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Friday, July 11
 
Rookie vies for top spot with Bennett sidelined

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

The nickname that Minnesota Vikings rookie tailback Onterrio Smith pinned on himself during a springtime mini-camp was "SOD." Short for "Steal of the Draft," according to the hardly-bashful fourth-round draft choice, and a description he felt was most befitting.

In the wake of the foot problems that might well sideline incumbent starter Michael Bennett for the entire 2003 season, Minnesota officials are privately counting on Smith to be right-on with his self-styled handle. In fact, they are counting on Smith to steal his way right into a starting job.

All the spin emanating from the Vikings this week, about how third-year veteran tailback Doug Chapman is ready to move into the lineup, now that Bennett is laid up? Hey, forget about it, since much of it is little more than empty rhetoric. Team sources told ESPN.com this week that, while some coaches and club officials are publicly touting Chapman and veteran Moe Williams, the tailback they fully expect to be the Vikings' top ball carrier in 2003 is actually Smith.

The former University of Oregon standout, many league observers acknowledge, was, indeed, a steal in the fourth round of this year's draft. Smith is no choir boy and the fact he left the University of Tennessee, following a marijuana bust, is testimony to that. That indiscretion, and a DUI arrest at Oregon, when Smith was also flagged for driving with a suspended license, clearly contributed to his later-than-anticipated draft level.

Slow process
Most club officials will return from vacation next week and that's when the draft choice signings should increase significantly. They'd better, since through Thursday night, just 54 of the 262 prospects had agreed to terms. That includes only five of the 97 players chosen on the first day of the draft. Here's a round-by-round breakdown of the signings:
Round Signed
First 1
Second 1
Third 3
Fourth 6
Fifth 9
Sixth 16
Seventh 18

Oh, yeah, did we mention the torn cartilage in his left knee, the one that required surgery last November, and left Smith at least a half-step slow for most of his senior season?

But the rap sheet and surgical scars aside, the guy can flat-out run, and he possesses great quickness and vision. Smith seems to have matured off the field, too, and his work ethic is said to be improved. Vikings officials were ecstatic when they got him in the fourth round and, in the back of their minds, there was the gloomy possibility that Bennett might not make it all the way back from his dicey March foot surgery.

In their nine combined NFL seasons, Chapman and Williams have an aggregate 1,184 rushing yards. By comparison, Bennett had 1,296 yards in his breakout '02 season, and that included three touchdown runs of 60 yards or more.

Williams had a career-best 400 yards but that total was slightly inflated by the fact he primarily played on third down. In that role, he ran a lot of draw plays, meaning he "hit air" for the first five or six yards of most carries. For most of his career, Williams was a kickoff returner and special teams ace. Let's be honest, if the guy was a bona fide starting tailback, he would have earned that status by now.

Chapman definitely has some skills but, for the most part, the former Marshall star hasn't played up to his potential. Minnesota officials speak more glowingly about Chapman in public than they do in private. Heck, a year ago, they dangled him in trade talks, trying to get somebody to bite on him.

That leaves Smith as the man and, even if he does not open the season as the starter because of his rookie status, he will eventually take over the No. 1 spot. As chilling a prospect as that might be for some, he is the best option, and he has physical dimensions and pure running tools that are not unlike those of Bennett, the man he seems destined to replace for this season at least.

So, the "SOD," huh? For the Vikings to have any chance of defending the team rushing title they quietly captured in 2002, Smith had better be all that, and then some. The smart money says he's going to get the chance to live up to his claims.

Around the league

  • Duce Staley
    Staley
    Minnesota officials might not want to hear it, but this is from Philadelphia tailback Duce Staley, who fractured his foot in 2000 and missed 11 games that year after surgery: "You know you'll come back from it but, even when you do, there's some (tentativeness). It is kind of in the back of your mind. You walk on eggshells, because you know the bones are really fragile. The confidence in the foot comes back but, even after the pain is gone, you have to fight off the doubt." Staley rushed for just 604 yards, and a career-low average of only 3.6 yards, the season after he returned from surgery. A year later, in 2002, he rushed for 1,029 yards.

