Draft Analysis: Need #5 - Running backs

In the first of a five-set draft series, Lions' insider Mike Fowler reviews the ball club's 5th most important need entering this month's NFL Draft -- running back. Mike delivers his in-depth analysis of some of the top prospects, including who will best fit Detroit's west coast offense.

(ALLEN PARK) - A look back at the Detroit Lions production over the 2002 season would reveal that Detroit was more productive in the contest that featured running back James Stewart.

In four games where Stewart has eighteen or more carries, Detroit posted a 3-1 record, including a 23-20 overtime victory over the Chicago Bears when Stewart rushed for 172 yards on 32 carries.

So why would running back be a position of need for Detroit?  While Stewart is an underrated threat running between the tackles he isn't the breakaway threat that Detroit pictures in their version of the west coast offense, and at 31 years of age, he is at the age where running backs begin to show a marked decline in their production.

That's why Detroit will look at running back as an area of need in this month's college player draft.

It is also why Willis McGahee will never be far away from their thoughts.

McGahee, the third-year sophomore from Miami was a consensus top-five pick before blowing out the anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior collateral ligaments in his right knee.

Amazingly though, McGahee, after having surgery the day after the Fiesta Bowl injury, began rehabbing immediately.  While he is in no condition to take contact, McGahee vows that he will play in the NFL this season and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus believes that to be the case.

"I know what I can do and I know how hard I'm working to get back," McGahee told ESPN Radio. "I will play in 2003 ... period."

''I haven't heard one team say he isn't going to be drafted in the first two rounds,'' said Drew Rosenhaus, agent for McGahee. "Willis is [already] walking on the treadmill, and he's on the stationary bike.''

After rushing for 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns this past season at Miami, scouts were literally salivating at the chance to add a runner with breakaway speed and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.  But after the injury, some wonder if the 21-year old will regain the explosiveness he had prior to the injury.

"It's mostly mental. The knee will get stronger," McGahee said. "A lot of players, when they come back from knee injuries, they're afraid to do certain things because it's all in your mind. You get your mind right, you can do anything you want to do."

McGahee rushed for over 100 yards in ten contests and went over 200 yards twice.

Some analysts believe if McGahee is not taken in the first round, Detroit will grab him with the third pick in the second round.  The move would be a gamble, but if McGahee returns with his skills intact, Detroit would love to add his skills along with those of Charles Rogers of Michigan State and give second-year man Joey Harrington some dangerous weapons to work with.

Detroit has other options; one is Lee Suggs, the versatile running back from Virginia Tech.  Prior to the emergence of McGahee, many felt Suggs was the odds-on favorite to be the top running back in the nation.  Posting five 100-yard performances, Suggs hoped to showcase his talents in a head-to-head match up with McGahee.  Rushing for three touchdowns in the loss might have been solace for Suggs if McGahee had not rushed for 205 yards and an incredible six TDs in the 56-45 Hurricane win.

Still, Suggs possesses the ability to slash through the line of scrimmage and can catc

h the ball out of the backfield.  Splitting time with sophomore Kevin Jones, who also rushed for 871 yards, Suggs' 1,385 yards looks good by comparison.  He likely has a high spot on the Lions draft board and will likely go in the third round or higher.

TOP 5 RB's for Detroit
Rounds Two-Three
1. Willis McGahee - Miami
2. Lee Suggs - Virginia Tech
3. Justin Fargas - USC
4. Quentin Griffin - Oklahoma
5. Chris Brown- Colorado

Rounds Four-through-Seven
1. Cecil Saap - Colorado State
2. Larry Johnson - Penn State
3. Onterrio Smith - Oregon
4. Musa Smith - Georgia
5. LaBrandon Toefield -LSU

One player the Lions ought to shy away from is Larry Johnson, the Penn State senior who caught the nation by surprise when he rushed for 2,087 yards and became a Heisman Trophy finalist.  A look in between those gaudy stats shows that Johnso

n did most of his work against lesser competition.  Johnson never rushed for over 100 yards against a team above .500 and gained over 1,000 of those yards against Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois and Northwestern alone -- the bottom rung of the Big Ten conference.

Johnson reminds me a lot of Curtis Enis and Ron Dayne, two Big Ten backs who posted big collegiate numbers, but who had mixed results in the pro ranks.

Pick: The Lions are set for 2003 with Stewart coming back after his second 1,000 rushing season as a Lion.  Detroit needs to find someone to take over the position in 2004.  Wit


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