INDIANAPOLIS -- Remember this name: Aundray Bruce.
It is a name that, at least in the annals of Atlanta Falcons history, will live in infamy. The name of one of the biggest first-round busts ever in the draft. The name of the player the Falcons were forced to select with the first overall choice in the 1988 draft because, in a year when there was no consensus franchise-type prospect, Atlanta couldn't find a trade partner that would allow it to deal down and bail out of the top spot.
Left holding a choice it would have virtually given away had another team demonstrated any interest, Atlanta opted for the Auburn linebacker.
And, in a very short period of time, came to regret it.
Merely conjuring up the name of Bruce -- who played only four years in Atlanta and, in an itinerant 11-year NFL career, started just 42 games -- should be enough to send chilly shivers up the spines of San Francisco 49ers officials. That's because this year the woeful 49ers, who won but two games in 2004, own the first overall pick. And as was the case in '88, there hasn't yet galvanized the usual subset of six or seven can't-miss prospects, let alone a singular, must-have player.
Which means that if the San Francisco brass is waiting for another franchise to knock its socks off with an offer for the first overall selection on April 23, well, the 49ers are likely to be staring a long time at a telephone that doesn't figure to ring much, if at all, as draft boards begin to take shape leaguewide over the coming weeks.
Every draft is about options. But if a quick survey Thursday of general managers, head coaches and owners resulted in anything remotely legitimate, it is this: Neither the 49ers nor any other team in the top five will have the option of trading down in the first round because no one is anxious to deal up.
It is, cringe, the very situation in which the Falcons found themselves in 1988.
In truth, resurrecting the Aundray Bruce Debacle might be a tad hyperbolic, since such remarkable futility is difficult to repeat, even though it's a new millennium. Surely, the Niners' brain trust, even if it puts the names of its half-dozen highest-rated players on a wall and tosses darts to make a selection, will do far better than to spend millions on a player who averaged a paltry 2.9 sacks per season over the breadth of his nondescript NFL tenure.
The analogy, however, shouldn't be so summarily dismissed.
After all, in 1988, the Falcons didn't invest a huge $15 million signing bonus on Bruce. Seventeen years later, the price of owning the first overall choice is exponentially higher, and, of course, so is the risk factor. Every draft, as Buffalo team president Tom Donahoe pointed out Thursday morning, is little more than a crapshoot, even in a bountiful year. The cost of rolling snake-eyes with any high-round choice, but even more so with the top overall pick, can approach the average nightly house earnings at any Las Vegas casino.
Noted one NFC owner who is here observing the annual predraft combine workouts: "The price of doing business with a top-five pick is bad enough. But doing business with a top-five pick in such an unsettled environment, where no one seems to know who the best players are going to be, boy, that's a killer. I wouldn't want to be in [the 49ers'] shoes. Because unless something pretty drastic happens, and I don't think it will, they're going to have to wear those shoes. And they might not find a Cinderella pick to fit into them. About the only consensus right now is that nobody wants to move up [in the first round], and pay maybe $20 million in guaranteed money for a guy who might just be a decent player and nothing more than that."
Over the last several drafts, there has been a perception at combine time that the player chosen with the 20th overall pick might be just as good as the one chosen with, say, the fifth spot in the first round, and there has been some validity to that. Such a feeling is particularly palpable here, as personnel directors and scouts stroll the corridors of the Indiana Convention Center, already convinced that holding the rights to a top-10 pick in the 2005 lottery is like owning the deed to 10 acres of swampland.
Step too quickly into the selection process, botch the pick on a player who collects an eight-figure signing bonus and scores single-digit touchdowns in his career (anyone remember Blair Thomas, the New York Jets' choice in 1990, the second player taken overall in that lottery?), and there's eventually going to be a sinking feeling.
