In the wake of a freak knee injury, the Pats suddenly need a new runner
On the evening of Feb. 5, Patriots vice president of player personnel Bobby Grier was alone in the team's Foxboro Stadium offices when the silence was broken by a ringing phone. Before picking up the receiver, Grier thought for a moment: It's late, it's the off-season. Who could be calling? Has to be bad news.
Was he ever right On the other end of the line was New England owner Bob Kraft, who was calling to inform Grier that running back Robert Edwards, who rushed for 1,115 yards as a rookie in 1998, had dislocated his left knee in a rookie flag football game on Waikiki Beach, part of the Pro Bowl festivities in Honolulu.
Edwards injured four ligaments in the knee, and the nerve and arterial damage was so severe that he had to receive immediate medical attention to forestall the risk of amputation. Back in Boston 11 days later, after a four-hour operation to further repair the knee, team doctor Bertram Zarins said he doubted that Edwards would play football again.
Mature beyond his 24 years, Edwards is in good spirits and guardedly optimistic about his rehabilitation, according to Grier. "No one is counting Robert out," he says.
Of course, the Patriots aren't counting on Edwards either. At last week's scouting combine in Indianapolis, one of the team's priorities was to identify players in the April 17-18 draft who can beef up a running game that was further weakened by the loss of free-agent center Dave Wohlabaugh. On Feb. 14 Wohlabaugh signed a seven-year, $26.25 million contract with the Browns. "We've got lots of needs now," Grier says. "We'll do anything that's reasonable to help our running game, probably through the draft, but we won't mortgage the future of the team for a runner."
New England's first option is Sedrick Shaw, a third-round draft pick in '97 who was one of the five players the Patriots made available for the Feb. 9 expansion draft. When Cleveland took tackle Scott Rehberg, New England pulled Shaw back. But the Patriots had never shown much confidence in Shaw; after restricted free agent Curtin Martin signed with the Jets last March, for instance, the Patriots used the 18th pick in last year's draft on Edwards.
This year New England has a pair of first-round picks—No. 20 and No. 28, the latter as compensation for the Jets' signing of coach Bill Parcells in 1997—but Grier sounds reluctant to package those choices for the opportunity to move up and take a marquee back One option might be to use both of the first-round selections on offensive linemen, then get a running back in the second or third round. As Grier points out, Martin was a third-round draft choice in '95. Amos Zereoue of West Virginia, Sedrick Irvin of Michigan State and Devin West of Missouri might be candidates.
Then there's the intrigue surrounding Cecil Collins, who has the talent to be a first-round selection but comes with a checkered past. Collins was kicked off teams at LSU and McNeese State. He is awaiting trial on two felony counts of unauthorized entry and two misdemeanor counts of simple battery, charges that led to his dismissal from LSU. He left the McNeese State squad after failing a drug test. "I want to stay positive and get everything right in my life before the draft," says the 209-pound Collins, who ran a 4.52 40 in Indianapolis. "I don't care if I get picked in the sixth round. Whoever takes me will be lucky."
Luck is something the Patriots could use a little of these days.