Running backs will garner plenty of attention

There are a number of non-vested players available who could be claimed on waivers.

Updated: September 1, 2003, 10:20 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

For those teams seeking depth at tailback, and there are more than a few even as the start to the regular season looms, the cutdown to the mandatory 53-player roster limit might have represented a windfall of sorts.

There were a few "vested" (if a vested veteran is on a club's roster for the opening game, his salary for the full season is guaranteed) veterans -- like Chris Fuamatu Ma'afal of Pittsburgh, Lamar Smith of Green Bay and New Orleans' Ki-Jana Carter -- whose names appeared on the league waiver wire. But more important to the franchises seeking younger tailbacks as backups, there was a healthy group of non-vested runners with fewer than four accrued seasons in the NFL, and who are subject to waiver claims.

Just a week ago, a few teams phoned the Washington Redskins to see what it might take to get second-year veteran Kenny Watson in a trade, and now he can be had for free. The former undrafted free agent rushed for 534 yards in 2002, a 4.6-yard average, and he also returned 23 kickoffs for an average of 21.6 yards.

The guess here is that there might be multiple claims on Watson.

Robert Edwards of the Miami Dolphins, the feel-good story of '02 after he resumed his career following a three-year hiatus and heroic comeback from what should have been a catastrophic knee injury, will play somewhere in 2003. Ditto another former University of Georgia back, Patrick Pass, cut loose by the New England Patriots.

There could be a few other "claimable" tailbacks, such as Dee Brown (Carolina), Cecil Sapp (Denver) and Herbert "Whisper" Goodman of Green Bay, whose phones ring soon. Many teams in need of reserve tailbacks gambled that several younger runners would be released, and thus rejected trade opportunities, and now will have their choice from a glut at the position.

Here are a few non-vested players at other positions who could be claimed on waivers or who will merit auditions with new teams:

  • FS Lamont Thompson (Cincinnati, one-year veteran): Not since 1989 have the Bengals had a second-round pick not make it through at least the opening game of his sophomore year in the league. And then Thompson, the 41st overall selection in 2002, snapped that streak. Set a Pac-10 career interceptions record with 24 thefts at Washington State, but missed considerable offseason time because of an injury protection dispute last spring, and never quite caught up. The new Bengals staff didn't feel he was very physical but, with his prototype size (6-feet-1, 220 pounds) and speed (sub-4.5), someone is definitely going to give him a second chance.

  • WR Marvin "Snoop" Minnis (Kansas City, two-year veteran): As a third-round draft pick in 2001, the former Florida State star had 33 receptions for 511 yards and one score, but broke his foot last spring and played in just two games in 2002. His anorexic frame (6-feet-1, 172) means he struggles to get off the initial jam and doesn't often get a clean release. It also means he's pretty much a non-factor on special teams. He still might be good enough, though, to be a No. 4 receiver on someone's roster.

  • OG Qasim Mitchell (Cleveland, one-year veteran): Massive (6-feet-6, 370) in-line blocker signed as an undrafted free agent in 2002 but did not appear in a single game as a rookie. Didn't perform nearly as well in camp, where he was given an early chance to earn a spot in the lineup, as he had in offseason workouts. A major disappointment to a staff that had touted him going into camp. Very raw, and needs lots of improvement in just about every area, but could pay off in a year for some team willing to just work with him and exercise some patience.

  • CB Roosevelt Williams (Chicago, one-year veteran): For a guy who was chosen in the third round only a year ago, the Bears gave up on Williams pretty quickly, mostly because he lacks speed. He was projected as a "nickel" defender when drafted and appeared in 13 games, with two starts, as a rookie. The former Tuskegee star had 10 tackles and a pair of passes defensed. There's not much he can do to get faster but, if he plays better on special teams, he has a chance to stay in the league.

  • DT John Nix (San Francisco, two-year veteran): OK, so he was released two times in less than a week, first by the Dallas Cowboys and then by the tackle-needy 49ers, who had claimed him on waivers. We're not claiming he's anything special. But if you need a No. 4 tackle, and want a guy who has at least lined up and played some, you could do worse than to take a flier on the former seventh-rounder. Has played in 30 games, with 43 tackles, and he's a legitimate 315 pounds.

