INDIANAPOLIS -- Maurice Clarett ran himself into the late rounds of the NFL draft -- or perhaps out of it altogether -- over the weekend.
The former Ohio State tailback raised expectations for the impression that he might make at the NFL scouting combine, after being out of football for two seasons and failing in his bid to sue his way into last year's draft, when he showed up here last week with a new attitude and a new body.
He weighed in at 234 pounds. That was only three pounds lighter than he'd been at last year's combine -- when he turned off many NFL talent evaluators by being out of shape and refusing to work out -- but his body looked far more muscular. He said he'd trained much harder for the combine this year than he had done last year, and he was hoping that a good time in the 40-yard dash would tempt teams to consider selecting him in one of the draft's early rounds in April.
Instead, he posted horrible times in his two runs Saturday at the RCA Dome and his draft stock plummeted, meaning that he probably is headed toward being a late-round pick or even an undrafted free agent. According to the unofficial clockings of the NFL Network, Clarett's times were 4.82 and 4.72 seconds. That was only slightly faster than the three offensive linemen who were clocked -- officially -- between 4.9 and 4.97 seconds.
"I think everybody was disappointed in his time," Tennessee Titans General Manager Floyd Reese said.
Clarett will try to improve his time at a March 8 workout. He had said before Saturday's performance that if he ran a good time at the combine, he wouldn't participate in another workout for scouts later.
Clarett didn't hide his disappointment, saying in an appearance on the NFL Network it was "frustrating" because he had "messed it up" after weeks of regularly waking up at 5 a.m. to train.
Clarett, who was kept out of last year's draft when the NFL managed to overturn the initial ruling by a federal judge that temporarily made him eligible a year earlier than league rules allowed, said his interviews with individual teams at this combine went well, with coaches telling him that he came across as more humble and personable than he had a year ago. But that was of little consolation. "I got the interview process right," Clarett said, "not the workout."
Still, it seems probable that some team will use a late-round selection on Clarett, who led Ohio State to a national championship as a freshman.
"Maurice didn't run the kind of time he wanted to," Arizona Cardinals Coach Dennis Green said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. . . . [But] if you look at him playing football, he can play football."
Other Running Backs Shine
Other tailbacks helped themselves at the combine. Auburn's Ronnie Brown ran immediately before Clarett on Saturday and was timed by the NFL Network at 4.4 and 4.32 seconds. (Brown's official clocking via an electronic timing device was slower, with a best of 4.48 seconds.)
"That time that he ran [Saturday] solidified that he will be a top back in the NFL," said Rod Graves, the Cardinals' vice president of football operations.
Brown is jockeying with his Auburn teammate, Carnell (Cadillac) Williams, and Texas's Cedric Benson to be the first running back drafted. All three perhaps could come off the board quickly in April. Williams had an official best time of 4.5 seconds in his 40s Sunday. Benson attended the combine but didn't work out.
"Ninety percent of the player's grade is determined in the fall, by how he plays," Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly said. "What you're doing in the spring is trying to separate players. The three running backs, they're all first-rounders. The way you try to separate them is the workout."
Another tailback, Cal's J.J. Arrington, also helped himself at the combine, with an official 40 time of 4.46 seconds.
"The draft is very deep at the running back position and the wide receiver position," Chicago Bears Coach Lovie Smith said.
Of course, 40 times aren't everything. NFL talent evaluators were disappointed last year with the pre-draft workouts of the top available tailbacks, Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones. They slipped on draft day, with Jackson going to the St. Louis Rams on the 24th overall pick and Jones to the Detroit Lions with the 30th selection. But both excelled as rookies, as did Dallas Cowboys' second-round choice Julius Jones.
"This is like the president's physical fitness test out here," New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards said. "I don't get all hung up on it." . . .
This draft class lacks marquee players at several positions, including the offensive line spots. There is no dominant player like Robert Gallery, the left tackle taken second overall by the Oakland Raiders last year. But Reese said he was impressed by the body types that he saw and believes that many of the offensive linemen he viewed at the combine can be developed into solid players.
"This was as good a group of offensive linemen as we've probably seen for 10 or 12 years," Reese said. "Historically we've seen the jelly-belly guys. This group is 6 [feet] 6, 6-8 and 310, 320 [pounds] but still flat-bellied and able to run and do some things athletically." . . .