Not surprisingly, the 49ers don't see things that way, of course. Either rookie head coach Mike Nolan was just playing the role of eternal optimist Thursday or he had been sniffing laughing gas before his session with the assembled media. Or, then again, perhaps the 49ers and their refurbished scouting department, now presided over by new personnel chief Scot McCloughan, know something about this year's draft class, or its supposedly elite members, that no one else has yet to discern.
During his stint in Baltimore as an assistant coach, Nolan got a bit spoiled, since general manager Ozzie Newsome and personnel director Phil Savage annually made solid, wise draft decisions. But no matter how much homework the 49ers do, how prudent they are in considering the possibilities, how diligent they are in plumbing the pluses and minuses of every player in the draft class, it might not matter.
The pool of talent is so shallow at the top end that not even careful examination before leaping guarantees safe results. What should be a springboard choice for the 49ers, a pick that provides San Francisco a foundation for its rebuilding, could turn out to be a loud belly-whopper off the 10-meter platform. Not so long ago, even Nolan feared that might be the case.
"A month or so ago," he said, "I was kind of worried about that myself."
And now? Well, Nolan and McCloughan and the rest of the key decision-makers in San Francisco apparently are convinced they have located a 20/20 prism through which to view a draft class most other franchises have grown cross-eyed trying to evaluate.
"I'd say we have four or five guys on our board we think are worthy [of being the top pick]," Nolan insisted. "Those names will change as we go along."
It's notable that, during his Thursday session, Nolan relied on the perception-versus-reality paradigm in discussing the two-victory team he inherited. Notable and, just maybe, appropriate, too. Because the perception is that prospects such as quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of California and Utah's Alex Smith, Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards, any of the top three tailback prospects, even a few defensive players might be viable candidates for the No. 1 draft spot.
The harsh reality is that, in a draft that appears at this point to lack any prospect clearly worthy of premier status, any of the contenders could turn out to be Aundray Bruce, too.
Around the league
• No matter how the Laveranues Coles situation plays out in Washington -- whether he is released, traded or remains with the Redskins in 2005 (the least likely scenario) -- the very fact the team is prepared to dump its best wide receiver is further indication of how little owner Dan Snyder understands the significance of continuity. In each of the past two seasons, Snyder declared that the Redskins roster was stable, and that it would be the club's composition for at least the ensuing three seasons. But every time his club fails to reach the playoffs, Snyder panics and the turnover process begins anew. Make no mistake: Snyder deserves credit for his commitment to fielding a championship team. He definitely puts his money where his mouth is and, unlike many of his fraternity brothers in the NFL ownership clique, isn't satisfied with mediocrity or the league's healthiest financial bottom line. But football is a game in which a team can't afford to simply plow things under every season and start over in the rebuilding process. Just two years ago, the Redskins invested a $13 million signing bonus in Coles and sent the New York Jets a first-round draft choice as compensation for signing the fleet wideout as a restricted free agent. Common sense and, more important, football sense dictates that you provide those investments an opportunity to reap dividends. So what if Coles is unhappy with the Joe Gibbs-designed offense, a passing game that rarely goes vertical? The guy is under contract, and you make him play. The rationale that you don't want an unhappy player in the locker room, especially in the case of Coles, is vastly overrated. Coles is a player, a guy who will show up every Sunday, even when he isn't getting the ball enough. Word is that the football people in Washington, including Gibbs, aren't thrilled with Snyder's hair-trigger decision to jettison Coles, and, if that's the case, no one can blame them. Snyder operates under the theory that the grass is always greener, that you make yourself better by bringing in a busload of new players every spring, that free agency is his personal shopping mall. In the NFL, though, the franchises that most often succeed over the long term are the ones that give their own grass a little time to mature.
• Here's an interesting bookkeeping tidbit that applies to the Coles affair: League rules now stipulate that a team acquiring a player in a trade is only responsible for the portion of his contract "moving forward." So any team trading for Coles will only have to pay the segment of his deal that applies to the 2005 season and beyond. That team would not be liable for the $5 million deferred signing bonus payment Coles is due on April 1. The upshot is that, if the Redskins deal Coles, they will still have to make that $5 million payment, which was part of the $13 million signing bonus they awarded the wide receiver two years ago. Late breaking on the Coles front: The player the Redskins most covet in a Coles deal is Jets wide receiver Santana Moss. Of course, New York would love to get Coles back, but there are still so many entanglements that no one seems certain a deal can be completed.
