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They Make It a Risky Business

NFL teams fear using a high draft pick on players considered to be a gamble, such as USC's White.

April 23, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

LenDale White never started a game for USC last season, but he was good enough to lead the nation in scoring and, at times, steal the thunder from Heisman Trophy-winning teammate Reggie Bush.

But what White has done -- or hasn't done -- in the last few months is enough to make pro coaches very uneasy about making him an early selection in next weekend's NFL draft.

White is the latest in a long line of risky draft prospects. Pass him by, and a rival team could wind up with a punishing touchdown machine. Select him, and you could be paying millions to a player who so far hasn't felt an urgency to stay in shape and is hobbling into the draft on a bum hamstring.

"You have to be very sure of yourself," said Bill Walsh, former coach of the San Francisco 49ers. "You have to be able to say, look, there's a risk here and we're willing to accept the risk. If it doesn't work, it's just part of doing business."

In a sense, every prospect is a risk. Bush might be too small to be an every-down back in the NFL. Scouts have questioned quarterback Matt Leinart's arm strength and mobility. No one knows how quickly quarterback Vince Young can adjust to running a traditional pro offense. Quarterback Jay Cutler never had a winning season at Vanderbilt.

But no prospect has taken a more conspicuous tumble in recent months than White, who will enter the draft without having run a 40-yard dash. He didn't work out at the combine, instead announcing he would do so at USC's April 2 pro day. There, however, his afternoon consisted of little more than a sub-par bench-press performance. It was later determined he had a slight hamstring tear. That diagnosis raised eyebrows around the league, considering it was made by a chiropractor and not a physician.

"I think there's some concern [about White] because he's shown a repeated history of not preparing and not staying in shape," said an NFL personnel executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But the talent's there, and people will take a flier on him. You can't afford to miss on your first two picks, so it does make it risky to take him."

It looks as if at least two teams might be willing to roll the dice on White in the first round. Carolina is considering using the 27th pick on him and Pittsburgh, which has the 32nd pick, sees him as a potential Jerome Bettis replacement.

Teams take risks with one eye on the upside. When Pittsburgh selected Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick in 2004, they were betting he could make the dramatic step up from the Mid-American Conference, something not everyone thought possible. Two years later, he was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl XL.

Eight years ago, 19 teams passed on the chance to select Marshall receiver Randy Moss -- the Cincinnati Bengals doing so twice -- because they flinched at his troubled past and playbook-thick rap sheet. The Minnesota Vikings took him with the 21st pick, and Moss responded with perhaps the greatest rookie season in league history.

Does one good risk deserve another? Not necessarily. A year later, the Vikings used a first-round pick to select Michigan State defensive end Dimitrius Underwood, who signed a five-year, $5.3-million contract, then walked away from training camp after one day. He said he had no desire to play football and eventually cut ties with the Vikings. He later tried comebacks with Miami and Dallas, but his career was cut short by psychological problems that included at least two suicide attempts.

Before he entered the draft, Underwood's odd ways caught the attention of his college coach, Nick Saban, who told reporters, "I think Dimitrius' behavior over a little bit of time here has been a little bit unusual."

A player doesn't have to be selected in the first two rounds to be a significant risk. Denver gambled last year when it took former Ohio State star Maurice Clarett with the final selection of the third round. He showed up out of shape -- just as he was at the combine -- and soon was out of a job.

USC's White, who grew up in Denver, was quick to distance himself from that Buckeye bust when he returned to his hometown.

"I am not Maurice Clarett," he told reporters in Denver.

"I never violated team rules. I never robbed anyone," he said. "I just haven't run a 40-yard dash and I gained five pounds. That's all that has happened."

Considering the millions of dollars the NFL invests in its players, it's not surprising teams place a lot of importance on interviews, not just a prospect's height, weight and 40-yard-dash time.

"The interviews are very enlightening -- it's probably the best thing you can do," Washington Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs said. "You get a chance to have some communication with them and feel what kind of personality they have. You know how fast they can run and how high they can jump and you watch them athletically. But that's not the No. 1 thing you're looking for. You're trying to see what kind of person they are."

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