Only once before has it gotten so deep into the first round before the initial tailback went off the board, but the fact top-rated runner Steven Jackson of Oregon State lasted until the 24th choice reinforced the notion that teams now believe they can fill the position later in the lottery, and validated the suspicion this year's crop of backs was hardly special.
Even teams believed to have had running back as a priority ignored Jackson before St. Louis ended his free-fall at 24, making him the heir apparent to the job that Marshall Faulk currently holds. It seems a bonanza for the Rams, who at some point needed to unearth the eventual replacement to Faulk, since the team seems to have little faith that youngsters Lamar Gordon and Arlen Harris might be the answer.
For much of the day, however, Jackson publicly agonized over his plummet, with the television cameras capturing his pain, much the same way they did 16 years ago with Thurman Thomas, who eventually fell asleep waiting to be chosen.
"It's OK now," said Jackson after his ordeal. "But, sure, it's nerve-racking."
When the Philadelphia Eagles moved up 12 spots in the first round, to No. 16, folks believed the rise up the board was to get Jackson, but they passed, and took offensive tackle Shawn Andrews instead. Then the Denver Broncos, who dealt Clinton Portis to Washington earlier in the offseason, ignored Jackson. Ditto Dallas, a team desperate for a workhorse runner, but a club that actually traded down out of the first round. Cincinnati, seeking a replacement for Corey Dillon and a back to team with Rudi Johnson, swapped spots with the Rams, so determined were the Bengals to not take Jackson.
One thing the choice of Jackson finally did was break the logjam at tailback, as four more runners then went in a 19-pick span. That included two more backs, Chris Perry (to the Bengals) and Kevin Jones (to Detroit), in the first round. The choice of Perry was a bit surprising, because most teams did not have him that highly rated, while the Bengals had him as the top back on their board.
Some observers are questioning the tactics of the Dallas Cowboys and Bill Parcells, in dealing out of the first round, and not addressing their need for a tailback until choosing Julius Jones of Notre Dame with the 43rd overall choice.
But people who have spoken to Parcells the past few weeks knew he considered Jones, an underachiever at times in college but a guy who began moving up after an impressive combine performance, an intriguing guy. In fact, in the ESPN.com "Draft Rumor Central" earlier this week, it noted that Parcells would strongly consider Jones in the second round if the Cowboys hadn't yet addressed the tailback issue.
Parcells had been telling confidants that, of all the tailbacks he researched, Jones had authored the most "explosive plays" in 2003.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, by the way, said Saturday evening that the club is no longer offering left guard Larry Allen in trade talks. Parcells had noted that, if the Cowboys did not get their asking price for the perennial Pro Bowl performer, he would not just give him away. And don't expect the Cowboys to release Allen after June 1, either, when the team can ameliorate its salary cap exposure on him for 2004. Parcells has no designs on releasing Allen during the summer.
Even a team as astute in the draft as New England has to be lucky at times and the Patriots, who manipulate the system better than anyone in the league, caught some good fortune in Saturday's first round.
Scouts from a few teams confirmed that the Patriots attempted to trade up during the first round, once Ohio State defensive end Will Smith began sliding. The Patriots felt Smith would add not only depth but another dimension to their defensive front, and that getting him would permit Richard Seymour to log more snaps at tackle, where he remains a very tough matchup for opponents.
But while the Patriots failed in their trade-up efforts, the Super Bowl champions still came out looking good, because defensive tackle Vince Wilfork fell into their laps. One of the record six former Miami Hurricanes to be chosen in the first round, the 323-pound Wilfork is the kind of "anchor" tackle the Pats need to replace Ted Washington, who signed with Oakland as a free agent.
Personnel directors and general managers will deny it, but everyone skews their draft boards now toward need, and makes selections to fill holes. In the era of the salary cap and free agency, it seems, that's the ticket to success.
Few team executives are more candid about drafting for need than Floyd Reese of the Tennessee Titans and even fewer do as good a job of it. That was demonstrated again on Saturday, through all three rounds.
Of the Titans' five selections, three were defensive linemen, ends Travis Laboy (Hawaii) and Antwan Odom (Alabama) and tackle Randy Starks (Maryland). Little wonder, since the Titans lost end Jevon Kearse and tackle Robaire Smith in free agency. The team's first pick was tight end Ben Troupe of Florida, who will help Tennessee deal with the retirement of former standout Frank Wycheck.
Its pick in the third round was Penn State cornerback Rich Gardner, who could vie for playing time in "nickel" situations, given that the Titans two weeks ago lost corner Tony Beckham to what could be a season-ending knee injury.
It wasn't surprising that just one kicker and one punter were chosen on the first day, nor was it a shock who grabbed them.
The lone kicker was Nate Kaeding of Iowa, chosen by San Diego with the second pick in the third round, a very wise investment. The Chargers struggled with Steve Christie in '03, as the veteran converted only 15 of 20 field goal tries.
Green Bay selected punter B.J. Sander of Ohio State, also in the third round. The Packers lost Josh Bidwell in free agency.
Punts: There were rumors during the day that receiver-thin Baltimore was attempting to trade for veteran Jacksonville wideout Jimmy Smith, but cap ramifications rendered the whispers moot. To trade Smith, the Jaguars would have to carry an exorbitant salary cap hit . Saturday marked the first time since 1996 that the University of Florida did not have a player chosen in the first round . It was also the first time since 1999 that there was no defensive lineman chosen in the top 10. Oklahoma tackle Tommie Harris, who went to Chicago in the 14th slot, was the first defensive lineman . Jacksonville continued to dangle strong safety Donovin Darius in trade talks through the day. It will not be surprising if Darius is traded on Sunday.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.