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A surprise in the South

New rival Atlanta goes for a RB, even after getting Dunn.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002


Sometimes a running back simply is too good to pass up. That's what the Falcons were thinking Saturday -- and, no, they weren't thinking about Warrick Dunn.

The Falcons, one of Tampa Bay's neighbors in the new NFC South, spent $28.5-million on a six-year contract five weeks ago to sign Dunn from the Bucs. That wasn't enough feet for them.

Concerned that Jamal Anderson won't return after a second major knee operation and that Maurice Smith, who has not lived up to expectations, also had knee surgery, the Falcons spent their first-round pick on 6-foot, 254-pound T.J. Duckett from Michigan State.

"The Diesel," as he is nicknamed, has been compared with "the Bus," Jerome Bettis of the Steelers. Duckett ran for 3,379 yards and 29 touchdowns in three years with the Spartans, including 263 carries for 1,420 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior last season.

The Falcons were to pick No. 17. Then Oakland came calling and they swapped first-round spots. Atlanta got No. 18 and fifth-round pick from the Raiders.

"It's a complete shock," Duckett said when he was picked. "I had no clue it was going to happen."

Neither did Anderson, who now seems likely to become a victim of his 2002 contract.

It would count $3.5-million against the NFL salary cap. If the Falcons cut him before June 1, he would count $3-million against their cap this season. By waiting until June 1, Anderson would count $1.5-million against the 2002 cap and $1.5-million against the 2003 cap.

"I am not going to sit here and say because we drafted a running back that my time in Atlanta is over," Anderson said. "We signed Warrick Dunn and we draft a guy in the first round -- the second running back overall -- and so I would not say it looks really good for me, either."

Coach Dan Reeves said the Falcons "didn't go into the first round saying we wanted to take a running back, but when he was there we had to take him."

The Panthers, conversely, knew exactly what they wanted -- besides more than one win next season -- and so did everyone else.

With the second pick of the first round they took defensive end Julius Peppers from North Carolina.

"There's definitely going to be extra pressure playing in Carolina, but I think that's what good players become great in -- pressure situations," Peppers said. "And I'm ready for that."

He said he's not concerned about having to help turn around a franchise that had the league's worst record last season. "Sure there's pressure, but it's nothing I'm afraid of," said the Lombardi Award winner as the nation's top lineman and the Chuck Bednarik Award as the best defensive player last season.

The Bucs were the only team among the NFC South teams to finish with a winning record last season, 9-7 to the 1-15 Panthers and the Falcons' and Saints' 7-9. New Orleans had two first-round picks, its No. 13 and the No. 25 it got from Miami in the deal that sent running back Ricky Williams to the Dolphins.

With the higher pick the Saints took Tennessee wide receiver Donte' Stallworth. With the other they chose Georgia defensive end Charles Grant.

"I was hoping a couple of teams would pass me up so I could end up with the Saints," Stallworth said. "They drafted me to come in and play right away, so that's what I'm going to do. That's what I look forward to doing. I'm really looking forward to catching some passes from Aaron Brooks. I'm really excited."

"You just don't see that type of speed he has and the type of size he has very often," Saints coach Jim Haslett said.

The Falcons' Anderson, who signed a $32-million, five-year contract when he was drafted, set an NFL single-season rushing record in 1998 with 410 carries, gaining 1,846 yards, ninth-best in NFL history. But he hasn't been the same player since.

He tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in the second game of 1999. After starting all 16 games in 2000 and rushing for 1,024 yards in 282 carries, he tore his right ACL in the third game last season. Each injury occurred without contact. "That's a concern," Reeves said.

-- Information from the Times wires was used in this report.

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