As Nfl Changes, So Does Its Draft Top Picks Won't Be Able To Command Big Salaries As They Did In The Past.

Posted: April 22, 1993

It's all a matter of timing.

Six years ago, Clyde Simmons was a little-known defensive end out of Western Carolina. The Eagles picked him in the ninth round of the NFL draft and Simmons rewarded them by developing into an all-pro.

This year, in the new, slimmer eight-round draft, a player such as Simmons would not even be picked.

It's all a matter of timing.

Last year, Steve Emtman, the giant defensive tackle from Washington, was the top pick of the draft. The Indianapolis Colts signed Emtman to a four- year, $9 million deal, making him the top-paid defensive player in history before he ever played a down.

This year, under the league's new rookie-wage pool, a player such as Emtman would earn just a fraction of that salary.

The rules that made Simmons an Eagle and Emtman a wealthy man have been scrapped. The NFL is changing, with free agency and labor peace, and the draft is changing with it. When the 58th annual collegiate lottery begins at noon Sunday, fans will notice some differences:

* The draft will run eight rounds, rather than the customary 12. While that may sound trivial, consider that at least 100 players on NFL rosters last season were chosen in rounds nine through 12. Now, those players must try to

hook on with teams as free agents.

* A wage pool will limit the amount each club can pay for all of its rookies. The Eagles, for example, have about $2.3 million to spread among eight picks. The bottom line is that rookies will fight each other for the same limited dollars, and none will strike it rich.

* There will be a longer first round. To ease the pain of two free-agent defections, NFL owners agreed to create an extra spot at pick No. 13 for the Eagles (for losing Reggie White) and at No. 20 for the Cardinals (for losing Tim McDonald).

Given the languorous pace of the process, the Eagles' first pick Sunday probably won't come before 2 p.m. Their regular first-round pick, No. 24, could come as late as 4 p.m. The NFL plans to draft four rounds on Sunday and another four starting at 10 a.m. Monday.

The extra spots created for the Eagles and Cardinals have become a source of controversy around the NFL, which is trying hard to avoid controversy these days. Phoenix owner Bill Bidwill gladly accepted the compensation for losing McDonald, a Pro Bowl safety, to the San Francisco 49ers. But Eagles owner Norman Braman, who did little to try to re-sign White, has loudly complained that he's not getting enough for losing his top defensive player - even though the league awarded him another first-round pick in 1994. Braman even tried to block the labor settlement in court.

Braman's griping has infuriated officials at other clubs. Publicly, they have been careful not to crab about being pushed back a spot or two in the first round. Privately, however, one NFC general manager said: "I don't see why we're rewarding a guy who didn't see the importance of keeping Reggie White. He gains a premium player (through a draft pick) and my club gets notched down. And he's moaning?"

Regardless, the NFL's decision means there will be 29 picks in the first round, rather than the usual 28. (The New York Giants spent their first-round pick last spring by selecting quarterback Dave Brown in a supplemental draft.) So the champion Dallas Cowboys' first-round pick - No. 29 - will come where the second round used to be.

Following everything so far?

The shorter draft is easier to understand. NFL players had hoped to scrap the draft under the new settlement; owners wanted to keep it intact. The compromise was to cut from 12 rounds to eight this year and seven thereafter.

At first glance, the impact of four fewer rounds appears marginal. After all, most good NFL teams are built with early draft picks. The Cowboys lined up for the Super Bowl with eight No. 1 picks among their 22 starters. Seven of their other starters were picked in rounds two through four.

On the other hand, the Cowboys had four starters taken after the eighth round, including cornerback Larry Brown, a 12th-round pick in 1991. The Buffalo Bills, Dallas' Super Bowl opponents, had nine players on their roster drafted in rounds nine through 12, including Pro Bowl tackle Howard Ballard.

The Eagles had seven such players on their 1992 roster: Simmons, Mike Flores, Izel Jenkins, Mark McMillian, John Booty (originally drafted by the Jets), Mike Golic (drafted by the Oilers) and Vai Sikahema (drafted by the Cardinals).

"Teams that have been able to find those hidden gems late in the draft tend to be the most successful," said San Diego Chargers coach Bobby Ross. ''Now, we'll just have to pursue them as free agents."

Indeed, 112 players who would have been drafted last year must now find jobs on their own. The smart organizations that Ross refers to will move quickly after the draft to latch on to the sleepers, projects and small- college stars. Remember, Johnny Unitas was a ninth-round pick and Bart Starr was a 17th rounder.

Late-round picks - and early-round picks - will find another big change this year: Money. Actually, make that the lack of money.

The labor settlement set a team-by-team wage cap for rookies, based on where a club picks and how many draft choices it has. Basically, the average club gets to spend about $2 million. The Eagles, with two first-rounders and no fifth-rounder (it went to Buffalo for Leon Seals) can spend about $2.3 million.

The wage cap should have several effects. First, no rookie will walk away with the four-year, $8 million bonanzas that top prospects received in recent years. As the NFL foresees it, the average first-rounder will probably sign for three years and about $1.5 million.

"That makes a lot of sense," said Will Wolford, an all-pro tackle for the Bills who is now a free agent. Wolford was a first-round pick in 1986 and his huge salary drew resentment from older teammates. "Even though I benefited, as a question of fairness, I think it's better to give more money to the veterans and make rookies prove themselves."

Perhaps so, but rookies and their agents are not likely to agree. If Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe is the first pick of the draft, will he quietly sign with the Patriots at a fraction of what he would have earned a year earlier?

"Well, he has no choice," said Packers general manager Ron Wolf. "The only way the cap will present any difficulty is if you're dealing with a real jerk as an agent who really doesn't understand the problems. Of course, we've all dealt with that in the past. But there won't be any advantage to holding out."

In fact, rookies will find a disincentive to hold out as they have in the past. With a fixed amount of money available for the entire rookie pool, it will be first come, first served. A player who waits too long may find the cupboard is bare.

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