In part because of the focus last season on physical play in the secondary, a reemphasis of the illegal contact rule that increased penalties in that category by a staggering 141 percent over 2003, it's a great time to be a running back.
At least, that is, if you're one of the several top tailback prospects in this year's NFL draft.
Say what? How do runners benefit from tighter enforcement of a rule that forbids defenders from mugging receivers more than five yards downfield?
Here's how: One of the byproducts of the NFL's "point of emphasis" on the illegal contact rule in 2004, a focus primarily designed to open up the passing game and promote scoring, was that average rushing yards per game increased as well. The league combined to rush for 233.2 yards per game, the second best average since 1987.
Even as offenses relied increasingly on the pass and, given that receivers frolicked unchecked through secondaries with such new-found freedom, why not? the league's runners still averaged 4.1 yards per carry. That's in line with the norm, between 3.9 and 4.2 yards per rush, of the last two decades. In a season when everyone assumed that the run would be de-emphasized a bit, there were 18 players who rushed for 1,000 yards, exactly the same number as in 2003. Teams averaged 13.0 rushing scores for the season, down just a hair from the 13.3 rushing touchdown average of the previous season.
Eight of the top 10 rushing teams went to the playoffs. Three of the four franchises in the conference championship games were top 10 running teams.
So in a season when footballs filled the air a year in which Peyton Manning broke the record for touchdown passes, Daunte Culpepper had one of the top statistical seasons in history, and four quarterbacks posted efficiency ratings higher than 104.0 the runners didn't exactly fade into the woodwork.
The statistics continue to skew toward the passing game, and, more than ever, throwing the ball wins Super Bowls. But some semblance of offensive balance is still essential, and so big-time tailbacks figure to be center stage in next month's draft.
Yeah, we know, if running backs were so important, why can't Indianapolis find a trade partner to take Edgerrin James off its hands, and why can't the Seattle Seahawks unload Shaun Alexander? Because teams are wary of investing $7 million-$8 million per year on veterans with worn tread worn on their tires. Because recent history has indicated that teams can unearth serviceable running backs in other places. Because there are cheaper alternatives.
Like in the draft, where some exceptional tailbacks are available, and where you can sign them to a fixed-cost contract for the next several seasons.
See where has our incredibly convoluted journey of the previous 10 paragraphs has taken us? To a pretty logical, if ponderously arrived at, conclusion.
Start with a premise that the emphasis of the illegal contact rule has affected the running game as well as passing offenses. Factor in the reality, hammered home in the first couple weeks of free agency, that teams will not invest heavily in veteran tailbacks, a position that bears the stigma of having the shortest average shelf life in the league. Toss in the fact that several franchises desperately need to upgrade at tailback, and that, fortuitously, the 2005 draft class includes several potential stud runners.
Not since the 1989 lottery, which introduced the splendid Barry Sanders to the NFL, has there been a draft in which the top 10 choices included three running backs. In fact, there have been at total of only three top-10 tailbacks selected in the last five drafts. In the 15 drafts since that 1989 lottery, there were five occasions on which no tailbacks made it to the top 10. And that includes each of the last three years.
LaDainian Tomlinson of San Diego, the fifth overall selection in 2001, is the most recent top-10 tailback.
The first tailback selected in 2004, Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams, didn't go off the board until the 24th pick. In 2003, Willis McGahee, the top back that year, was chosen by the Buffalo Bills in the 23rd spot. Cleveland's William Green, the top back in the 2002 draft and a player soon to be released by the Browns, was the No. 16 choice. Since 1989, there has been an average of just one top-10 tailback per year, and 3.3 first-round running backs overall.
"It's not as if the position has been devalued," said one AFC personnel director whose team hopes to land a running back in the second or third round this year. "But teams have become a little wary of spending first-round money on the position. Especially when it's been demonstrated, by teams like Denver almost every year it seems, that you can find very good runners outside the first round. Plus, the last few years, there just hasn't been that 'must-have' guy like Tomlinson, or Edgerrin [James] or [Ricky] Williams. So, yeah, there's been a little bit of a drought, I suppose."
