The NFL Draft used to be the greatest auction in America. Now all it is is The Draft, Part II, a battle to snatch up the USFL's leavings.
By conservative estimate, the new league has already signed nearly one-third of the top players available—26 of the 84 who would have gone in the first three rounds, 32 of the top 100. They've got the best two runners, Herschel Walker (who joined as a junior) and Mike Rozier; the best quarterback, Steve Young; the best defensive lineman, Reggie White; the best offensive tackle, Mark Adickes; the best center, Mike Ruether; the best tight end, Gordon Hudson; and the best kicker, Tony Zendejas. And wait, they might still take more. There's always the publicity value of grabbing some of the NFL's choices, even though the USFL season will be more than two months old when the NFL drafts next week.
What's the NFL's reaction? Well, so far the league has been represented by the firm of Layback & Watchit. Let 'em take what they want, boys. We'll get what's left. Plenty of players to go around, right? Don't take 'em on straight up. Too expensive that way. Wait till May, when the price comes down. Let 'em go broke signing those fancy names.
The personnel men hate this philosophy, but as the Patriots' Dick Steinberg says, "It's their football. We don't have to pay these guys, the owners do." The personnel guys want the draft moved up so they can get an equal shot at the choice prospects they've been watching so carefully for four years. But from the owners you get such statements as:
"They've taken some first-round draft choices we'd like to have, but first-round choices don't mean that much. When you look back a few years to any draft, the real measure is what happened to the players taken in the middle rounds." That's Patriot owner Billy Sullivan.
And from the Chargers' Gene Klein, who's trying to sell his club: "Stars don't draw crowds in football. Teams do."
How short our memories are. Joe Namath, remember him? Or how about Red Grange, who filled the Polo Grounds in 1925? Or Otto Graham in the old All-America Football Conference?
Superstars can breathe life—and a new TV contract—into a struggling league, and no matter what players the NFL drafts next week, the USFL has already won the superstar battle, unless you're thrilled about the likes of Stanford Jennings (Furman) and Alfred Anderson (Baylor), who'll probably be the first runners picked, or Boomer Esiason (Maryland), the only quarterback who figures to go in the first round. The Patriots traded away two first-round picks to move into Cincinnati's No. 1 spot in the entire draft, and they'll use the pick to take Nebraska wide receiver Irving Fryar. But if this were a normal year, Fryar would probably go about fifth, after Walker, Rozier, Young and White.
Not to worry, say the NFL owners. This is a war of attrition, and the USFL will run out of money before we do. And they point to the great signing imbalance among USFL teams as a cause of mounting discontent in the young league. The Los Angeles Express, with G.M. Don Klosterman flourishing Bill Oldenburg's checkbook, has signed 14 rookies who ranked in the top 100, including four who would have been first-rounders. The closest teams to the Express in signing blue-chippers are the New Jersey Generals and the Memphis Showboats, with three top 100 players apiece. It's checkbook football, and it's a turn from the salary-cap concept, which enticed many of the league's original owners into buying USFL franchises.
At their March meetings, the NFL owners tabled the idea of pushing the draft back to February and said they'd discuss it again at their May meetings, when they'll probably table it again until the October sessions. No sense tipping your hand too soon, Sullivan says.
Not every owner favors the waiting game. Al Davis of the Raiders naturally takes a minority position. So does the Dolphins' Joe Robbie.
"I want us to have an equal opportunity to sign players, even though it would cost more money, and I'm not sure that it would," Robbie says. "If you took 'em on at the point of attack, maybe they'd back off a little. Maybe they'd be going for different athletes, to make sure they got their fair quota. At any rate, we've got to find out just what the price would be. It's what is known as competition, and you've got to pay the price of competition.
"We have to compete to maintain the excellence of our product. But all you hear around the NFL is, 'So what if we lose 30 percent of the good players?' It's the same mentality that says, 'So what if I finish fourth in my division? I'll make just as much money.' "
In the old days the NFL might have had a secret draft, or at least the first round would have been locked up—and baby-sitters assigned to those choices—before the other league went to bat. This year there was some pressure on Cincinnati, the team with the first choice, to decide on its pick early and get the guy signed so the second team could do likewise, and on down the line. "Getting a daisy chain going wouldn't have been a bad idea," Pete Rozelle says. But the weakness of that scheme was, well, Cincinnati. The Bengals aren't exactly free spenders. They talked to Brigham Young quarterback Steve Young, listened to the numbers he was asking for, went into deep hibernation for a couple of months and then threw up their hands and said, "This is madness." They dealt the pick to New England, winding up with three first-round choices who'll cost them less, in toto, than Young would have. The daisy-chain idea was dead.
