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NFL opens its draft to juniors

The NFL took an inevitable step Friday, becoming the last professionalleague to admit college underclassmen and making the April 22 draft one of the strongest in a decade.

Under the new policy, announced by commissioner Paul Tagliabue, any underclassman who wants to enter this year's draft must have enrolled in college for the 1987 fall semester, meaning that juniors or sophomores who have missed one season would be eligible.

That could mean an influx of perhaps 40 good pro prospects, although how good is questionable.

"Drafting isn't exactly an exact science," said Dick Steinberg, general manager of the New York Jets, who noted that linebackers Keith McCants of Alabama and Junior Seau of Southern California, both of whom have applied, have only one full year as starters in college.

"You're talking about guys who sat out one year because of Proposition 48 and had just the one good year as opposed to seniors who have played for three."

Still, McCants is expected to be the first player taken when Atlanta makes its choice. Seau and running back Emmitt Smith of Florida, both of whom also have announced their intention to come out, also could go in the top 10, as could quarterbacks Jeff George of Illinois and Andre Ware of Houston, who have yet to say what they will do.

To be eligible, however, a player must apply by March 22 and accompany the application with an affidavit that irrevocably renounces his remaining collegiate eligibility.

Moreover, the new league policy eliminates use of the supplemental draft to enhance a player's prospects, as such underclassmen as Brian Bosworth and Timm Rosen bach have done in recent years. Now only players who graduate or drop out of school after the regular draft will be allowed in.

The new policy was done reluctantly, but also was the result of an

inevitable progression that has allowed underclassmen in basketball, baseball and hockey for more than a decade.

In recent years, no underclassman who has applied for the draft has been denied because the NFL didn't want to test its policies in court.

During that period, Tagliabue was the NFL's chief legal adviser.

So far this year, 10 underclassmen have declared their intention to come out.

"I'm not ready to say this will be one of the best drafts," Steinberg said. "I think a lot of these guys will go a lot lower than people have been saying they will."

Agent: Bucs interested in ex-Bronco Kay

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are one of at least six teams interested in free agent tight end Clarence Kay, according to his agent.

New York-based agent Bruce Brown said that he has had several

conversations with Bucs administrator Phil Krueger and that he expected the former Denver Bronco to travel to Tampa late next week for a physical.

"I don't know Phil real well," said Brown, "but if you judge by the number of phone calls he's made to my office, I'd say they're pretty interested."

Brown said that all but one of the offers made by interested NFL teams - including Dallas, Seattle, Indianapolis, Atlanta and the Raiders - were for more than the three-year, $1.6-million contract extension Kay signed last season with Denver. Kay is currently the fourth-highest paid tight end in the NFL.

Considered one of the game's top run-blocking tight ends, Kay was left unprotected by the Broncos when the Plan B free agency system went into effect Feb. 1. Brown said there was a chance he would return to Denver if he doesn't sign another deal.

"We haven't written Denver off," the agent said. "We're taking a wait-and-see attitude, and I think (the Broncos) are doing the same with us. We're not going to rush into anything. We'll see who presents offers, review those offers and go from there."

Ex-FAMU player pleads guilty to manslaughter

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Lewis Bennett, a replacement player for the New York Giants during the 1987 strike, has pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 1988 stabbing death of his wife.

Bennett was originally charged with murder in the Dec. 30, 1988, killing of his wife, Diedre Bennett.

Bennett played his college football at Florida A&M and was a wide receiver for the Giants during the strike.

Around the league

Steelers: Joe Walton, fired after seven years as the New York Jets' coach, was hired Friday as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator. Walton was a star tight end and linebacker at Pitt before graduating in 1957. His father, Frank "Tiger" Walton, was a Pitt guard in the 1930s and a Steelers' assistant coach in 1946. "I have a lot of ties in Pittsburgh," said Walton, a native of nearby Beaver Falls. "There's a lot of history that goes into the Walton family there.

Saints: Defensive back Dave Waymer, who was left unprotected under the NFL's Plan B free agent system, said he will sign with San Francisco because the Saints would not match the 49ers' offer. Waymer, who had a base salary of $200,000 in 1989, said he'll sign a contract Monday in San Francisco.

JUNIORS IN NFL DRAFT Players Po. School DECLARED Keith McCants LB Alabama Emmitt Smith RB Florida Junior Seau LB Southern Cal Reggie Cobb RB Tennessee Marc Spindler DL Pitt Rodney Hampton RB Georgia Scott Mitchell QB Utah Barry Foster RB Arkansas Major Harris QB W. Virginia Marcus Wilson RB Virginia