And a busy spring it's been already, what with the hoopla surrounding the Patriots dealing Drew Bledsoe to Buffalo, and Lamont Thompson and Raonall Smith being chosen in the second round of the draft. But that's just the tip of the crimson and gray iceberg when it comes to Cougs in the pro ranks.
A TALE OF TWO QUARTERBACKS
Starting with Bledsoe: For a city desperately seeking success, Buffalo has treated his arrival like the second coming of Jim Kelly. Both his arrival to the Bills and departure from New England have been lessons in class - - a word often associated with Bledsoe. Buffalo fans turned out in the thousands for a welcoming rally for their new QB replete with the playing of the WSU fight song. Around that same day, the Walla Walla grown QB purchased a full page of the Boston Globe to thank and say goodbye to Pats fans.
Things aren't looking so rosy for the anti-Drew, Ryan Leaf. The Cowboy QB recently missed a week of mini-camp and QB school due to a virus. Not good timing. Dallas has six QBs on the roster and word out of Ewingville is that Jerry Jones isn't likely to drop $500,000 on a projected third stringer. Look for Leaf to pop up on the waiver wire if the Cowboys are unable to trade him.
By the way, when Leaf was waived by Tampa Bay early last season, receiver Milton Wynn replaced him on the Buccaneer roster.
Things couldn't be going smoother for Smith at Minnesota. Viking coach Mike Tice has praised Smith's performance at mini-camp and said he'll likely be the starting weak side linebacker when the 2002 campaign gets underway. Defensive coordinator Willie Shaw has been quieter on the issue, saying only that Smith is expected to compete for the starting WLB spot.
It's been a bittersweet first couple of weeks in the relationship between Thompson and the Cincinnati Bengals. On the one hand, he's already penciled in as their starting safety. In fact, it's said that their defense is being modified to highlight LT's center fielding prowess. Now the bad news: The All-American sat out the first mini-camp due to Cincy's failure to offer injury protection. His agent says Thompson won't participate in next month's camp unless he's under contract or is offered the same injury protection agreement the Bengals have given their first-round draft pick (unlike Lamont, this player is not projected to start just yet). Bengal Vice President Paul Brown is scheduled to meet with Thompson's people in California next week in hopes of getting a contract signed and burying this issue - - along with the bad press it's rightfully generated.
But that dark cloud seems like nothing but sunshine when held next to Nakoa McElrath's bumpy NFL ride thus far. The receiver was signed as a free agent by Jacksonville shortly after the draft, yet was released less than two weeks later. Reportedly his performance at the Jaguar mini-camp was not up to par.
Thankfully, no pink slips have yet been handed to any other Coug rookies. Billy Newman (Tennessee), Tupo Tuupo (San Diego), and Joey Hollenbeck (St. Louis) appear to have survived their respective rookie camps.
Closer to home, Seattle still boasts three Cougs on their squad: Defensive tackle Chad Eaton, center Robbie Tobeck, and kicker Rian Lindell. Lindell recently signed a one-year contract with the Hawks for $375,000, but Seattle has already signed two more kickers to put the fear of Holmgren in him (as if it wasn't already there).
But if any NFL team could be labeled "Pullman's Team," it'd have to be New Orleans. The Saints have four former Crimson Soldiers - - Steve Gleason, Curtis Holden, Dee Moronkola, and Scott Sanderson - - on their roster. Gleason and Holden, both exclusive-rights free agents, recently signed one-year $300,000 contracts with the Halos.
As we reported last month, 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.
AGENTS OF FREEDOM
The free agent market was kind to Brian Walker. He recently signed a five-year, $10 million deal with Detroit that included a $2 million signing bonus. Walker, a strong safety at Miami last season, looks to be moving to free safety for the Lions. He joins Cougar kicking sensation Jason Hanson in the Motor City.
Mark Fields also has firmly landed on his feet via free agency. The linebacker was released by St. Louis due to salary cap concerns, but signed on with