No Big Sky draft picks this year

The 2000 NFL draft wasn't kind to former Montana Grizzlies, or the Big Sky Conference.

For the first time since the Big Sky became a league in 1963, no player from the Big Sky was selected in the draft.

Three former Grizzlies - Chase Raynock, Dallas Neil and Jeremy Watkins - did, however, agree to contracts with NFL teams Sunday.

Raynock, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound left tackle, inked a two-year deal with the New Orleans Saints.

Several NFL "draft experts" predicted Raynock would be taken in the latter portion of the seven-round draft.

"It's disheartening," the Billings Skyview graduate said following the draft. "It's disappointing, but that stuff happens."

Raynock said he spoke with New Orleans general manager Randy Mueller following the draft. Mueller's call had a big influence on Raynock selecting the Saints.

Raynock said San Francisco, Washington, the New York Jets, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Miami all expressed interest in signing him to a free-agent contract.

Missoula agent Ken Staninger, who represents Raynock, Neil and Watkins, said he was surprised Raynock wasn't drafted.

"I think it was solely based on the combine," Staninger said, referring to the NFL combine, which Raynock attended in February. "He had a pulled hamstring at the combine and I think he ran a 5.4 (seconds in the 40-yard dash). He's got great speed for a big man and he didn't get to showcase it.

"He's got a great opportunity with New Orleans, no doubt about it."

The Saints' starting left tackle is perennial All-Pro William Roaf. Kyle Turley, a first-round pick in the 1998 draft, starts at right tackle.

Neil, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end/punter, signed a two-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons.

"I'm pretty excited about the new opportunity," Neil said. "It terms of my situation, it's probably the best I could have got. I'm going there to compete for a position. To have that chance is all you can ask."

Neil said he was signed as a punter, but his versatility as a tight end could help him in the future. Dan Stryzinski, an 11-year veteran, is Atlanta's current punter.

Neil averaged 39.8 yards per punt and put 13 inside the 20-yard line his senior season. Neil sustained an injury to his right leg late in the season. At the time it was reported as a bruised shin. On Sunday, Neil said it was actually a stress fracture of the fibula in his right leg. He said he ended up breaking the fibula warming up prior to the Youngstown State playoff game.

"I had six weeks to heal," Neil said. "It came back great and I had about perfect timing. The scouts don't come up here right away because it's cold."

Neil said he worked out with the Washington Redskins and Falcons in Missoula. He said the Denver Broncos called Sunday and made an offer.

Watkins, one of the most prolific receivers in Griz history, agreed to a three-year deal with the Giants. Watkins caught 63 passes for 1,025 yards and nine touchdowns this past season.

"I'm surprised," the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Missoula Big Sky graduate said. "It still hasn't sunk in. When the draft was over, I sat around and just waited. When the call finally came, I was pretty nervous."

Watkins said he continued to stay in shape by lifting weights in case the opportunity arose.

"I haven't been running many routes," he said. "I have a camp coming up, then after that, I'll just go right into running routes and getting my hands back."

Watkins will report to a mini-camp on Wednesday. Neil and Raynock will report to mini-camp in two weeks.

"All of these rookies have a great chance because of the salary cap," Staninger said. "All the starters are making $3 and $4 million a year, so the backups have to be making the minimum. They all have a great chance to step in and be the primary backup."

Staninger is also representing former Griz kicker Kris Heppner. Staninger said he had a couple of things in the works for Heppner.

Heppner recently signed a contract with the Billings Thunder Bolts, of the newly-formed Indoor Football League. The contract allows Heppner to go to the NFL if the opportunity arises.

Former UM defensive tackle Kelley Bryant, who is being represented by Missoula attorney Dave Paoli, didn't agree to a contract Sunday.

"Hopefully something will happen," Bryant said. "We've got to be patient."

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