Browns again using leverage as their No. 1 negotiating tool; Like last year, team pushing hard to lock up top choice before draft


NEW YORK -- LaVar Arrington understands the way the Cleveland Browns like to negotiate when they have the No. 1 pick in the draft.

"I thought Cleveland was going to take Akili Smith last year and they took Tim Couch. I heard they did a pre-draft deal with Akili Smith and ended up taking Tim Couch. You never know what's going to happen," he said yesterday at a pre-game luncheon for five of the top prospects in this year's college draft, which opens at noon today.

The Browns used Smith as leverage to get a draft deal done with Couch hours before the draft started last year, for a signing bonus of $12.25 million.

The Browns told Couch's agent, Tom Condon, that they'd sign Smith if he didn't reach an agreement with them before the draft. Smith, upset at being used for leverage, then went third to Cincinnati and gloated when he led the Bengals to a victory over the Browns.

The Browns appear to be doing the same thing this year, with Arrington playing the Smith role and his Penn State teammate, Courtney Brown, playing the Couch role.

Team president Carmen Policy said this week the organization favors Brown by a nearly 2-to-1 margin over Arrington. That's mainly because Brown is a defensive end and they're more difficult to find than linebackers.

But the Browns want to avoid a holdout and get the first player signed before they select him. Brown and Arrington are rated so close that Arrington remains an option if the Brown talks hit snag.

The Browns were negotiating with Brown's agent, Marvin Demoff late last night and seemed to be closing in on a deal.

The main issue this year is that the Browns don't feel the top pick should match Couch's contract because Couch was a quarterback and quarterbacks are usually the highest-paid players.

Policy said in an ESPN interview last night that the talks with Demoff were going "better than anticipated" although it wasn't finished yet.

Last year, the Browns reached a middle-of-the-night deal with Condon, and Leigh Steinberg, Smith's agent, didn't find out his player wasn't going to be the top pick until he was told by a reporter when he arrived at the draft.

Policy said that "if necessary" the Browns could negotiate with Arrington's agents, the Poston brothers, Kevin and Carl. But that would happen only if the deal with Demoff isn't finalized.

Arrington admitted he wants to be the first player picked.

"You grow up wanting to be No. 1. It's the American way to be No. 1. Everybody wants to be No. 1," he said.

Said Brown: "To be the first player picked, man that's real honor. It'll be a blessing to be the first one picked. I feel I'll be fine in either situation."

The other situation is going to Washington with the second pick. The Redskins, who also have the third pick, will take the Penn State player the Browns pass on with the second choice and are expected to take Alabama offensive lineman Chris Samuels with the third pick.

Samuels revealed that Arrington expects to join him in Washington.

He said when he met Arrington for the first time before the luncheon, he said, "What's up teammate?"

"We kind of laughed about that. If we get together, we'll help the program out a lot in Washington," Samuels said.

Peter Warrick, the Florida State wide receiver, is expected to the fourth player selected by the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I feel like I'm the best player in the draft," he said. "I'm the best at what I do. That's just me."

He was certainly the most colorful at the luncheon. While the other four players wore suits, he wore a sports shirt with a soft cap made of the same material as the shirt.

Unlike Arrington, Warrick doesn't seem to have a burning desire to be the top pick.

"At this point right now, it doesn't matter where I go. My dream was to be in the NFL, not to be the first pick," he said.

Warrick, who came back from serving a two-game suspension after he got an illegal discount at a department store to score 20 points in the Sugar Bowl, said, "I think people judge me by what I did at Dillards. I know what I did was wrong, but I'm a better man from that."

He added, "Man doesn't forgive, but God does. That's all that matters."

Virginia's Thomas Jones, who is rated as the top running back on most draft boards, said he didn't have a preference about where he's going to be drafted, but added, "I like Baltimore. Jamie Sharper [a former Virginia player] is up there. That'd be a great place to end up."

The Ravens haven't indicated they plan to draft Jones with the fifth spot. But most players would be happy to be drafted by the Ravens in the fifth slot if the team doesn't trade down. That's because the player drafted in that slot last year (Ricky Williams) got a signing bonus of $8.8 million while the player selected in the next slot (Torry Holt) got a $5.4 million signing bonus.

The New York Jets, who traded Keyshawn Johnson for two first-round picks on Wednesday and then traded a second-round pick to move up from 16 to 12 on Thursday, weren't able to swing another deal yesterday but were trying to move up. They have a record four first rounders.

The Jets are likely to make more deals today, but their maneuvering may not get a warm welcome from the Jets' fans at draft headquarters because the trading of Johnson was not a popular move.

The first three rounds of the draft will be held today with the final four tomorrow.

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