NEW YORK -- Darnell Autry, a budding thespian, played the leading role in a bittersweet NFL draft drama yesterday.
Autry, a theater major at Northwestern, was one of the big losers in the draft when he slid to the fourth round before the Chicago Bears selected him with the ninth pick of the fourth round after he passed up his senior year to enter the draft.
That means Autry will likely be playing this fall for the $131,000 minimum salary after he gets a modest signing bonus.
If Autry had stayed in school and moved up to the second round next year, he would have made a lot more money, but he didn't sound disappointed at the unfortunate turn of events for him.
Maybe he's already a good actor, but he said, "Good things come to those who wait. All I ask for is an opportunity to play and contribute."
He also insisted he had no second thoughts about coming out of school.
"No, sir, not at all. I'm too grateful for having the opportunity and I'm excited about the future. I was OK with it. I didn't have huge expectations on when I was going to be drafted. No one knew. I was being patient, knowing it would pan out," he said.
The only positive for Autry was that going to the Bears means he can continue to attend classes at Northwestern and work toward a degree.
Although he led Northwestern to the Rose Bowl a year ago, Autry was just the latest big-name college player who wasn't rated as a blue-chip prospect by the scouts. Even though he rushed for 1,675 yards and 1,386 yards the past two years, he didn't have either the dazzling speed or the ability to break tackles that wow the scouts.
Another junior running back, Alex Smith of Indiana, who rushed for 1,248 yards last season, suffered an even more frustrating fate. He left school and wasn't even drafted so now he'll have to try and make it as a free agent.
But it's not unusual for big-name college players to drop to the second day of the draft.
The other prime example yesterday was the Heisman Trophy winner, Danny Wuerffel of Florida, who led the team to the national championship, but doesn't have a big arm.
Wuerffel's selection sets up an interesting duel with Heath Shuler for the chance to replace Jim Everett as the Saints' quarterback.
The Shuler vs. Wuerffel battle will be a study of contrasts. Shuler -- the third pick in 1994 by the Washington Redskins -- has much more athletic talent than Wuerffel, but lacks his intangibles.
"The guy's a winner," Ditka said of Wuerffel. "He's a true winner on every level he's ever played. I know you're going to hear all those so-called experts say that 'he can't, and he can't and he can't' but you've got to look at all of the cans. I think the greatest criteria for evaluating anyone is on what you've done."
Like Autry, Wuerffel sounded upbeat even though he lasted until the fourth round.
"I wasn't expecting anything, but I was prepared for everything. I'm really excited about the place and time that I went," he said.
He didn't even complain about being downgraded by the scouts.
Wuerffel was the third quarterback taken in the draft after Virginia's Jim Druckenmiller, who went to San Francisco on the first round, and Jake Plummer of Arizona State, who went to Arizona on the second round.
Quarterback Pat Barnes of California, who was coached last year by San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci, who went for Druckenmiller, was selected 11 picks after Wuerrfel by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Unlike Autry and Wuerffel, most of the players drafted yesterday are household names only in their own households. There are more suspects than prospects.
But in the salary cap era, these players can be valuable and almost three-quarters of the players drafted on the second day last year made NFL rosters. That's because they mostly play for the $131,000 minimum and they save teams money under the cap. Two rookies cost about the same as one five-year veteran making the $275,000 minimum.
Of course, some players were simply underrated and make it big after being drafted on the second day. The Denver Broncos' Terrell Davis, a sixth-round pick in 1995, and the Miami Dolphins' Zach Thomas, a fifth-round pick last year, are just two examples.
Five teams, the Ravens, Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and Bears, had eight picks on the second day. By contrast, the San Francisco 49ers and the Broncos, who only selected a total of three players, had a combined total of one pick. The 49ers didn't have a pick the second day.
Jimmy Johnson, the coach of the Dolphins, wound up with 14 picks and predicted 10 would make the team.
It will be interesting to track the obscure players that the Jets, Saints and Falcons got for the draft picks they collected while trading away the first three picks in the draft.
The Jets, for example, started out with six picks before they traded the top pick in the draft. They wound up selecting 11 players, have one pick left next year and traded a seventh-round choice to the Eagles for defensive end Ronnie Dixon.
But Jets coach Bill Parcells made just three of those 11 selections in the first three rounds, so if the second-day selections don't make valuable contributions, it will be difficult to justify giving up the top pick.
Citing his salary cap problems, Parcells said, "We have to try to create opportunity to allow ourselves to change our team. We didn't have $10 million under the cap to go and change it that way. We have to try to change it another way."
One of the more intriguing picks in the draft was the Eagles' decision to draft quarterback Koy Detmer of Colorado on the seventh round. His brother, Ty, ended last season as the Eagles' starting quarterback, but is now involved in arbitration over a provision calling for a bonus if he became the starter unless it was because of an injury. Detmer said he won the job and is owed a bonus while the Eagles argue he only replaced an injured Rodney Peete. It's now uncertain if Ty Detmer will be back, but the Eagles still took his brother.
The final player selected on the seventh round with the 240th pick was Army quarterback Ronnie McAda, who'll probably be switched to a running back if he plays when his military commitment is over.
He'll be honored in June as Mr. Irrelevant during Irrelevant Week in Newport Beach, Calif.
Pub Date: 4/21/97