Willis McGahee's horrific knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl severely damaged what was already a weak crop of running backs in this year's draft. In fact, it's a crop that could produce only one first-round pick.
Penn State's Larry Johnson is the only sure bet to go in the first round, but there are a lot of questions surrounding his senior rise to stardom. Was it a fluke? How does a guy go from 337 yards rushing and two touchdowns as a junior to 2,087 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns as a senior?
Critics claim Johnson, 6-1, 228, with 4.6 speed, is too upright and has a narrow base. He's not a bulldozer or a pounder. And the biggest rap is that he struggled in Penn State's most important games, against Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State.
But a lot of the raps on Johnson were used on Eddie George when he was coming out of Ohio State. A little on the slow side; didn't play as tough as his size; not a pile mover, more of a slasher.
To Johnson's credit, he's very versatile. He catches the ball well, effectively uses his blockers and has outstanding instincts. The bottom line is that Johnson is a productive major college player who lacks the kind of power most teams seek, but someone will spend a first-round pick on him and probably be glad they did.
Miami's McGahee, 6-0, 223, is everything Johnson isn't in the talent department. McGahee is fast (4.45), powerful, sudden and has true star potential. If he hadn't been injured, he would almost certainly have been a top-five pick. As it stands, he might sneak into the first day of the draft, as a late-second or third-round choice. His total blowout of his left knee will probably wash out his rookie year. If he makes a full recovery, he could become the steal of the draft in 2004.
Virginia Tech's Lee Suggs, 5-11, 202, is an ultra-productive runner with good speed (4.55), but he shared time with Kevin Jones and Suggs' durability and versatility have come under criticism. He lacks elusiveness and big-play ability. He might be a reach in the first round, but a great pick in the second.
Colorado's Chris Brown, 6-2, 220, is somewhat of an enigma. He has all of the tools; big and fast (4.55). He's also been compared to Eddie George, and that's the good news and the bad news because Brown is an upright runner like George, but doesn't have George's durability. He'd be an interesting pick in the second round.
USC's Justin Fargas, 6-1, 219, jumped up draft boards recently on the strength of offseason workouts that produced a 4.38 40 time. It could push Fargas into the first round, but critics claim that's a gross overrating for a running back who, quite frankly, just didn't get it done on the field. He underwent major knee surgery that required two exhaustive procedures following his freshman season at Michigan. The leg had to be re-broken and two metal plates were inserted. Later, Fargas underwent surgery on his big toe to fix damage done by the broken leg. Yet, he's recovered from all of that, which says a lot about his dedication. He's tempting, but he also represents a major risk.
Oregon's Onterrio Smith and Georgia's Musa Smith are depth players worthy of first-day selections.
Onterrio, 5-10, 220, runs a 4.45 and has been super-productive. Character issues will downgrade his stock.
Musa, 6-1, 232, is a big, powerful runner with decent speed (4.6), but he wasn't used to his max in Georgia's pass-happy offense. Even at that, he rushed for 1,324 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He lacks great upside. What you see is what you get, and that's not bad.
Colorado State's Cecil Sapp, 5-10, 229, rushed 328 times for nearly 1,500 yards last season. He's described as a warrior who recovered from a benign tumor on his foot in 2001. He's a tough inside runner. Just give him the ball over and over; a Steelers kind of running back. Powerful with vision and instincts for gaining yardage. But he's not an open-field type and certainly not a good fit for the West Coast offense.
The pickings get real slim after Sapp. There's Artros Pinner from Kentucky, Santonio Beard from Alabama and Earnest Graham from Florida, recognizable names for SEC fans, but all guys destined to be second-day picks.
Overall, it's considered to be a weak crop of running backs, but it's not without its players of temptation. The Jaguars will clearly be tempted by one of those players to replace Stacey Mack.