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Saturday, April 26, 2003
Updated: April 27, 9:31 AM ET
Only five RBs picked on Day 1

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- With the 27th overall choice on Saturday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs chose Penn State tailback Larry Johnson, a 2,000-yard rusher during the 2002 campaign.

And then 49 more choices went off the board until the next tailback, Musa Smith of the University of Georgia, was finally chosen.

In between the selections of Johnson and Smith, two guards, three centers and four tight ends -- all positions of low priority -- were chosen.

So could there have been any more graphic validation of what most scouts and personnel directors knew going into the 2002 draft? Everyone regarded the '03 tailback talent pool as one of the most shallow in recent seasons and the events of Saturday certainly turned rag-tag into reality.

It was regarded as one of the worst running back drafts in recent history and that's the way it came out. For the last few years, the (tailback) depth has been way down, and no knows why that's the case. But this certainly continued the trend.
Charley Casserly, Texans general manager

For sure, it speaks volumes when the first tailback prospect to go off of the master draft board was a runner still in the middle of rehabilitating from a catastrophic knee injury, and who might not even play in 2003.

"It was regarded as one of the worst running back drafts in recent history," said Houston general manager Charley Casserly, "and that's the way it came out. For the last few years, the (tailback) depth has been way down, and no one knows why that's the case. But this certainly continued the trend."

Of the 97 players chosen in the first three rounds, just five were tailbacks, and there was one fullback. The roll call is, indeed, a brief one: Tailbacks Willis McGahee of Miami (Buffalo, first round), Johnson of Penn State (Kansas City, first), Smith from Georgia (Baltimore, third), Chris Brown of Colorado (Tennessee, third) and Justin Fargas of Southern California (Oakland, third). The lone fullback selected was B.J. Askew of Michigan (New York Jets, third).

That there were just two tailbacks in the first round should not have been too surprising. There were just four first-rounders in 2000, three in 2001 and two in last year's draft. One element is that teams, as demonstrated by Denver as much as anyone, have been able to unearth solid backs in later rounds. But in general, the position has been in decline, and Saturday did nothing to end the running back drought.

When the recovering McGahee acknowledged that he "felt blessed" to have been selected by the Bills, he probably didn't realize just how true a ring his words actually had. The tailback spot hasn't slipped to the level of other low priority positions but the free-fall wasn't slowed by Saturday's events.

Even the fates of Larry Johnson and Musa Smith weren't solid going into the Saturday proceedings. Johnson enjoyed just one breakout campaign at Penn State and, after trading down in the first round, the Chiefs chose him as a nice insurance policy against the possibility that starter Priest Holmes will not be totally recovered from hip surgery or will hold out in camp because he wants a contract upgrade.

Smith was removed from some teams' draft boards because he was recently diagnosed with cervical stenosis, essentially an abnormally narrow spinal column, and a condition that has also dropped the stock of former Virginia Tech star Lee Suggs, who was not chosen in the first three rounds.

Still on the board after the first day, in addition to Suggs, are Onterrio Smith of Oregon, Kentucky's Artose Pinner, Joe Smith of Louisiana Tech, Dwone Hicks of Middle Tennessee State and LSU's Domanick Davis. The fullbacks still available include prospects Ovie Mugehill of Wake Forest, Stanford's Casey Moore, Jeremi Johnson of Western Kentucky, South Carolina's Drew Pinnock and Brandon Drumm of Colorado.

The dearth of viable tailback prospects could also spur the trade of veteran players at the position. Still be dangled are Thomas Jones (Arizona), Ron Dayne (New York Giants) and Jamel White (Cleveland).

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.