES THE FIRST ROUND

Team .. .. .. .. .. ... .. Pick . .. .. .. .. .. .. .. School

1. New England Patriots .. QB Drew Bledsoe .. .. Washington St.

2. Seattle Seahawks .. .. .QB Rick Mirer .. .. .. .. Notre Dame

3. New York Jets .. .. .. .LB Marvin Jones .. .. .. Florida St.

4. Phoenix Cardinals .. .. RB Garrison Hearst .. .. .. Georgia

5. Cincinnati Bengals .. . DE John Copeland .. .. .. . Alabama

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers .. DE Eric Curry .. .. .. .. . Alabama

7. Chicago Bears .. .. ... WR Curtis Conway .. .. .. . .. USC

8. Detroit Lions .. .. .. .OL Willie Roaf La. .. .. .. .. Tech

9. Atlanta Falcons .. .. ..OL Lincoln Kennedy .. ...Washington

10. Los Angeles Rams .. .. RB Jerome Bettis .. .. . Notre Dame

11. Cleveland Browns .. .. DL Dan Williams .. .. .. . . Toledo

12. Los Angeles Raiders .. S Patrick Bates .. .. .. .Texas A&M;

13. Philadelphia Eagles .. OL Brad Hopkins .. .. ... .Illinois

14. Denver Broncos .. .. . WR Sean Dawkins .. .. .. California

15. Green Bay Packers .. . CB Carlton Gray .. .. .. . .. .UCLA

16. Indianapolis Colts .. .OL Steve Everitt .. .. .. .Michigan

17. Washington Redskins .. LB Wayne Simmons .. .. .. . Clemson

18. San Francisco 49ers .. DL Dan Footman .. .. .. Florida St.

19. Houston Oilers .. .. . OL Ernest Dye .. .. .South Carolina

20. Phoenix Cardinals .. . OL Lester Holmes .. .. Jackson St.

21. Minnesota Vikings .. . TE Troy Drayton .. .. . . Penn St.

22. San Diego Chargers .. .CB Tom Carter .. .. .. . Notre Dame

23. Pittsburgh Steelers .. LB Chris Slade .. .. .. .. Virginia

24. Philadelphia Eagles .. TE Irv Smith .. .. .. .. Notre Dame

25. Miami Dolphins .. .. ..RB Natrone Means .. North Carolina

26. New Orleans Saints .. .TE Tony McGee .. .. .. .. Michigan

27. San Francisco 49ers .. CB Darrien Gordon .. .. .. Stanford

28. Buffalo Bills .. .. ..WR O. J. McDuffie .. .. .. .Penn St.

29. Dallas Cowboys .. .. CB Deon Figures .. .. .. .. .Colorado

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