The confluence of components this year, however, means it could be raining tailbacks in the early stages of the first round.
For openers, there is the tailback big three, a trio that includes the Auburn tandem of Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, along with former University of Texas workhorse Cedric Benson. And there are at least four teams with top-10 selections, and no fewer than three franchises that have the tailback position at or near the top spot on their draft wish lists. It is a combination of factors that could create a perfect storm of sorts for the tailback position.
It is doubtful the San Francisco 49ers, who own the top overall choice and likely will be forced to exercise the pick since their trade-down options seem nonexistent, will select a running back, although it's still an outside possibility. But with the No. 2 pick overall, the Miami Dolphins, jilted by Ricky Williams last summer, certainly could pluck one of the premier running back prospects.
Were that to occur, it would represent the highest draft spot for a runner since Cincinnati chose Ki-Jana Carter with the first overall selection in 1995.
"I think you're going to see all three of us in the top 10," said Auburn's splendid Brown, whose outstanding workouts at the combine sessions last month likely elevated him to the top perch among tailback prospects. "We've all got different styles, but all of us are great backs, I feel. And, hey, you've always got to be able to run the ball, right?"
So look for three tailbacks to be among the first 10 names announced by commissioner Paul Tagliabue on April 23, and then a cadre of runners to follow in subsequent rounds. And credit the big run on runners, somewhat ironically, to some extent on the league's move to open up the passing game last season.
Around the league
• This year's draft, most personnel chiefs agree, is not especially deep on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, most scouts have trouble predicting which prospect might be the first defensive player to go off the board and just how high the initial defender will be selected. The two names most often mentioned, Antrel Rolle of Miami and Adam "Pacman" Jones of West Virginia, are cornerbacks. A few talent evaluators suggest that Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, a guy who surprisingly gets some mixed reviews because there are scouts who feel he's a "runaround" player who doesn't take on blocks very well, could be the first defender off the board.
But if you're looking for a player who is on the rise, hybrid defender Shawne Merriman of Maryland is certainly a name to remember. Merriman demonstrated at his Wednesday pro day workout on campus just what an incredible athlete he is. At 6-foot-4 3/8 and 274 pounds (two pounds more than he weighed at the combine), he clocked 40-yard performances that scouts timed in the 4.57-4.65 range. He had a vertical jump of 40 inches and a 10-foot, 1-inch broad jump. "The guy," said one NFC scout, "is an absolute freak. You'd better keep your eye on him because, based on some teams' needs, he could be the first defensive guy [taken]. It really is a possibility." Depending on the team, and how it projects him, Merriman could be a linebacker in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Certainly he fits the new age model of a hybrid edge defender in a 3-4 front. For some 4-3 teams, he could play end, for sure. "That's where we'd have him," said the coordinator for a team that plays a 4-3 as its base defense. "I'd put his hand on the ground and let him rush the quarterback. I think, as he matures, Merriman would be a 12- to 15-sack guy."
• There is still a chance that the Dallas Cowboys, or some other team for that matter, will acquire defensive end Darren Howard in a trade with the New Orleans Saints. But now that the March 16 deadline for signing franchise players to long-term deals has passed, the sense of urgency to grab Howard has abated dramatically. It appeared the Cowboys were in position to reach a long-term contract with Howard but could not agree with the Saints on the trade compensation to New Orleans. Rumors persist that the Saints sought Dallas middle linebacker Dat Nguyen in the proposed swap. Those same rumors suggest that, while owner Jerry Jones was prepared to sacrifice his human tackling machine, coach Bill Parcells did not want to part with Nguyen, who he feels is a team leader. The irony there, if the rumors are accurate, is that it's Parcells who does not like small linebackers, such as the undersized Nguyen. The smart money is that Howard will still be traded before training camps open. New Orleans, which has a pair of first-round defensive ends in Charles Grant and Will Smith, could keep Howard around. But with a salary and cap charge of $7.8 million on the books for now, it's a tad prohibitive, given that Howard isn't projected as a starter.
