Teams turn back, decide on fate of Henderson

Doubts surrounding Terp center on old back injury

Pro Football

April 26, 2003|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

If production were the only issue, the selection of E.J. Henderson in today's NFL draft would be uncomplicated. He has delivered 473 tackles over four years, earning All-America honors over the past two and garnering major awards in his final campaign at Maryland.

But the Aberdeen native has spent the past four months trying to display his speed and prove that his doctored back is fit for the rigors of professional football.

Potential can shade the portrait of the NFL draft, which begins at noon today. Henderson is one of three locally connected players with hopes of being selected in the first three rounds, joined by Penn State receiver Bryant Johnson (City College) and Morgan State tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. He's just the one whose concerns don't deal with running, catching, tackling or blocking.

Are NFL teams convinced about Henderson? If so, he will likely disappear from the draft board within the first 20 picks. If not, questions about his long-term health could dog him into the second round. After visits to see the Texans, Jets and Saints, he hopes that his performance in workouts and the 2002 season can prevent that.

"I knew that once I got back [from the injury] it would be the same old, same old," Henderson said. "As long as I performed the way I was capable of playing, I wouldn't have to worry."

Henderson said he "took a spill" in a practice for the 2002 Orange Bowl, causing the initial back problem and detouring his quest to become a first-round pick. It turned into pain while running, then a diagnosis of a stress fracture of one of his vertebra, and then his decision to delay his entry into the draft and return for his senior season.

Henderson crushed most doubts about his college performance, where he ended as the Terps' second-leading tackler all time. He made 175 tackles, including 19 1/2 for losses. He was picked as the Atlantic Coast Conference's top defensive player for the second straight year and won the Butkus (nation's best linebacker) and Bednarik (nation's top defensive player) awards.

"He does things that you can't measure," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said.

Henderson worked out in Houston in the weeks leading to Maryland's pro day last month, where he ran the 40-yard dash somewhere between 4.6 and 4.7 seconds. NFL teams have performed magnetic resonance imaging exams, X-rays, CT scans and flexibility tests on him in an effort to discover any possible problem in his back.

Likewise, Johnson comes off as wearied by the four-month march between his amateur life and a pro career, his subdued voice contrasting with that of his agent, Joel Seagal, who booms through the phone receiver.

Johnson, 6 feet 2 1/2 and 211 pounds, ran 4.37 in the 40 in his workout. His wait is expected to last anywhere from 20 to 40 draft picks, with the Jets, 49ers and Patriots expressing the greatest interest. He visited the Ravens and the Titans.

His prospects improved by a strong senior year, a fast sprinting time for his size and a solid performance in the Senior Bowl, the most respected of the college all-star games.

"I knew I did well, because the coaches came to me and said I did well," Johnson said.

Shiancoe, a 6-5, 250-pound Silver Spring native who helped Morgan State to its first winning season since 1979, entered the off-season as a likely pick at the end of the draft, but he has risen to a possible third-round selection. His stock rose in Indianapolis, where as one of 21 tight ends, he ran the fastest 40, did the most bench presses with 225 pounds and had the highest vertical jump, at 39 1/2 inches, although not all players participated in every drill.

"That's where I showed where I belonged," the Montgomery Blair graduate said.

In addition, punter Brooks Barnard, offensive lineman Todd Wike and fullback James Lynch - all of Maryland - are the other local players most likely to be drafted, but probably not until tomorrow.

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