Former USC wide receiver Mike Williams hadn't planned to participate in the workouts at the combine, but changed his mind and did so Sunday. He was timed, unofficially, at 4.59 and 4.61 seconds in his 40-yard dashes. "It was good to see him run," Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said.
Scouts, coaches and front-office executives were exasperated in recent years that so few players participated in the combine workouts, opting instead to wait until their on-campus pro days. But that trend was reversed this year. "It's been good," Fisher said. "It's been a positive change."
Casserly said he attributed the change more to portions of the combine being televised by the NFL Network than to the speech he gives annually at the combine to the players and their agents urging the players to participate in the workouts.
"I don't think it's my convincing talk," Casserly said. "I've given the same talk for 10 years. It's fantastic. Maybe it's television. That was the selling point" when it was proposed that portions of the combine would be broadcast.
The most significant exception was that neither of the top-rated quarterbacks, Utah's Alex Smith nor Cal's Aaron Rodgers, participated in the throwing drills in Indianapolis. . . .
Hampton wideout and kick returner Jerome Mathis was timed, by one stopwatch, at 4.25 seconds in his 40-yard dash Sunday, unofficially breaking Deion Sanders's all-time combine record of 4.28. Longtime Dallas executive Gil Brandt said that he and Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells agreed it was the fastest time they ever had seen at the combine. Mathis's official time, by electronic clocking device, was 4.32 seconds. Mathis was a track all-American at Hampton. . . .
The debate about the quality of this draft pool raged all weekend.
"There's a perception this draft isn't as good as in years past," Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay said. "I don't think that's true. People can't define the top 10. But the draft is seven rounds. I don't think we should be there yet, rating this draft."
But no one was claiming that this draft has the sort of supposed can't-miss prospects at the top end that other drafts have had.
"When you were out scouting, you could tell the senior class did not have the guys that jump out at you at the top of the draft," Casserly said. "There's a good junior class, but you don't have the Kellen Winslows and Sean Taylors and those kind of guys. This thing is all over the place. It will crystallize as we get closer to the draft. Need will play into this draft. Free agency will play more into this draft than other drafts," meaning that teams will draft players to fill needs that they don't address in the free-agent market. . . .
McKay said he traditionally sets up his draft board, ranking the available players at each position, before the combine and then tweaks it afterward. That way, he said, he avoids putting too much weight on how a player fares at the combine, as might be the case if he would set his draft board afterward. He said the pre-draft workouts generally should not be worth more than 20 percent of a player's draft grade. Casserly said of the weight that should be given to the pre-draft workouts: "The players don't go from the first round to the seventh round, but they can change by about a round." . . .
It appears that about a half-dozen wide receivers will be selected in the first round, beginning with Michigan's Braylon Edwards and Williams. But Casserly said: "I don't know if there are the blue-chippers in this draft. I do think there are good receivers in this draft, but maybe spread out over different rounds." . . .
New Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow, lured from USC by Fisher, had a hectic first week in the NFL, beginning work in Nashville last week and then hurrying to the combine at midweek. Asked how often he lobbies Fisher for the Titans' first-round pick to be an offensive player, Chow said: "Every day. Every minute. Every second." . . .
Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones -- projected as a multiple-position player in the NFL in the mold of Kordell Stewart and Antwaan Randle El -- was timed unofficially at 4.37 seconds in his 40-yard dash Sunday (and officially at 4.4 seconds). . . .
Former Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson had an official time of 4.71 seconds.
Cardinals, Bears, Lions Have Warner On Radar
The Cardinals, Bears and Detroit Lions appear set to compete to sign quarterback Kurt Warner, who is primed to leave the New York Giants via free agency after one season mentoring Eli Manning. Arizona might have the edge because the Cardinals probably would give Warner a clear shot at the starting job ahead of holdovers Josh McCown, Shaun King and John Navarre.
"We have three," Green said. "Josh McCown is our starting quarterback right now. Will that scenario change as far as even the players on our team? Right now, we don't know."
The Bears say they plan to enter next season with Rex Grossman as their starter. But they don't want to repeat the fiasco that they experienced last year after Grossman suffered a season-ending knee injury and they went through Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel and Chad Hutchinson as starters, and even signed Jeff George. Quinn has been released, and George has been told he won't be re-signed.
"Rex is our number one quarterback," Smith said.
Smith indicated that Grossman should be ready to participate fully in Chicago's May minicamp.
"We expect him to take the first snap of minicamp," Smith said. "He'll be full speed. He's on schedule. His rehab is going well."