Another Saints issue: Wide receiver Joe Horn, who seems to request a contract upgrade on a yearly basis, is making noise again. Don't look for New Orleans to make any kind of move to enhance his deal. The Saints want to work on contract extensions for tailback Deuce McAllister, center LeCharles Bentley and cornerback Mike McKenzie. They've taken care of Horn's grievances in the past, he's still under contract, and the team will turn a deaf ear to his rather plaintive bleating this time around.
• Kudos to John Shaw and Jay Zygmunt, the St. Louis Rams' dual team presidents, for their masterful handling of the Orlando Pace situation this week. When their franchise left offensive tackle visited with Houston Texans officials and coaches on Monday, the Rams did not panic, as some have contended. Oh, sure, they made Pace a multi-year contract offer, yet that was planned. But basically, Shaw and Zygmunt let the hand play out. And, truth be told, it was a hand they could hardly lose. Had the Texans signed Pace to an offer sheet, St. Louis would have had a week to match its terms, or allow its coveted pass protector to change addresses, while grabbing a pair of first-round picks from Houston as compensation for the signing. Clearly, the Texans were hoping they could sign Pace, and then get the Rams to agree to a trade for something less than the two first-rounders that a franchised player mandates as compensation. The St. Louis rationale was a sound but also simple one: If Houston signed Pace to a long-term deal, the Texans would have, in essence, negotiated the deal for the Rams, who for the past two springs had been unable to get him to agree to a multi-year contract. Under such a scenario, the Rams would have examined the offer sheet and, if the terms were palatable, would have matched it. Even if it was for a bit more than the Rams wanted to pay.
But let's be serious here: How much more could Houston have offered than the $52.9 million the Rams ended up paying? Had the offer been substantially more, St. Louis would have taken the draft picks. Could the Rams have founded a viable replacement for Pace with the 13th overall selection in the draft, which they would have gotten as part of the compensation package? Likely not. But they weren't about to be pressured by the Texans, stood their ground, and ended up with the long-term agreement they wanted all along.
As for the Texans, well, it appears there is a bit of pressure to win in 2005, the fourth year on the field for the expansion franchise. General manager Charley Casserly must have felt it was worth a shot trying to get Pace, so that he could provide David Carr with upgraded pass protection. The fourth-year quarterback has not played well in the second halves of the past two seasons and some pro scouts feel he hasn't progressed much in general. It's time for the Texans and for Carr to take a big step forward in '05. Because of the patience and savvy of Shaw and Zygmunt, they have to do so without Orlando Pace in a Houston uniform.
• Unless they suddenly get hot for an unrestricted free agent like Jeff Blake, the Chicago Bears could go into another season without an experienced veteran backup. Of course, it isn't as if the Bears and general manager Jerry Angelo haven't tried hard to land a veteran. Problem is, they keep striking out, with Brad Johnson the latest to jilt them. For now, the quarterback depth chart features starter Rex Grossman, No. 2 guy Chad Hutchinson, and probably Craig Krenzel in the third spot. Hutchinson performed passably when forced to start in the final month of the 2004 season and he's a far better safety net than the Bears had with Jonathan Quinn last year. Still, the goal was to come up with a proven, older guy, and the Bears keep striking out.
• There are a lot of league people privately critical of the Seattle Seahawks' decision to invest a $4.5 million signing bonus in Kelly Herndon, the Denver Broncos cornerback whom they signed to a five-year, $15 million restricted free agent offer sheet. Herndon started all 16 games in 2004 opposite Champ Bailey, largely because Lenny Walls spent most of the campaign battling shoulder injuries. But some pro personnel directors feel Herndon is just an average defender at best. If the Broncos don't match the offer sheet and allow him to move to the Seahawks for no return compensation, they contend, he won't really be a viable replacement for Ken Lucas, who defected to Carolina in free agency.
