Run on QBs, daring deals make Day 1 of '99 NFL Draft one to remember
Posted: Sunday April 18, 1999 02:41 PM
By John Donovan, CNN/SI
ATLANTA (CNN/SI) -- Quarterbacks were wild Saturday in an historic, newsy first day of the NFL Draft. But it was the running backs -- and a bold move by the New Orleans Saints -- that really made Day 1 of the annual pickfest one to remember.
Tim Couch, the Kentucky quarterback who left the Wildcats after his junior season, was selected as the first overall pick by the expansion Cleveland Browns, who were participating in the city's first draft since Art Modell moved his franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season.
Couch was followed quickly by Syracuse's Donovan McNabb and Oregon's Akili Smith, picked by the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cincinnati Bengals, respectively, completing the first quarterback trifecta at the top of the draft since 1971. It all started, though, with some late-night intrigue in the hours leading up to the draft.
The Browns had been torn between Couch and Smith, and even had considered Heisman Trophy winning running back Ricky Williams at one time. They came to a tentative agreement with Smith late Friday night on a seven-year, $48 million deal, including a $12.25 million signing bonus.
They then went to Couch and told his agent, Tom Condon, that if he didn't take the same deal for Couch, the Browns would finalize their deal with Smith.
Condon took the deal, and Smith wound up dropping to the Bengals at No. 3.
"We play those guys twice a year," Smith said of the Browns. "That's going to motivate me a lot."
In all, five quarterbacks went in the Top 12 picks, including Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper to the Minnesota Vikings (at No. 11) and UCLA's Cade McNown to the Chicago Bears (at No. 12).
This draft was made even more historic because McNabb, Smith and Culpepper are all African Americans. The three black quarterbacks selected Saturday are as many as have ever been taken in the first round. The previous three: Doug Williams in 1978, Andre Ware in 1990 and Steve McNair in 1995.
"It's about time," Smith said.
As socially important as the first round was, the gutsy trade by the Saints, and a stunning decision by the Indianapolis Colts (who picked No. 4), overshadowed it.
The Colts, who traded Pro Bowl running back Marshall Faulk earlier in the week, were expected to pick Heisman Trophy winning running back Ricky Williams of Texas. Instead, the Colts decided to pass on the player who many thought could be a No. 1 pick, opting instead for unheralded Miami running back Edgerrin James.
"It was basically a tie with him and Ricky Williams," Colts general manager Bill Polian said, "but Edgerrin's ability in the passing game made us feel he was the best fit with Peyton Manning [the No. 1 pick last season]. He has exceptional hands, catches and adjusts to the ball very easily. He runs nice routes and has exposure to the passing game."
The Saints then made the boldest -- or the most foolish -- move in recent draft history by trading their entire draft, and a couple more picks next year, to the Washington Redskins, who were due to pick next. Coach Mike Ditka gave up the eight picks to grab Williams, a player he had coveted for weeks.
"I love the kid, everything about him. It's what we need," said Ditka. "I think he's going to show people he's the best college football player coming out. He gives us what Walter Payton gave Chicago."
Williams, who scored more touchdowns and ran for more yards than anyone in college football history, was visibly stunned by the Colts' decision to pass him over.
"It was kind of a shock to be the second running back, but I'm glad to go to the New Orleans Saints," he said. "It's flattering to know the Saints made a deal like they did. Now, I hope I can justify that."
There were other surprising first-round moves. Wide receiver Torry Holt went to the St. Louis Rams at No. 6, and wideout Troy Edwards of tiny Louisiana Tech went to the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 13, both of them going much higher than anyone had anticipated.
But the Colts' dismissal of Williams, and Ditka giving up his whole draft for him, is what had NFL war rooms buzzing from Seattle to Miami.
Ditka had tried to work a similar deal with the Browns so he could get Williams, and he tried several other clubs at the top of the draft. One of them was the Bengals, who sorely need a large infusion of talent.
But Bengals president and general manager Mike Brown decided to go with the strong-armed Smith.
"It was hard to turn down, but we did," Brown said. "We have gone a long time here trying to solve our quarterback problem. I am convinced that is our principle problem. We've got to get it resolved at some point on a satisfactory basis."
The Redskins used their cache of picks from the Saints to trade around some more -- and they still landed the player they wanted, Georgia cornerback Champ Bailey.
Another big Round 1 winner was the Arizona Cardinals, who took Ohio State wide receiver David Boston with their first first-round pick (No. 8) and tackle Lonnie Shelton with their second pick in the first round (No. 21). Both are projected as starters on a team with a rapidly improving defense and an offense led by exciting quarterback Jake Plummer.
"We can line up as well as Minnesota, and that's what we're going to do," Cardinals director of player personnel Bob Ferguson said. "That was a big push from my perspective -- to give us as many weapons as we possibly can to win a Super Bowl. Sometimes you've got to outscore people, and you've got to have the weapons to do it."
Other highlights of the first round:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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