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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.