NFL draft lacks depth, talent, predictability NFL DRAFT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the 28 NFL teams open the doors to the college draft cupboard today, they'll find the shelves aren't well stocked.

"I guess it's about an average draft," said Bob Ackles, director of college scouting for the Arizona Cardinals.

Ackles is being kind, because as the teams prepare for the 59th annual draft, which begins at 3:30 p.m., the scouts aren't exactly salivating.

"It's a cyclical thing," said Dick Steinberg, general manager of the New York Jets. "We've been of the opinion that the talent lately has not been as plentiful as it was in the 1970s and early 1980s, but we've had better drafts than this in recent years."

It's a symbol of this year's draft that the glamour player in college football last year -- Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward of Florida State -- not only isn't rated as a top prospect, he isn't sure he'll play in the NFL. He's interested in the NBA and might opt for the Canadian Football League so he can play both sports.

There are only four marquee players -- all underclassmen -- at the top of the draft.

The players with the can't-miss tag are defensive lineman Dan Wilkinson of Ohio State, running back Marshall Faulk of San Diego State and two quarterbacks -- Heath Shuler of Tennessee and Trent Dilfer of Fresno State.

The result is that even teams in the top 10 can't count on getting a player with great potential.

Of course, potential means nothing in the NFL. Tony Mandarich, Blair Thomas and Desmond Howard were taken among the first five picks in the past five years -- and none of them has lived up to his potential. But players with great potential give teams high expectations.

After the top four, the teams will be drafting players for whom they have more modest expectations.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Sam Wyche, who has the sixth pick, will try to trade up to the fourth spot to get a quarterback or trade down because he knows he can only expect to find a good -- but not great -- player at the sixth slot.

"I think the consensus players stop pretty much at four, but there will be a good player [at six]," Wyche said.

The result, though, could be a much more unpredictable draft than last year, when the first 13 players came off the board according to many pre-draft projections.

The first two rounds will be held today and the final five tomorrow. Also, for the first time, all seven rounds will be televised. ESPN will carry the first 5 1/2 hours, and ESPN2 will televise the rest.

The only predictable thing about this draft is that the Cincinnati -- Bengals will take Wilkinson with the No. 1 pick. He's the top player on virtually every draft board.

After that, things get confusing.

The Indianapolis Colts would seem to need a quarterback after trading Jeff George. But Bill Tobin, the Colts' new director of football operations who drafted Jim Harbaugh when he was in Chicago, has signed Harbaugh and seems convinced he can handle the job for the long term.

Tobin has sent signals that he's ready to pass on a quarterback and take Faulk, even though even Eric Dickerson couldn't turn the Colts into winners when they didn't have good quarterbacking. Nobody's sure if Tobin's bluffing.

The Washington Redskins, who pick third, will take a quarterback. If Tobin pulls a switch and takes Shuler or Dilfer, Washington will take the other one. General manager Charley Casserly said the club has Shuler and Dilfer rated so closely that it spent a week analyzing who is better.

Many football people think the Redskins will take Shuler if he's there, but the Redskins won't tip their hand.

Casserly even touted Dilfer publicly last week, saying he's "more of a prototype drop-back quarterback" than Shuler and is a more accurate thrower while Shuler is more mobile.

Since accuracy is critical in new coach Norv Turner's system, that would be an argument for Dilfer. But since football people like to blow smoke before the draft, it's assumed that the more Casserly talks about Dilfer, the more it means he's planning to take Shuler.

Mike Sullivan, Dilfer's agent, said the Redskins won't indicate a preference because if the Colts take a quarterback, they will claim the one they get is the one they really wanted.

If Tobin takes Faulk, it means New England coach Bill Parcells will find a top quarterback still on the board when he makes the fourth selection. But since he took Drew Bledsoe last year, Parcells isn't interested in a quarterback.

That means teams that are interested are calling.

"I've had some inquiries already about that," Parcells said.

Los Angeles Rams coach Chuck Knox is warning teams that if they want a quarterback, they have to trade with the Patriots. He said he'll take a quarterback with the fifth pick if Shuler or Dilfer fall that far.

The Rams signed former Atlanta Falcon Chris Miller as a free agent, so some football people say Knox doesn't really want to draft another quarterback but knows he can't afford to pass one up. Knox, they say, is hoping another team will make a trade with the Patriots and take a quarterback, freeing him to take a defensive player.

Of course, there's always the chance that Knox means what he says and wants a quarterback.

While some teams are trying to trade down, the San Francisco 49ers, who are trying to package a pair of No. 1 picks, and the Dallas Cowboys, who are dangling wide receiver Alvin Harper, are trying to move up.

Look for a long first round -- last year's lasted 4 hours, 59 minutes even though many teams made predictable selections -- as clubs jockey for position.

Though there aren't many marquee playes, it's important for teams to at least find players who are good enough to make their rosters.

