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Tailbacks Are at Top, But in Fluid Order

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page D01

Running backs are all the rage as the NFL draft approaches. It's debatable whether that is because the quality of the runners this year is so good, or because the marquee value of the top players at other positions is so lacking. Whatever the reason, tailbacks are poised to grab the spotlight Saturday, with Auburn teammates Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Texas's Cedric Benson likely to be selected early in the opening round.

"All of them are talented players," Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly said last week. "They're all a little bit different. Cedric Benson is an inside-the-tackles runner who's going to give you great production. Cadillac Williams can give you big plays inside and outside. Ronnie Brown, if he was at another school, would have been a 1,000-yard rusher every year. I think he'll be a 1,000-yard rusher in our league. They all should be successful in the NFL."

Ronnie Brown, above, is highly regarded for his versatility, a trait honed by sharing the Auburn backfield with fellow top prospect Carnell Williams. (2004 Photo Dave Martin -- AP)

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What remains in doubt is in what order the Big Three runners will come off the board, and which teams will choose them. The Miami Dolphins have the second overall selection in the draft and need a centerpiece runner to replace Ricky Williams, but have left open the possibility of picking a quarterback and apparently would prefer to trade down in first round no matter which need they opt to fill.

The Chicago Bears (who have the No. 4 choice), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 5) and Arizona Cardinals (No. 8) also are thought to have running backs high on their draft lists. But there is always some wariness among NFL teams about selecting tailbacks high in the first round because productive runners usually can be found later in a draft, and that seems to be the case again this year. "The draft is very deep at the running back position," Bears Coach Lovie Smith said.

The Dolphins' choice is particularly intriguing because of Benson's connection to Williams, who abruptly informed the Dolphins just before training camp last summer that he was retiring and faces a four-game suspension by the NFL for his admitted marijuana use if he were to return. In the past, Benson has called Williams his hero and friend, and he followed the former Heisman Trophy winner to the University of Texas after becoming one of the state's most storied high school players at Midland's Lee High School -- whose rivalry with Odessa's Permian High was chronicled in "Friday Night Lights."

Benson finished second to Williams on Texas's career rushing list. He's the sixth-leading rusher in Division I-A history, and only the fifth runner to have four 1,000-yard seasons. "I think what I've done on the field speaks for itself," Benson said at the NFL scouting combine in late February, although he stopped short of declaring himself the top running back available in the draft.

As the draft has approached, however, Benson has moved to distance himself from Williams, perhaps trying to reassure interested NFL clubs that he won't abandon his team someday. He said at the combine that his relationship with Williams is not as close as some people believed.

Benson also has had to answer teams' questions about his past. In 2002, he was charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana and possession of alcohol as a minor. The charges were dropped because of a lack of evidence. Last year, he was sentenced to eight days in jail (but got two days of credit for time served when he was arrested, four days of credit for good behavior and reportedly avoided further time in prison because of overcrowding) for criminal trespassing after he and friends kicked down the door of a man suspected of burglarizing Benson's apartment. He was suspended for one game.

He wasn't even among the Heisman Trophy finalists last season after generating controversy with an early season radio interview in which he said he would rather win the Heisman than beat rival Oklahoma.

"There's no such thing as perfect," Benson, who played minor league baseball in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization for two summers, said at the combine. "Who makes it through college without anything on their record? I think the most important thing would be me learning a lesson from it. I've learned and moved on."

Carnell Williams and Brown shared the limelight in Auburn's crowded -- and wildly talented -- backfield. Brown began his collegiate career as a redshirt behind Rudi Johnson, now the Cincinnati Bengals' starting tailback. Just when he thought he would take over as the centerpiece runner, Auburn signed Williams, the Alabama high school player of the year and a top prep prospect.

Brown ended up making only 21 collegiate starts and had only one 1,000-yard rushing season -- in 2002, when Williams missed half the season because of a broken bone in his leg. But Brown accepted his situation without complaint and stayed at the school. He decided against entering last year's draft when many of his friends, he said, urged him to bypass his senior season. He adapted his game and lined up at different spots, including fullback and even wide receiver. Last season, especially, Auburn's coaches found creative ways to get both players on the field at the same time.

"It's been an ongoing battle, I guess, for the two of us, and it's definitely worked out for the best for both of us," Brown said at the combine. "We're both in a position, obviously, to play in the NFL and get drafted."

Brown became accomplished at blocking and pass-catching as well as running. And that versatility, along with sprinter-like speed, could serve him well next weekend, because many NFL talent evaluators regard him as the best all-around running back available. "I can do a lot of different stuff and line up at a lot of different spots in the backfield," Brown said.

Said Williams: "We both pushed each other. Just knowing you've got another great player on your team just made both of us compete. We both got a lot better. . . . I can't say who's better. I'm sure if you ask Ronnie, he'll say he's better and if you ask me, I'll say I'm better. I just feel like I bring something different."

Williams topped 1,000 rushing yards in each of his final two seasons at Auburn, and added about a dozen pounds of bulk between the end of the college season and the combine (where he checked in at 217 pounds). Some scouts wonder about his receiving skills, but few doubt his running ability. He earned his nickname in high school because he runs as smooth as a Cadillac.

A year ago, the first tailback drafted was Oregon State's Steven Jackson, who went 24th to the St. Louis Rams. But Jackson, the Detroit Lions' Kevin Jones and the Dallas Cowboys' Julius Jones all played well as rookies, so the pressure will be on the celebrated tailbacks in this year's draft.

The expectations are building already, as even the players in this year's maligned draft class are pointing to Benson, Brown and Williams. Former USC wide receiver Mike Williams said recently, "I think the running back position is probably the best that I can ever remember across the board."

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