The Longhorns' Cedric Benson is one of three backs who have been mentioned as top-five draft pick possibilities
At some point or another, three different running backs have been projected as top-five picks in this year's NFL Draft – Auburn's Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams and Texas's Cedric Benson.
This is of some interest to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because they hold the fifth pick in the draft this year. It would be quite surprising if at least one of those three backs was not still available at number five, making him available for the Bucs' careful consideration.
Are the Buccaneers interested in taking a back with their first-round pick? Outside of the small fraternity with access to the Draft Room at One Buccaneer Place, who knows? But simply the fact that some team – or two or three – is likely to take a back in the top five adds an interesting angle to this year's draft.
It seems, in fact, as if this year's draft might break an unofficial new-millennium moratorium on top-five running backs. After 11 backs were taken with a top-five pick in the 14 drafts from 1986-99, only two have gone in the top five in the five drafts of 2000-05, and both of those (LaDainian Tomlinson and Jamal Lewis) were picked fifth. There have been no backs selected higher than 16th in the last three drafts.
The last back to go higher than fourth was Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter, the first overall pick by Cincinnati in 1995. Carter was part of a run of unfortunate top-five picks at the position, starting with Alonzo Highsmith and Brent Fullwood at numbers three and four in 1987 and proceeding through Blair Thomas (2, 1990), Carter and Curtis Enis (5, 1998).
Yes, Detroit hit hugely on Barry Sanders at number three in 1989 and Garrison Hearst gave back a decent return (if not for the selecting team, the Arizona Cardinals) at number three in 1993. Still, that is a very high "bust" percentage for a top-five pick.
Have teams really shied away from using top-five picks on backs due to the problems associated with Carter, Thomas and Enis? More likely causes for the drought include strong drafts at other positions and a recent lack of obvious stars. Similarly, the resurgence of the running back in this year's draft may have as much to do with the relative lack of depth across the board (in most analysts' opinions) than the out-and-out star power of Brown, Williams and Benson.
Still, the most recent history of top-five backs shouldn't scare off any team. Four running backs have been drafted in the top five since 1999 and three – Tomlinson, Lewis and Edgerrin James are bona fide NFL stars. The fourth, recently-retired Ricky Williams put up several star-quality seasons but was sidetracked by off-the-field issues.
Teams worried about busting out in the top five might want to stay away from linebackers, however. Fourteen linebackers were taken with top-five picks over the past 20 years, and it might be fair to call seven of them busts: Anthony Bell (1986), Mike Junkin (1987), Aundray Bruce (1988), Keith McCants (1990), Mike Croel (1991), Quentin Coryatt (1992) and Trev Alberts (1994), though one could argue with the selection of Croel. Interestingly, only one linebacker has gone in the top five in the last eight drafts: the Washington Redskins' LaVar Arrington, a star-in-the-making if not one already.
On the flip side, it seems relatively safe to draft a defensive end with a pick in the top five. There were also 14 defensive ends drafted in the last 20 top-fives, and it would be fair to call at least seven of them star players: Chris Doleman (1985), Ray Childress (1985), Bruce Smith (1985), Neil Smith (1988), Willie McGinest (1994), Simeon Rice (1996) and Julius Peppers (2002). Only two would go down as obvious busts: Cedric Jones in 1996 and Andre Wadsworth in 1998.
The position that has seen the most top-five attention, not surprisingly, is quarterback. That has been particularly true of the last three drafts, which have produced five passers in that range of the draft. While it might be a bit early to pass judgment on those five, there is a fertile field of evidence from 1993-2001. Those nine drafts produced 11 top-five quarterbacks and 10 of them can be easily classified as either Pro Bowl caliber stars (Drew Bledsoe, Steve McNair, Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick) or utter busts, at least so far (Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith and Tim Couch).
First-round busts are a fact of life in the NFL; few teams completely escape the stigma. It hurts a bit more when one picks in the top five, of course, because expectations are higher. We might not think of Anthony Bell and Aundray Bruce, for example, as busts had they been taken later in the round.
And we might not remember the names Blair Thomas and Ki-Jana Carter as vividly. The question is, will NFL teams be thinking of those names when the clock starts to tick on this year's draft?
Chances are, Brown, Williams and Benson will be judged on their own merits and the runners will be back in top five, finally.