The Advance Scout: “‘Backs to the Future” by Paul Hammons

The Advance Scout: “‘Backs to the Future” by Paul Hammons The Advance ScoutCatch up on past installments of The Advance ScoutJamar Fletcher

August21, 2000
‘Backsto the Future
by Paul Hammons

Sincethe NFL began drafting college graduates in 1936, only three teams have used thefirst overall pick on a linebacker or defensive back. Guys like Lawrence Taylorand Deion Sanders, who forever redefined the way their respective position wasplayed, watched others go number one. With that in mind, and with no LT’s orNeon’s among this bunch, let’s take a look at the players who won’t beHouston’s first-ever pick in 2002 (but might show up in later rounds — hey,those are important picks, too).

Inthe NFL’s version of a perfect world, any current junior is fodder for the 2002draft. But with early entry a reality, some of them might jump ship ahead ofschedule, placing them in the 2001 class instead. On the plus side, some currentsophomores could follow suit next year, making them eligible in 2002 instead of2003. Thus, we’ll focus our attention on any junior, sophomore or (highlyunlikely, but not entirely improbable) freshman currently playing collegefootball.

Whenyou scout defensive backs at this early stage, you’dlove to see that rangy 6’3" guy that runs the 4.3/40 and hits like afreight train, but there aren’t that many Steve Atwater’s in existence, so youwon’t see that many of them in the 2002 draft. Also, ideally, you’d love to seea corner with the height and strength to jam that new breed of wide receiverthat’s coming up with the ability to outfight you for the ball or beat youdownfield with speed. Unfortunately, most of the underclassmen corners out therenow are sub-6′. Which doesn’t mean there’s not some good ones.

Theconsensus this year seems to be that the 2002 crop of DB’s will begin and end(or at least slow down) with Jamar Fletcher. Fletcher, who’s a juniorthis year, should be a near-dominant force for the Wisconsin defense this year,which begs the question of whether he’ll be around at all for the 2002 draft.He’s projected by some as a top 10 pick right now, but he has said entering thisseason that he’s planning on staying around. We’ll see if it works out that way,but if he does, he’s got a chance to be a top five pick. The reason is that he’sgot the big-play capability (five interception returns for touchdowns in hiscareer) and the man-to-man ability to make an impact on both sides of thescoreboard. He may end up working some as a kick returner as well. His maindrawback is his size: 5’10", 170 pounds. But if you can cover, you cancover, right?

There’ssome talent behind him as well, including FS Hakim Akbar of Washington.He has the liability of playing in the touch-football Pac-10, so if he can drawattention for his defensive prowess over there, he’s got to have something goingon. He’s one of those big, strong physical guys (6’1", 210) and he had 69tackles last year as an encore to his freshman All-America selection two yearsago.

Astrong safety that could also be turning heads come draft day 2002 is PigPrather, who, despite the name, does not play for Arkansas. The convertedrunning back’s still in the SEC, though, an all-conference safety as a sophomorelast year with Mississippi State. Then there’s Texas Longhorn Quentin Jammer,a safety-turned-cornerback who combines that safety size (6’1", 196) withgreat speed and instincts. At either position, he’s the best Longhorn DB.Finally, we round it off with Keyuo Craver, who should be the secondarystopper for a rebuilt, but still stellar, Nebraska Cornhusker defense.

Withthe draft a couple of years away, obviously you want to watch the types ofschemes these guys play in — can they play tight man when they have to? Arethey exposed a lot to the high-octane passing attacks they’re going to see onSunday?

I’mgoing out on a limb on this one — although some would probably argue that it’smore like a second tree than a limb. With no player younger than a junior amongthe top DB’s, let’s name a sophomore as the top LB prospect for the 2002 draft.But it’s not just any sophomore. Last year, Alabama freshman Saleem Rasheedled the team in tackles, became a vocal leader and is now inspiring DerrickThomas flashbacks in Tuscaloosa. By the time his senior season rolls around –if in fact it does — this guy could be inspiring a lot of glowing comparisons.

There’ssome good ones behind him as well. Colorado LB Jashon Sykes is afirst-team Big XII pick that has displayed a knack for knocking the ball loose,forcing five fumbles last year to lead the nation. His conference rival, RockyCalmus of Oklahoma, hasn’t gotten as much press as other athletes, but hehas great instincts, plays all over the field and is my sleeper pick to step upby draft time. Eddie Strong should anchor a stout Ole Miss defense thisyear as a junior, while Josh Thornhill should do the same at MichiganState.

Thebarometer for linebackers continues to be speed — NFL linebackers have to beable to cover receivers coming out of the backfield, so it’s hard to make up fora lack of foot speed. Zach Thomas managed, but he’s underrated in terms of hisquickness, plus he plays inside. But as guys like Thomas and Calmus show,instinct is immeasurable, and may be more important for linebackers than for anyother position on the defensive side.

PaulHammons served as a sportswriter for various and sundry publications (only oneof which is now defunct) before leaving the lucrative world of journalism forhis MBA and a shot at a big-screen TV and more time in front of Saturdayafternoon college football. He currently resides in Plano and spends his dayswondering why he couldn’t have been born six inches taller and a few stepsfaster in the 40. The Armchair QuarterbackThe Dream SeasonThe Extra PointHouston's All-Time TeamPost PatternsPro Log: From George to GeorgeQuick Slant Jamar FletcherStaff

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