Wide Right: Running Backs in the Draft
by Jeff Cockey, 4/25/03

I am more than a little puzzled by mock drafts. I have seen about 10 of them now and they are about as alike as …well…nothing. They have very few picks in common and in one case the same publication printed the pick list in one order while it was in a completely different order on their website; thus leading me to completely trust every word they say from now on.

So I guess Lee Suggs looks pretty good after all, considering mock drafts are just that, "mock." The last time a mock draft actually resembled the real NFL draft was back when the abbreviation "OJ" still stood for a drink instead of a lunatic murderer (was that too harsh or just about right on?). I dare say it’s probably never happened. And while I could have just said that to begin with, I figured I would get one more shot in on "The Juice" before he joins the Emmy winning ranks of "The Anna Nicole Show" and "The Osbournes". OJ doing "reality"… Hhhhhmmmmmm, oxymoron?

So taking all of that into consideration, I believe that Lee Suggs (who will be known for purposes of this article as just plain old Suggs from now on. Not to be confused with the other Suggs in the draft, but this article really has nothing to do with him, so you probably wouldn’t have been confused anyway. I just needed to fill some page space) has a good shot at being a first round or very high second round pick.

First I have narrowed the field of Sugg’s competition to three. In no particular order, we have the talented Mr. Willis McGahee. I don’t think I have to say much more about this guy right now. We will save him for the end of the article.

Next there is Larry Johnson from linebacker U. I would take a look at the long and heralded list of great NFL running backs produced by Joe Pa’s system but I don’t think I can spare a full 15 seconds out of my day. So instead let’s take a look at the list of good NFL running backs produced by JP and his Nittany Lions….uummm, that didn’t take long. OK how about the list of average NFL running backs to proudly wear the blue and white…yeah that is much better… let’s see, there’s Ki-Jana, and then there’s Ki-Jana. Should we add Larry Johnson’s name to the list now while we are on the subject?

The third guy to give Suggs a run for his money in this years draft is Justin Fargas a.k.a. Lee Majors. We can rebuild him. We can make him stronger and faster (you can just hear the $6 million dollar man music playing in the background). The man has broken his leg and replaced what once was a normal bone with titanium rods. But that wasn’t enough, so they re-broke his leg and gave the man metal plates and numerous pins, not to mention more screws than Wilt Chamberlain.

Now on to our heralded Suggs. He tore his knee over a year ago. It has completely healed, and he has proven that his replaced knee can withstand a full season’s worth of stress and pounding. So with that, much like Anne Robinson of "The Weakest Link," we will find out once and for all who the true highest running back draft choice for 2003 will be.

Larry Johnson is the running back from Penn State University. Tell me, what does LJ bring to the table? Personally I just think he is happy to be here. Joe Pa was so nice to give him the opportunity to run the ball this past year, seeing as how Penn State could have utilized their high-powered, Spurrier-esque type passing offense instead. I mean seriously, did Joe Pa really have a choice but to run the ball? Short of keeping his defense on the field and showcasing his linebackers, he did the only thing he could have done, run the ball.

Let’s examine a few things. What makes a running back excel at the next level? In the NFL you need to be able to bust through the line, and frankly I will give that to LJ. He is pretty explosive and has the weight to back it up. After you get past the line of scrimmage however, several things need to happen, and they all revolve around one thing…speed. You need to elude the backers filling the gaps, and for that you need quick feet and agile legs. This is where we hit a snag with LJ. It might be that he is just so used to getting crushed by his Penn State linebacking crew every time he crossed the line of scrimmage in practice, that he has thus resigned himself to taking a knee after he hits the hole.

But alas, we ask ourselves, how was he able to amass so many yards in his college career? Answer: It was college. The 'backers in the pros are all Lavar Arringtons and Bill Romanowskis. They will have no problem taking down LJ once he breaks through the line. In fact, they will be salivating for the chance. Not since Ki-Jana Carter have the NFL linebackers had a shot at such an over-rated running back. Unless, of course you count Curtis Enis and Blair Thomas, both products of Joe Pa, and both bitten in the NFL by what I like to call "Nittany Fever," the rare "I suddenly suck" Penn State disease.

What LJ lacks is quickness. His speed rivals that of my arthritic grandmother, and his ability to avoid a would-be tackler is equivalent to my ability to avoid anything deep fried. Not a good combination, unless you are looking for a goal line situation back, and they don’t tend to go in the first round of the draft. I think LJ will be the next Ron "disappointment" Dayne. Larry Johnson, you are the weakest link…Goodbye.

Next up we have Justin Fargas from USC, no Michigan, no USC again. Unfortunately for Lee Majors it seems he has racked up more frequent flier miles than he has rushing yards. The list of faults with this guy is longer than a live version of a Dave Matthews song. He could star in Terminator 4 since he is more metal than man and he has said "I’ll be back" more times than Arnold himself. But frankly, he has backed it up. He is now considered a top running back in this draft. I give the kid a lot of credit to be able to overcome his injuries, school transfers, and missed playing time to then outshine everyone at the NFL combine.

