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Clarett, running backs among first to Indy

INDIANAPOLIS -- Maurice Clarett dominated Combine conversation Thursday even though it's been more than a year since he dominated a football game and even though he could fall into the third round of April's draft.

He weighed in at 237 pounds and according to one NFC assistant coach, looked a little soft in the midsection. Despite not playing competitive football in 2003, Clarett chose not to work out in Indianapolis on his mother's advice (he doesn't have an agent yet).

"It's a farce," Bills General Manager Tom Donahoe said. "It was expected, but it's ridiculous. He didn't play this year. You have immediate questions about what kind of shape he's in. He's not prepared to work out so I don't know how that's good for him."

Asked if Clarett's decision to forgo the workout in favor of his own individual pro day planned for the first week of April is an indication that the player isn't prepared, Donahoe responded, "That's how I take it."

Mom's advice may not have been the best for a player who came to Indy with more questions than answers – a difficult scenario for a kid trying to earn the biggest pay day of his life.

Of course, it's not even Clarett's ability that has made him the hot topic, but his bucking of the system, his court-battle win that granted him NFL eligibility despite being only two years removed from high school.

Forget the obvious physical and mental issues a player that young and inexperienced will face trying to make the leap to the NFL after just 11 college games, Clarett has issues about his character, hands and durability that also will haunt him.

He was nervous as he addressed the media in Indianapolis, often breaking into laughter or holding it back with a big grin, but he handled questions smoothly despite the scrutiny.

"When I get to sit down with GMs, they will find out what they want to find out," he said. "I'm sure I'll be a marked man and I will be tested mentally and physically in training camp just as I was tested as a freshman at Ohio State. Every man loves a challenge."

Donahoe's Bills don't need a running back, but he knows Clarett has plenty of questions to answer and probably too many to answer this week at the Combine.

"He had a very good year [at Ohio State], but he was on a very good team," Donahoe said. "He's got skills as a runner, but there are a lot of things that need to be explored. He had some injuries, which is a factor. His ability to catch the ball and some off the field issues have to be resolved. Someone interested in him has a lot of work to do."

The chances that the someone will be New England have to be considered slim despite the Patriots obvious need at the position. The Patriots are unpredictable to say the least, but it's hard to imagine them taking a chance on an inexperienced player like Clarett, who one AFC scout said, "just isn't that good."

The Patriots look for value and character and that's why a trade up in the first round shouldn't be ruled out. It would be uncharacteristic for New England to trade whatever it would take to get into the top 10-12 picks because of what they would have to surrender in the process, but it will likely take getting to at least that point to land one of the top two runners.

Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, it's logical to reason, would be more apt to trade down and accumulate more picks to play with for this year and next. But Oregon State's Steven Jackson arrived in town Thursday and will be in the Dome Friday to get weighed and measured, and the Patriots will have to take a long, hard look at the player at least one coach admitted having rated at the top of the running back class.

Jackson and Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones are the consensus top two backs available and both appear squeaky clean across the board, ranging from ability to health to character. Jackson has an ultra strong family background to go with his college production and top grades.

If the Patriots were ever going to move up significantly to fill their running back need, Jackson might be the guy for which to do it. At 6-3, 233 pounds, he is the big, physical back that could more than capably replace Antowain Smith. He also is a polished blocker.

Jones, though, believes he is the best back in the draft because he brings the most complete combination of size, speed, power and instincts, and he might be right. He also seems to be of strong character and, like Jackson, would likely be a low-risk pick given the high price tag the top of the draft commands.

Florida State's Greg Jones will be another intriguing prospect who will tempt first round selectors in need of a back. He is a year removed from right ACL surgery that slowed him during his senior season, but the Cybex test (a strength test of the knee) he took in Indianapolis showed equal strength in both knees.

"I don't have the quickness I had before the injury, but I can feel that coming back," said Jones, who weighed in at an absolutely chiseled 249 pounds. "I have four percent body fat, but I'm trying to get that down," he said seriously.

So while Clarett undeservedly steals the headlines with his groundbreaking lawsuit win, Jackson, the Joneses and players like Michigan's Chris Perry and Arkansas's Cedric Cobbs will likely be long gone off the board when Clarett hears his name called. It's reasonable to think the Patriots will land one of those top five runners with one of their four picks in the first two rounds – even if they don't trade up for one of the top two.

NOTES
Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy was asked Thursday if he felt the 20 penalties (accepted) in the Super Bowl were a makeup for the lack of calls in the League Championship Games. "I saw the commissioner made a derogatory statement toward the Chiefs and said everything was fine," Dungy said. "So I'll go with the commissioner. Everything was fine and there were no problems."

Dungy also said he believes the Colts will work out a deal with quarterback Peyton Manning before the March 3 start of free agency but knows that Manning will come at a steep price that could affect other areas of the team. "It's just something that has to get worked out," he said. "Both sides understand the issues. Peyton deserves to get paid a ton of money. We also have to keep the team around him so we can win. He knows that and we know that, but we have to work within the system. I think it'll happen. I've been given a set of what ifs. If we're not able to do it or if we want to do without this guy or that guy. It's not pretty."

Giants Senior Vice President and General Manager Ernie Accorsi offered unsolicited high praise for Tom Brady when asked about his philosophy in finding quarterbacks in the draft. "Where Brady was picked does not mean he isn't on track to go to the Hall of Fame the way he's playing. He's a budding great quarterback," Accorsi said.

The minimum salaries for 2004 based on credited seasons are as follows: Rookie, $230,000; 1 season, $305,000; 2 seasons, $380,000; 4-6 seasons, $535,000; 7-9 seasons, $660,000; and 10-plus seasons, $760,000.

Forty-four underclassmen entered the 2003 draft and 29 were drafted, including 10 in the first round. Nine signed contracts as rookie free agents and six, or 14 percent, did not sign a contract.

Clarett was asked how getting a check for big money would change him. "It would change my address," he joked.

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