Still, Herndon got his hands on the ball a lot in 2004, with 20 passes defensed, and is not as shaky in coverage as some critics insist. There were only eight cornerbacks in the NFL who had at least 20 passes defensed in '04. It's a double-edged statistic of sorts, because it means that a defender had a lot of passes thrown at him, a sign that opposition offenses felt they found an easy mark. On the flip side, 20 knock-downs is an accomplishment that can't be overlooked. The seven corners, besides Herndon, with 20 or more passes defensed in 2004: Al Harris (Green Bay), 28; Dre' Bly (Detroit), 22; Jerametrius Butler (St. Louis), 22; Brian Kelly (Tampa Bay), 22; Rashean Mathis (Jacksonville), 22; Ken Lucas (Seattle), 21; and Marcus Trufant (Seattle), 20.
• The offer sheet signed by Herndon is the richest to date for a restricted free agent the New York Jets had signed tight end Jeb Putzier to a five-year, $12.5 million deal that the Broncos matched to retain the three-year pro but it might not be the most interesting one. Topping both those restricted deals in terms of significance? The one-year, $3 million offer sheet to which the Cleveland Browns signed Baltimore Ravens tailback Chester Taylor Wednesday.
Because the entire $3 million counts against the salary cap for 2005, it might be difficult for the Ravens to match the offer sheet. Losing the versatile Taylor, who has served as the caddie to Jamal Lewis and developed into a pretty nifty back in his own right (714 rushing yards in 2004), would mean Baltimore might have to rely on the relatively untested Musa Smith as its No. 2 tailback. A third-round pick in 2003, Smith is an enormously talented player, but he has just 21 carries on his resume, after missing much of his rookie campaign to a knee injury. And it's believed that Smith isn't quite as accomplished a receiver as Taylor, who filled the role of third-down back in the Ravens offense. There figures to be plenty of intrigue swirling around Lewis in camp this summer, since he will have just completed his stint in a federal corrections facility, as part of his plea bargain on drug-related charges. Lewis has demonstrated an ability to rebound from adversity but, given his current circumstances, the Ravens probably would be more comfortable with a more experienced player behind him.
For the Browns, the signing of Taylor to the offer sheet represents the latest potential raid of the Ravens by general manager Phil Savage, who was the Baltimore director of personnel until moving to the Cleveland organization two months ago. Two weeks ago, the Browns signed prized cornerback Gary Baxter after he backed out of a verbal agreement to return to the Ravens. If the Ravens don't match the offer sheet to Taylor, he should challenge Lee Suggs for the starting job in Cleveland, and his presence would permit the Browns to release former first-round back William Green, who doesn't fit into their plans anymore.
• Speaking of the Ravens, they're having a tough time getting guys to put their autographs on contract agreements, it seems. First, the team lost Baxter to Cleveland when he didn't understand the contract language in the deal to which he had agreed, and felt Baltimore was attempting to slight him $4 million on a two-tiered bonus. This week, the Ravens had an agreement in principle with unrestricted free-agent offensive lineman Cooper Carlisle, a two-year contract that would have paid him $2 million. But just one day after verbally agreeing to the contract, Carlisle changed his mind, and allowed Broncos coach Mike Shananan and offensive line boss Rick Dennison to convince him to re-sign with Denver. Needless to say, the Ravens weren't too happy about the reversal.
• Michael Harrison, the agent dismissed by Plaxico Burress before the free-agent wideout retained Drew Rosenhaus to get him a deal, has come under a lot of heat in the past week. But Harrison deserves credit for being proactive in trying to create a market for Burress that simply didn't exist. The Giants have been privately critical in bashing Harrison, but Burress wasn't exactly an angel on his first visit with the team. Giants brass brought in Tiki Barber to speak with Burress, to try to recruit him, and Burress all but ignored him. Rosenhaus deserves credit for resuscitating the deal with the Giants but also for helping to rehabilitate Burress' image with the club. Harrison ought to get some credit, though, for having worked the phones in an effort to get someone interested in the wide receiver.
• How desperate is former Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville to get back into the game? Glanville, who also had a stint as a network television analyst, interviewed this week for a college coaching job. But we're not exactly talking a big-time, high-profile vacancy. Instead, he is a candidate at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D. Hard to imagine Glanville, one of four finalists for the post, living and working in South Dakota. But word is that Glanville, who had a brief and expensive flirtation as a stock car racer, would jump at the job if it's offered.
