Ravens not quite running success

When drafting backs, team has caught one star, Ja. Lewis, in six seasons

Pro Football

April 15, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Drafting a running back is a need as well as a challenge.

The Ravens are looking to select a running back in next weekend's draft as insurance for Jamal Lewis, who has caused some organizational concern with last year's season-ending injury along with a four-game league suspension. But selecting running backs has been one of the few chinks in the Ravens' draft success.

When assessing the three backs drafted in the Ravens' six-year history, the team hit big once with Lewis (first round in 2000) and missed twice with Jay Graham (third round in 1997) and Chris Barnes (fifth round in 2001). The Ravens, though, have scored with undrafted free agents like Priest Holmes and Jason Brookins, the team's current backup.

"We have been a little scattershot at running back; there's no two ways about that," said Phil Savage, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "We haven't been as consistent at that position as other ones, that's for sure. But at the same time, you look at the NFL and you have got guys in the sixth round leading the league in rushing and got guys in the top 10 who are flopping."

This year's running back group isn't impressive. There are only four players projected to be full-time backs: Boston College's William Green, Michigan State's T.J. Duckett, Miami's Clinton Portis and UCLA's DeShaun Foster.

Green, the top running back prospect, is expected to go in the top 15. But the Ravens invited him last week for a visit because there is a chance that he could be available with the 24th pick of the first round.

Some character issues have been raised about Green, who was suspended for the Eagles' most crucial game of 2001, a late-season showdown against Miami. If Green were available, it would be hard for the Ravens to pass him up.

He possesses a rare combination of size and run skills and has proved to be an excellent receiver out of the backfield who can be split into the slot on occasion. His one real weakness appears to be the lack of true breakaway speed.

"He runs with a great pad level," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations. "He has very good vision and explodes into tacklers. I think he has the ability to take it the distance."

While Duckett has been penciled in by many at the Cleveland Browns' 16th slot, Portis and Foster would be other options for the Ravens.

At 202 pounds, Portis is a smaller back who could be a victim of his own style. He runs aggressively between the tackles, which exposes him to big hits. There's a question whether he can do that in the NFL at his size and remain durable.

"He's a guy who is elusive but can overpower," Newsome said. "He does break tackles and has great speed."

Foster is the wild card of this bunch. He may be the most talented runner, but he played himself out of the first round with frequent injuries and fumbles.

"He's scary, but he may be the most instinctive, natural runner in the draft," Savage said. "He's got a little Shaun Alexander-type qualities about him as far as having a feel for the game. He just fumbles the ball."

The rest of this running back class is undersized prospects who could be used as third-down players or return specialists.

If the Ravens don't use their top pick on a running back, they'll likely pick one up in the later rounds. Some of the prospects available there will be East Carolina's Leonard Henry, an underrated, multidimensional back who is considered the sleeper of this class; North Dakota State's Lamar Gordon, a versatile standout on the Division II level; and Villanova's Brian Westbrook, an explosive performer who can contribute immediately as a returner.

One name to watch for late is Penn State's Omar Easy, who met with the Ravens last week. He will fall to the end of the draft because he gained only 196 yards on 45 carries last season. But impressive showings at the Blue-Gray game and recent workouts have raised his stock.

"He could be the most intriguing player in the whole draft," Savage said. "He's a true boom or bust."

On the board?

The Ravens have the 24th pick in the first round and the 56th pick in the second round of Saturday's NFL draft. Running backs who may be available:

Round 1

Player, school....Ht./Wt. ....Skinny

William Green, BC...6-0/222...Would need to fall dramatically

Clinton Portis, Miami...5-11/202...Runs bigger than small frame

DeShaun Foster, UCLA...6-0/222...Constant fumbling a concern

Round 2

Lamar Gordon, N.D. State...6-0//212...Touted as Div. II's best ever

Luke Staley, BYU...6-1/226...Durability a question

Ladell Betts, Iowa...5-10/218...All-purpose back lacks speed

Later rounds

Leonard Henry, East Carolina; Maurice Morris, Oregon; Adrian Peterson, Georgia Southern; Chester Taylor, Toledo; Jonathan Wells, Ohio State; Brian Westbrook, Villanova.

Tailback picks

A look at the Ravens' history at drafting tailbacks:

Year....Player (round)

2001...Chris Barnes (5)

2000...Jamal Lewis (1)

1997...Jay Graham (3)

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