Chances are there are no Adrian Petersons waiting to be discovered in this year's NFL draft class. For the first time in league history, there might not even be a running back taken in the first round.
But that doesn't mean there aren't draft prospects who hope to conjure up a comparison to the NFL's reigning Most Valuable Player, whose epic comeback from major knee reconstruction was one of the stories of the year in 2012. Peterson didn't just come back last season, he came back better than ever, coming within nine yards of breaking the league's single-season rushing record just 53 weeks after blowing out his knee.
That astounding turn of events has no doubt proved to be motivational fodder for those facing knee rehabilitations of all types. But perhaps few have more reason to follow Peterson's example than Florida State defensive end Tank Carradine, one of this year's most intriguing draft prospects, even though he's just less than four months into his recovery from the ACL surgery that ended his stellar senior season last fall. For Carradine, the path to the draft includes traveling a very similar path to the one Peterson hewed to last year, right down to working this spring with the same Houston-based physical therapist that helped Peterson shock the NFL world a season ago.
Carradine's plan is simple: To be like Peterson, among the few who are not just back, but better. Projected to come off the board somewhere in the range of No. 25 to 45, Carradine is in the process of making a flurry of team visits while still preparing for an April 20 private workout that he hopes puts the label of "damaged goods'' to rest. All indications are that his knee rehab is almost a month ahead of schedule, and his stock as a pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker prospect is on the rise. His goal is to ensure both those trend lines continue, and that teams that pass on him wind up paying for it.
"They're definitely going to regret it,'' said Carradine by phone Monday night from Atlanta, where he was scheduled to meet with the Falcons on Tuesday, the fourth club he has visited among the eight or nine he is scheduled to meet with before April 17. "Hopefully I can get on the field for someone and I can dominate. When I get drafted, I have to prove to that team that I'm going to be the guy who can be all he can be, and not one of those guys who's never the same again after the injury.
"I feel like I have a lot to prove. But everybody's different in a rehab. In my case, I feel like I'm genetically blessed. Some guys are just ready to come back faster than others. I'm definitely going to be ready for the season. Adrian Peterson set a new standard. It's a serious injury, an ACL, but with the things they've got set up to help you come back now, it's got to do with how much you're willing to work and who you're rehabbing with.''
Carradine this spring relocated to Houston to rehab with the aptly named Russ Paine, the veteran physical therapist at IronMan Sports Medical Institute who supervised Peterson's recovery last offseason. Peterson now represents the gold standard in performance coming off knee surgery, but Paine has nothing but optimism in regards to Carradine's progress and his timetable for NFL rookie participation.
"I think he's going to look better than ever by August,'' Paine said. "He's looking really good. He's not had any setbacks or problems, and he's following on the same path as Adrian in moving down here to actually work with me. As far as his progress, he's ahead of schedule. He's been really dedicated and hard-working, and all the guys on the medical side of NFL teams, they look at him and they're pretty impressed with where he's at. He's done great.''
NFL personnel evaluators seem to like what they see, too. The 6-foot-4, 276-pound Carradine is on the radar screen for teams in need of a speed rusher, with some liking his track record of creating pass pressure as a 4-3 end with his hand on the ground, and others projecting his best role as an edge rusher at outside linebacker in the 3-4. Some 3-4 teams like Philadelphia (which is converting to that formation this year under new head coach Chip Kelly) and Baltimore had Carradine in for a visit last week. Carradine met with an undisclosed NFC South team on Monday, then traveled to Atlanta, where the Falcons ran a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in 2012.
At least four or five other teams are rumored to be interested in having Carradine in for a visit in the coming two weeks, a list that may include New England, Arizona, the Giants and Miami. In my latest mock draft, I had Carradine going 28th overall to Denver, where the 4-3 Broncos presumably will be using the draft to at least partially fill the vacancy created by Elvis Dumervil's departure. But some league personnel executives I've talked to say Carradine, while intriguing, may last into the top 10 or so of the second round, unless his April 20 workout allays all concerns about his chances of making any early impact as a rookie. If he can give clubs a comfort zone with where he projects to be in his rehab by the start of training camp, he might wind up being a late first-round or early second-round steal.
Why? Because teams never have enough pass rushers in the pass-happy NFL. Carradine had 11 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and 80 tackles as a senior at Florida State, his first season as a starter in a Division I program. The former Butler County Community College (Kansas) product wracked up 16 sacks there as a sophomore (and 26 in two seasons), then accounted for 5½ sacks as a junior transfer to FSU in 2011 without starting a game. His knee injury occurred Thanksgiving weekend, against Florida, and he underwent surgery on Dec. 6, not quite four months ago.
"In my workout on April 20, I'm going to show teams that I can move, and move well already,'' said Carradine, who has already had tape of him running a 40-yard dash and going through lateral movement drills sent to NFL general managers. "They're going to be able to see, 'OK, wherever we draft Carradine at, he's going to be 100 percent by August. He's going to be ready, ready to play.' I'm ahead of schedule. I'll be running two 40s at my workout, and doing linebacker drills, too.
"I'll be ready to participate in mini-camp. I just won't be ready for contact before camp starts. But I'll be like eight months out from surgery by the time camp opens. With the knee issue, you'd think a lot of teams are not going to be interested. But I've got teams interested, and some of those teams don't want other teams to know they're interested.''
Still, Carradine's injury in combination with only two years of playing major college football might give some teams pause. Then again, it's not all that dissimilar to the example of New York Giants' 2010 first-round pick, Jason Pierre-Paul, who played just one season at South Florida in 2009 after transferring from a Kansas community college. If you can rush the passer, the NFL will make exceptions. And room for you.
"I know I came from a junior college, but it wasn't because I wasn't good enough to play at a D-1 school,'' said Carradine, 23. "I didn't have the grades. But the fact that I didn't qualify doesn't mean I couldn't play at that level. I was able to come into D-1 and play, and contribute, and then the next year earn a starting spot. My first year at Florida State was my senior season and I had a great season. That should let NFL teams know I'll come in and quickly adjust to their system. It could be the same circumstances in the NFL; I come in, play a year and contribute, and then the following year I start and do really good.
"I'm big, I'm fast, and I'm strong, and yes, I got hurt. But rushing the passer isn't really rocket science. Either you've got it or you don't. Either you can get the job done or you can't. And I'm going to get the job done. I'm going to find a way. I can rush the passer, either hand down or standing up and playing in space.''
Carradine's comfort level, he said, is to play in a 4-3, with his hand in the dirt. But he also confesses interest in playing outside linebacker, or as a stand-up defensive end, to best use his speed and mobility in the pursuit of the ballcarrier.
"I like playing in space, because you get to see everything as it unfolds,'' he said. "When your hand is down, coming off the ball, you're not seeing stuff. When you stand up, you can see it's a reverse or play action. You can react faster than when your hand is down. I think I can be successful in both of them, because you're still going to be rushing the passer. That's what I do best. So whatever team picks me, it'll be something good.''
Just how good could be one of the league's rookie story lines to watch in 2013. It's only early April, but Carradine's comeback is well underway, even before his NFL career has arrived.