  • With precious little remaining in free agency, the Detroit Lions could suddenly be in the market for a veteran defensive tackle, just two weeks before the start of camp. ESPN.com has learned that stalwart Luther Elliss suffered a pectoral injury late this week, that Lions officials are concerned about it, and that they have started to snoop around for potential tackle reinforcements. Though Elliss' skills have diminished, as evidenced by reduced numbers over the last two seasons, losing the classy, eight-year veteran would be a blow. Like many teams, Detroit doesn't have much interior depth, and the only experienced backup is Kelvin Pritchett. A 12-year veteran, Pritchett played surprisingly well as a spot tackle in '02, but he is 33 years old now and strictly a part-timer. Remember, the Lions were so disenchanted with two-year veteran Shaun Rogers, and with his ongoing weight problems, that they attempted to trade him this offseason. The irony is that Elliss, one of the league's truly good guys, took a $2.7 million reduction in overall compensation two months ago to avoid being a post-June 1 salary cap casualty. He has already collected a $1 million roster bonus. Ellis isn't the dominating force he once was, and he's got just 12 sacks in the past five seasons, after combining for 15 sacks in 1996-97. But if the pectoral injury is serious, and early word is that it could be, the Lions could be hard-pressed to locate a viable replacement. The veteran tackles still in free agency include Henry Ford, Bernard Whittington, Bernard Holsey, James Cannida, Chester McGlockton, Sean Gilbert and Darius Holland. A pretty picked-over group, to be sure, and Whittington and Ford are already being courted by other teams.

  • Look for the Washington Redskins to complete the revamping of the college scouting department next week. One familiar face already in place, however, is longtime NFL defensive coordinator Foge Fazio, who will serve as a part-time consultant, ESPN.com has confirmed. Fazio, who served one season as Redskins' linebacker assistant (2000) and who "retired" from the sidelines after the 2002 campaign with the Cleveland Browns, will do some in-person scouting and plenty of video review for vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato. He will also scout preseason games and compile reports on veteran players as well. One possibility to join the Washington scouting department is former Redskins quarterback Cary Conklin.

  • The date doesn't really mean much to most NFL veterans but, when the calendar page flips over to July 22 the Tuesday after next, it will be a significant marker for those players who were tagged with the dreaded "franchise" label five long months ago. Why the importance? Because for nearly five months, all of the "franchise" players have faced a negotiating moratorium of sorts, given league rules. The "franchise" players who signed long-term deals before July 22 carried the tag with them for the length of their deal. Teams will be able to sign the players to long-term deals after July 15 and regain the "franchise" marker for possible future use on another star free agent. Well, actually, it isn't that easy. To get the label back, a team must first sign a "franchise" player to a one-year contract and then subsequently to a longer-term deal. But that somewhat awkward mechanism, even under the close scrutiny of the NFL Players Association, typically takes place. Three "franchise" players -- Minnesota tight end Jim Kleinsasser, Carolina punter Todd Sauerbrun and Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius -- actually signed the one-year qualifying offers for their positions earlier in the offseason. So technically, they can now proceed to a long-term contract, and their teams can get back the "franchise" tags. Two more former "franchise" players, safety Tebucky Jones (to New Orelans) and wide receiver Peerless Price (to Atlanta), were traded. That leaves offensive tackles Orlando Pace (St. Louis) and Walter Jones (Seattle), and cornerback Chris McAlister (Baltimore) with no deals right now. Negotiating contracts with "franchise" players is historically a sticky business, one marked by contentiousness and bile, and this year likely will be no different. Look for Kleinsasser to strike a long-term deal fairly quickly. After that, it is anyone's guess which of the "franchise" players completes a multi-year contract next, and you certainly can't count on Pace or Jones.

  • Orlando Pace
    Pace
    Fact is, if you want to wager a buck or two on the players most likely to be late to camp, you could do worse than to cite Jones and Pace, two of the league's premier tackles. When he was a rookie in '97, Pace missed all of camp before finally signing his first NFL contract. Represented by the brother tandem of Kevin and Carl Poston, guys never shy about keeping clients out of camp, Pace is reportedly seeking a signing bonus of nearly $25 million. The Rams won't cave and St. Louis officials did a nice job of gaining leverage by trading for Kyle Turley in the offseason. Don't look for Pace until about a week before the regular-season opener. For the second year in a row the Seahawks used the "franchise" designation on Jones. Hey, he held out last year, and didn't report until the season began. No reason to believe things will be any easier this year. Seattle officials claim to have proposed a deal that would make Jones the second-highest paid linemen in the league, behind only Jonathan Ogden of Baltimore. The veteran and multiple Pro Bowl player didn't jump at that offer. Jones is a strong-willed character player with a veteran agent, Rosey Barnes, who never wants to leave even a penny on the bargaining table.