• The top left offensive tackle in unrestricted free agency, some teams feel, might not even be a tackle. There are several teams suggesting Green Bay left guard Mike Wahle, who will be released by the Packers in the next few days for salary cap reasons, actually might project better to the more significant left tackle spot. That's certainly good news for Wahle and agent Neil Cornrich since, as has been pointed out here many times, tackles get bigger contracts than guards. Wahle, 27, actually looks more like a tackle, a long and rangy lineman (6 foot 6, 307 pounds) who moves well and always has been a strong technician in pass protection. The seven-year veteran was forced to play left tackle in the Packers' playoff game this year because of injuries, and he performed well. The teams to whom we spoke Friday feel Wahle, down the road, is probably a better tackle prospect than Jonas Jennings of the Buffalo Bills, probably the most high-profile tackle in the free-agent pool. Wahle is due a $6 million roster bonus next week, which is why the cap-strapped Packers will have to release him.
• As much as any in recent memory, the 2005 predraft combine here already has been marked by plenty of huddles between teams and player agents. Walk the corridors of the Indiana Convention Center, duck into the lobby of any of the hotels that are within two or three blocks of the RCA Dome, and you're apt to happen upon a general manager and agent deep in conversation. The reason: This is the center of the NFL universe, and with free agency beginning on the heels of the combine's conclusion next week, teams and agents are laying the verbal groundwork for deals. Talking with the agent of a player still under contract is, of course, a violation of the NFL anti-tampering rules. But as one ol' coach once noted, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying." Let's just say there's a whole lot of trying going on here this weekend. In addition to the setting up of free-agency deals, there is considerable discussion about trades, about reworking some contracts, about figuring ways to find cap room. The agent for Green Bay safety Darren Sharper is to meet Friday with Packers representatives who want his client to accept a salary reduction. The agent, Joel Segal, likely will remind new general manager Ted Thompson that, although Sharper had a subpar season, he played much of 2004 with a partially torn knee ligament. Still, Sharper's future employment in Green Bay likely rests with his amenability to some kind of contract restructuring. Also on Friday, Ralph Cindrich, the agent for Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese, was to huddle with Bucs officials. Griese is due a $6 million roster bonus next week, and the Bucs will not pay it. They want to sign Griese to a new, more palatable deal, and, if that isn't accomplished, he will be released. The agents for many of the players released this week already are seeking out coaches and general managers to pitch their clients to. And prominent agent Drew Rosenhaus, as usual, is trying to interest teams in his pending free agents while also lobbying other clubs to upgrade some clients' contracts. With free agency now so close to the combine, this has become a fact of life here: While much of the action takes place in the RCA Dome, with the draft workouts, the real intrigue is transpiring in hotel lobbies and bars, where the real bargaining takes place.
• Speaking of Rosenhaus, he recently was retained by a pair of big-time wide receivers who opted to switch representation, Javon Walker of the Packers and Chad Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals. It's a given that Rosenhaus, who has acquired 25-30 new veteran clients over the past 18 months or so, will attempt to rework the contracts of the two wide receivers. A proven dealmaker, and coming off an incredible '04 season in which he negotiated several landmark deals, Rosenhaus might have his work cut out for him on both accounts. Johnson's contract runs through 2009, with base salaries of $1 million (for 2005), $2.75 million (2006), $3 million (2007), $3.4 million (2008) and $3.6 million (2009). The usually thrifty Bengals signed Johnson to an extension just two years ago and certainly will resist efforts to reopen his deal. Walker, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2004, is under contract for two years and set to earn base salaries of $515,000 in 2005 and $650,000 in 2006. Those contract numbers certainly are dwarfed by Walker's production in 2004, but the Packers are cap-strapped and might not be very inclined to an extension at this point. Of course, never underestimate Rosenhaus, who can be a very persuasive guy. Here's a Rosenhaus coup: By acquiring Johnson as a client, he now represents each of the top three wide receivers currently under contract to the Bengals, with Peter Warrick and Kelley Washington also in his stable. If the Bengals fail to re-sign pending unrestricted free agent T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who already is getting plenty of interest before the market even begins, Rosenhaus will own a monopoly on Cincinnati's three-wideout "nickel" look.
