April 8, 2003
by Warren DeLuca
When Miami’s Willis McGahee blew out his knee in the Fiesta Bowl, this year’s running back class lost its only elite player, the lone back with the potential to be selected in the top five or ten picks. With reports that his rehab is progressing well and that he may actually be able to return to the field in 2003, McGahee will be the wildcard in this year’s draft. There have been some rumblings about teams rolling the dice on him late in the first round, while other speculation has him lasting until the third.
McGahee aside, a group of six backs is now generally considered the top tier at the position: Chris Brown of Colorado, Justin Fargas of Southern Cal, Larry Johnson of Penn State, Musa Smith of Georgia, Onterrio Smith of Oregon, and Lee Suggs of Virginia Tech. These players are expected to start moving off the board no earlier than the bottom of the first round, and possibly later since teams may take the approach that they can afford to wait to take a back because even if they are not able to get their top guy, they know that one very close in ability should be available later.
The consensus has Johnson at the top, followed by Suggs, with no clear order among the remaining four. All six are packed so tightly together, though, that one could almost throw all of their names into a hat, draw them out blindly one by one, and then make a reasonable case for why that should be the order in which they are drafted. Each team will have the backs ranked based on its own team’s preferences and needs.
Based upon their track record and the apparent philosophies of its decision makers, the Texans may weigh five characteristics heavier than most other teams when evaluating running backs for this draft:
Homerun Threat Jonathan Wells and James Allen did not have the luxury of running behind a great offensive line last season, but it was also apparent that neither has the ability to break off long runs. The Texans’ longest run from scrimmage was just 37 yards (by Wells), and only 7.78% of the team’s rushing attempts went for 10 yards or more, which was the worst percentage in the NFL. Power-running free agent addition Stacey Mack is not expected to help much in this area. The inability to come up with an occasional big play in the running game forces the Texans to grind out long, sustained drives in which penalties, sacks, and other negative plays become extremely costly due to the offense’s inability to pick up large chunks of yardage at a time. More pressure then shifts to David Carr and the passing game to make things happen. The Texans would like to add a running back with breakaway speed and the skills to make defenders miss in the open field. Fargas, with sub-4.4 speed, is clearly the leader in this category, followed by the explosive Onterrio Smith. Suggs has the speed and acceleration to break off long runs although he is not extremely elusive in space. Johnson, Brown, and Musa Smith have some big plays on their resumes but lack the extra gear to go the distance in the NFL, although Smith displayed more speed at Georgia’s pro day than he did on the field.
Yards After Contact A runner’s ability to get additional yardage after initial contact with a defender is crucial in the NFL because even when the line opens a big hole, rarely does the back go untouched due to the closing speed of defenses. Whether it be with power to break tackles, balance to stay on his feet after taking a blow, or quickness to avoid taking shots head-on, a running back needs to be able to consistently get past would-be tacklers. Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, etc. – regardless of their running style, all of the great backs in NFL history have been able to get yards after contact. With the Texans, the first contact may often come at or behind the line of scrimmage. 15.1% of their rushing attempts in 2002 resulted in negative yardage; only the Cowboys, Panthers, and Rams were thrown for losses on a more regular basis. Brown is a big, physical runner who hammers his way through defensive players. Suggs also runs with power and a lot of heart. Johnson has the strength to break tackles when he keeps his pads low. Onterrio Smith can cut on a dime so he is hard to wrap up. Musa Smith runs hard but is not as powerful as his size might indicate. Fargas is a slasher but tends to get too upright, sapping his power.
Ball Security Dom Capers has little patience for fumblers and will not tolerate a back who does not take care of the football. Suggs has earned a reputation as a runner who will not put the ball on the ground. Musa Smith also rarely coughs it up. Johnson, Onterrio Smith, and Fargas are average when it comes to protecting the ball. Brown’s upright running style makes him vulnerable to fumble-causing hits and strip attempts.
Head and Heart Capers has also made it clear that he wants players that he knows he can count on and players that know their assignments. A back who fails to read blitzes, allowing opponents to fly in untouched and flatten Carr, will find himself watching the game from the sidelines (or from a couch or bar stool somewhere). Capers is also known as a coach who does not believe in making exceptions for players who do not follow his rules (see Collins, Kerry) so problem children and prima donnas need not apply. Suggs is a tireless worker who never groused about sharing time with Kevin Jones. Johnson is a coach’s son and was a contributor on special teams before he became a featured back. Brown, Fargas, and Musa Smith are good team players. Onterrio Smith was kicked off the team at Tennessee for rules violations and did not impress anyone at Oregon with his work ethic.
Durability The Texans want to be able to establish the run and need a back who will hold up under that kind workload. Johnson has a clean bill of health and was a workhorse in 2002. Brown missed time with a bruised sternum at the end of the season. Onterrio Smith missed time due to knee and shoulder injuries. Musa Smith never played a full college season due to various nagging injuries. Suggs has had major surgery on his left knee and two arthroscopic procedures on his right. Fargas has had three operations on one leg as well as toe surgery and also missed time due to other injuries.
So, how might the Texans rank these six?
1. Lee Suggs Although at 202 lbs. he’s on the light side for a Texan back, Suggs fits the profile very well. The biggest question mark is whether his left knee is completely sound. Suggs is a different kind of runner (more of an Emmitt Smith/Curtis Martin style), but he could be a 2003 version of Thurman Thomas. A knee injury as a junior hurt Thomas’ draft stock even though he had an impressive comeback season as a senior.
2. Larry Johnson Johnson should be a good back but he will probably not be a great one. His poor numbers against the better teams that Penn State faced suggest that he may struggle without above average blocking, and that’s not something the Texans have.
3. Justin Fargas A real gamble if taken early. Fargas is one of the best athletes in the draft regardless of position, but he has not been able to stay on the field. Johnson had more carries in 2002 than Fargas had in his college career. Fargas could be a gamebreaker and would bring a new dimension to the Texans’ backfield, but he also could end up spending more time on the injury report than in the lineup.
4. Chris Brown Brown is this year’s winner of the "Next Eddie George" Award. Like George, Brown is a tall, strong back with an upright running style. Because of that style, he is going to take a lot of punishment and may lose the ball more often than Capers would like. Very few backs in the George mold have succeeded in the NFL.
5. Musa Smith Smith is a good all-around back who does a lot of things well, but he may not be a significant upgrade to the Texans over Wells. His tendency to get nicked up has to be a big concern.
6. Onterrio Smith Smith is talented but does not have the mental approach that the Texans desire. He would be better off going to a more successful, veteran team so the established players could help keep in line.
Lee Suggs Return to Houston Pro Football