Notre Dame's Raghib (Rocket) Ismail is on the verge of signing a four-year contract with the CFL Toronto Argonauts worth a guaranteed $18.2 million as the noon deadline approaches for the Dallas Cowboys to make the first pick in Sunday's NFL draft.

The Cowboys, who will not take the Rocket unless he has first agreed to terms, apparently will select University of Miami defensive tackle Russell Maryland with the first pick if they are unable to sign Ismail. The Cowboys and Ismail's agents planned to negotiate all Saturday night and into Sunday morning trying to work out a deal.According to sources, Ismail wants a five-year, $14.5 million contract from Dallas with 50 percent of the money deferred. The sources said the Toronto offer is for $18.2 million guaranteed over four years with annual salaries of $3.5 million plus other bonuses, which reportedly could amount to about $4 million.

Ismail also would be given 10 percent of the team owned by Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy upon retirement, and the total value of the deal could eventually reach $26.2 million.

On Friday, Dallas traded the 11th and 41st picks in Sunday's draft to New England for the No. 1 spot overall. In addition, New England, by the middle of the week, will select three Dallas players from a list of five: linebacker Eugene Lockhart, David Howard and Willis Crockett and cornerbacks Ron Francis and Robert Williams. The Patriots bailed out of the Rocket Derby when their offer of $1.7 million a year was rejected.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones exchanged proposals Saturday with the Team Rocket management group headed by Ed Abram of Oakland. The Cowboys never said they made the trade specifically to get the Rocket.

"We received the offer and it was not very satisfactory," Jones said. "We are very far apart. We traded for the No. 1 pick, not an individual. We will be very happy with our first pick."

If Ismail has not signed with the Cowboys or Argonauts before the draft, he could tumble well into the first round. Dallas has a history of overpaying, and teams will be scared off by their inability to sign him. If the Cowboys can't sign him, who can?

Johnson would be comfortable taking Maryland, a player he recruited to the University of Miami. There is an outside shot that Dallas could take Notre Dame cornerback Todd Lyght or even turn around and trade the No. 1 pick.

If Ismail signs with the Argonauts before the draft, it will be interesting to see which NFL team takes him. And how high. A team drafting a player who signs with another league retains his rights for four years.

Ismail, as of late Saturday night, still had a reservation at the Marriott Marquis draft headquarters. But he had not checked in. He is scheduled to be a guest of the NFL.

Jones said he believed Ismail was serious about his interest in the Toronto offer. Jones said the CFL deal also included condominiums in Los Angeles and Toronto.

"We think it is a very real offer. We don't think it is a bluff," Jones said. "But the Rocket must decide if he wants to play at home in the United States."

The Cowboys Saturday night had financial conversations with agents representing several players whom they would consider at No. 1. Jones said the Cowboys would drop out of the Rocket Derby "when the bell rings," at noon for the start of the draft.

"When we traded for the pick, we wanted just the pick," Johnson said. "We knew what the situation was. We'll get an excellent player for that pick. Everyone is assuming we traded up to take a particular player. We're in a situation where we can take whoever we want to take. That's yet to be determined."