  • One can argue, if they choose, the Houston Texans took too pricey a gamble Thursday, when the team invested a second-round choice to land former Georgia Tech tailback Tony Hollings in the supplemental draft. What can't be contested, though, was the guile and the adroit manner exercised by Texans general manager Charley Casserly to ensure the team got a young player about whom it feels strongly. In the weighted lottery, which determined the selection order in the supplemental draft, the Texans were slotted just sixth. Both the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys, two franchises that had indicated interest in Hollings, were ahead of the Texans in the pecking order. That meant that, if the Texans placed a bid on Hollings in the same round as either the Bears or Cowboys, they wouldn't get the speedy tailback they coveted. So armed with an extra second-round pick in the 2004 draft, gleaned from the Oakland Raiders in the '03 regular phase draft, Casserly bid higher than anyone else. His rationale: He forfeited a second-round pick, that figures to be a low one in the 2004 draft, on a player who was a luxury. Houston officials don't know if Hollings, still rehabbing from knee surgery, will contribute in 2003. And, the truth is, they don't need him to push his recovery. The Texans will get by this year with the three-headed tailback combination of Stacey Mack, James Allen and Jonathan Wells. It should be noted that Mack and Allen each signed just one-year contracts and will probably be playing elsewhere next season.

  • Jacksonville football operations chief James Harris traveled rather stealthily into Atlanta on Wednesday night to dine with Hollings and it's little wonder the Jaguars demonstrated an interest in the young running back. I mean, has anyone taken a look at the Jacksonville tailback depth chart after Fred Taylor, who is coming off the first truly healthy season of his career? The current roster lists a half-dozen candidates for the role of Taylor's caddy, and the litany of possible No. 2 tailbacks is hardly an impressive one. Of the six backups, four have never appeared in an NFL game, and five have never registered a carry. The lone experienced player is third-year veteran Elvis Joseph, a onetime undrafted college free agent, and he has just 68 rushing attempts in two previous seasons. If you are Harris and rookie head coach Jack Del Rio, the glaring lack of experience has to cause more than a little concern. Taylor is one of the NFL's premier runners when healthy. But he hasn't often been healthy, and it's a real roll of the dice to project he can have a second consecutive season in which he plays all 16 games, not with his track record. In his first four years in the league, Taylor literally missed a season-and-a-half worth of games, 24 contests in all. Harris and Del Rio, who don't seem particularly inclined yet to pursue any of the veteran backs still looking for employment, had better light novena candles that Taylor stays in one piece.

  • Credit the Miami Dolphins for not panicking over the loss of backup defensive end David Bowens, who last week tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee while changing a light bulb, and who will miss at least the first three months of the season. While he is an important contributor to Miami's defensive line, Bowens is regarded by some in the organization as the No. 8 performer in a nine-man rotation. His versatility, and ability to move inside to tackle in obvious passing situations, clearly is a plus. And that's especially true since defensive coordinator Jim Bates and defensive line assistant Clarence Brooks prefer to use four defensive ends upfront in their rush scheme. That said, the Miami brain trust seems to agree that the club will get by without Bowens, and maybe without having to make a move for another veteran lineman. Veteran ends Rob Burnett and Jay Williams, both starters earlier in their careers and with 90 regular-season sacks between them, likely will get increased playing time now. The team will have to closely monitor their snaps, since Burnett is now 35 and Williams 31. There is also the possibility that the Dolphins will incorporate tackle Jeff Zgonina, signed as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and a guy with decent pass-rush skills, into their "sub" schemes. And certainly the team will count on third-year veteran Adewale Ogunleye, who had 9 sacks in his first season as a starter in 2002, to continue his emergence as a viable rush threat off the edge. There are also some rumblings about using linebacker Junior Seau more as a rusher. "We're going to be OK," said one Dolphins assistant. "Bowens is a good player, and his versatility was a plus, but we feel we have enough to get by."

  • There are still franchises, like Tennessee, looking for veteran safeties. And, as has been noted here in the past, there are a ton of veterans still available. But while we have kicked around names like Anthony Dorsett, Victor Green, Sam Shade, Marcus Robertson, Billy Jenkins and Blaine Bishop, we've kind of overlooked Devin Bush, and he may be the best of the lot. The eight-year veteran is still only 30 years old, has started in the past at both safety positions, and has played on winners wherever he has been in the league. He may lack the range some teams want, but Bush is a football player, will contribute on special teams, and can fill a lot of roles. For the veteran minimum base salary, he might be a very solid addition for some franchise.

  • MarTay Jenkins
    Jenkins
    It might be a good thing for the Atlanta Falcons that free agent wide receiver MarTay Jenkins wanted so desperately to play with Michael Vick that he signed a minimum deal. A good thing because, had the Falcons invested heavily in Jenkins, they might well have regretted it. The four-year veteran, and former Arizona Cardinals player, still has hyper-speed. The problem is, he simply isn't a very polished receiver, and drops a lot of balls. There is a chance, especially if the Falcons' young receivers play well in camp and in the preseason, that Jenkins won't even make the roster.

