NEW YORK -- When you're No. 2 on the NFL's draft board, you try harder to keep everybody guessing.
With the New York Jets apparently locked in on Southern California wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson as the first pick when the NFL opens its draft at noon today, the focus will then shift to Jacksonville.
When the clock starts ticking on Jacksonville's 15 minutes, there'll be a lot of tension in the draft rooms of the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants and St. Louis Rams because the Jaguars' decision will affect the fourth through sixth picks to follow.
It could be the most dramatic moment of the draft.
The Jaguars, who want Johnson, will be in a quandary if the Jets grab him as expected.
The Jaguars apparently have decided they prefer defensive end Simeon Rice over his Illinois teammate, linebacker Kevin Hardy, because they had only 17 sacks last year and want a pass rusher.
But they know if they pass on Rice, he won't go until the Giants pick at No. 5. (Arizona, at No. 3, is expected to take UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden.)
What the Jaguars would like to do is trade down with the Ravens to the No. 4 spot and pick Rice there.
So far, though, the Ravens are standing pat and showing no interest in trading. The Jaguars say they've gotten no serious offers for the second pick.
That's why it became suspicious this week when coach Tom Coughlin started talking up Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips, the player the Ravens covet.
"We've done our researching and are continuing to do research on him. I came away with the impression I felt he was a good kid," Coughlin said. "I felt he made a tragic error and it's a very sad story, but we're continuing to look at him."
In Jacksonville, they're trying to sell the idea that Coughlin might take Phillips over Rice if he can't make a trade.
The skeptics say that Coughlin, a no-nonsense type, would never go for a player like Phillips, who is on probation for assaulting his ex-girlfriend last September.
In any case, Jacksonville is likely to let the clock run down at least 10 minutes to see if the Ravens can be enticed into a deal.
If they can't, Coughlin will have to choose between Phillips and Hardy.
If he's not bluffing about Phillips, the Ravens probably would get Hardy.
If Coughlin takes Rice, the Ravens would likely have a choice between Hardy and Phillips.
It's tough to predict which way the Ravens would go because they haven't thought much about the possibility of Hardy being available and they're enamored with Phillips.
In this scenario, the Giants will be rooting for the Ravens to take Phillips because they want Hardy or Rice.
If both are gone, the Giants would have to take wide receiver Terry Glenn of Ohio State. The Giants have no interest in Phillips.
One certain thing is that the Rams are going to stay at No. 6. They want to keep the sixth and 13th picks.
An avid fisherman, Rams coach Rich Brooks said, "There has been some bait thrown out there a little bit [about a trade]. They've kind of thrown the corn out of the boat."
Brooks isn't casting out any lines, though.
"I'm not inclined to do it," Brooks said of the possibility of trading up.
The Rams seem content to take Michigan running back Tim Biakubutuka with the sixth pick. There's a chance, though, Phillips could fall to them if the Ravens take Hardy and the Giants go for Glenn.
The reason the draft is so confusing is that the first five or six players are bunched so closely together that they can be picked in almost any order. There's no Troy Aikman at the top of this draft.
Charley Casserly, the Washington Redskins general manager who was so unimpressed with this draft that he traded the sixth pick to the Rams for defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, said, "There is no one player that I think is No. 1."
As the draft advances, two teams to watch are the Houston Oilers and the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 9 and 10.
The Oilers want Ohio State running back Eddie George and the Bengals want offensive lineman Willie Anderson of Auburn.
They'll be scrambling for alternatives if either is gone.
Jimmy Johnson, who replaced Don Shula as Dolphins coach, was noted for his wheeling-and-dealing when he was with Dallas. He's likely to make some moves.
One player to watch during the first round is running back Leeland McElroy of Texas A&M.; Even though he's in the top 10 on some draft boards, he could drop much lower since many of the teams in the 10 to 20 range don't need running backs.
There's some speculation McElroy could fall all the way to Buffalo at No. 24, but general manager John Butler doesn't expect to see him on the board when he makes his first selection.
"If Leeland McElroy were to fall to 24, you'd see the greatest dancing going on. This old, fat body would be wiggling," Butler said.
The NFL will conduct the first three rounds today and the final four rounds tomorrow. The teams then will try to sign undrafted free agents to fill out their 80-man training camp rosters.
The Ravens will be particularly active in this effort because they've been hit by free agency and have only 49 players under contract. Only the Oilers, who have 43 under contract, have fewer.
Pub Date: 4/20/96