Peterson has no doubt he's worthy of a top pick

In the earliest days of Maurice Clarett's misguided effort to test the rules on draft eligibility, there was considerable debate over whether any high school football player might be able to make the quantum leap, NBA style, from the preps to the pro game.

The athlete most often cited in 2003 as perhaps being NFL-ready: tailback Adrian Peterson, who at the time was preparing for his senior season at Palestine (Texas) High School. He ran for 2,960 yards and 32 touchdowns that year before departing for Oklahoma.

Somewhat ironic is that several of the same league scouts who opined that Peterson might be a guy who could defy all odds by going directly from high school to the NFL now wonder, nearly four years and 4,000-plus yards later, about the viability of the former Sooners star as a high first-round draft choice. The more notable irony: Most of those talent evaluators would love to have Peterson, the top-rated back in the 2007 draft, on their team.

Despite the recent deconstruction of Peterson, the concerns over durability and toughness and the fact he started only 14 games over his final two college seasons before bypassing his final year of eligibility and entering the draft, the Oklahoma star won't be on the draft board long. He is among the elite group of seven or eight premier prospects in the pool, a likely top-five selection, and perhaps destined to be one of the top three picks.

Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, who only two years ago snatched tailback Carnell (Cadillac) Williams with the fifth overall choice in the 2005 draft, claimed Peterson "might be the best back I've ever seen coming out of college." Even factoring in the usual Gruden hyperbole factor, and allowing that the Bucs' coach might be doing some posturing as he attempts to manufacture a scenario in which Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson falls into Tampa Bay's No. 4 slot in the first round, that is pretty high praise.

Peterson insisted last week he is indeed worthy of the praise.

"When I'm healthy, which I am now, I don't know what kind of questions there should be, really," said Peterson, who appeared in only seven contests in 2006 after fracturing his right clavicle in an Oct. 14 victory over Iowa State. "Everyone has checked out the [collarbone] and it's fine. So what else is there? I can run tough inside. I can make the long run. And I want the ball in my hands. I understand that [scouts] are just doing their jobs, and they have an investment to protect, but I think I've answered all the doubters."

Or, at least, most of them.

There remains a small subset of skeptics, scouts who question the advisability of perhaps doling out a $30 million rookie contract to a player at a high-risk position such as tailback, and one who comes complete with a fairly thick medical dossier. According to surveys by the NFL Players Association, running back has the shortest career span of any position in the league. And during his career at Oklahoma, Peterson, 22, dealt with a dislocated left shoulder (2004), a high right ankle sprain (2005) and the broken clavicle (2006).

After rushing 339 times for 1,925 yards in his 2004 freshman season, Peterson averaged 204 attempts and 1,060 yards in the ensuing two campaigns. At 6-foot-1½ and 217 pounds, his official dimensions at the scouting combine in February, Peterson is taller than most backs and his high running style means he absorbs a lot of punishment. Plus he has long legs, a "high-cut runner" in the vernacular, which is a frequent concern of longtime scouts.

And there is this reality: In recent seasons, the top-rated back in the draft hasn't always been the best back in the draft. Many franchises have been able to identify productive runners outside of the first round, where contracts are more palatable and financial exposure isn't as profound.

The leading rookie rusher in the league last season, Indianapolis' Joseph Addai, was the fourth tailback to go off the board and the 30th player selected overall. In 2004, it was Detroit's Kevin Jones, who was also the 30th prospect chosen, and the third tailback. One of the top rookie backs in the league in 2006, Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville, was the sixth back selected and the 60th player taken overall.

Since 2000, there have been 10 tailbacks who rushed for 1,000 yards as rookies, but only half of them were first-round selections and just three were top 10 picks. Domanick Williams (Houston, 2003) was a fourth-round choice, Dominic Rhodes (Indianapolis, 2001) was an undrafted free agent and Mike Anderson (Denver, 2000) was chosen in the sixth round.

The top tailbacks chosen in the past five drafts averaged 147.8 carries, 606.4 yards and four touchdowns in their respective rookie campaigns. None rushed for 1,000 yards in his first year in the league. The last rookie to lead the NFL in rushing was Edgerrin James of the Colts in 1999. Since 1970, only four rookies have led the league in rushing.

"It's kind of the great fallacy of [the position]," acknowledged Carolina general manager Marty Hurney, who chose a tailback, DeAngelo Williams, in the first round of the '06 draft. "The traditional thinking is that running back was a position where, because it's an 'instinct' position, players should be able to come in right away and succeed. But like every position, tailback has become more complicated in the NFL, and guys who play it are just as subject to the typical rookie problems as players at other positions. It can take a while for some of them to get their feet on the ground."

Added San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, whose team unearthed a gem, Frank Gore, in the third round of the 2005 draft: "I think the recent history shows that teams have been able to find pretty good [backs] a little later than the first round."

That will probably be the case this year as well, although the position is not regarded as particularly deep. After Peterson, the only likely first-round choice at tailback is Marshawn Lynch of California, and he has drawn mixed reviews because of injuries, problems with fumbles and character issues. Among the fastest rising prospects at any position is Ohio State tailback Antonio Pittman, whose strong workouts have catapulted him into the second round. Chris Henry of Arizona is another back rising quickly up draft boards.

But, in general, disappointing 2006 seasons from runners such as Kenny Irons of Auburn, Alabama's Ken Darby and Tony Hunt of Penn State have made scouts more cautious about the 2007 tailback pool.

Against that backdrop, Peterson probably seems that much better to teams in need of a workhorse back -- and that's even despite any scouts' misgivings about the former Oklahoma star.

In his three college seasons, Peterson carried 747 times for 4,045 yards and 41 touchdowns. He caught only 24 passes, but in his pro day audition surprised scouts with his receiving skills. And at the combine, Peterson blistered the 40-yard sprint in 4.40 seconds. He also displayed nice athleticism by posting a 36½-inch vertical jump and a long jump of 10 feet, 7 inches, according to official combine reports.

"Every time he carries the ball," Gruden said, "he tries to hurt you. He's bad. And he's fast. He's mean. He's tough. This guy is something else. He sure gets your attention."

Truth be told, Peterson probably has suffered from too much attention over much of his career, and particularly in the draft evaluation process. As has been the case with Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, when a player is tabbed so early on as a can't-miss guy, the scouts spend months looking for every pimple and generally discern a wart or two. A candid Peterson allowed at the combine that the process is "a little nitpicky" but emphasized that he understood the importance of teams' performing due diligence.

"I just think, though, that, no matter how deep they dig, they aren't going to find any kind of dirt," said Peterson, who has ignored the concerns about his potential lack of longevity at the next level of the game. "Whatever the hurdles, I've been able to overcome them. I think I've proven that I can [persevere], you know?"

Indeed, Peterson, who at the combine confronted tough questions with the same direct manner in which he took on would-be tacklers, might be tougher than some scouts think. His father, Nelson Peterson, spent eight years in prison after being convicted for dealing drugs, and the only game he ever saw his son play in high school or college was the Iowa State contest in which Adrian scored twice but broke his collarbone.

The injury occurred when Peterson dove into the end zone, not so much to celebrate his 53-yard scoring burst, but to accentuate his father's presence at the game.

"It was special," Peterson recalled. "And there are more special moments where that came from."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.