The trade of former Virginia Tech quarterback Jim Druckenmiller to the Miami Dolphins Monday for a conditional sixth-round draft choice became almost inevitable the day Bill Walsh was named president of the San Francisco 49ers.

Druckenmiller, taken with the 49ers' first pick in the 1997 draft, also became a symbol for the differences between Walsh and the previous brass, which included former team president Carmen Policy, former general manager Dwight Clark and former personnel director Vinny Cerrato, now with the Washington Redskins.

Druckenmiller was selected by the 49ers even though Jake Plummer, now a star with the Arizona Cardinals, was still on the board. Walsh, who then was working for the team as a consultant, always has said he preferred Plummer. Still, there also may have been a little revisionist history at work here.

During the NFL scouting combine that year in Indianapolis, Walsh was quoted by USA Today as saying of Druckenmiller: "He can really throw the football. He's got a great arm, comparable to Drew Bledsoe and some of the best arms in the NFL. And he seems to have good command of what he's doing. I didn't see anybody in his category."

Druckenmiller has spent the first two years of his career on the bench behind Steve Young. This year, Walsh signed two quarterbacks, Jeff Garcia and Steve Senstrom, whom he coached at Stanford in the early '90s, and both outplayed Druckenmiller in the preseason. Druckenmiller managed only six completions in 20 attempts for 120 yards and one touchdown in the preseason, did not play against Seattle on Aug. 19 and played only two minutes in the preseason finale against Denver.

Druckenmiller's biggest problem apparently was adjusting to the short passing game in the West Coast offense after playing out of the shotgun for most of his career at Virginia Tech.

"This is definitely a good day," Druckenmiller said on Monday after learning he was going to Miami as Dan Marino's backup. "I look at it as an opportunity. Jimmy Johnson talked about taking me with the 15th pick [in '97]. I'm just glad he still remembered me. It was going to be a rough road here."

New-Look Giants

The New York Giants are being picked by many to overtake the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East title, even though they will open the season against Tampa Bay on Sunday with eight new starters, four on offense and four on defense.

Included in that group are two rookies, running back Sean Bennett and offensive lineman Luke Petitgout. Bennett, the team's fourth-round draft choice from Northwestern, was used mostly at fullback in his last year of college. But the second time he carried the ball in preseason, he ran 53 yards for a touchdown, and the Giants have been impressed with his size (230 pounds) and speed (4.4 in the 40). With starter Gary Brown out for a month with a twisted knee, Bennett won the starting job by leading the team in rushing during the preseason, and was the only running back on the roster to play in all four games.

Petitgout, a first-round pick out of Notre Dame, played tackle in college and has been asked to start at left guard. He's 6-6, 315 pounds and fits in nicely on a mammoth line that includes left tackle Roman Oben (6-4, 305), center Brian Williams (6-5, 315), right guard Ron Stone (6-5, 320) and right tackle Scott Gragg (6-8, 325).

Kicks for Rookies

The Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs will start rookie punters this season, and in a strange twist, the men they replaced both have suffered from testicular cancer.

The Packers will open the season with Chris Hanson, who was acquired on waivers last Wednesday after being cut by Cleveland. Hanson, 22, punted well for the Browns in preseason but couldn't beat out veteran Chris Gardocki. He'll replace Josh Bidwill, the Packers' fourth-round pick who recently learned he has testicular cancer that will sideline him for the season.

Hanson impressed Green Bay when he averaged 40.2 yards a punt against Miami the day after he joined the team. One punt was blocked and three more were nearly blocked under a heavy Dolphins rush, but he managed to keep his poise.

"I thought he was remarkable, considering the duress he was under," Packers General Manager Ron Wolf said. "The pressure he went through showed the mental toughness he has. He has the proper mental approach to do it."

In Kansas City, Danny Pope beat out veteran Louie Aguiar, who had recovered from his own battle against testicular cancer early in '98. He had a poor season, finishing 13th out of 15 AFC punters last year with a 34.4 net average, and was not kicking very well in camp.

Pope, claimed off waivers from Detroit on Aug. 28, averaged 43.8 yards on five punts against Jacksonville last week and the height of his kicks apparently made the difference.

"It came down to Danny Pope and his hang time," said Chiefs Coach Gunther Cunningham. "I feel like he can get the ball in our hands off the punt, and I think he'll average 44 yards a kick."

For What It's Worth

A few predictions for the '99 season:

NFC division winners will be the New York Giants (East), Minnesota (Central) and San Francisco (West). In the AFC, it's the New York Jets (East), Jacksonville (Central) and Seattle (West). NFC wild cards -- Green Bay, Atlanta, Tampa Bay. AFC wild cards -- Denver, Miami, Pittsburgh. NFC title game -- Minnesota vs. Green Bay. AFC title game -- Jets vs. Jacksonville. Super Bowl -- Minnesota vs. Jets. Champion -- Minnesota.