Art Rooney Jr., who put together all those great Steelers drafts of the 1970s, used to have this objection to the best-available-athlete theory of drafting. "You can find all the great athletes you want in the Olympics," he'd say, "except that half of them are women and the other half don't like football."
Well, Rooney would be happy now because the best-availables have gone the way of the blacksmith. Free agency has changed the NFL, so you draft a guy to fill a specific need, plug him in and hope that he'll give you 50 to 60 snaps a game right away. If you draft the best available athlete and bring him along slowly, then maybe in three or four years, when he's ready to make his move, his contract is up and it's sayonara. "You look for early ability to play," says Bengals player personnel director Pete Brown. "To develop a player for someone else is self-defeating."
Free agency will occasionally bring in a veteran who can put a team over the top—Reggie White with the Packers, Deion Sanders with the 49ers and, to a lesser extent, the Cowboys—but the draft is still the proven source of success. The nucleus of strong teams remains homegrown talent.
"The more you study free agency, the more you realize the money you're wasting," says George Young, the former general manager of the Giants who left the club in January to become the league's senior vice president of football operations. "A guy coming in from the outside might not fit your chemistry. A player has a comfort zone with the people around him; he fits in a niche. He goes to a different team, maybe the niche isn't there. I remember studying George Allen. He did as good a job of picking up veterans as anybody. But as good as he was at fitting them in, he never won it all.
"There are seven rounds of the draft now, and you can't afford to make many mistakes. People have more patience. A lot fewer draft choices are cut than there used to be."
This year's crop of players is deep and talented. The richest talent areas are at running back, offensive line and secondary, which could eat up half of the first-round picks. "Usually you get eight or so premium players on top, then there's a drop-off," says Bengals coach Bruce Coslet. "This time you've got the Big Five, but the rest of the first round is solid, too. There's quality through the next three rounds."
The Big Five will probably go in this order: quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, then defensive end Andre Wadsworth, cornerback and Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson and running back Curtis Enis. Which team takes which is another matter. Once you get past the two quarterbacks—the Colts haven't said for sure which they'll take with the first pick, leaving the other one for the Chargers—the next three spots in the draft order are up for grabs. This is Deal Week in the NFL, and the action this year figures to be near the top.
The Cardinals are willing to trade out of the third spot, but their asking price is so high—two No.1s, plus veterans—that other teams have been scared off. The Raiders, picking fourth, with a creaking secondary and the worst defense in the league last season, seem a natural for Woodson, rated the best defensive back to come out since Sanders in 1989. Strangely enough, Oakland is also talking trade. Seems that Al Davis is nervous about Woodson's agents, the Poston brothers, who held out last year's top pick in the draft, tackle Orlando Pace, until the third week of the exhibition season.
The Jaguars, with the ninth and 25th picks in the first round, are one of the teams trying to move into the Bears' spot, at No. 5, but say they won't give up both first-rounders for Enis. (Woodson might be another story.) The Patriots also have two picks in the first round—Nos. 18 and 22—and, having lost their premier runner, restricted free agent Curtis Martin, to the Jets, they would love to get Enis. But New England also says it will part with only one of its top picks to move up. Though they have only one first-round choice (No. 14), the Panthers are in the hunt for Enis too, unless they have to surrender that selection to complete a trade for Redskins defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, a franchise player who has already agreed to terms with Carolina.
Finally, there are the Rams, who, as they did last year, have the sixth pick and are desperately trying to put together a package to move up. St. Louis would like Enis, but coach Dick Vermeil says that the price of moving up is higher than it was last year, when he sent the Jets first-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round selections in the '97 draft for the opportunity to select Pace.