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Tuesday, April 15, 2003
 
Lot of uncertainty with running backs
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

There has never been an NFL draft that didn't include at least one running back in the first round and, even with a dearth of top-shelf rushers this year, the 2003 lottery isn't likely to snap that streak.

Then again, with the premier tailback prospect less than three full months removed from suffering a catastrophic knee injury that left three ligaments dangling like limp spaghetti strands, there is a chance it could.

Even with the tenuousness surrounding Willis McGahee, who will audition next Tuesday for league scouts, the former University of Miami star is still the No. 1 tailback on many franchises' draft boards. That speaks volumes, in part to the esteem in which the gifted McGahee is held, but more so to the absence of a consensus viable contender for the top spot at the position.

Willis McGahee
The Bills selection of Willis McGahee may cause trouble.
There are teams, most assuredly, who would prefer to select a recovering McGahee, with no guarantees he will even get onto a practice field in 2003, before taking another tailback who is 100 percent whole.

If the rehabilitating McGahee remains the wild card in the first round, most scouts aren't sold on any of the other prospects running wild as rookies, and it could well be several hours into the opening round before a tailback hears commissioner Paul Tagliabue call his name from the podium.

It is all but a given that no tailback will be selected in the top half of the opening round. No back, it seems, has earned that right. It isn't as if the '03 tailback class is stocked only with suspects, but rather the reflection of a group where few prospects jump out, and where the talent is leavened.

"At the combine, it looked like a group of second-round (tailbacks), and the hope was that someone would separate himself from the pack," said Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe. "I'm not sure that's happened. Most of the top guys are still lumped together. There are some good backs but is there a franchise-type guy? I really don't know that yet."

The silver lining among the clouds that hover over the 2003 tailback talent pool is that productive runners are typically located beyond the parameters of the first round. Over the last 10 seasons, the NFL has featured at least one rookie 1,000-yard rusher every year, 21 of them in all. Of note, though, is that just eight of those rookie tailbacks were first-round draft choices.

Seven of them were selected in the third round or below and one, Dominic Rhodes of the Colts, wasn't drafted at all in 2001.

In the past eight seasons, the Denver Broncos have produced four different rookie 1,000-yard runners, and none were first-round choices. Terrell Davis in 1995 and Mike Anderson in 2000 were both six-round choices. Olandis Gary was a fourth-rounder in 1999. Clinton Portis, whose rookie-high 1,508 yards in 2002 were nearly 100 yards more than the aggregate rushing totals of the next two highest first-year players last season, was a second-rounder.

The success of the Broncos in unearthing solid runners after the first round might be a source of encouragement for league scouts, who are likely to be motivated by the past history of being able to identify tailback diamonds in the rough.

And it could be a comfort of sorts to a large contingent of backs who slide beyond the initial stanza.

"Everybody wants to have that first-round label," said Oregon tailback Onterrio Smith, who could still squeeze into the bottom of the round. "But it's not the end of the world if you don't get chosen (in the first round). A lot of backs who rush for 1,000 yards, and have success over a long period in the league, weren't taken in the first round. But it is a (distinction) you'd like to have next to your name."

His surgically-repaired left knee aside, several personnel directors insist to ESPN.com that McGahee will be a first-rounder. Because there are so many teams with multiple choices in the round, some franchises might not gamble that he will be available in the second round.

After that, it is anyone's guess if there will be another tailback chosen in the round, and the position is definitely one in which individual team needs and preferences will dictate whether McGahee is a fraternity of one or has some company in possessing the first-round seal of approval.

Since the NFL and AFL agreed on a combined draft in 1967, the 1984 lottery is the only one that had fewer than two backs selected in the opening stanza. The average number of first-round backs in the past 33 years is 4.1, and there have been 15 drafts that included five or more first-round runners. It is notable that, though, that there were just two tailbacks taken in the first round in 2002, and just five in the past two lotteries.

The next best bet for first-round status, after McGahee, might be Larry Johnson of Penn State, a 2,000-yard rusher in 2002, and a player in whom the Pittsburgh Steelers are now said to be mightily interested.

It's not the end of the world if you don't get chosen (in the first round). A lot of backs who rush for 1,000 yards, and have success over a long period in the league, weren't taken in the first round. But it is a (distinction) you'd like to have next to your name.
Onterrio Smith, Oregon tailback

But the outspoken Johnson has a soft-looking body, had just one great year in college, and faces the stigma of following so many Nittany Lions busts at the position. In essence, he epitomizes the 2003 tailback class, a guy whose resume includes several brilliant elements, but in whom personnel directors also see a few warts.

"There are a lot of backs with big 'buts' on them," said Jacksonville Jaguars personnel chief James Harris. "You know, like, 'OK, he can do this but he's got a (deficiency) in that area there.' It's a tailback class with a lot of players who really only had one big year. Or with guys who've been injured before."

Indeed, former Southern California tailback Justin Fargas, who excelled at the combine, has played very little football the past couple years. Lee Suggs of Virginia Tech has a past knee injury and, ESPN.com confirmed, still has rotator cuff problems. Chris Brown of Colorado is a powerful, but upright, runner who absorbs lots of punishment.

The aforementioned Onterrio Smith was booted off the Tennessee team after an incident that involved marijuana and has suffered from attitude problems in the past. Musa Smith of Georgia has had past injuries and carried the ball more than 120 times in just one season of his college career.

The general manager or personnel directors for three teams confirmed to ESPN.com this week that McGahee is the only tailback on their boards with a first-round grade, and all have a red flag next to his name because of the knee injury. One college scouting director for an NFC franchise claimed he has no tailbacks right now with a first-round grade. Two others said they have just two tailbacks in their top 35 prospects.

History has demonstrated that, in the subjective science of the draft, it's a given that there will be a back or two that some team becomes sold on, even if no one else does. Still, most teams won't attempt to fill tailback needs until the second or third rounds.

The trick is to get the player you want in the draft spot you want him. There could be a Clinton Portis in the 2003 draft, but discerning precisely who he is, and then choosing him in the optimum spot, is the key.

"Everyone is looking," said Carolina personnel director Jack Bushofsky, "for that Portis-type guy. People knew he was a good back last year, but no one knew quite when to pull the trigger on him, except for the Broncos. And look what they got. The guy is a terrific back. He was a great value pick and that's what you want."

The emphasis on value, not overpaying or reaching for a back and forcing him into the first round, all but augurs a run on runners in the second round. But less than two weeks before the draft, some boards are still scrambled at the tailback position, and scouts are still scrutinizing the candidates.

And that, more than anything else, illustrates the uncertainty at the position.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.