• One of the most-discussed free agents here is wide receiver Derrick Mason, released earlier this week in the Tennessee Titans' salary cap purge, and a Pro Bowl-caliber guy who, even at age 31, remains a terrific playmaker. The consensus is that, because he didn't become a starter until four years ago and was used primarily on kick returns until then, Mason is a "young 31," with plenty of gas left in the tank. A lot of people here feel Mason will end up with the New York Jets, where he would be reunited with onetime Titans teammate Justin McCareins and former Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. Certainly the temptation of playing again with a wideout such as McCareins, and in an offensive system he knows well, will be strong. But don't pencil in Mason to the Jets just yet. For openers, he is somewhat leery of Heimerdinger, who was known in Tennessee to be tough on his charges. More important, though, is that Mason will have a lot of options and teams such as Jacksonville, Houston and Carolina will come hard after him in the next few days.
• The three-year contract Drew Bledsoe signed with the Dallas Cowboys on Wednesday pretty much defines the length of the gestation period the franchise has planned for Drew Henson. How so? Bledsoe's contract is worth about $14 million, but the final year is pretty much a "dummy" season, a campaign in which the total compensation is so prohibitive the player will never see the money. The Cowboys guaranteed the 2006 portion of Bledsoe's deal so, with his $2 million signing bonus and his base salaries for the first two years of the pact, he will pocket $5 million. Then, in all likelihood, Bledsoe will be off to retirement. That means Dallas has until the 2007 season to get Henson, the former University of Michigan star who took a four-year hiatus from football to pursue a baseball career with the New York Yankees, ready to play. There are some Dallas staffers who feel it definitely will take that long for Henson to prove himself worthy of starter's status. Then again, since coach Bill Parcells is only under contract through 2006, most of those coaches might not be around in 2007 to see whether Henson can cut it.
• Not since the 2001 megadeal involving Michael Vick have the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers been involved together in a trade. That drought could be about to end. Well, sort of. The Chargers this week released veteran Tim Dwight, the kamikaze return man who actually began his NFL career with the Falcons in '98 and who, coincidentally, was a major component in the Vick deal. Despite an injury-plagued stint in San Diego, where he missed 17 games in four seasons and failed to develop into the full-time wide receiver the Chargers were convinced he could be, Dwight is still highly regarded in Atlanta. The special teams coach when he was drafted, Joe DeCamillis, still holds the same spot on the Atlanta staff. And, as it so happens, the Falcons might need a new return specialist since their Pro Bowl standout, Allen Rossum, is scheduled for unrestricted free agency and is seeking big dollars Atlanta might be unwilling to shell out. So where does the trade angle come in? Well, guess which player the Chargers are eyeing as a potential replacement for Dwight, the guy who tops their special teams wish list, according to several sources? Drum roll, please -- Allen Rossum, of course. Chargers officials are tentatively set to meet with Rossum's agent this weekend on general matters. Bet the mortgage Rossum's name is worked into the conversation. Should they lose Rossum to San Diego in free agency, or to any other team for that matter, look for the Falcons to vigorously pursue Dwight, a fan favorite during his previous three-year stint with the club.
