Pro football's title contenders, the Miami Dolphins among them, stepped closer to the Super Bowl on Saturday when the champion San Francisco 49ers moved aggressively to protect their territory, trading up to gain UCLA wide receiver J.J. Stokes.
The question of the NFL's 60th draft is whether the acquisition of Stokes will be enough to offset the many hits that the five-time champions have taken in the off-season: the loss of running back Ricky Watters and other free agents, the defection of quarterback-of-the-future Bill Musgrave, the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan and the presumed departure of Deion Sanders, the league's defensive MVP.
All this adds up to a demonstration that in the NFL these days, springtime is more than draft time. The other things that count heavily--sometimes more heavily than drafting--are the ability to sign helpful free agents, the knowledge to make wise trades, and the luck and skill needed in the age of free agency for a team to hang onto its own stars.
And in the 1995 spring sweepstakes--in which the 49ers were drubbed before rallying to capture Stokes--Coach Don Shula may have placed the Dolphins first.
During Saturday's opening two rounds, Shula, who drafted poorly for more than a decade before recovering in recent years, selected two offensive linemen who in the view of some scouts can start for the Dolphins this year. They are Billy Milner of Houston and Andrew Greene of Indiana, who at the advanced age of 26 ranked in 1994 with the Big Ten's better guards.
Those decisions climaxed a big spring for the Dolphins, who had previously brought in, among others, the best of the tight ends, former Pittsburgh Steeler Eric Green, and a veteran defensive end, Trace Armstrong of the Chicago Bears.
Armstrong's career suggests that he was worth at least what he cost the Dolphins in trade, their second- and third-round picks.
Green, a free agent, cost only money.
The NFL in recent years has been a two-tiered league--with San Francisco and the Dallas Cowboys on one level, and the others far behind--but in the spring of another draft, the old league appears to have taken a giant step toward overall parity.
--Shula, with Dan Marino apparently still in his prime, is once again on track for the Super Bowl.
--The Cincinnati Bengals made the prize deal of the day, trading up to take Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter.
The significance of that action is to be measured against what has been going on this spring in the AFC Central, where, as the Bengals lagged in the free-agent market, the Cleveland Browns seemingly leapfrogged the Pittsburgh Steelers by signing free agents Andre Rison, Lorenzo White and others.
--The Philadelphia Eagles also traded up to take Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula, climaxing a spring in which they got, among other free agents, 49er Super Bowl star Watters.
--The St. Louis Rams, who hired sound football man Steve Ortmayer just too late for Chuck Knox and his Anaheim fans, continued their strong spring performance with a decision that gives new Coach Rich Brooks the nation's best college defensive player, lineman Kevin Carter of Florida.
--The Cowboys couldn't even find anyone to draft in the first round. They traded their choice, extending a dismal spring in which they have lost, as free agents, wide receiver Alvin Harper, defensive back James Washington, center Mark Stepnoski, special-teams killer Kenneth Gant and others.
Dallas' talent drain began a year or two ago with the defection of linebacker Ken Norton, defensive tackle Tony Casillas and four coaches who, as a group, are among the best that ever worked together in the NFL: Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, Norv Turner and Butch Davis.
The great Johnson team of 1992--except for Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, who can't do it all--is no more.
--The 49ers, perhaps also headed for the parity division, are at least still playing boldly. With Rice, Steve Young and now Stokes, they can win one more Super Bowl before it all falls apart.
Led by a new coach, Mike White, and old guru, Al Davis, the Raiders clearly won the day in the AFC West division with the drafting of Washington running back Napoleon Kaufman.
There were bigger backs on the board when Davis acted, but few tougher and none faster than Kaufman, who can be a star here as a rookie.
That would continue a tradition. For seven years, Raiders chosen first in the draft have all made a contribution, and four have made the Pro Bowl--Chester McGlockton, Terry McDaniel, Tim Brown and Steve Wisniewski.
The San Diego Chargers will be hard to beat again, but the others in the AFC West are regrouping with new coaches, new players or both.
The odds are that Denver Coach Mike Shanahan will in time be a handful, but he went into this year's draft the hard way--minus choices in the first three rounds.
The expansion teams won the draft and, as well, the spring sweepstakes. Their assets now: