For third-rounder, M. Smith is first-rate back

Nfl Draft

April 28, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

EITHER THE RAVENS have looked into the future or just stayed with their policy of taking the best player on the board when it came time to making a draft selection. But besides Arizona State defender Terrell Suggs and California quarterback Kyle Boller, the player who made the Ravens' draft outstanding was Georgia running back Musa Smith.

The guy was a steal.

While fans were getting caught up in the euphoria of drafting the nation's best pass rusher and one of college football's best passers, the Ravens also walked away with a very good running back. A Jamal Lewis-type running back. The real deal.

He was rated the No. 3 running back on some draft boards, No. 4 on others.

"I was certain the guy would be gone by the end of the second round," said Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon. "There was no way he would pass that far. To be honest, when he was there for us, I was shocked."

But there he was, a third- round pick and No. 77 overall. Some may wonder why the Ravens selected a running back at that position when there was still a need at wide receiver. The Ravens could have taken receivers Billy McMullen of Virginia or Sam Aiken of North Carolina.

But the move to Smith was a great insurance policy. The Ravens already have two good players at the position in Lewis and second-year player Chester Taylor, but Lewis' status is so insecure. Here is a guy who has had two major knee surgeries, is one beer away from being suspended for a year because of previous violations of the league's substance and alcohol abuse policy and has a reckless running style.

No offense to Lewis, but that style puts a lot of wear and tear on a body. One Ravens official recently implied that Lewis might have only two or three years left at his current pace. Lewis also becomes an unrestricted free agent in three years.

But now the Ravens have Smith, from a college that has produced such runners as Herschel Walker, Rodney Hampton, Garrison Hearst and Terrell Davis. Forget the negatives that may have caused Smith to last until the third round. He could develop into a legitimate starter in this league in about two to three years.

"We have great confidence in our top backs, but I think right now we have three running backs who can play in this league," Simon said. "There is no question Musa has the capability if called on to be our guy. He has enough ability one day to be `The Guy.' "

Smith is basically Lewis without the speed and explosion. Lewis is 5 feet 11 and weighs 231. Smith is 6-1 and 232. Lewis can run inside or turn the corner. Smith had better stick to running inside. Both players can catch passes coming out of the backfield.

"We don't have to change things up from Musa with what we're doing with Jamal," Simon said. "Running downhill, that's their game, both of them. Power, that's their game, both of them. One guy is a home run threat every time he touches it. The other guy can hit you for 20 and 30 yards and makes you bleed to death slow."

That's why Smith dropped. He doesn't have great breakaway speed. He ran 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash for the Ravens in a private workout. But he also rushed for 1,324 yards last season as the featured back behind an injury-hampered and patched-up offensive line.

Smith's role will be limited this season. He'll get most of his playing time on special teams, but it's great to have another battering ram and then a change-of-pace back with Taylor.

"Chester Taylor has some qualities and may make a statement that he's the guy in this league," Simon said. "The chemistry will be interesting. Chester is truly a change-of-pace guy. He has a little more burst and quickness than the other two, more lateral quickness and is more of a space player. Chester can beat linebackers one-on-one.

"We have guys who can move the chains, pass-block, block the blitzer. We've got some skills. Musa has skills and is a better pass blocker out of college than Jamal. He still gets overextended or takes some false steps, but that's expected coming out of college. He is physical enough and has quick feet. He loves running into linebackers and crashing into safeties. He has all the intangibles to be very, very good."

Enough skills to someday be a starter. But until then, he is a very good insurance policy.

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