Uncertainty surrounds Clarett

Where Maurice Clarett would be selected in the upcoming draft is extremely uncertain.

Updated: September 24, 2003, 12:29 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Because the NFL has left itself vulnerable to a legal challenge of its draft eligibility rules, there is a good chance attorney Alan C. Milstein can convince some federal judge that the guidelines constitute an antitrust violation, and force the league to permit Maurice Clarett to enter the professional ranks.

Tuesday, Sept. 23
Maurice Clarett has filed a lawsuit to challenge the rule prohibiting him from entering the NFL draft. Even if he wins, he still looks like no better than a second-round pick at this point. There are just too many questions. Clarett had injury problems last year as a freshman and did not play the entire season, he has not been timed reliably in the 40-yard dash, and the off-field problems that have made him ineligible are also a concern.

That said, Clarett has already proven against major-college college competition what he can do on the field when healthy. A transfer to a school like Grambling would do nothing to hurt his draft position, assuming Clarett dominates at that level. Plenty of great NFL players -- Jerry Rice, for example -- have come out of Division I-AA schools. An outstanding performance could possibly push him into the first round, but as things stand right now I consider Clarett a likely second-round selection.

No high-priced lawyer in an Armani suit, however, can so easily convince NFL personnel chiefs that the Ohio State tailback is a first-round prospect.

The legal team Clarett figures to assemble for his day in court can file all the briefs that it wants. But until Clarett gets down to his briefs -- OK, a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt -- and auditions for league scouts, talent evaluators will remain relatively ambivalent about how the talents he flashed in the college game project to the professional level.

"Other than seeing Clarett a few times on television, seeing the same highlight clips that everyone else has seen and reading about him, I know nothing at all about the kid," said one NFC personnel director on Tuesday morning. "It's a unique circumstance. We aren't in the business of scouting freshman although, I guess, that might become part of the job if (Clarett) wins his case. But I can't honestly tell you right now if he is a first-rounder, a fifth-rounder, or a free agent. I just don't know."

That was the prevailing sentiment on Tuesday, and for weeks preceding the lawsuit that Clarett filed in a federal court in New York, about the tailback's professional viability.

Most scouts surveyed by ESPN.com project him, for now at least, as a second- or third-round pick. Because of league guidelines regarding underclass players, and the sanctions that might accompany any breach of those rules, personnel directors and scouts cannot specifically discuss the sophomore tailback.

Team owners and other franchise officials who deal with football matters made it clear last week that they do not feel any college player, not just Clarett, is capable of making the leap to the NFL after one season on campus. Owners apprised commissioner Paul Tagliabue last week, at a one-day meeting in Washington, D.C., that they expect him to vigorously defend the league's current draft eligibility rules.

The lawsuit, for which the league has been arduously preparing for some time now, could cost the NFL millions in league fees and potential damages. That doesn't appear, though, to daunt the owners.

"Emotionally. Physically. Every way you can think of, players who are that young just aren't ready for the demands of our league," said Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney. "You throw open the door for the one player who feels he is the exception and suddenly there are dozens of others who think they are every bit as good. We've seen it before in other sports. It just doesn't work for us and it won't work for the players."

Other than seeing Clarett a few times on television, seeing the same highlight clips that everyone else has seen and reading about him, I know nothing at all about the kid. It's a unique circumstance. We aren't in the business of scouting freshman although, I guess, that might become part of the job if (Clarett) wins his case. But I can't honestly tell you right now if he is a first-rounder, a fifth-rounder, or a free agent. I just don't know.
NFC personnel director on Clarett

Clarett is listed in the Ohio State media guide at 6-feet-0 and 230 pounds. But scouts feel the height cited by the Buckeyes sports information office is very generous, and one area scout who covers the Midwest for an AFC franchise suggested to ESPN.com that Clarett might not even be 5-feet-10.

"That's one of the problems you have evaluating him," said the scout. "Obviously, before he went into the draft, or whatever, you'd have an opportunity to work him out and do all the things you do with other prospects. But to sit here right now and guarantee where he would be taken . . . no, you couldn't do that, not in good conscience. I couldn't do that for my team or for the kid."

Scouts also remind that Clarett was not a player who made it through his freshman year unscathed, and that he battled shoulder injuries in a 2002 season, a campaign in which he rushed for 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns. Two scouts who saw at least two Ohio State games each in 2002 noted they felt Clarett was about a 4.55-4.6 player in the 40. Like their peers, they declined to project his draft value.

Noted one scout: "The best back taken in the (2002 draft) was Clinton Portis (of Denver), and he was a second-rounder. Even when we get all the information on kids, it's still a bit of a crapshoot. I mean, to me, maybe he forces his way into the league. But that doesn't mean you have to make him a high-round pick."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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