It's appropriate that the first pick in the last NFL draft of the 20th century could come down to which of two players will be easier to sign. Late Sunday afternoon, as a 12-man Cleveland Browns delegation returned home after being wowed by Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch at a workout in Lexington, Browns officials prepared to hunker down for three days of meetings to decide whether they should take Couch or Oregon quarterback Akili Smith with the first pick in Saturday's draft.
Once Cleveland decides which player to select, Browns president Carmen Policy said Sunday night, team capologist Lai Heneghan will begin informal talks with the quarterback's agent. "If we feel we can't get a deal pretty much done before noon on Saturday," says Policy, "we could turn to the other player, or we could trade down."
Don't be fooled. Though Cleveland will weigh all its options—including trading the top choice for a rich package of picks and/or players and taking a final hard look at Texas running back Ricky Williams—it will almost certainly wind up selecting Couch or Smith. Will it be Couch, the chalk pick, a player from the one-stoplight town of Hyden, Ky., who started 24 games in three seasons as a Wildcat and has considered the NFL his destiny since grammar school? Or will it be Smith, the yearling closing fast, the San Diegan who going into last season hadn't even locked up the Ducks' starting job and was hoping merely to hook up with an NFL team as a free agent in 1999?
Browns rookie coach Chris Palmer was significantly happier after Couch's Sunday workout than he had been when he walked into the Kentucky football field house two hours earlier. As he squinted into the sun on a pristine spring day in thoroughbred country, he knew he'd be content staking his coaching future on Couch or Smith: "I guess it's appropriate to say that they're neck and neck coming down the stretch."
If anything, Couch's impressive 115-pass performance confirmed to the Browns' delegation—including billionaire owner Al Lerner—that he has an arm strong enough to slice through the devilish winds that blow off Lake Erie. Cleveland general manager Dwight Clark, the former San Francisco 49ers receiver, found that out firsthand. Early in the workout Couch threw an intermediate-range bullet that spiraled through Clark's hands and slammed nose-first into his sternum. "Don't ever let anyone say you don't have enough arm," Clark told Couch later.
"I think I moved ahead today," Couch said after a postworkout burger and fries with the Browns' brain trust. "I think they'll pick me."
News of Couch's impressive show traveled fast to Washington, D.C., where Smith was watching the Philadelphia 76ers—Washington Wizards NBA game at the MCI Center. "I guess," Smith said glumly, "the top pick is Tim's to lose."
That Smith is even in the company of Couch on draft eve is startling. After throwing for 8,159 yards and 73 touchdowns in his last two Kentucky seasons, Couch has been painted as this year's Peyton Manning—polished on and off the field. Smith could be dismissed as a one-year wonder. But because Couch directed a variation of the run-and-shoot at Kentucky, it's difficult to predict how suited his game is to the NFL. At least half of his collegiate passes were dump-offs, screens, curls or short crossing routes; last season 74% of his 553 attempts traveled 10 yards downfield or less. Andre Ware and David Klingler, the seventh and sixth picks out of Houston in 1990 and '92, respectively, were run-and-shoot quarterbacks who flopped in the NFL. Thus the Browns' need to see Couch a second time. He'd previously worked out for 43 NFL scouts and coaches on March 11.
On the other hand, Smith played in an orthodox NFL-style offense in college, and he blew away the competition in '98 with a 32-touchdown, eight-interception season. Last year Smith averaged an NCAA-high 10.1 yards per attempt, Couch a pedestrian 7.1. Palmer, the former offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, will use a multiple offense that will rely more on intermediate and deep throws than most NFL teams use, maybe making Smith a better fit for the Browns.
If the decision comes down to signability, Smith's agent, Leigh Steinberg, has always been aggressive about working with teams to satisfy their cap concerns and is the agent closest to Policy. But Couch's agent, Tom Condon of Cleveland-based IMG, knows that Couch's family is dying for him to be the No. 1 pick. That's the money factor. Here are the football factors: