Williams' Heisman can't boost his stock

Teams' QB obsession hurts top-3 chances, costing him millions

NFL draft

April 15, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Sometime early Saturday afternoon, after all the smoke screens have dissipated and all the subterfuge has been exhausted, Ricky Williams will learn his destination in the 64th annual NFL draft.

That it isn't likely to be the Cleveland Browns with the first pick, but the Indianapolis Colts -- or some other team that trades up -- with the fourth pick says a lot about today's NFL.

It says the league has an obsession with quarterbacks.

It says it is harder to find a franchise quarterback than a Super Bowl running back.

And it says that Williams, considered by many experts to be the best player in the draft, will watch several million dollars in signing-bonus money slip through his hands -- small hands, an NFL personnel man might note, that fumbled 26 times in 46 games at the University of Texas.

Williams' plight represents one of the most compelling intrigues of this draft. How could the most productive running back in Division I history, the Heisman Trophy winner with bruising size and ample speed, fall behind three promising -- but flawed -- quarterbacks?

The answer seems to have more to do with the law of supply and demand than Williams' body piercings, his dreadlocks, his tattoos, his weight or his agent, all of which have come under scrutiny since February.

At a time when there is a shortage of competent quarterbacks in the NFL, the two featured running backs in the last Super Bowl arrived in the league on the second day of the draft. The Denver Broncos got MVP Terrell Davis in the sixth round in 1995 and the Atlanta Falcons got Jamal Anderson in the seventh round in 1994.

Considering there are at least five and possibly six quarterbacks who figure to be drafted in the first round this year, the rush is on at the top, starting with Cleveland's expansion Browns.

Might the obsession with quarterbacks be misplaced in this instance?

"It can be," said Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. "If you get one and he's not good enough, you still don't have one. We went through that. I think you've got to be careful in that area. Certainly, you need a quarterback to win. But he better be the guy" when you pass on a talent like Williams.

The Redskins paid a king's ransom -- first- and third-round picks this year, a second in 2000 -- to get Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson, so they won't spend the fifth pick on a passer. But they need a big-time running back, and they could get Williams if Indianapolis keeps the fourth pick and selects cornerback Champ Bailey or linebacker Chris Claiborne.

"I don't know that he's a special, special back," Casserly said of Williams. "But because the guy's had such great production at a high level and is such a physical player, he's got the potential to be that kind of player."

Williams won't experience a free-fall like last year when wide receiver Randy Moss, a top-five talent, plummeted to No. 21 on character issues. In fact, if the New Orleans Saints have their way, there will be no slide at all. General manager Bill Kuharich has been working feverishly on a blockbuster trade to get the Browns' top pick.

Kuharich has offered all six of the Saints' picks this year, plus future considerations -- picks and/or players. Because the Browns reportedly want three first-round picks in any trade, the Saints have also made offers to the Philadelphia Eagles, with the second pick, and the Cincinnati Bengals, with the third.

Early projections have the Browns taking Tim Couch, the Eagles taking Donovan McNabb and the Bengals taking Akili Smith. If that happens, it would mark the first time in 28 years that three quarterbacks led off the draft.

But as much as the Saints need a quarterback, coach Mike Ditka believes Williams, at 5 feet 10 and 224 pounds, would put New Orleans over the top.

"I think he's a special player who comes out once in a while," Ditka said. "Like Earl Campbell, Walter Payton. Like Tony Dorsett. There are special players. That's exactly what I see. I think he's the big difference-maker right away."

Kuharich has said he still expects the Browns to take Williams, who rushed for 6,279 yards and 72 touchdowns at Texas, averaging 6.2 yards a carry. "In my opinion, he's the best back since Barry Sanders," Kuharich said.

Starting with the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last February, Williams' stock began dropping. He weighed in at 244 pounds, 14 over his playing weight of 230. He declined to participate in drills and stiffed the St. Louis Rams on an interview request.

He also announced he was changing agents -- from Gregg Clifton of Bob Woolf Associates for No Limit Sports, a company run by rap artist Percy Miller, better known as Master P. In fact, the negotiating will be left to Leland Hardy, who has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.

There also were concerns about Williams' hands; at 7 3/4 inches, they were the smallest at the combine and at least partially responsible for his 26 fumbles at Texas.

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