Commentary

Teams focused on Stewart's upside, not health concerns

How talented is Jonathan Stewart? Despite a recent surgery, the former Oregon running back remains a sure first-round pick, writes Bill Williamson.

Originally Published: April 24, 2008
By Bill Williamson | ESPN.com

Jonathan Stewart will limp into his new city this weekend for the typical first-round dog and pony show.

It will be a scary sight for fans of his new team. The last thing you want to see is your pricey new tailback sport a walking boot as he poses with his new jersey. Indeed, protective, postsurgery boots and first-round picks aren't typical pairs.

When considering the risk of taking the recuperating Stewart, ponder this: He'll have a chance to be the offensive rookie of the year in 2008. And that's why the Oregon power back, who ran for a school-record 1,792 yards as a junior in 2007, remains a sure first-round choice.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Stewart
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAt the combine, Jonathan Stewart didn't perform like a player who was battling a toe injury.
Stewart is in a walking boot because of an early March surgery on his right big toe. As a result, the 5-foot-10, 235-pound Stewart will be the player to watch after the top 10 picks or so are off the board.

Before his surgery, some league insiders thought Stewart could go as high as No. 6 to the Jets. It now would be a surprise if Stewart were taken that high, but he still has a strong chance to be taken in the first half of the first round. Stewart is able to do upper-body work now and is expected to begin rehabilitation on his toe in two weeks when his boot is removed. Stewart expects to be at full strength when training camps open in July.

"That will be no problem," Stewart said this week from Eugene, Ore. "I will be ready before training camp. That's for sure."

"He's a real good back, so the fact that he had this surgery shouldn't affect him too much," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said at the NFL owners meetings. "Teams know what he can do."

Stewart admitted he isn't approaching the draft as he expected. Stewart's spirits were flying as high as his draft stock was rising headed into the scouting combine in late February. He was preparing for his pro day and was anticipating a fairly stress-free homestretch to first-round NFL glory.

However, after several rounds of medical examinations at the combine, physicians recommended Stewart have surgery on the toe. Stewart said he was told he could live without the surgery, but the toe could have affected his rookie season had he opted not to have surgery.

Stewart was initially stunned by the news. He stubbed the toe in the Ducks' upset loss at Arizona. (It was the same night Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon was lost with a torn ACL.) Stewart was still able to play in Oregon's Sun Bowl game as he ripped apart South Florida, muscling his way to a Sun Bowl-record 253 yards on 23 carries.

Scouts Inc. on Stewart

Strengths: Excellent body control. Shifty and quick; he runs low to the ground and has good change-of-direction skills. Shows very good initial quickness and also displays a second gear when he gets through the line of scrimmage.

Weaknesses: Durability is a big concern. Has battled injuries throughout his career. Always seems to be nicked. Has limited experience carrying the full load.

Complete scouting report Insider

"If he did this with a bad toe, what would he have done with a good foot?" mused his agent, Ben Dogra.

At the combine, Stewart found the strength to give an outstanding effort. He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash, did 28 bench-press repetitions and had a 36½-inch vertical leap. And this was before Stewart knew he needed surgery.

"I wasn't expecting it," Stewart said. "All for one little body part? I played in the bowl game. I worked out well at the combine. And then I have my first surgery. The timing really wasn't great. But the good thing is, I will be completely healthy when camp comes, and the toe will not be a problem again. At first, I thought it would mess me up; now, I'm convinced everything will work out fine."

Dogra doesn't expect any major issues this weekend. He said there is no doubt Stewart will play when the regular season starts during the first weekend of September.

"The health issue is not a concern," Dogra said. "The doctors feel good about his situation. He will be fine and will be among the front-runners for rookie of the year."

Plenty of teams are intrigued by Stewart, who just ended a tour in which he visited Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Seattle (he is from Washington state), Detroit, Arizona, Dallas and the Jets. He said he also talked to a coach from Denver, which has the No. 12 pick. Some in Denver believe the punishing Stewart could instantly compete for the rushing title in the Broncos' run-happy system.

"All of the teams I talked to are concentrating on football and not the big toe," Stewart said. "They know this is a temporary thing. I'll be ready when it counts."

If you see that walking boot this weekend, rest easy. It'll be discarded when training camp starts.

Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter