The good news: Kansas City's Priest Holmes wasn't even drafted, and he was the most complete back in the league last season. The bad news: NFL teams looking for the next Holmes probably don't have a great back staring them in the face as a first-round pick. The 2003 draft class doesn't appear to have a Ricky Williams-type player who's ready to be plugged into a lineup.
Before I get into the top backs of this year's draft, there are some common threads among this year's class that require mentioning. First, there is way too much medical history among many of the top candidates. Second, there also are an unusual number of transfers from one school to another. Finally, if it weren't for underclassmen leaving early, there wouldn't be much of a draft class at the RB position.
When it comes to being a running back in the NFL, teams would really prefer a guy who hasn't had much of a medical history. Between the preseason, a 16-game schedule and the postseason, there is a lot of wear and tear on a player. To enter pro football with physical issues as a high-round pick is a problem for some teams.
The top back on most boards is Larry Johnson (Penn State). He may have the best-looking medical history of the top backs, which could explain why he is up top. After Johnson, Lee Suggs (Virginia Tech) has had reconstructive knee surgery, Justin Fargas (USC) has had multiple leg surgeries, Musa Smith (Georgia) has a list of minor injuries, Onterrio Smith (Oregon) has missed games due to knee and shoulder injuries, LaBrandon Toefield (LSU) had a torn ACL, Cecil Sapp (Colorado State) had a tumor removed from his foot, and, of course, Willis McGahee (Miami, Fla.) blew out his knee in his last college game.
Team doctors will have something to say about projecting how long players with injury histories can last in the league. Suggs and Fargas have done remarkable jobs of coming back through intense rehabilitation programs to have great senior years and appear to not have lost a step. Regardless, there are medical questions surrounding this class.
Transferring from one school to another seems to be more common this year than in years past. You can bet every team thinking about drafting a running back has asked, "Why did you leave your first school?" The player's answer to that question has been discussed in every war room in the weeks leading up to the draft. Onterrio Smith went from Tennessee to Oregon, Fargas left Michigan to play for USC, and Chris Brown started at a junior college, went to Northwestern and ended up at Colorado.
As for coming out of college early for the draft, I believe quarterbacks should stay in school five years and running backs should leave as soon as they've had real success on the college gridiron. There's just so much tread on the tire for a ball carrier. This year, four of the top six backs had college eligibility remaining and elected to enter the draft. The only dilemma is that it doesn't appear any are first-round selections. Would it have been a better idea to risk injury for one more college season to be a first-round pick next year? It's a hard question to answer but it's too late now for Brown, Musa Smith, Onterrio Smith and McGahee.
There will be much debate about McGahee leaving school early if he falls to a second-day pick. If some team has patience and takes him early, then it was worth the gamble. It was a very tough call for a guy who was sure to be a top-10 pick prior to the injury.
Teams that have spent the most time studying this draft class because they need to select a back from this year's pool of talent include the Steelers, Cowboys and Patriots, all of whom would love to find an immediate starter. Detroit and Chicago may be looking for competition in the backfield. Tennessee, Kansas City and San Diego all need a quality backup. One general manager said this week, "Every team should take a running back. You never have enough of them in this league."
Speaking of taking running backs, the Broncos surprised a lot of people last year by taking Clinton Portis in the second round despite already having several quality backs on their roster. Portis ended up as the Offensive Rookie of the Year, so don't be surprised if some team that appears set at the position drafts a ball carrier, especially near the top of the second round, when I think we'll see a number of the best backs selected. Cincinnati, for example, has one of the best backs in the NFL in Corey Dillon. But if Johnson is sitting there at the 33rd pick, the Bengals may have to think about it for depth reasons and the fact that Dillon was a no-show at a minicamp with new head coach Marvin Lewis.
As for style of back, teams looking for a power back who will give them an Eddie George- or Jamal Lewis-type performance will be interested in Johnson, Brown, or will wait until the second day and take Kerry Carter (Stanford) or Daharran Davis (Nebraska). If a cut-back runner in the mold of Curtis Martin is the kind of back a club is searching for, then Suggs, Fargas, Onterrio Smith or Dominic Davis are good options.
No matter what running style a team prefers, all of these backs will have to pass block better than they did in college and catch the ball more than ever before.
Kirwan's Hot Topics
Some key points to keep in mind as we watch the draft unfold:
- Who will draft Willis McGahee and in what round? Will he actually be able to play in 2003?
- Who will be this year's Priest Holmes?
- Which team will surprise everyone and take a running back even though they have a good one on the roster? Remember when the Saints took Deuce McAllister in the first round even though they had Ricky Williams?
- Will Larry Johnson break the mold of the Penn State backs taken high in the draft in years past?
- Will Musa Smith follow the long line of Georgia backs to enter the NFL?