Big-time changes in draft don't mean easy pickings


To illustrate how the interest in the NFL draft has soared in the past quarter century, it's only necessary to note that when the Steelers made Joe Greene of North Texas State the fourth selection in the 1969 draft, a Pittsburgh paper ran a headline: "Joe Who?"

Twenty-six years later, Greene and the coach who selected him, Chuck Noll, are in the Hall of Fame with four Super Bowl rings, and it's impossible to imagine any football follower who would not know the name of the fourth pick in the draft.

The annual two-day draft, which starts at noon today, is now the most scrutinized nonathletic event in sports.

The start was moved up from Sunday to Saturday so ESPN could show a NASCAR race tomorrow, and the headquarters has been switched from a Manhattan hotel to the Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden so more fans can listen to commissioner Paul Tagliabue reading the names of the selections.

What helped make the draft a phenomenon was ESPN, a date switch and hours and hours of analysis by the draftniks.

When Greene was selected, the draft was held a few weeks after the Super Bowl, so there wasn't as much time to hype it. The switch to April and ESPN's decision to start televising the event 15 years ago solved that problem.

The draftniks such as Mel Kiper Jr. (who prefers to be called a draft analyst) and Joel Buchsbaum helped make the draft an even bigger event when they turned the publishing of their draft guides into a cottage industry.

Kiper's analysis on ESPN is now part of the draft lore. His dispute with Indianapolis Colts director of football operations Bill Tobin, who was panned by Kiper after he passed up quarterback Trent Dilfer for linebacker Trev Alberts, was the highlight of last year's draft.

One thing, though, hasn't changed about the draft.

Despite all the extra time spent studying the players, it's still a very inexact science.

When Tobin was knocking Kiper, he sputtered, "He has no more credentials to do what he's doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor's a postman."

Tobin ignored the fact his neighbor might do as well as most scouts. It sometimes looks as if they could do as well throwing darts at a board.

There's no evidence the teams are any better at figuring which players will make it in the pros than they were a quarter century ago.

After all, the average fan hadn't heard of Greene and he made the Hall of Fame. So did the first pick in 1969 -- Heisman Trophy winner O. J. Simpson.

In 1957, four of the first 12 players selected -- Paul Hornung, Len Dawson, Jim Brown and Jim Parker -- made the Hall of Fame, and four others -- Jon Arnett, John Brodie, Ron Kramer and Clarence Peaks -- were standout players.

The scouts would take that kind of draft every year.

By contrast, the fourth pick in 1992, Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, was a bust. So was the second pick in 1989 -- offensive lineman Tony Mandarich, who was selected by the Green Bay Packers and is no longer in the league.

Howard was so coveted that the Washington Redskins gave up a first-round pick to move up two spots to grab him ahead of the Green Bay Packers.

Howard missed training camp in a holdout, but coach Joe Gibbs knew after he had been on the scene a month that he wouldn't make it on the pro level despite his gaudy college credentials. The Redskins left him exposed in the expansion draft in February, and the Jacksonville Jaguars decided to take a flier on him.

The Redskins, though, weren't the only team that wanted Howard. Ron Wolf, the general manager of the Packers, says that if the Redskins hadn't taken Howard, he would have with the next pick.

Once Howard was gone, Wolf selected cornerback Terrell Buckley over Troy Vincent, a move that wasn't popular in Green Bay because Vincent played at Wisconsin.

As it turned out, Buckley was a bust -- the Packers got rid of him in the off-season -- and Vincent is still starting in Miami.

"We both wound up with egg on our face," Wolf said, referring to the picks by his team and the Redskins. "Everybody in the state thought we should have taken Troy Vincent and they let us know right away they were displeased. It turned out they were right," Wolf said.

Wolf noted that only about 1 percent of the college football players make it in the NFL.

"It's an enormous jump," he said.

All scouts make mistakes, but the successful ones hit on more than they miss. To judge the impact of a good scout, just look at Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard.

After leaving the Redskins, it took five drafts for him to build a Super Bowl team in San Diego. Meanwhile, the Redskins fell from a perennial contender to a 3-13 mark last year.

Beathard doesn't have a formula, but is willing to take chances in the draft. "I think in my job, people who do well are those who stick their necks out. If you're afraid of failure, it's hard to succeed at anything," he said.

The one thing the scouts all agree on in this draft is that the two players who are supposed to be picked first and second, running back Ki-Jana Carter and offensive lineman Tony Boselli, are certain future stars.

After that, it's a guessing game. But even Carter and Boselli have to prove they can do it in NFL uniforms.

NB That's the only test that really counts for this year's class.


When: Today (rounds 1 and 2 and possibly 3) and tomorrow (rounds 3 or 4 through 7).

Where: Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theatre, New YorkTV: Today (ESPN, noon; ESPN2, 7 p.m.); tomorrow (ESPN, noon; ESPN2, 3 p.m.).

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