Cougs in the NFL: A weekend of comings and goings

COUGAR defensive stars <b>Raonall Smith</b> and <b>Lamont Thompson</b> were selected in the second round of the NFL draft on Saturday, but three of their touted teammates -- <b>Billy Newman, Dave Minnich</b> and <b>Nakoa McElrath</b> -- were overlooked and now entertain free agency offers.

Smith, a second team All-Pac-10 selection at outside linebacker last season, was selected by the Minnesota Vikings as the 38th player overall. Based on his performance during the Senior Bowl practices and NFL combines, Smith was thought to be one of the premier outside linebackers available. At the March combine, he ran a 4.5-second 40, notched a 42-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot-5 broad jump, and bench-pressed 225 pounds 26 times.

Free safety Thompson, a first team All-American, became the 41st pick of the draft when the Cincinnati Bengals called his name. Draft guru Mel Kiper termed Thompson's pick one the best values of the day. After sitting out the 2000 season with a neck injury, he led the Cougars in tackles and recorded 10 of his Pac-10 career record 24 interceptions last season. He was also named the MVP of the Sun Bowl following a two-interception performance in the Wazzu victory over Purdue. He also impressed at the combine, running 4.53 and 4.54 40s.


At least three more Cougars were thought to be potential picks on day two of the NFL draft. But as the 7th and final round closed on Sunday, safety Billy Newman, receiver Nakoa McElrath, and running back Dave Minnich had not been selected.

However, McElrath has signed as a free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Newman had done likewise with the Tennessee Titans. There's been no official word on Minnich yet, but the Baltimore Ravens have reportedly shown interest.

Three other Cougars, punter Alan Cox, tight end Mark Baldwin, and offensive lineman Joey Hollenback, were also thought to have good chances of entering the big leagues via free agency. Of the trio, only Hollenbeck has caught on with an NFL club, signing with the St. Louis Rams.


The biggest news on day two of the draft involved the number one pick…from 1993. Former Cougar quarterback Drew Bledsoe was dealt from the New England Patriots to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for the Bills' number one pick in 2003.

Bledsoe was in Pullman as a guest of Cougar coach Mike Price over the weekend. Price invited former Cougar players now in the NFL to reconnect with their Crimson past and offer advise to Washington State players looking to play at the next level.

He was joined by fellow Cougar pros Dorian Boose, Steve Gleason, Chris Hayes, and Milton Wynn.

Hayes, an NFL safety who played linebacker at WSU, was traded from the New York Jets to the Patriots about a month ago. He had been with the Jets for five seasons, starring on special teams and starting at safety for much of the 2000 season. In his 1996 rookie season in the NFL, his lone year with the Green Bay Packers, he won a Super Bowl ring.

Word out of New Orleans is that Gleason, a late-season addition to the Saints' roster last fall as well as the year before, has made a real impression on coaches with his speed, work ethic, head cracking and spirit. Barring injury, look for Gleason to make the Saint's 45-man roster coming
out of August camp. The Bourbon Street grapevine says coaches think Gleason could become the next Bill Bates, the long-time Dallas Cowboys mainstay of the 1980s and '90s who built a handsome career out of special teams and spot DB duty.

Boose, a defensive end, is now a member of the expansion Houston Texans. He spent his first three seasons with the Jets after being picked by them in the 2nd round of the 1998 draft. He started two games for the Washington Redskins in 2001 before being selected by Houston in the expansion draft.

After having his collegiate career cut short by an eligibility snafu, Wynn was picked in the 4th round by the St. Louis Rams in last year's draft. He later joined - - and is currently on the roster of - - the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.


After witnessing ESPN's draft coverage, what with their video highlights and vertical leap analysis of even the most obscure 7th round draftees, I reflected on a simpler time when things like recruiting, spring practices, and NFL drafts barely were blips on the radar screens of all but the most ardent sports fans.

To illustrate just how much times have changed, I offer this anecdote from my childhood: When Spokane native and Notre Dame All-American Mike Oriard was drafted in the 5th round by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1970, his family was delievered the news by an 8-year-old boy who'd heard it on KHQ TV. That boy, me, was friends with David Oriard, Mike's younger brother and currently the sports copy editor extraordinaire of the Spokesman-Review.

As for the poking and prodding the NFL performs these days, that was virtually unheard of back in the day. In fact, prior to being drafted by the Chiefs, Oriard was never timed in the 40, his broad and vertical never measured, and no scout ever asked him to bench press a single rep. In fact the only pre-draft contact KC had with him was to verify the height listed for Oriard in the Fightin' Irish media guide was accurate.

Stay tuned to throughout the week for Cougar free agent signings.


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