• It wasn't as if the Jacksonville Jaguars were absolute sad sacks with their pass rush in 2004. After all, the Jaguars finished 17th in the league, with 37 sacks, just slightly below the NFL average of 37.4 quarterback kills. The problem for Jacksonville, and one management has vowed to rectify in the offseason, was that the ends provided little upfield pressure. The Jags' ends accounted for just 11½ sacks, and 5½ of those were from linebacker Greg Favors, who was forced to play end in "nickel" situations. Coach Jack Del Rio doesn't want to create a pass rush with smoke and mirrors again in 2005 and that means Jacksonville, finally out of salary cap jail and armed with some spending room for a change, will ardently pursue a veteran free-agent end. And that end will be Denver Broncos unrestricted free agent Reggie Hayward, a player the club is desperate to retain so he can play linebacker in their new 3-4 alignment but whose price tag could prove prohibitive for coach Mike Shanahan. Just 25 years old, Hayward has emerged as an effective pass rusher over the past two seasons, collecting 19 sacks in that stretch, including a career-best 10½ in 2004. Given his youth, and the fact that he is just starting to learn some of the finer points of pass rushing, Hayward seems to have his best years ahead of him. The Jaguars hope those best years are with them. One big selling point Jacksonville officials will make to Hayward or, for that matter, any defensive end they pursue: Playing with the monster defensive tackle tandem of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, each of whom were on the AFC Pro Bowl squad this year, means an end isn't going to face much double-team blocking. The two big mashers inside will just continue to beat up linemen and allow the ends to go one-on-one with the offensive tackles. That has to be a pretty attractive sales pitch.
• Some pretty disingenuous claims from Daunte DiTrapano, the agent for Randy Moss, in broadly suggesting the Atlanta Falcons were interested in his client. Truth is, it was DiTrapano and Moss pushing for a trade to Atlanta, where the flashy wideout hoped to hook up with Michael Vick, but the Falcons had little interest in taking on Excedrin Headache No. 84. On Tuesday, even as the Vikings and Raiders were closing in on the Moss deal, DiTrapano was still phoning Falcons general manager Rich McKay to see whether he could spark something. McKay actually phoned Minnesota officials and told them to have DiTrapano quit calling him. On the other hand, DiTrapano isn't fibbing when he claims the Baltimore Ravens, the other team for which Moss desperately wanted to play, were involved in the trade talks. The Vikings kept asking for strong safety Ed Reed or pass-rushing linebacker Terrell Suggs in every trade package they proposed, though, and the Ravens weren't about to part with either star defender, not even for Moss, who would have dramatically upgraded their limp and inexperienced wide receivers corps.
• Look for the New Orleans Saints to make a quick and aggressive run at Fred Miller, the right offensive tackle who was part of the Tennessee Titans' bloody payroll purge earlier this week. New Orleans officials will allow their incumbent at the position, Victor Riley, to depart as an unrestricted free agent. Riley played well at times during his time in New Orleans, but team officials never really warmed to him, and feel they can do better. And even though Miller is about 18 months older than Riley, he appears to be the player with whom the Saints feel they can make an improvement. Signing nine-year veteran Miller, whose representative already has been contacted by New Orleans, also would buy the Saints more time to develop Jon Stinchcomb, a second-round choice in 2003. Stinchcomb hasn't played much in his first two seasons, but the Saints still hold him in high regard. They just don't believe he is ready to be a starter yet. One other team to watch with Miller is St. Louis, where he began his career. The Rams are attempting to rebuild their line, and it's a given that tackle Kyle Turley won't be back, not with the acrimony that exists between him and coach Mike Martz. Miller played four seasons in St. Louis and was the starting right tackle on the team's Super Bowl XXXIV victory after the 1999 season before departing in free agency just a month after the championship win.