Trading down seems to be almost everyone's aim this year—dealing that high first-round pick for lower-level saturation bombing. The teams drafting second, third and fourth—Houston, the Giants and Philly—were all open to offers to trade down as late as a couple of weeks ago, and that still might happen. The reason is that there are very few keynoters in those very high positions, very few players that teams will do anything to get, like Eric Dickerson or Curt Warner last year. Instead, there's a solid block of good, sturdy offensive and defensive linemen who would normally be middle to low first-round picks.
"Last year there were first-rounders who had you frothing at the mouth, guys you felt could revolutionize your team—John Elway, Eric Dickerson, Chris Hinton," Cleveland executive Ernie Accorsi says. "Now the lights aren't as bright."
Coaches have mixed feelings about an earlier draft. The Falcons' Dan Henning says the danger is drafting players and then losing them; with the traditional date, you'll have a much better shot at signing the guys you do draft, although they won't be as good. But Cleveland's Sam Rutigliano favors head-to-head competition. "Right now the USFL has problems with its TV ratings," he says. "So move the draft up. Take 'em on at the marketing level. We have to."
One scout says it would be foolish to draft a "crowd pleaser" in the first round, a quarterback or runner, because those are the positions the USFL goes after—by pooling its money.
"If you think the Generals are paying all of Walker's salary, or the Express is covering the whole package for Young, you're mistaken," he says. "There's a league pool. Every USFL team is assessed for part of those salaries."
"Not a bad idea, but it isn't true," says USFL director of operations Peter Hadhazy. "Every team is on its own."
And so far they've done a pretty good job of dimming the lights on what used to be one of the NFL's showcase events. Draft Day. Surely you remember it....
It's eye-opening that Rozier is the second straight Heisman winner to skip the draft.
The NFL wanted Young to be the start of a chain, but he linked his fortunes with the USFL.
The Pats packaged two picks in the first round for the No. 1 they'll use for Fryar.
Rutigliano wants to move the NFL draft up.
Sullivan pooh-poohs the USFL's signings.
Oldenburg (left) and Klosterman have played havoc with the draft.
HOTSHOTS WHO HOTFOOTED IT OVER TO SPRING FOOTBALL
According to NFL scouts polled by Paul Zimmerman, 32 of the top 100 draft prospects are already in USFL livery. Here they are, in the rounds the NFL would have picked them. The USFL teams that signed them are in italics.
Herschel Walker, RB, Georgia (New Jersey)
Mike Rozier, RB, Nebraska (Pittsburgh)
Reggie White, DT, Tennessee (Memphis)
Steve Young, QB, BYU (L.A.)
Gary Zimmerman, G-T, Oregon (L.A.)
Mark Adickes, T, Baylor (L.A.)
William Fuller, DT, North Carolina (Philadelphia)
Allanda Smith, CB, TCU (L.A.)
* Gordon Hudson, TE, BYU (L.A.)
Freddie Gilbert, DE, Georgia (N.J.)
Duane Gunn, WR, Indiana (L.A)
Wayne Peace, QB, Florida (Tampa Bay)
Buford Jordan, FB, McNeese State (New Orleans)
Mike Ruether, C, Texas (L.A.)
* Robert (Big Bird) Smith, DE, Grambling (Arizona)
Vaughan Johnson, LB, North Carolina State (Jacksonville)
Kevin Mack, RB, Clemson (L.A.)
Kevin Nelson, RB, UCLA (L.A.)
Danny Knight, WR, Miss. State (N.J.)
Don Maggs, T, Tulane (Pittsburgh)
Derrick Crawford, WR, Memphis State (Memphis)
Derek Kennard, G, Nevada-Reno (L.A.)
Lee Williams, DE, Bethune-Cookman (L.A.)
James Robinson, DT, Clemson (L.A.)
Mike Johnson, LB, Virginia Tech (Philadelphia)
Albert Bentley, RB, Miami (Michigan)
Walter Lewis, QB, Alabama (Memphis)
Gerald McNeil, WR, Baylor (Houston)
Daryl Goodlow, LB, Oklahoma (Oklahoma)
Lupe Sanchez, CB, UCLA (Arizona)
Dwight Drane, S, Oklahoma (L.A.)
Tony Zendejas, K, Nevada-Reno (L.A.)
* Would have been first-rounders, except for injury.
"TOP 100" players signed, by USFL teams: Los Angeles (14); New Jersey, Memphis (3); Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Arizona (2); Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Houston, Oklahoma, Michigan (1); Birmingham, Denver, Washington, Chicago, Oakland (0).