As expected, Patriots make Sims top choice; Pro football grabs spotlight with player draft, trades

Like a dandelion that has its day no matter what, pro football's draft momentarily pokes through the baseball, basketball, and hockey news each spring to take a bow. This year the National Football League really laid it on heavy, enhancing the annual selection of college stars with two major day-of-draft trades, an intriguing pre-draft swap, and a highly publicizedfree agent signing.

In order, the principals were Bert Jones, Russ Francis, Tom Cousineau, and Renaldo Nehemiah. But more about them later.

The man of the hour was really defensive lineman Kenneth Sims of Texas. As the very first player selected in the draft, Sims became the NFL's King for a Day, the player every franchise would give its eyeteeth for.

As often happens, the top choice was known weeks ago. The selection only had to be formalized. New England, the NFL's worst team in 1981, happily obliged, securing the 6 ft. 5 in., 265-pounder to begin the two-day draftathon.

Sims, whose family background bears a marked resemblance to that of another University of Texas product, Earl Campbell, may just make an similar impact in the NFL. Some scouts consider him head and shoulders above every other player coming out of college to the point of calling him a ''one-man draft.''

Ron Meyer certainly didn't have to be convinced. The Patriots' new coach saw enough of Sims from the Southern Methodist sideline in his previous job. The only question was about a leg injury, from which Sims has made a full recovery judging from numerous tests.

There's so much pre-draft publicity and speculation these days that the identity of the top draft candidates are as public as utility poles.

Everybody knew that quarterbacks Art Schlichter of Ohio State and Jim McMahon of Brigham Young would go high, as would Heisman Trophy winning runner Marcus Allen of Southern California, but nobody knew exactly when.

In a mild surprise, Schlichter was taken ahead of McMahon by Baltimore, which sent disgruntled starter Bert Jones to Los Angeles for the Rams' first-round choice. Art, who was actually the Colts' second pick after linebacker Johnie Cooks, did not finish his collegiate career with quite the fanfare that he began it, and some thought his wobbly passes made him suspect.

McMahon had the credentials (55 NCAA passing and total offense records), but not the size (six feet, 180 pounds) most pro clubs are looking for. Chicago was happy to take him, though, and new Bears' Coach Mike Ditka won't hesitate to throw him to the NFL wolves early.

Allen was one of seven running backs selected on the opening round, but not the first. That distinction belonged to Stanford's versatile Darrin Nelson, a running and pass catching threat Minnesota wants for its new fast-track domed stadium, even though he balks at the idea of playing for the Vikings.

Atlanta grabbed Arizona State's Gerald Riggs before Oakland finally tabbed Allen with the 11th overall pick. Other running backs selected were Baylor's Walter Abercrombie (Pittsburgh), Richmond's Barry Redden (Los Angeles), Michigan's Butch Woolfolk (New York Giants), and San Jose State's Gerald Willhite (Denver).

Some of the fun, of course, actually began before the draft ever started, with the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers winning the Renaldo Nehemiah sweepstakes and Buffalo sending Cousineau to Cleveland in a blockbuster transaction.

The 49ers weren't the only team after the world's nonpareil 110-meter hurdler , but they made him the best offer, signing him to a four-year deal potentially worth

.5 million.

If that seems like a lot of money for someone who never played a down of college football at Maryland, consider that Nehemiah is not simply a blur on the track. He was a high school quarterback and more recently supplied convincing proof of his all-around athletic prowess by winning TV's Superstars competition each of the last two years. The football players were particularly impressed with his strength, evident when he pressed 265 pounds to finish second in weightlifting.

Renaldo can catch the ball, too, as he proved time and again in private tryouts, and could join Russ Francis, Freddie Solomon, and Dwight Clark to give San Francisco a super receiving corps. The 49ers landed Francis, an all-pro coming out of retirement, in a trade with New England.

To NFL watchers, Cousineau has been something of an invisible man. Three years ago he was in the same position as Sims is today, the prestigious first player chosen in the draft, only he resisted Buffalo's efforts to sign him and headed for Montreal and the Canadian Football League.

The former Ohio State linebacker could conceivably shore up the middle of any defense, which is why he became such a hot property after playing out his CFL contract. The Houston Oilers approached him with a multi-million dollar offer, but couldn't sign him until Buffalo was given a chance to match the amount. The Bills did, then turned right around and dealt him to Cleveland for several future, high-round draft picks.

The Browns did not give up their top choice this year, however, and used it to acquire yet another linebacker, Southern California's Chip Banks.

Some believe Buffalo possibly wanted to repay the Oilers for pursuing Cousineau by shipping him off to one of Houston's division rivals. Whatever the case, the return of the native Ohioan made big waves, since his contract (a reported $3.5 million over five years) makes Tom the highest paid player in league history. If the figures are correct, they could set a new salary standard around the league and undermine efforts by the players' union to paint a conspiratorial picture of NFL owners.In their current negotiations over a new basic contract, the players have argued the owners purposely avoid bidding against one another for the services of free agents.

Cleveland obviously felt it had a major weakness at the heart of its defense and moved boldly to remedy the situation in much the same way San Francisco went heavily for defensive backs a year ago.

With NFL teams so evenly balanced these days, the lesson seems to be that you don't just build through the draft anymore, you sometimes win with it - right away.

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