That's because rookies are comparatively cheap. Their salaries are limited by a rookie pool -- each team can spend between $2 million and $3 million on its draftees -- so the more rookies make it (especially the late-round picks making the minimum of $108,000 a year), the easier it is to fill a roster.

Last year, 207 of the 224 players drafted were on Week 1 rosters, practice squads or injured lists.

"I think it's as important as ever, maybe more so," Ackles said of the task of finding rookies who can play.

George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, said: "It's still the life blood of the league. You have to have lesser-salaried players to be able to afford the higher-salaried players."

Then there are the teams hoping to hit the jackpot, trying to find players who are better than they are rated. Remember when Emmitt Smith dropped to the 17th slot four years ago? Something about his being too slow.

No one knew know how big his heart was or how he could carry a team with a separated shoulder.

"We tend to negative scout too much," Young said. "We had this with Barry Sanders. He was a little short and this and that and all we ever saw him do was run and down the field."

NFL DRAFT FACTS

Where: New York

When: Today, 3:30 p.m. (rounds 1-2); tomorrow, 10 a.m. (rounds 3-7).

TV: ESPN (today, 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. EDT); ESPN2 (today, 9 p.m. EDT to conclusion; tomorrow, 10 a.m. EDT to conclusion).

Total picks: 222 (196 regular picks, plus 26 compensatory picks awarded to 12 teams for free-agent losses. Philadelphia got a first-round compensation pick and the other 25 were spread from the second through sixth rounds.)

Top five picks: Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Washington, New England, Los Angeles Rams.

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HOW VITO STELLINO SEES THE FIRST ROUND

No. Team .. .. .. .Player .. .. ..School .. .Pos. .. ..Ht. .. ..Wt.

1 Bengals .. ..Dan Wilkinson .. .Ohio St. .. .DL .. ..6-4 .. ...305

2 Colts .. .. .Marshall Faulk ...S.D. St. .. .RB .. .5-10 .. ...205

3 Redskins .. ..Heath Shuler ...Tennessee .. .QB .. ..6-2 .. ...218

4 Patriots .. ..Willie McGinest .. USC .. .. .DE .. ..6-5 .. ...255

5 Rams .. .. .. .Trent Dilfer ...Fresno St. ..QB .. ..6-3 .. ...230

6 Buccaneers .. ..Aaron Glenn ...Texas A&M; ...CB .. ..5-9 .. ...181

7 Colts* .. .. ..Bryant Young ...Notre Dame ..DL .. ..6-2 .. ...275

8 Seahawks .. .. ..Sam Adams .. .Texas A&M; ...DL .. ..6-4 .. ...295

9 Browns .. .. ..John Thierry ...Alcorn St. ..LB .. ..6-4 .. ...224

10 Cardinals .. .Trev Alberts .. .Nebraska ...LB .. ..6-4 .. ...239

11 Bears .. ...Antonio Langham ...Alabama .. .CB .. ..6-0 .. ...177

12 Saints .. .. .Joe Johnson .. .Louisville ..DL .. ..6-3 .. ...279

13 Jets .. .. .Charles Johnson ...Colorado ...WR .. ..6-0 .. ...189

14 Eagles .. .. .Wayne Grady .. ...Alabama ...OL .. ..6-4 .. ...287

15 49ers** .. ..D. Washington .. ..N.C. St. ..CB .. .5-11 .. ...190

16 Dolphins .. .Aubrey Beavers ...Oklahoma .. LB .. ..6-2 .. ...233

17 Steelers .. .Johnnie Morton .. ...USC .. ..WR .. .5-11 .. ...190

18 Vikings*** .. .Aaron Taylor ..Notre Dame ..OL .. ..6-3 .. ...302

19 Vikings .. .. .Jamir Miller .. ..UCLA .. ..LB .. ..6-4 .. ...235

20 Packers .. .. .Darnay Scott .. .S.D. St. ..WR .. ..6-1 .. ...185

21 Lions .. .. ..Todd Steussie .. ...Cal .. ..OT .. ..6-5 .. ...305

22 Raiders .. ..LeShon Johnson ..N. Illinois .RB .. .5-11 .. ...199

23 49ers .. .. ..Henry Ford .. ...Arkansas ...DE .. ..6-2 .. ...283

24 Giants .. .. .Issac Davis .. ..Arkansas ...OL .. ..6-2 .. ...325

25 Chiefs .. .. .Mario Bates .. .Arizona St. .RB .. ..6-0 .. ...212

26 Oilers .. .. .Tre Johnson .. ...Temple .. .OL .. ..6-3 .. ...312

27 Bills .. ...Bernard Williams ..Georgia .. .OL .. ..6-8 .. ...315

28 Cowboys .. .Rob Frederickson ..Mich. St. ..LB .. ..6-3 .. ...238

29 Eagles+ .. .. ..Greg Hill .. .Texas A&M; ...RB .. .5-11 .. ...202

*-From Atlanta **-From San Diego ***-From Denver +-Compensatory pick

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