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First Come, First Served
Perhaps never before has a pro sports league paid so much money and gotten so little in return. That's the story of the first round of the NFL's 1991 draft. Through Sunday, the 10th week of the season, only 11 of the 27 first-round picks had been in starting lineups, and just two—tackle Pat Harlow of the Patriots and safety Stanley Richard of the Chargers—had started all of their teams' games.
Those top 27 rookies were handed a total of $40,887,500 in signing bonuses, with the first three choices—defensive tackle Russell Maryland of the Cowboys, safety Eric Turner of the Browns and cornerback Bruce Pickens of the Falcons—accounting for $9.4 million of that. And none of the three has started a game.
Even Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who jumped to sign Maryland and fellow first-rounder Alvin Harper on draft night, concedes that the system has gone beyond ludicrous. "In our entire society—in any business—the paying of that huge money to unproven players is the most imprudent use of financial resources I know of," says Jones.
So why do the owners do it? They are unable to say no to aggressive player agents, who now more than ever hold their clients out of camp until the agents get the money they want. And this year, the owners didn't say no even though the '91 draft pool, in every expert's eyes, was a weak one.
The Cowboys traded up to get Maryland, despite their belief that while he would develop into an above-average performer, he probably would not become a consistent Pro Bowl player. Three months later they traded for Tony Casillas, who became a starter at defensive tackle with Danny Noonan. Maryland is splitting time at backup with second-year pro Jimmie Jones. The only 1991 first-rounders who've made an impact on their teams are Richard, who is San Diego's fourth-leading tackier; Bronco linebacker Mike Croel, who has eight sacks; and Patriot back Leonard Russell, who leads his team in rushing with 548 yards.
In their proposals to the players for a new collective bargaining agreement, the owners are trying to establish a system—a form of salary scale—that will funnel much of the money being paid to rookies to veterans who have proved their worth. Jerry Jones says such a system is the most important element of any new deal with the players.
No Cowboy veteran resents Maryland's good fortune; he's a workaholic and a likable guy. It's the system that the players hate. "It's not fair, just or right," says safety Ray Horton, a nine-year pro. "The longer you're in the league, the more you pull your hair out."
A postscript: It is standard procedure for players to be docked [1/17] of their annual salary for every game they miss while holding out in a contract dispute, and Pickens missed five games before signing a five-year, $7.25 million deal on Oct. 4. But the Falcons, in order to get the contract done, went ahead and paid Pickens his full salary for the five weeks, $132,350, during which he did absolutely nothing. That's an insult to Atlanta veterans like safety Brian Jordan, who led all NFL defensive backs in tackles last season and whose 1991 base salary is $185,000.
When Will We Learn?