In 1995 the Patriots rolled the dice and used their third-round pick on an injured running back from the University of Pittsburgh. That running back turned out to be a four-time Pro Bowl performer who has racked up seven straight 1,000-yard seasons while playing for the Patriots and the New York Jets.
Of course, that running back is Curtis Martin.
On April 21, with the first of their two seventh-round picks (237th overall), the Patriots decided to gamble once again when they drafted 5-11, 214-pound running back Antwoine Womack from the University of Virginia.
Womack broke his ankle in the Cavaliers opening game against Wisconsin and didn't return until the 10th game against Georgia Tech. He played in Virginia's last three games, compiling 245 yards, 153 of which came against Penn State in the season finale.
But just when it appeared that Womack had recovered nicely from his ankle injury to re-establish himself as a top prospect, he incurred another setback when he suffered a torn ACL in the Gridiron Classic, an all-star game in Florida.
In spite of the severity of his injury, the Patriots brain trust decided it was worth the risk to draft a player who had been so productive throughout his career. According Virginia Head Coach Al Groh, who also was the head coach of the Jets and served as defensive coordinator in New England under Bill Parcells, Womack is expected to make a full recovery and is well worth the risk of such a draft pick. At worst the Patriots wasted a seventh rounder; at best they found themselves a late-round gem.
"He would have been drafted substantially higher had he not been injured," said Groh. "If I still held a head coaching position in the National Football League, I'd like this guy to be my running back for quite a while."
Bill Belichick, who worked with Groh during his time with the Giants, Patriots and Jets, said they didn't expect Womack to play this season but he should be fully recovered and on the field for 2003. According to Groh, his relationship with Belichick didn't have much to do with the Patriots selection.
"I talked to Scott Pioli a number of times and he did a lot of the leg work on Womack and gained a lot of insight into the kid," Groh said. "Most of the credit should go to Pioli and his staff, who were very thorough scouting Antwoine."
In his last full season at Virginia in 2000, Womack led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing with 1,028 yards (4.9 yards per carry) on 210 carries and was named first team All-ACC. He is considered a fast, shifty runner with breakaway speed. Groh feels he has a passion for football and loves to compete. He also said Womack is physically tough, possesses considerable skills and is very elusive.
Womack missed the 1999 season for unspecified "personal reasons," but in 1998 he had a stellar sophomore year, rushing for 708 yards and four touchdowns while leading the ACC in yards per carry (6.3). He earned All-ACC second team honors as the Cavaliers back-up running back. He also led the team with 12 kickoff returns for 236 yards (19.7 average).
Although his injury-plagued season and draft spot were disappointing, Womack remains upbeat about being picked by the Patriots, but realistic about his future.
"This is a chance for me to get a Super Bowl ring. I'm just taking this day by day," Womack said. "It wasn't too much of a surprise to me [that they picked me] because I had visited there and they told me they were interested. Even if I hadn't been drafted, that's where I think I would have ended up."
Groh believes Womack's situation could play out very similarly to that of Martin.
"There aren't too many great stories about guys in the seventh round, but if everything goes well this could turn into something really special," he said. "He's a guy who lives for football. He's very bright and could be successful at a lot of things, but he's directed his passion toward football and he has a lot of talent.
"Curtis' senior year was affected by an injury, but there are a lot of teams who would be willing to pay a first-round draft pick for him now."
Hopefully in a couple years they'll be saying the same about Womack.
Strengths: Womack is a very tough, hard-nosed running back, who is very physical and has the ability to make people miss. He is very athletic and has good size and speed as well as very good instincts.
Weaknesses: Injury to his ACL leaves him as a giant question mark. Played only the last five games of his senior season because of an ankle injury so durability could be an issue.
Personal: Rushed for 5,570 yards and 73 touchdowns at Phoebus (Hampton, Va.) High School and was the first player in school history to have his number retired. Father, Bobby, is a songwriter and has written songs for The Rolling Stones.
Comparable NFL Player: J.R. Redmond, Patriots — Similar size and athleticism. Has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and contribute in the running game as well.
What they're saying...
"People thought he was a possible top 50 kid before he hurt his ankle and had some personal problems during his senior season. Good, versatile running back who shows the potential to be a serviceable kickoff returner when he regains his health. Definitely worth the risk if he can return in 2003."
Frank Coyle, publisher Draft Insiders Digest 2002 Yearbook.