In the past few months, Glanville lobbied for consideration when there were openings at Pitt and New Mexico State. He never got a sniff from either university. The quirky and eccentric Glanville, with whom this humble columnist had an admittedly contentious relationship while covering the Falcons as a beat reporter, is certainly a guy who knows the game. But in the NFL his undoing was that he, not the team for which he worked, became the story. Glanville turns everything into a three-ring circus, one in which his ego overrides his football acumen. Glanville has a penchant for revisionist history (just ask him about the Brett Favre trade, which he orchestrated but now denies culpability for, sometime), and never allowing facts to get in the way of one of his tall tales, and it is clear he was up to his old habits when he met with Northern State players. "He was the guy that brought Deion Sanders into the league, so being a corner, I'm looking forward to working with him," said Steven Edwards. You can bet that Glanville told Edwards and his teammates about ushering Sanders into the NFL. The only problem is, Sanders was drafted by the Falcons in 1989, when Marion Campbell was head coach. Glanville didn't arrive until a year later. If the folks at Northern State want to attract plenty of attention, and draw scads of media coverage, Glanville would be a good hire. If they want to avoid the sideshow that always accompanies Glanville, they'd be wise to look elsewhere.
• Pittsburgh Steelers officials and coaches, and particularly offensive line mentor Russ Grimm, were more disappointed than they let on this week when unrestricted free agent Stockar McDougle rebuffed their overtures and signed instead with the Miami Dolphins. The Steelers really wanted McDougle, who played the first five years of his career with Detroit, and started the last two seasons at right tackle. Wanted him a lot, in fact. Pittsburgh proposed a two-year contract and McDougle, who is from the South Florida area, ended up signing just a one-year, $1 million deal with the Dolphins. The Steelers coaches felt that, despite McDougle's frequent mental lapses, Grimm could turn him into a dominating strongside blocker. Pittsburgh's starter from the last two seasons, Oliver Ross, signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an unrestricted free agent.
The party line is that second-year veteran Max Starks, a 2004 third-round pick who played sparingly as a rookie, will be able to step right into the vacancy. But there is a suspicion that head coach Bill Cowher, a big Starks supporter, has overstated his readiness. Some staffers have privately suggested the University of Florida product, a bright kid with a solid future, simply isn't prepared to be a full-time starter yet. They figured McDougle could hold down the right tackle spot while Starks continued his apprenticeship. Unfortunately, the Steelers, who did just about everything they could to keep McDougle from getting on a plane headed south, could not close the deal.
• Green Bay, which lost starting guards Mike Wahle (to Carolina) and Marco Rivera (to Dallas) as free agents, took the first step toward addressing the vacancies their exits created, signing former New England second-rounder Adrian Klemm to a two-year, $2.6 million contract. But the five-year veteran has played very little at guard, the position where the Packers will plug him in on the left side to replace Wahle, and he has more games missed to injuries than he has regular-season appearances. If he is healthy, and his dossier indicates that is a big if, Klemm could turn into a terrific player, because he has very nice physical tools. Klemm probably will team with former reserve Kevin Barry to fill the gaps at guard. But keep an eye on a younger lineman, second-year veteran Scott Wells, as a guy who might eventually ease the pain of losing Rivera and Wahle. A seventh-round pick in 2004 from Tennessee, he got some playing time at center last year, but his best position probably is guard. He is a 300-pounder with good in-line strength, and a kid who will continue to get better.
• With only five of ESPN.com's top 32 unrestricted free agents still unemployed, things are going to slow down dramatically now on the signing front. There probably aren't going to be any more eight-figure signing bonuses out there, that's for sure. So it's notable and timely, perhaps, to point out that, since last August, agent Joel Segal has negotiated about $275 million worth of contracts for 10 clients. Once known as just a dogged recruiter, Segal has become increasingly creative and the contract language he used in deals for Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and Raiders wide receiver Jerry Porter figures to be often duplicated.
