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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Back Up the Charts

Willis McGahee's NFL career appeared to be in jeopardy after the Fiesta Bowl, but the former Miami back, determined to play in 2003, may just climb back into the first round of the draft


Miami RB Willis McGahee was understandably depressed on January 3 after his major knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl, but he has been nothing but determined since

The recent NFL Draft preview published by The Sporting News contains a two-round mock draft, in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are matched with Miami RB Willis McGahee at pick number 64. The Sporting News will probably not be the last publication to make that guess.

One small problem: McGahee may be gone long before the 64th pick.

The Buccaneers, obviously, won't comment on their own level of interest in McGahee, nor any specific player leanings, for that matter. Nevertheless, the Heisman Trophy finalist is still an extremely interesting topic in the short days before the draft, given the unusual path he is following to the NFL.

A year ago, when Miami RB Clinton Portis was being drafted by the Denver Broncos in the second round, McGahee was virtually unknown. In 2001, he was third on the Hurricanes' depth chart behind Portis and Frank Gore. After Portis' departure, however, Gore tore up his knee in spring practice and McGahee inherited the starting job. The hometown sophomore burned Florida for 204 yards in the season's second game and never looked back, scoring 28 touchdowns and posting the best rushing numbers in Miami history.

Up until January 3, it was a dream season, one that was expected to end in a triumphant declaration for the 2003 NFL Draft. Then, in the Fiesta Bowl, as Miami and Ohio State fought for the national championship, McGahee darted right in the fourth quarter and ran into LB Will Allen. Allen's mid-leg hit upended the back and caused a gruesome knee injury, in which several ligaments were ruptured. Mere minutes from the end of his college career, McGahee's pro prospects were suddenly in doubt.

Had McGahee avoided Allen, he would likely be a top five pick in next week's draft. "If he were not injured he would have gone very high," said Buccaneers Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster, matter-of-factly.

In the days that followed the Fiesta Bowl, however, it was widely conjectured that McGahee would miss a good portion, if not all, of the 2003 season. He quickly declared for the draft anyway, a move that was initially thought to be hubris, then judged to be a wise business decision. His confident pronouncements that he would play, and play well, in 2003, on the other hand, were pretty much left in the hubris category.

McGahee had surgery on his knee on January 5, and it was deemed successful, which is to say all of the ligaments in his knee were restored. He reportedly attacked his rehab regimen with a vengeance and has been so far ahead of pace that he has scheduled a workout for NFL scouts next Tuesday, four days before the draft. McGahee doesn't even believe he should be considered a risk for 2003.

"I'm not surprised (at the workout) because he's apparently fast-tracked for recovery," said Buccaneers General Manager Rich McKay. "We've had guys in this league who have fast-tracked their recovery, so it's not surprising to me. I don't know that anybody's going to go to that workout to try to see him run a 40 or do any of that stuff. I think they just want to show, and I think the kid wants to show how he's doing."

Suddenly, it's hard to predict where McGahee will go in the draft, but it isn't hard to see him going before the Bucs go on the clock. The determined back wants to be a first-rounder, and one of the league's 32 teams might just oblige. It's a stunning development for anyone who was watching when McGahee met Allen on January 3.

It is also, according to McKay, a testament to medical advancements of the past decade.

"I have not seen that situation before but I think that is a little bit a function of modern sports medicine," said McKay of McGahee's rapid resurfacing. "I think guys have become very confident in sports medicine and what people are able to do to keep players not just healthy but playing at a top level.

Injuries are the great X factor on draft weekend, particularly fresh ones. No one doubts McGahee's physical talents – he was considered a 'special' back before he went down. Should he completely regain his pre-Fiesta Bowl form, he will be a bargain at whatever spot he is drafted in. But a first or second-round pick would prove to be a hefty fee if McGahee is not, in the end, an elite back.

That he is even being mentioned as a first-rounder indicates that the prevailing opinion on McGahee is that he will return to form, if not this season than at least in the near future.

"There's no question that people are more comfortable that he will be back," said McKay. "The only thing about it is, you cannot say with a certainty that he will be back at the same level. That cannot be said. You can say he will be back. That's where it all changed.

"Yes, sports medicine has come a long way that way. I just don't think you can ever say that you can guarantee he's going to play at the same level. It's just like in baseball when they talk about a pitcher's elbow surgery. Tommy John had it when he was a Dodger and everybody said it was a miracle when he came back. Now everybody expects it, but you still can't say the guy's going to throw 95. He might be throwing 90, and there is a difference. It's not whether the guy's going to run out and play. He's going to play."

And he will be drafted, probably in the first two rounds. Whether he's still on the board when the Bucs pick at the end of the second round might depend a little bit on how he looks next Tuesday.

"That's a coin flip," said Webster. "A lot of it is going to depend on everybody's medicals on him, how he does (at the workout). As good of a player as he is, you'd think somebody would take a chance on him."

But how high? The answer now is different than it would have been a decade ago. RB Terry Allen was a standout at Clemson through the 1989 season but there were concerns about injuries to both of his knees. He dropped to the ninth round of a then-12 round draft, where Minnesota took him with the 241st overall pick. In other words, he would have been a college free agent under today's draft system.

And Allen did blow out a knee in his rookie preseason. However, he recovered by 1991 and quickly became one of the league's better backs. He has 8,614 career yards and 73 touchdowns with five different teams.

"I remember when Terry Allen came out of Clemson and he was a double-ACL guy," said McKay. "He was an 'F' on everybody's board from here to wherever. And he played. After his first year I remember talking to a guy who said, 'Ah, one year. He's done next year.' He's still playing, okay?"

McGahee's injury vaulted another Heisman finalist, Penn State's Larry Johnson, to the top of the running back chart on most draft boards. Behind him, there is not impressive depth this year. Running back-hungry teams might not see a better risk than McGahee out there in the early rounds.

"Maybe, but he is a really good player," said Webster. "No matter what the class (of running backs), he would be up there. If it says anything, it says the kind of player he was in college. He's a talented guy."

McKay says he would not be surprised if the resolute Hurricane is taken in the first round. McGahee himself seems certain of it. With more and more athletic careers being salvaged by modern medicine every day, who's going to argue with him?

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