Steelers Draft 2003: Running Backs

The wheels on the Bus are breaking down, breaking down, breaking down, so it only made sense for Internet draft experts to piece a puzzle together when Steelers Coach Bill Cowher was reported to have talked and joked with Penn State running back Larry Johnson at a recent campus workout.

After all, Johnson (6-1, 228, 4.53, 41 vertical jump) is a powerful back who's projected as a late first-round pick and has supporters in the Steelers organization.

Wide receivers coach Kenny Jackson, the former star player for the Nits, was an offensive coach at Penn State during three of Johnson's five seasons. Jackson loves Johnson's toughness. So does Steelers running back coach Dick Hoak, another Penn Stater who's appreciated Johnson's exploits from afar and who becomes irritated when scouts tell him that Johnson has a soft body, lacks explosiveness, only tears up the Michigan States of the world and is another in a line of Penn State and Big 10 busts. But there are also scouts, with the Steelers and throughout the league, who point to the weak Penn State offensive line as proof that Johnson, a 2,087-yard rusher with 41 receptions last year, is not the next Ki-Jana Carter or Blair Thomas or D.J. Dozier or Curtis Enis.

Johnson understands the worry. But, as he told the Philadelphia Inquirer recently, "I'm the only Penn State running back who has actually had only one full starting season. The other guys had more wear and tear than I did. They had two to three seasons where they started and got most of the pounding."

Johnson will speak his mind, which may not be so good in today's age of measured (and monitored) speech. After Penn State lost to USC and Toledo to open the 2000 season, Johnson ripped the coaching staff for being too predictable. Brutal but right, and he may also be correct with his "wear and tear" theory. At least Justin Fargas hopes so.

Fargas (6-0 7/8, 219) has also played only one full season of college ball. His 161 carries last year at USC more than doubled his previous high of 77 way back in 1998. In between those seasons, Fargas broke his right tibia and fibula (on which he endured three surgeries that left him carrying 12 new screws, two titanium rods and two metal plates), moved to safety, transferred from Michigan and sat out a year at USC before undergoing a fourth injury relating to his "grotesquely" broken leg, this time on his big toe.

Yet, Fargas showed the form last season that made him one of the nation's most highly recruited prep backs in '98. And to prove his 2002 season at USC wasn't a fluke, Fargas wowed scouts at the combine with an official 40 time of 4.38, the third fastest of all offensive players. Fargas was clocked by one scout at 4.28. He also bench-pressed 225 pounds 27 times and showed great hands. He can also return kicks, but will certainly be downgraded because of the injury.

Virginia Tech's Lee Suggs will have the same problem. After a tremendous 2000 season, the 4.38-timed 202-pounder tore an ACL and meniscus, but did bounce back to rush for 1,255 last season. However, the injury (updated workout time of 4.46) and lack of receiving skills could drop him below Fargas and Georgia's Musa Smith (6-0 ¾, 232, 4.48).

Another injured player, Willis McGahee (6-0 3/8, 223) of Miami, will collect on a $2.5 million insurance policy next January if he doesn't play this season. If he plays in four games in 2004 (including preseason) he'd have to return the money.

Jerome "Bus" Bettis is recovering from knee surgery and hopes to show the coaching staff at the June minicamp that he's lost weight. If he hasn't, the Steelers could cut Bettis and save $1.75 million against the cap this season. Next season, they'd still be on the books for $3 million in bonus money. Either way, Bettis will likely be replaced in the lineup by Amos Zereoue. Bettis would fight Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and second-year man Verron Haynes for carries.

At fullback, Dan Kreider is a restricted free agent and will likely return. In emergencies, the position could be manned by Haynes and Fuamatu-Ma'afala.

Third Round – Not that the Steelers are desperate for offense, with a new tight end and three outstanding receivers to go along with Zereoue, but Chris Brown (6-2 5/8, 220, 4.49, 39 VJ) would be difficult to pass up here. He runs tall, much like Eddie George, and will have to prove he can take the punishment George has taken over the years.

Fifth Round – Cecil Sapp (5-11, 229, 4.54, 35 VJ) is a powerful inside runner and has shown ability in the passing game. He's also part of the Steelers' farm system at Colorado State.

Sixth Round – Earnest Graham (5-9 1/8, 225) would make a fine third-down back with the receiving skills he developed at Florida. Outstanding running ability knocked for height and lack of top-end speed.

Seventh Round – J. T. Wall (5-11 5/8, 262, 4.8), from the other farm team, Georgia, is a fullback with great hands and passion for the game. He's also strong. At his pro day, he benched 225 an official 38 times and felt he should've been given credit for 40. A fallback in case Kreider is signed late in the RFA season.

Seventh Round – Brandon Drumm (6-1 3/8, 223, 4.72) of Colorado had the top combine times among fullbacks in the short shuttle, long shuttle and 3-cone drill. The Alaska native is also described as a "very tough and hard-nosed blocker ... good receiver ... tough inside runner."

For amusement purposes only, the king here is South Carolina State's Derek Watson, who was suspended for traffic charges, then allegedly threatened a referee who ejected him from an intramural basketball game and was accused of punching a woman. ... Onterrio Smith was kicked off the Tennessee team after testing positive for smoking pot and was arrested at Oregon for drunken driving with a suspended license. ... Thunder Collins was suspended at Nebraska, returned and then quit, all in one season. ... Sultan McCullough of USC runs the 40 in 4.31 but, according to the late Joel Buchsbaum, is "profane, disrespectful and undependable ... negative leader ... needs an attitude adjustment." ... Dawan Moss not only played for a Michigan State team that quit last season, he was kicked off the squad for an alcohol problem and felony arrest for a scrape with police. ... 265-pound tailback Andrew Pinnock should be arrested for his fumbling problems. ... Musa Smith's father served time in 1993 for using his Pennsylvania farm as a training ground for Islamic extremists plotting to assassinate world leaders and blow up New York landmarks. Other than that he's a great kid.

Josh Rue (6-2 ¼, 245, 4.6) of Gateway High School and Duquesne University was academically ineligible last season, so the fullback's last game was his 317-yard performance against Canisius in the 2001 finale. He finished with 916 yards that season and also had four sacks and an interception as a stand-up defensive end. Rue has also played tight end, tailback and H-back. Another local prospect is Fox Chapel H.S. and Maryland fullback Chad Killian (6-1½, 260, 4.9), who tore an ACL in the middle of his senior season but hopes to find his way to an NFL camp.

Previous: Quarterbacks

By Jim Wexell
Steel City

Steel City Insider Top Stories