• Of the five players in the ESPN.com top 32, look for middle linebacker Edgerton Hartwell, a terrific inside tackler, to reach a decision in the next day or so about where he will play in 2005. It appears he has narrowed his choices to Kansas City and Atlanta. If he chooses the Chiefs, it means Kendrell Bell, recently signed as a free agent, will play on the outside. If he opts for the Falcons, it would fill one of Atlanta's biggest needs and provide Jim Mora and coordinator Ed Donatell much flexibility.
• One of the more interesting revelations of a Wednesday telephone conference call that the league convened in advance of next week's annual NFL meetings in Maui, is that the influential competition committee wants to take an in-depth look at the lighter athletic shoes some companies are now manufacturing. For now, there is no connection between the increase in foot, ankle and leg injuries that has become a problem leaguewide. But Falcons general manager Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the competition committee, acknowledged that there has been some discussion of whether the lighter shoes actually provide sufficient support now, given the enormous torque on the lower leg when bigger, faster players are planting and cutting. It seems like a low-profile item for now, but it definitely is one that bears watching.
• The silence emanating from the Land of 10,000 Lakes this week was, indeed, golden for the league. Aside from a canned comment on the addition of Brad Johnson as the team's new backup quarterback, Vikings coach Mike Tice had nary a public utterance. Which, in light of the recent Super Bowl ticket scalping allegations, is precisely what NFL officials wanted from the often too-talkative coach. The league would prefer to conduct its internal investigation quietly. In a perfect world, it would enact what certainly figure to be far more stringent standards leaguewide, and deliver its sanctions against Tice, in a vacuum. Neither of those is likely to occur. But from a practical standpoint, the league wants the story to go away, and it did this week. Mostly because Tice finally heeded the advice of his closest confidants and his legal counsel. When it comes to talking too much, well, Tice is a guy who just sometimes can't help himself. For a change, he went mute this week, and helped himself immensely.
• Punts: Ignore, at least for now, the rumors the New England Patriots, perhaps seeking an experienced backup quarterback to fill the roster spot held by the departed Jim Miller last season, are considering Vinny Testaverde. There has been no dialogue between the two parties. There could, however, be some interest in Doug Flutie, released by San Diego last week. ... With teams still wary of the back surgery that limited Trevor Pryce to only two games in 2004, the Denver Broncos are having big trouble attracting potential trade partners for the former Pro Bowl defensive lineman. The Broncos may eventually be forced to release the eight-year veteran. ... The Buffalo Bills have been attempting to bolster their offensive line and are now set to visit with Bennie Anderson, who started at right guard for the Ravens. ... It's just a matter of time, it seems, before the Redskins clear sufficient cap room to sign wide receiver Santana Moss to a big-money contract extension. Moss was acquired, of course, in the Laveranues Coles trade. ... League owners will not address the potential purchase of the Minnesota Vikings by Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler at next week's annual meetings. There is still plenty of work to be done by the finance committee and a vote on Fowler's bid won't come until a league meeting in Washington, D.C., in late May. ... Nice deal for Cincinnati tailback Rudi Johnson, because his five-year, $26 million contract is structured in such a way that the cap numbers aren't prohibitive in later years. That means Johnson actually has a chance to play out the entire contract without the threat of being released. Of course, one of the worst-kept secrets of the last few weeks was that Johnson would eventually sign the contract. Former fourth-round picks don't turn down such big money. ... In a draft shy of solid defensive end prospects, George Gause of South Carolina really helped himself last week with a superb workout. At 6-foot-4 7/8 and 272 pounds, Gause clocked some incredibly quick 40-yard times and some teams now see him as a second-rounder. ... Defensive tackle Travis Johnson of Florida State re-established his spot as the top prospect at the position with a dynamite pro day performance.
• The last word: "I just want to let him know he's the guy, he's the starter. I'm here to basically help make the team stronger and make the position stronger. If it helps him get better and we can mature and grow together and do the necessary things we can do on the field as far as winning football games, then that's what it's all about. I'm not there to create any friction. I'm not there to create any controversy. I'm just there to add strength to the position." quarterback Jeff Garcia, on his role with the Detroit Lions and his relationship with incumbent starter Joey Harrington
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.