But folks, that was the NFL combine, not the NFL. No one was hitting him at the combine. Nobody was testing his bionic lower half (Important note: A bionic lower half, while impressive with the ladies, not so much with NFL scouts). This kid will play in the NFL for sure, but as a starter? I’m skeptical. I say he goes third round and in fewer than five years he is sitting on his couch, hand under his belt, with his wife Peg and daughter Kelly, telling his son Bud about the time he scored four touchdowns in the high school state championship game. It is an admirable comeback from quite a few setbacks, and for most people in this world it has a happy ending; some sort of NFL career. Lee Majors you are the weakest link, goodbye.

Now I have two schools of thought about the remaining two contestants. Suggs is a Hokie and Willis McGahee is a Cane. Therefore McGahee gets eliminated and Suggs goes as the first running back in the draft. However, the devil on my shoulder is saying "Jeff, Willis is an amazing talent and Miami players tend to draft higher than Tech players for a few reasons, one of which is the fact that they are from Miami." Now, when dealing with such an arduous decision I choose to examine the remaining constants together. First, as we did with Penn State, let’s examine the history of VT running backs that went pro vs. Miami running backs that have gone pro.

From Tech we have Ken Oxendine. Ken went to Tech while I was there, and he was a powerful college back. Unfortunately he caught Nittany Fever and petered out in the NFL. We can next look to Shyrone Stith. Ah, the woes of leaving early for the pros. I would like to get a hold of the agent that got to him in New Orleans and convinced him to go pro before his time. He could have had a very good chance in the NFL if not for that money grubbing "Arli$$." Another Hokie downed by Nittany Fever.

So we ask ourselves, why-oh-why will Lee Suggs be any different? He may not be, but Suggs has the heart and the intelligence and more importantly the unbelievable drive to succeed. He will be the best back that VT has ever put in the NFL. He may even rush for as many yards as Michael Vick does next year.

Ok, so Miami has produced a few good NFL running backs. I don’t think we need to go any further back than Clinton "step aside Terrell" Portis, but if you want, we can bring Edgerrin James into the picture too. If their success is any measure of what McGahee is capable of, than look out. And I don’t have to tell you that is on the mind of every NFL team out there. Miami has the definite edge in past back performance.

Let’s take a look at the programs from which each player came. Miami, much like their Florida brethren, is predominantly a passing team. McGahee played a supporting role. He was like Murray in "Riptide"; excellent in his own right, but he never got the girl and he never got to fly the ultra cool pink helicopter. Now granted, McGahee played his supporting role extremely well, but he did have the potent arm of Ken Dorsey keeping the secondary honest enough to let McGahee add yardage to the end of every run. The problem with this logic is that the same was true with Portis and James and I would be first in line to trade my wife and first born for one of them if I were an NFL coach.

Contrast that with Tech’s program. Unlike the Florida conference (as an aside, this name ‘Florida Conference’ was derived by my father who went to Maryland and thus claims the entire ACC as his "team." He now resides in Fla. and hence claims all Florida teams as his "team" as well. This does not bode well for me in football arguments since I claim only Tech as my "team". I used to have the rest of the Big East on my side but in my father’s warped sports mind Miami has defected to the newly formed ‘Florida Conference’). Where were we? Ah yes, unlike Miami, Tech was never a throwing team. Beamerball was run first, score touchdowns, and hopefully never have to pass the ball.

I am using the past tense because with the addition of the most recent talent at QB (Vick, Randall, and Vick) Tech seems to be changing its tune. Under Tech’s system the running back was the go-to guy. In this role Suggs outperformed beyond belief. The man carried our entire team. Vick may have had something to do with that success, but Suggs continued to perform beyond expectations even after Vick left. Because Virginia Tech focuses more on the run than Miami, I would say that Suggs is more prepared to succeed in the NFL than McGahee. Edge to Tech and Suggs.

Now to the individual players. This is where it becomes difficult to separate my head from my heart. Suggs tore his knee, true, but Suggs also has proven himself on that reconstructed knee. Suggs has had more than one great year as a running back. He carried the NCAA in scoring and touchdowns before his injury and he won honors for his play the year after his injury, while competing for playing time with KJ.

My heart gives the edge to Suggs. While McGahee impressed some teams in his abbreviated workout the other day, he has yet to prove his knee in battle. This is a huge problem in my book. That’s like agreeing to pay for a multimillion dollar blind date. Conceivably she could be the newly divorced Jennifer Garner looking for a rebound fling, but let’s be real. It is equally as likely, if not more so, that you go to her doorstep, ring the bell, and out walks a cross between Roseanne Barr and Greta Van Susteren, with the personality of Mike Tyson and the intelligence of a "Jay Walking" contestant. That’s when dinner and a movie becomes a happy meal at the drive-thru and a free film rental coupon for her to take home and watch while she polishes off her super-sized fries, by herself. I don’t think anyone wants to waste a draft pick on a happy meal date. Advantage Suggs.

Unfortunately I can not bring myself to call McGahee the weakest link. Frankly he is a super back and my head says that if Suggs can heal as well as he did, then why can’t McGahee heal just as well under the care of an NFL trainer? Fact is, he probably can, and will. McGahee will continue the roll of Miami backs that impress us in the NFL, and for that reason, McGahee is definitely not the weakest link. But to apply that title to Lee Suggs would be dead wrong as well. Suggs is a great competitor and a great person. He contains the drive and intelligence to perform exceptionally well in the NFL and I believe that he will.

So, all said and done, McGahee goes in the first round. Suggs goes late first or early second round, while LJ and the Bionic Man battle it out in the late second to third round.

Have a great draft weekend.


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