The Lions say they intend to retain Joey Harrington and enter training camp with him as their starter. But Harrington's hold on the starting job seems less than firm and Detroit could sign Warner or fellow free-agent quarterback Jeff Garcia, the former Pro Bowler who was cut by Cleveland. Garcia was coached in San Francisco by Lions Coach Steve Mariucci. He traveled to Indianapolis over the weekend and met with Lions officials.
There has been speculation -- denied by the Lions--that Harrington could be released. He is to receive a $3 million roster bonus on July 1 and has a $4.95 million salary next season, and the Lions would save $8 million in salary cap space by releasing Harrington in June. . . .
Garcia also met with Denver Broncos officials over the weekend in Indianapolis. The Broncos are purusing Garcia as a prospective backup to Jake Plummer. . . .
Mariucci did not immediately express interest in another former 49er, wide receiver Jerry Rice. The NFL's career receiving leader was released by Seattle on Friday. Rice has indicated that he'd like to play next season if a team wants him, but acknowledged Friday that he could be forced into retirement.
"Right now, we haven't talked about that," Mariucci said over the weekend. "Any team in this league -- every team -- would benefit from having Jerry Rice on their team. He's probably run more miles this morning than all the 300 kids here [participating in the combine]. He's probably run a hill and played 18 holes of golf already this morning. Can he still play? I think so. But maybe it's time for him to quit. I don't know. That's up to him. Part of me would like to see him go back to the 49ers and retire with the 49ers.
"We're so committed to our young receivers. We're down that path 100 miles an hour, and he knows that. We haven't talked about Jerry yet. It's going to depend on if we sign another receiver or draft a receiver." . . .
Detroit signed center Dominic Raiola to a five-year, $17.5 million contract extension to keep him off the unrestricted free agent market. The deal includes a $4.6 million signing bonus. Detroit also re-signed safety Bracy Walker to keep him off the unrestricted free agent market. . . .
The Raiders are in a salary-cap bind and are attempting to trade cornerback Charles Woodson, who surprised the team Friday by accepting the club's franchise-player contract tender. That leaves him counting more than $10.5 million against next season's salary cap. The Raiders were nearly $11 million over the $85.5 million cap even after restructuring the contract of quarterback Rich Gannon over the weekend.
Oakland probably will release guards Frank Middleton and Ron Stone, tight end Roland Williams and defensive tackle John Parrella. The problem is, the Raiders will have to be at least $7.25 million under the cap to accommodate Randy Moss's salary when their trade for the wide receiver becomes official Wednesday. . . .
Gannon reduced his salary for next season from $8 million to the veteran minimum $765,000. That will enable the Raiders to keep him on the roster until he makes a decision about whether to continue his career. It's likely that Gannon will retire after suffering a broken vertebra in his neck during a September game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. . . .
Another franchise player, Rams left tackle Orlando Pace, reportedly was the subject of trade inquiries by the Giants.
"There are inquiries made all the time in this league about players," Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said. "There are no trade talks going on."
Rams officials say they don't intend to trade Pace. . . .
The six-year contract to which wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad agreed with the Bears on Saturday, a day after being released by the Carolina Panthers, could be worth as much as $30 million. It includes $12 million in bonus money. With Muhammad in the fold, the Bears today released wideout David Terrell, the eighth overall pick in the 2001 draft. The former University of Michigan standout has been a disappointment as a pro, with 128 catches in four seasons in Chicago. He had 42 receptions last season. . . .
Pittsburgh agreed to a restructured contract with tailback Jerome Bettis on Saturday to keep him with the team next season. Bettis, who had said he was considering retirement, agreed to a pay cut of about $3.3 million, from $4.8 million to $1.5 million. . . .
The Buccaneers agreed to a new deal with quarterback Brian Griese to keep him with the club. The team probably would have released Griese if it had been unable to rework his contract, which previously included a $6 million roster bonus due in March and a $2.133 million salary for next season. The new deal, completed by agent Ralph Cindrich and Buccaneers General Manager Bruce Allen over the weekend, is for five years and could pay Griese as much as $32.6 million.
The agreement clears $4 million of salary cap space for Tampa Bay and is expected to enable the Buccaneers to release Brad Johnson, their Super Bowl-winning quarterback who was being kept on the roster until the Griese situation was resolved. When the Griese deal was completed, the Buccaneers canceled a meeting with Garcia scheduled for Saturday night. . . .
