It's lonely at the top of this year's draft

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Buyer, beware!

That may be the theme of the NFL's annual collegiate draft.

With the draft only three weeks away, teams with the top picks seem to be more interested in trading down than picking a player.

Once Peyton Manning decided to stay in school, this draft was without any franchise players.

Sure, the highest-rated player, Orlando Pace of Ohio State, is being touted as one of the best offensive line prospects ever. He may even be better than Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' top pick and the fourth overall selection last year.

But left tackles, even though they're valuable, rarely decide games. The Green Bay Packers proved they could win the Super Bowl last year with a journeyman left tackle. His name was Bruce Wilkerson. Ever heard of him? It's much harder to win with a journeyman quarterback.

In the 1980s, the Cincinnati Bengals twice went to the Super Bowl with one of the best left tackles ever in Anthony Munoz. But they lost twice to the San Francisco 49ers, who had Joe Montana at quarterback. They won with Dan Audick and Steve Wallace at left tackle.

On top of that, the price tag for the top picks keeps going up despite the rookie salary cap. Last year's top pick, Keyshawn Johnson of the New York Jets, got a $6.5 million signing bonus. Ogden got a $6.8 million signing bonus.

For that kind of money, teams always fear they may draft the next Heath Shuler, who made $8.5 million in three years with the Washington Redskins and is now on the trading block.

That's why there has been so much talk about trading down this year.

The Ravens, in the fourth spot for the second straight year, were the first team to get on the bandwagon. They tried to get Seattle to give up second- and fourth-round spots in exchange for moving down to 11th.

The Seahawks balked at giving up the second-round pick, and talks stalled.

The Atlanta Falcons, who are projecting a $9 million to $10 million loss this year if attendance doesn't pick up, then jumped into the picture.

They had the third pick and didn't want to stay there. Seattle was willing to give up the second- and fourth-round picks -- once Atlanta agreed to swap thirds -- for the third pick, and they made the trade Friday.

That leaves the Jets, New Orleans Saints, Seahawks and Ravens with the first four picks at the moment. But it's still uncertain if it will stay that way or what order the players will go in. The Oakland Raiders, who have the 10th pick, are interested in moving up and could swing a deal since teams are so interested in moving down. Ravens owner Art Modell said Friday the team would hold onto the fourth pick.

Pace is the highest-rated player on the board, but Jets coach Bill Parcells likes defensive players. He could go for defensive tackle Darrell Russell of USC or defensive end Peter Boulware of Florida State.

Russell, meanwhile, didn't help himself at a workout Tuesday when he ran one wind-aided 40-yard dash in the 4.75-4.85-second range, then refused to run again. For the third time since the combine, he complained of a sore hamstring.

If Parcells passes on Pace, the Saints may not want him since they have Willie Roaf at left tackle.

And the Ravens, who were the first team to try to trade down, could now have second thoughts if Atlanta takes cornerback Shawn Springs and Boulware falls to them at the fourth spot. They could stay there, grab Boulware and swallow the steep price tag.

This all means there's a lot of confusion going in as teams wonder if there are any players at the top of the round worth a signing bonus of more than $6 million.

One executive, who is picking near the bottom of the round since his club made the playoffs, said, "I'm glad we're not picking up there. You could get burned up there this year."

In charge

Coach Dan Reeves is in charge in Atlanta now.

He has the total control that he couldn't get with the New York Giants, but Reeves found out last week that it's not easy for one man to run an NFL franchise in this era of confusing salary cap rules.

Reeves came up with the idea of making a big offer for a restricted free agent, cornerback Jason Seahorn of the Giants, after trading down with Seattle.

If the Giants didn't match the offer, he would get Seahorn for the 11th pick on the first round instead of the third pick. It would mean he'd get Seahorn and still have second- and fourth-round picks. He'd also steal a player from Giants general manager George Young.

