One of the questions being debated by front-office executives around the league as this weekend's NFL draft nears is whether the three top tailbacks available this year are really that good, or the rest of the draft is just that bad.
Texas's Cedric Benson and Auburn teammates Carnell (Cadillac) Williams and Ronnie Brown all could be selected within the top eight or so selections Saturday. That is in stark contrast to last year's draft, when the first running back taken -- Oregon State's Steven Jackson, chosen by the St. Louis Rams -- did not come off the board until No. 24.
Three rookie runners -- Jackson, the Detroit Lions' Kevin Jones and the Dallas Cowboys' Julius Jones -- ended up being highly impressive, at least in stretches, last season. The general manager of one NFL team said in recent days that the pre-draft accolades now being bestowed upon Benson, Williams and Brown are a function of the lack of marquee players at other positions in this year's draft class.
"Kevin Jones is better than any running back in this draft," the GM said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in case his club ends up with the one the tailbacks -- or has to face one of them next season.
But a personnel director from another team disagreed, saying: "Cedric Benson is better than those guys last year. Benson is clearly the best back in this draft, and he might be the best player in this draft."
Williams's Stock Soaring?
An agent who represents one of the wide receivers projected to go in the first round Saturday said he's found that in his recent conversations with teams' front-office decision-makers, the draft stock of former USC wideout Mike Williams is rising steadily. It's now possible that Williams, not Michigan's Braylon Edwards, could be the first receiver selected, the agent said, adding that the Minnesota Vikings might target Williams if they trade for one of the top selections in the draft. The Vikings have the Nos. 7 and 18 choices . . . .
Another player whose draft status appears to be on the rise is Troy University linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Ware perhaps could challenge Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson and Maryland defensive end Shawne Merriman to be the first non-cornerback defensive player selected Saturday . . . .
The Oakland Raiders traded tight end Doug Jolley and a second-round pick this weekend to the New York Jets for the 26th overall choice in the draft. The Raiders got back into the first round after previously trading their first-round selection -- No. 7 overall -- to the Vikings in the deal in which Oakland obtained wide receiver Randy Moss . . . .
The Jets-Raiders trade left the city that hosts the draft entirely without a first-round pick. The New York Giants don't have a first-rounder either, courtesy of last year's Eli Manning trade . . . .
There are four teams with two first-rounders apiece Saturday -- the Vikings, Washington Redskins, San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys . . . .
Most observers seem to expect the Tennessee Titans to select a cornerback -- probably Antrel Rolle of Miami -- with the sixth overall choice Saturday. The Titans must replace cornerback Samari Rolle (no relation, although the two often are asked about that), who was released as part of the club's salary-cap purge in February.
A few people around the league, however, suspect that the Titans could select Williams if he's still available when they pick. Tennessee also released wideout Derrick Mason in its purge. And the Titans hired Norm Chow, formerly Williams's offensive coordinator at USC, as their new offensive boss. Chow chuckled when he said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February that he was constantly lobbying Coach Jeff Fisher to select an offensive player with the team's first-round pick. Maybe he wasn't kidding, after all.
Sauerbrun's Status Shaky
Three-time Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun appears to be on his way out of Carolina. The Panthers on Wednesday signed veteran punter Tom Rouen, signaling that they likely will release Sauerbrun.
Sauerbrun was one of three Panthers players recently reported to have filled steroid prescriptions by a South Carolina physician within two weeks of playing in the Super Bowl in February 2004. That was only the latest in a string of incidents for Sauerbrun. He generated controversy last season when he said the Panthers would have to pay him additional money to handle kickoffs in addition to his punting duties, and he was arrested in December and charged with driving while impaired.
The Panthers have another punter, Steve Cheek, on their roster, and Rouen and Cheek likely will compete for the job. Carolina probably won't release Sauerbrun until June for salary cap purposes . . . .
The Panthers also signed Chris Draft, Atlanta's former starting middle linebacker who was released by the Falcons earlier this month after they signed Edgerton Hartwell as a free agent . . . .
Detroit signed free-agent wideout Kevin Johnson, who spent last season with Baltimore . . . . St. Louis re-signed reserve quarterback Jamie Martin, an unrestricted free agent, and signed guard Rex Tucker, who'd been released by Chicago . . . .
Green Bay, as expected, retained defensive end Aaron Kampman by matching Minnesota's one-year, $1.2 million offer sheet to the restricted free agent. Tennessee kept linebacker Brad Kassell, another restricted free agent, by matching Detroit's one-year, approximately $1 million offer sheet. Those moves closed the books on this year's NFL restricted free agent market. In all, seven restricted free agents signed offer sheets with other clubs; three ended up changing teams . . . .
Cornerback Andre Dyson, an unrestricted free agent formerly with Tennessee, likely will sign with a team before the draft. The Titans remain interested in re-signing him and apparently are in his group of finalists alongside the Jets and Seattle Seahawks.