The reworked deal that tailback Marshall Faulk signed with the Rams last week is for about $12 million over four years -- not approximately $6 million over two seasons, as was indicated initially. It remains likely, however, that Faulk will retire after next season or the 2006 season. . . .
Coach Brian Billick said that the Baltimore Ravens were involved in the Moss trade deliberations before last week's agreement that will send the wideout to Oakland for linebacker Napoleon Harris and two draft picks, including the seventh overall selection in April.
"We were involved, seeing what the parameters were," Billick said. "Ending up with the number seven overall pick and a player of Napoleon Harris's caliber, we didn't have that, sitting at number 22."
The Ravens remain in pursuit of a wide receiver. They could trade make a trade with the Washington Redskins for Laveranues Coles or Rod Gardner. Or they could try to sign Derrick Mason, a free agent who was cut by Tennessee. But Mason could have about a half-dozen serious suitors, perhaps led by Jacksonville. . . .
Edwards said the Jets hope that quarterback Chad Pennington will be able to begin a throwing program in June after undergoing recent shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff.
"This might be a blessing in disguise for Chad," Edwards said. "He's always been a gym rat, and you only have so many throws in your arm."
The Jets likely will take more shots down the field in the passing game next season under new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, Edwards said, than they did under previous offensive boss Paul Hackett.
"We probably have to throw a little bit more, maybe more down the field," Edwards said. "That's what the rules allow you to do."
Packers Waiting On Favre
Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson said he hadn't had any recent conversations with quarterback Brett Favre regarding the quarterback's pending decision about whether to return next season. Thompson said the Packers weren't pressing Favre for a decision but the quarterback and his representatives know that the club would like to know something as soon as possible in case it has to find a replacement. "They're aware of the realities of the NFL," Thompson said. . . .
The Titans reworked Steve McNair's contract late last week but haven't been told whether he will play next season. The quarterback indicated late in the season that he would consider retirement this offseason because of his inability to stay healthy. The Titans, though, expect McNair to play.
"I think he's as chipper as he's felt for a long time," Reese said. "I think he'll work his way back into wanting to play. He's 32. [John] Elway didn't win his first Super Bowl until, what, 35 or 36 [actually 37]. I think he can play another five or six years. But then again, I don't have to wake up every morning with his body. If I did, that might change things." . . .
Reese said the Titans' recent salary-cap purge "was painful, even though we knew it was coming."
He added: "No one has ever not gone through it. If you're going to work to be among the elite, at some point you're going to see the other side of it. New England and Philadelphia might beat it. But if they do, they'll be the first ones to ever do it." . . .
It's been a busy time lately for executives of NFL teams, with the offseason schedule condensed because of the late (Feb. 6) Super Bowl date this year.
"What day is today? I have no idea what day it is," Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian said over the weekend. "This is the 'Perfect Storm.' You have the competition committee meetings. You have the combine. You have the franchise designation. You have free agency. If someone hadn't told me it was Saturday, I wouldn't have known." . . .
Miami Dolphins Coach Nick Saban said he hadn't had any face-to-face discussions with retired tailback Ricky Williams but remains receptive to the possibility of having Williams on his roster if Williams decides he wants to return to the NFL. . . .
The Browns are trying to re-sign quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who's eligible for unrestricted free agency on Wednesday. "He has ability," Coach Romeo Crennel said. "He's won in the NFL." . . .
Crennel, one of the six African-American head coaches in the league, said it wouldn't necessarily be a setback to the diversity cause if Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler's bid to purchase the Vikings from Red McCombs fails to gain the necessary NFL approval. Fowler would become the first black majority owner of an NFL franchise if the proposed $625 million sale is ratified by at least 24 of the 32 clubs. There have been questions raised about whether Fowler has the personal wealth to structure the deal to the NFL's liking.
"There have been other guys who haven't been approved," Crennel said. "One of the things about diversity is, he gets put up to the same standards as everyone else. If he meets the standards, then he should be approved." . . .
Houston signed cornerback Demarcus Faggins to a contract extension to keep him off the restricted free agent market. . . . Denver restructured the contract of left tackle Matt Lepsis to clear salary cap space. . . . Arizona appears willing to consider trade offers for cornerback Duane Starks. . . . Kansas City might attempt to trade for Miami cornerback Patrick Surtain. . . . Cleveland released safety Robert Griffith today.