But Reeves then found out from the Management Council that little maneuver was illegal. To go after a restricted free agent, a team must have its own pick in the round in which it gives up a choice or a higher pick. Once Atlanta traded down, it was no longer able to go after Seahorn.

It's not surprising Reeves wasn't aware of Article 19, Section 3, Paragraph C of the collective bargaining agreement. It's more complicated than the tax code.

But it's another example that it's difficult for a coach to run a team unless he delegates responsibility and has a numbers cruncher who understands the convoluted NFL rules.

As if Reeves didn't have enough problems, he was zinged recently by Dr. Joel Goldberg, the Giants' team psychologist.

Reeves complained when he was fired that Goldberg was ruling out players because of his psychological tests.

Goldberg said the real reason Reeves was unhappy with him is that he wanted to draft troubled running back Lawrence Phillips last year.

"The thing that kicked off this whole thing with Dan was about Lawrence Phillips. He wanted to take Lawrence Phillips," Goldberg said.

Goldberg said Phillips wasn't even tested by the Giants. "I wouldn't bother giving him a test because everybody knew what he was. What do you need to test somebody like that for?" he said.

Noting that Phillips is in jail for violating his probation, Goldberg said, "All he has done is fulfill his prophecy."

The big game

The NFL is still repaying Fox for the $1.58 billion it paid for the rights to NFL games.

As usual, it gave Fox the big game of the year on a Sunday -- Dallas at Green Bay on Nov. 23 -- instead of putting it on Monday night, where it would have been a natural. In past years, it has given the Dallas-San Francisco game to Fox instead of putting it on Monday night.

This year, Dallas-Green Bay is the big one because Green Bay has lost seven straight games in Dallas the past four years, including three playoff games, and now gets a crack at the Cowboys at (drum roll, please) L-a-m-b-e-a-u Field.

The strange thing is that the way the NFL set up the schedule, the game won't be shown in two of the three biggest markets in the country -- New York and Chicago. New York will miss it because the Jets play an NFC team (Minnesota) at home and Chicago won't see it because the Bears are home. Baltimore fans will miss it, too, because the Ravens play an NFC team at home (Arizona) that day, although the Packers will be shown in Washington because the Redskins play host to the Giants on Sunday night.

Maybe this is a way for the NFL to try to market its Sunday Ticket package on small satellite dishes.

Rivalry

Just in case there was any doubt that Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke isn't a fan of the Ravens, the Washington Post reported last week that Cooke isn't talking to reporters from the paper. He's annoyed, among other things, that the paper is covering the Ravens.

He's also not happy that the paper criticized him for trying to call the area where the stadium is being built Raljon for his two sons, although it's actually in Landover.

Cooke feels the 91 buyers who have bought boxes at the Ravens' stadium would have bought boxes at his stadium if the Ravens didn't exist, even though he never marketed the team in Baltimore when he was trying to build a stadium in D.C. and Virginia.

Even though the stadium is being built in Maryland, it's still virtually a Virginia team. The team's training complex is in Virginia and most players and executives -- including Cooke -- live in Virginia.

Be that as it may, Cooke will continue to refuse to play the Ravens in the exhibition season even though the Redskins have to play them in the regular season Oct. 26.

Another chance

Towson State's Tony Vinson has been cut by the San Diego Chargers and Falcons, but he's not giving up pro football.

He'll be back in the World League this spring after setting a single-game rushing record last year for the London Monarchs against the Amsterdam Admirals when he gained 212 yards.

His fiancee even agreed to put off their wedding so he could take another shot at the World League. "She has been great about putting it off," he said.

Monarchs coach Lionel Taylor said jokingly, "Tony's got his whole life to be married."

Vinson has yet to set a new wedding date until he finds out if he'll get invited to an NFL training camp this summer.

The six World League teams just finished camp in Atlanta and will start the regular season April 12-13. All 30 regular-season games will be broadcast in the United States on the Fox cable network. The World Bowl, though, will be televised by Fox on June 22. That may be a quid pro quo for Dallas-Green Bay.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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