  • Veteran punter Matt Turk is scheduled to visit with Seattle officials and, if the coaches determine the eight-year veteran still has something left, could sign with the Seahawks. The team lost longtime punter Jeff Feagles to the New York Giants as an unrestricted free agent and, given the offseason performance of potential replacement Rodney Williams, may be in the market for a more proven veteran. Williams, who punted for the Giants in 2001 and also spent two spring seasons in NFL Europe League, has a very strong leg but is historically erratic. In stints with Washington (1995-99), Miami (2000-2001) and the New York Jets (2002), Turk has a career gross average of 42.9 yards and a 37.7-yard net average. He averaged 41.0 yards gross and 34.9 yards net for the Jets last season but was released this spring. Seattle has been forced to overhaul its kicking game because of the defections of Feagles and also place kicker Rian Lindell, who moved on to Buffalo as a restricted free agent. To replace Lindell, the Seahawks drafted former Nebraska kicker Josh Brown in the seventh round.

  • Nice move by a bunch of former Ohio State stars, who have banded together to help take care of one of their own, former Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum. The man who once pinned on himself the nickname "The Assassin," and who was acknowledged as one of the NFL's biggest hitters (some claim cheap-shot artist) during a sometimes controversial nine-year career, has fallen on hard times physically. Tatum, 54, suffers from diabetes and recently had his left leg amputated below the knee. There was some recent concern that his right leg might also require amputation. But some former Buckeyes, including tackle John Hicks and linebacker Chris Spielman, pooled their resources and brought Tatum to Columbus and to the OSU Medical Center. The former Raiders safety began treatments there this week. One afternoon, Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel put Tatum in a wheelchair and pushed him around campus, and onetime teammates have come to visit. And next Friday, the old Ohio State players will have an "Evening with the Stars" fundraiser to generate revenues for Tatum's ongoing treatment. Raiders owner Al Davis has always taken great care of his former players and that has certainly been the case with Tatum. But it's great to see college teammates, and even some Buckeyes who weren't contemporaries of Tatum, making such a heartfelt effort as well.

  • Laveranues Coles
    Coles
    For the last two weeks, we've cited here the desire of New York Jets officials to sign even middle- and late-round draft choices to four-year contracts, when historically those selections have gotten three-year deals. The initiative is, in part, a reaction to the fact the Washington Redskins plundered two restricted free agents, wideout Laveranues Coles and kickoff returner Chad Morton, from the Jets' clutches. Signing rookies to four-year deals means the players essentially forfeit the right to restricted free agency. It certainly seems, based on verified offers made by the Jets to some of their draft choices, that the club plans to stick to the four-year model. The agents for fullback B.J. Askew (No. 3), safety Derek Pagel (No. 5a) and quarterback Brooks Bollinger (No. 6) all reported to the NFLPA that their clients have been offered four-year contracts. The proposal to Askew called for a $581,100 signing bonus, for Pagel $162,000 in upfront money, and a bonus of $75,400 for Bollinger. Of course, the Jets have included a mechanism, based on playing time, that would elevate the players' salaries in the fourth season of the contract. In the deals signed this week by New England fourth-rounders Dan Klecko and Asante Samuel, some similar inducements are included, with each player able to guarantee larger 2006 base salaries if they achieve certain play time benchmarks. Klecko can boost his 2006 salary from its scheduled $460,000 to one commensurate with the lower restricted free agent qualifying offer by playing 40 percent of the snaps in two seasons. It will escalate to a base salary equal to the middle (or first-round) qualifying offer if he plays 70 percent of the snaps in two of the first three seasons. Samuel has similar safeguards, although his benchmark for the second one is 75 percent of the snaps in two seasons.

  • Punts: Denver tailback Terrell Davis continues to work out in Phoenix, but he has yet to be cleared to attend the Broncos training camp, and time is running short on him … . Just a bit of Onterrio Smith trivia: His daughter's name is Onterria … . Despite some early optimism, some Carolina coaches don't believe that tailback DeShaun Foster will really be ready for training camp. The former UCLA star and second-round choice in 2002 tore up his knee in camp as a rookie and had controversial "microfracture" surgery to repair it … . There are some indications that the Arizona Cardinals, who have a pair of first-round picks to sign before camp, will consider giving two-tiered signing bonus structures for the first time in franchise history … . Veteran tailback Ki-Jana Carter, not yet ready to retire, is scouring around for a camp job… . It may not amount to anything, but the Philadelphia Eagles quietly made a nice camp signing this week. In landing linebacker Jason Short, the Eagles got one of the better "edge" defenders in the NFL Europe League this spring. Short played defensive end for the Barcelona Dragons, but projects more to linebacker, and has some pass rush skills.

  • The last word: "It would take an act of God. Let me clarify that. It would take a physical act of God. It's too fast and that wall is too hard. I like quarterbacks that are nice, soft and cushy." -- Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp, when asked if he might ever consider a NASCAR career.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.





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