The most talked-about running back available in the NFL draft next week probably won't come off the board until the second or third round. That says a lot about the fascination with Maurice Clarett as the former Ohio State tailback continues to fight the league in court and it also says a lot about the league-wide disappointment with the overall quality of the ballcarriers about to enter the NFL's ranks.
Clarett has only an outside chance to be among the first four tailbacks drafted on April 24. Oregon State's Steven Jackson, Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones, Michigan's Chris Perry and Florida State's Greg Jones likely will be chosen before him, and Clarett probably will be among a handful of runners vying to be the next back taken. But his decent showing for NFL representatives during his campus workout last week narrowed the gap between him and the top four tailbacks, and likely ensured that he won't plummet into the draft's second day.
"Somebody has to take a chance on me,'' Clarett said at the NFL scouting combine in late February, adding of his draft prospects: "I would like to go in the first round. As a kid, you dream of going in the first round. But I really can't control that.''
NFL talent evaluators have not quite known what to think about Clarett since the Feb. 5 ruling by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin in Clarett's lawsuit against the league that made him and other college freshmen and sophomores -- not to mention high school players -- eligible for the draft. They know that he dominated the Big Ten as a freshman, running for 1,237 yards in 2002 to lead Ohio State to a collegiate national title.
But they wondered in recent weeks about the immaturity that led to Clarett sitting out last season while under suspension. They didn't know whether Clarett had the speed or durability to be a successful featured runner in the NFL. They heard rumblings that he had worked only briefly with New Orleans-based speed coach Tom Shaw before heading home to prepare for last week's workout and he probably would show up out of shape.
He didn't. Clarett weighed in at 230 pounds at his workout, about seven pounds lighter than he'd been at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February, when he upset many executives around the league by refusing to work out. But for everything those in the NFL think they know about Clarett, there is something else they don't know.
"He had a very good year, but he was on a very good team,'' said Tom Donahoe, the Buffalo Bills' president and general manager. "He has some skills as a runner, but he had some injuries.''
Tennessee Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said at the combine: "You can see on tape he's productive. But there are other parts of the equation, and those are the blanks that need to be filled in.''
He is only 20, and NFL coaches and executives remain uncomfortable with trying to figure out what kind of player he will be based on examining only one college season.
"You have to make projections,'' Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy said. "The longer guys are in school, the more accurate your projections will be.''
Those in the league know one thing: They don't want this to continue. They want the avenue into the draft created by the Clarett decision to be closed. They don't want teenagers in professional football, they say. "This sport is so different than other sports,'' Bills Coach Mike Mularkey said. "It's very demanding, physically and mentally. It would be very challenging. I'll leave it at that.''
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has agreed to hear the NFL's appeal of the Clarett ruling on an expedited basis. Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday and the court likely will rule a few days before the draft. NFL officials say they will bar Clarett and former University of Southern California wide receiver Mike Williams -- the only prominent player to take advantage of the Clarett ruling to enter the draft early -- from the draft if the league prevails in the appeals court, then allow them to enter the league via a supplemental draft if Scheindlin's decision ultimately is upheld.
"Our first obligation is to fight that suit,'' New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said.
Much is at stake for Clarett and the league. Clarett is barred under NCAA eligibility rules from playing in college again. Agents and top high school players say that, if Clarett and Williams make it into the NFL, youngsters will be watching to see if they, too, should make the jump.
Even if the NFL loses in court, the league and the NFL Players Association likely would attempt to add a college-experience requirement for draft eligibility into the collective bargaining agreement. But Jeff Pash, the league's chief in-house counsel, has said since the day of Scheindlin's decision that if Clarett makes it into the draft, he would be treated like any other eligible player. It would take only one team thinking highly of him to have him being drafted earlier than projected. A team or two around the league are said to have Clarett rated as a late first-round pick. Few in the league, after all, expected the Bills to use a first-round choice on Willis McGahee last year when the Miami running back was coming off a devastating knee injury.
Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said that come draft day, Clarett's on-the-field skills will be what matters. "His [game] tape is his audition,'' Lewis said. "The tape is what matters.''