  • LB Armegis Spearman (Cincinnati, three-year veteran): No one should be surprised if he is claimed by Green Bay, since the Packers signed him to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent this spring, only to have the Bengals match the three-year deal. The former undrafted free agent started 11 games as a rookie, then played in just seven games total the next two years combined, because of injuries. Missed double-digit camp practices as well this summer with physical problems. Has a live body, can play inside and outside (when he's not infirm), and has a good special teams background.

  • OT Tam Hopkins (N.Y. Giants, one-year veteran): Played in 16 games in 2002 and had one start. Was projected as the replacement for the departed Jason Whittle at right guard when camp began, but he played miserably in the preseason opener, and eventually lost the starting job to rookie Dave Diehl. Has a big body (6-feet-4, 325) and, despite less than average foot speed, might still be able to play somewhere in the league.

  • LB Patrick Chukwurah (Houston, two-year veteran): A former fifth-round choice of Minnesota in 2001, he played in 27 games in two seasons with the Vikings, then was signed by the Texans as a free agent this spring. He didn't fit into the Houston 3-4 front and, at 6-feet-1, lacks prototype height. But he has lined up at both outside spots and could be the fifth or sixth 'backer for somebody.

  • WR Ken-yon Rambo (Dallas, two-year veteran): Good size (6-feet-1, 195), nice athlete, and has played in 29 games. Played extensively as the No. 3 wideout in '02 after Raghib Ismail was lost to a neck injury, and posted 14 catches and a notable 15.1-yard average. The former Ohio State star, who just didn't meet the expectations of Bill Parcells, also has some return experience and has played on the special teams coverage units.

  • CB Omare Lowe (Miami, one-year veteran): The 2002 fifth-rounder appeared in just one game last season and might just be one of those combination safety-cornerback types who never finds a home at either position. But he's 6-feet-1 and 196 pounds, runs well enough to play in "sub" situations, and simply couldn't carve out a niche in the league's deepest secondary unit. An intriguing guy who might just pass the "eyeball" test, and nothing more, but he's worth checking out.

  • TE Keith Heinrich (Cleveland, one-year veteran): Another player who has been cut twice in the past week, first by Carolina, then by the Browns on Sunday afternoon. That leads us to believe we see a lot more in the former Sam Houston State star, a sixth-round pick in 2002. But we're still touting him because, while he will never be a blocker, his hands are too good to completely ignore him. He played in four games last season.

  • CB/S Waine Bacon (Atlanta, rookie): The sixth-rounder played primarily at safety during his career at Alabama, but the Falcons liked his size-speed combination, and felt he could line up on the corner. Bacon is a good, physical player who might never be more than a spare part in the secondary, and a specials teams performer. But his aggressive play, which tailed off a bit as camp wore on, could keep him in the league. Atlanta will likely sign him to its practice squad if he clears waivers.

  • DE Ron Johnson (Philadelphia, rookie): This undrafted college free agent is about as raw as Steak Tartar and will need plenty of personal treatment. He's a small-school guy, from Shippensburg (Pa.) University and had 18 career sacks. At 255 pounds, he needs to bulk up, and mature in every other phase as well. But we liked him in camp and in the preseason game we saw in which he played. The Eagles could sign him to the practice squad if no one claims him on waivers.

  • QB Randy Fasani (Carolina, one-year veteran): It's only been a year since the Panthers were whispering about what a steal they got by grabbing the former Stanford starter in the fifth round of the '02 draft. The guy couldn't have gone that bad, and that quickly, right? He struggled through a bout of tendinitis in his throwing shoulder much of camp and then, when the Panthers worked out a trade to send him to the New York Jets, he opted to retire. Word is Fasani is wavering now about his decision to leave the game and that he is able to throw with some velocity again. He's already cleared waivers but look for some teams to sneak him in for a workout in the next couple weeks.

  • LB/DE Shurron Pierson (Oakland, rookie): The Raiders' fourth-rounder definitely is a 'tweener-type player who might never find the right position. But he runs fast, gets up the field with some explosiveness, and can close on the quarterback. He's one-dimensional, but that one dimension is sacking the quarterback, and that's a pretty big dimension.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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