Top-drafted running backs a high risk

ON THE NFL

April 23, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It was just a coincidence that running back Ki-Jana Carter of the Cincinnati Bengals underwent an untested type of surgery on his right kneecap two days after the NFL draft last week.

Carter, who already has missed the majority of three seasons with various injuries, is an example of how there are no sure things in the draft.

Five years ago, he became the only running back to be taken with the first pick in the draft in the 1990s after Cincinnati traded up with Carolina for the first pick.

He missed his rookie season with a knee injury, played in one game in 1998 before going out with a broken wrist and went out with a knee injury in the third game last year.

He suffered a partially dislocated kneecap on April 11 and decided to gamble on an arthroscopic procedure performed by orthopedic knee surgeon James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. It was designed to shrink the corrective tissue around the kneecap to prevent it from dislocating again. Andrews has performed the surgery on two wrestlers.

Carter could have chosen not to have surgery, which would have made him vulnerable to injury again, or have major surgery, which would have knocked him out for a fourth season and possibly ended his career.

Carter's ordeal isn't exactly unusual for running backs taken at the top of the draft. Twelve backs were drafted in the top 10 in the 1990s, and none of them led his original team to the Super Bowl. Marshall Faulk was the only one to do it after he was traded from Indianapolis to St. Louis.

The list includes such busts as Blair Thomas and Lawrence Phillips and such question marks as Garrison Hearst, who hasn't played since breaking an ankle a year ago and is currently scheduled to undergo more surgery, Tshimanga Biakabutuka, Curtis Enis and Ricky Williams.

Besides Faulk, only Jerome Bettis, Fred Taylor and Edgerrin James have lived up to their reputation after being drafted in the top 10 in the 1990s.

By contrast, Terrell Davis (sixth-round pick in 1995) and Jamal Anderson (a seventh-round pick in 1994) started in the Super Bowl a year ago. The most successful running back in the 1990s, Emmitt Smith, who has won three Super Bowl rings, was the 17th pick in 1990.

But teams keep looking high in the draft for running backs. When Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones and Ron Dayne went in the top 11 this year, it was the first time three went that high since Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner and Michael Haddix were picked in the top eight in 1983. Two of those three eventually became stars, which is above the average.

When Dayne showed up at the Giants' minicamp Thursday, he got a big welcome. They gave him Rodney Hampton's number (27) and coach Jim Fassel said, "To me, any time a good player wears a number, you want to put another good player in that number."

Whether Dayne turns out to be a good player remains to be seen. As Carter's career proves, there are no guarantees in the NFL draft.

Does character count?

The NFL didn't seem to take character too seriously in the draft. Four of the first 17 players selected have faced criminal charges, and the New York Jets wound up taking three such players. Dallas drafted a player who tested positive for marijuana at the scouting combine and Tennessee drafted one who tested positive for steroids.

Kick returner Dante Hall, who was thrown off the Texas A&M team for repeatedly parking in the space of the dean of students and quarreling with teammates and coach R. C. Slocum, was drafted by Kansas City in the fifth round.

Team president Carl Peterson said jokingly, "Lamar [Hunt, owner] said he would be happy to give up his parking space for Dante. So we don't anticipate any further parking problems."

One of the few executives who actually seems to be taking the problems seriously is Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, who happens to be the only former player who's an owner.

The Panthers traded a troubled Fred Lane last week, and Richardson spoke with his draft choices about how conduct is important to the team, especially in the wake of the murder charge hanging over former Panthers receiver Rae Carruth.

Leander Jordan, drafted in the third round, said, "He [Richardson] said how they don't tolerate nonsense from players, how they don't want thugs. He just told us how they operate things here and that there is no room for nonsense, the stuff like that. It was like, `You do it like this; this is how we want it -- or you won't be here.'"

On the other hand, there are many players with troubled backgrounds that were in the draft pool.

The Miami Dolphins are the only team to bring a priest to the combine to interview players. The Rev. Leo Armbrust said he talked to 76 players and discovered that 27 had never met or had any association with their biological father, three had a father who was currently in prison and seven had an immediate family member who had been shot.

He said those figures were consistent with past draft classes he had interviewed.

Price of staying in school

Two years ago, cornerback Arturo Freeman of South Carolina debated whether to come out of school after his junior year. He had six interceptions that year and thought he had a chance to be a high-round pick.

But he saw the draft was rich in cornerbacks and decided to stay in school.

It turns out he missed the 1998 season with a knee injury and then lost his spleen last year after he was kneed in the stomach. He came back and played after missing three games, but didn't go until the fifth round when Miami drafted him.

Freeman, though, won't look back and wonder what might have been if he'd come out two years ago.

"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "It was meant for me to be a Dolphin and it happened."

Quotable

"I've talked to a lot of people, and they're like, Cincinnati? But I've got to make my own decision about Cincinnati."

-- wide receiver Peter Warrick on being drafted by the Bengals, the worst team in the 1990s.

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