• Any team looking for a proven quarterback to serve as a veteran backup, a passer who has won big games but carries a very modest financial price tag, might want to place a call to the Pittsburgh Steelers. With wunderkind Ben Roethlisberger now firmly entrenched as The Man, the Steelers are quietly dangling Tommy Maddox as trade bait. Teams could do worse than to consider Maddox, who, given his time away from the game, when nobody wanted him, is a pretty young 32 years old. It probably wouldn't take too much to pry Maddox away, and he certainly could provide a very inexpensive insurance policy. Maddox is under contract for three more years -- at base salaries of just $750,000 (in 2005), $900,000 (2006) and $1.3 million (2007). That is three years of security and, at less than $1 million per season, it's a steal. The one surprise about the Steelers trying to move Maddox is that they have no other proven backup currently on the roster. Of course, Pittsburgh could attempt to re-sign veteran Charlie Batch, a hometown guy who missed all of 2004 with a knee injury.
• Last week, we noted in this space that the Cleveland Browns might make a call to gauge what it would take to wrangle two-year veteran quarterback Chris Simms away from the Bucs. This week's candidate for potential perusal: New England backup Rohan Davey. The Browns this week interviewed LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher for the position of quarterbacks coach and pumped him pretty good about Davey, whom he coached in college. The top offensive player in the NFL Europe League last spring, Davey seems to be running in quicksand with the Patriots, and he isn't about to get any playing time unless Tom Brady goes down with an injury. And there continues to be speculation that New England will seek a more veteran backup. All of the quarterback talk in Cleveland quickly can be rendered irrelevant, of course, if journeyman passer Kelly Holcomb re-ups with the team rather than testing the free-agent market. The Browns have made a formal proposal to Holcomb, are awaiting his response and hope to have things settled fairly quickly. As noted here last week, Holcomb isn't going to get a better gig than the one being offered him in Cleveland, where the dearth of experience among the other quarterbacks on the depth chart all but assures him of the starting job.
• Punts: Just a couple of weeks after failing again to be elected to the Hall of Fame, former New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson suffered another ignominious moment. His son, Donald, plays basketball at Savannah State. The school recently concluded an 0-28 season, the NCAA's first winless hoops campaign since Prairie View A&M failed to notch a win in the 1991-92 season. The elder Carson was on hand for Savannah State's final defeat of the season. ... The Carolina Panthers don't expect tailback Stephen Davis, still rehabilitating from knee surgery, back until just before July training camp, if then. That means oft-injured DeShaun Foster figures to be the starter. ... The real value of a Super Bowl ring? Former New England reserve cornerback Leonard Myers, a backup in the Pats' victory in Super Bowl XXXVI, recently sold his ring on eBay. His asking price was $25,000. There were 29 bids, and the ring sold for $32,600. ... The Broncos are finding few takers for four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce, whom they are attempting to trade, and might have to lower their expectations. Denver had hoped to land a second-round pick in return, but Pryce is coming off back surgery that limited him to just two games in 2004, and potential suitors are wary, to say the least. ... It appears that Chicago, Tampa Bay and Buffalo are the finalists in the Lonnie Shelton trade derby. The Arizona Cardinals are hell-bent on trading their former first-round offensive tackle, and a deal that would send him to the Bills for tailback Travis Henry remains a strong possibility. ... The Panthers have all but decided to cut ties with Pro Bowl wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and allow him to depart in free agency. Muhammad is due a $10 million roster bonus next week and, since he recently turned down the team's latest offer that would ameliorate his cap hit, there seems little chance of consummating a new deal. ... San Francisco might have some interest in quarterback Brian Griese if he is released by the Bucs. ... Free-agent quarterback Jeff Garcia, cut by Cleveland earlier this week, might be inclined to accept a backup role with less pressure if the situation is right. Despite rumors tying him to Detroit and Tampa Bay, Garcia is not close to a deal right now. ... Detroit team president Matt Millen is said to be holding his coaching staff more accountable than in the past for the club's record. Millen feels that the Lions have sufficient talent on hand now to challenge for a playoff spot.
• The last word: "Any team in this league that has dared to be great has seen the other side of it. If you are willing to take a shot, at some point and time you are probably going to have to fight through some of those tough times." -- Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese, after being forced to release six prominent veterans for salary cap reasons this week.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.