The upcoming NFL draft lacks marquee players, but it will have plenty of intrigue. That won't end when the San Francisco 49ers decide which player to select with the top overall choice, or even after the early portions of the jumbled opening round unfold. There are storylines worth following throughout the draft, include those involving these three players:
Matt Jones: Jones played quarterback at Arkansas but is primed to enter the NFL as an all-purpose offensive player in the mold of Kordell Stewart and Antwaan Randle El. Some scouts are fascinated with him, and it appears possible that he could be selected late in the first round or early in the second round as a wide receiver or tight end
He is big (he's listed at 6 feet 6 and 242 pounds) and fast (he was timed at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February). Some NFL talent evaluators think he should be given a chance to play quarterback at the pro level, but even they concede that the team that drafts Jones probably should use him as a receiver in games while he's being groomed as a quarterback in practices. He impressed coaches with his route-running skills, pass-catching abilities and willingness to try to play wideout at the Senior Bowl, and he dazzled scouts with his athleticism during pre-draft workouts.
Adrian McPherson: Some teams are wary of McPherson because of the gambling charges that led to his ouster from Florida State in 2002. He was accused of cashing a stolen check and gambling on sports. He admits to making youthful mistakes but denies the gambling allegations, and clubs undoubtedly are paying close attention to their background checks on him as they go through their final pre-draft deliberations.
He played one impressive season in the Arena Football League as part of his career rehabilitation, and NFL coaches and front-office executives gush about his strong arm and running ability. He is the only high school athlete ever to win player-of-the-year honors in both football and basketball in Florida in the same year. Even this close to the draft, few in the league seem to have a solid notion of when in the draft they think he'll be selected, with guesses ranging from the second round to the fifth round.
Maurice Clarett: The former Ohio State tailback finally halted the downward spiral of his draft stock with an improved showing for scouts during a workout at his old high school 11 days ago. According to his representatives, he was timed at around 4.67 seconds in the 40-yard dash -- still not good for a running back, but better than his clockings of 4.82 and 4.72 seconds at the combine.
It has become fashionable to bash Clarett, who has sat out two seasons since helping Ohio State to a national championship as a freshman and sued the league last year in an unsuccessful attempt to enter the 2004 draft. NFL people were turned off by Clarett when he showed up for last year's combine out of shape, and when he failed to participate in other drills at this year's combine after his slow sprints. But the fact remains that he dominated college football as a freshman, and that alone probably makes it worthwhile for a team to use a late-round, low-risk draft choice on him. His slightly better workout probably will result in him being a sixth- or seventh-round pick, an improvement from the outlook immediately after the combine, when many were predicting that he'd go undrafted.
McNair, Bettis to Return
Quarterback Steve McNair announced Friday that he'd return to the Tennessee Titans next season. McNair was plagued by a sternum injury last season that required bone-graft surgery, and said he would contemplate retirement in the offseason because of his inability to stay healthy. Still, the Titans believed all along that McNair merely was talking out of frustration when he made those comments and that he eventually would decide to continue playing.
Pittsburgh Steelers tailback Jerome Bettis also indicated late last week that he would return for another season, providing his body can withstand the offseason workouts and the rigors of training camp. Bettis is slated to open next season as a backup to Duce Staley. But, of course, that's how he opened last season, before proving to be the Steelers' most durable and effective runner as they advanced to the AFC title game. . . .
Atlanta bolstered its offensive-line depth by signing Barry Stokes, who'd been released by the New York Giants. Stokes can play tackle or guard. . . . Pittsburgh re-signed wide receiver Lee Mays, a restricted free agent, over the weekend. . . . Oakland signed cornerback Renaldo Hill, an unrestricted free agent formerly of the Arizona Cardinals.