Ravens run up against history

First-round backs can be busts, too

March 30, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

When the Ravens go in search of a premier running back next month, they will attempt to avoid the pitfalls of past drafts.

And the NFL's recent past is filled with a curious mix of success and failure at the position, especially when it comes to first-round picks. To wit:

Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter was the first pick in the 1995 draft, and Colorado's Rashaan Salaam, the Heisman Trophy winner, the 21st. Carter has been serviceable, Salaam a bust. The best back from '95? Terrell Davis, taken with the 196th pick in the sixth round.

Another Penn State runner, Blair Thomas, was the second pick in the 1990 draft. Thomas flopped, but Hall of Fame-bound Emmitt Smith at No. 17 and Rodney Hampton at No. 24 both took their teams to the Super Bowl.

Ricky Watters was the fifth running back selected in 1991. He went in the second round with the 45th pick -- well after Leonard Russell (No. 14) and Harvey Williams (No. 21) were off the board. Only Watters, though, reached the Super Bowl.

In 1996, Lawrence Phillips (No. 6) and Tshimanga Biakabutuka (No. 8) went early and then went nowhere. Eddie George, taken at No. 14, went to the Super Bowl last season.

If draft history says anything, it says finding a franchise runner in the first round is risky business.

"There are more misses, definitely," Phil Savage, the Ravens' director of college scouting, said of the hazards of taking a running back high in the draft. "It's probably because of the injury factor.

"It comes down to the way a player is utilized once he's in the pros, fitting [individual] strengths with what you do in your system."

Against that backdrop, the Ravens must decide which runner from the Class of 2000 best meshes with coach Brian Billick's big-play offense, and whether that back is worthy of the fifth or 15th pick in the first round on April 15.

Is it Virginia's Thomas Jones, the consensus choice as the best of a bumper crop? Or Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, the NCAA's all-time rushing leader? Or Alabama's Shaun Alexander, who might be the most complete back in the draft? Or Tennessee's Jamal Lewis, who attacks would-be tacklers? Or even Arizona State's J. R. Redmond, who has several good features but no one dominant trait?

Savage and Ozzie Newsome, the team's vice president of player personnel, have graded those five backs at the top of their position. One of them seems targeted for Baltimore.

The Ravens want to come out of the first round with a feature running back and an impact wide receiver, although not necessarily in that order. If the higher-rated player on their draft board is a receiver when the fifth pick is up, it likely will be the receiver. If it's a runner, then the runner will go at No. 5.

Either way, Savage says, there's no telling which player will contribute more in the long run.

"Ultimately, three or four years from now, there may not be any difference between the two players we pick [in the first round]," he said. "Or the guy we pick at 15 may be better than the guy we pick at 5. There's no way of knowing until they get on your team and get on the field and perform."

Billick's criteria at running back? "A big back with speed and durability," he said. "That's what everybody is looking for. If I had to rate it, ability as a runner is No. 1, and ability to handle pass protection No. 2."

Said Savage: "We're looking for somebody who can do everything, because in this offense, you're going to run inside, you're going to run outside, you're going to catch the ball some, you're going to have to block some. I think we're looking for more out of the position."

Errict Rhett and Priest Holmes shared the job last season. Rhett left via free agency for the Cleveland Browns, and Holmes is a restricted free agent the Ravens would like to retain.

The ideal back would be more nifty than Rhett and more powerful than Holmes. He would be able to grind out yardage in the red zone, pick up a blitzing linebacker, and turn a swing pass into a first-down catch. All of the five have feature-back promise.

Jones is a high-character player who does a lot well. "He's a worker, he runs hard," Savage said. "But he's 5-10, 210 pounds. He's not a pile-mover."

Because he's more like the St. Louis Rams' Marshall Faulk than, say, the Titans' George, Jones is likely to wind up with the Arizona Cardinals as the seventh pick.

Dayne, a 260-pound player, could be tough in the red zone. But he caught only one pass last season and was rarely asked to block. More worrisome, however, is the 1,200-plus carries he had at Wisconsin.

"Probably one of the bigger concerns with him is, if you're of the belief that a back has only so much mileage, he's carried the ball an awful lot over four years," Savage said.

Alexander delivered in big games for Alabama, a trait hard to overlook. He is an instinctive runner whose 4.44 time in the 40-yard dash vaulted him at least to the middle of the first round.

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