Backbreaker
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.

Shaun King
Tulane Passer Grows on Scouts

After the draft, vertically challenged Tulane quarterback Shaun
King is going to write a thank-you note to Doug Flutie. "Dear
Doug," King says, as if dictating the letter, "I really
appreciate your proving to people you don't have to be
six-foot-three to play quarterback in the NFL."

In his senior year at Tulane the six-foot King threw for 3,232
yards and 36 touchdowns. He also finished with the highest
quarterback rating in NCAA history (183.3) while guiding the
Green Wave to its first undefeated season since 1929. Yet until
Flutie led the Bills to the playoffs and was voted into the Pro
Bowl in 1998, NFL scouts routinely wrote off quarterbacks as
short as King, who as a teenager in St. Petersburg used to hang
from a chin-up bar for extended periods in hopes of stretching
himself taller.

"Flutie has made a big difference," says King. "Height isn't such
an obstacle now because he forced people to look at smaller
quarterbacks."

That was certainly the case at the combine, where King's stock
continued to rise. Scouts love his field smarts, leadership
skills and toughness. (He played eight games in 1998 with a
broken left wrist.) Even so, he's not likely to be drafted until
the second or third round, perhaps by a team with an established
veteran quarterback. That would give King time to, uh, grow into
a starter's role.

Giant Mistake
Collins Hits It Big, But Why?

There have been some doozies in the flurry of free-agent
signings--cornerback Carlton Gray, cut by two teams last year,
got $3.4 million a year from the Chiefs--but the Giants'
acquisition of quarterback Kerry Collins takes the cake. Bidding
against themselves, the Giants made Collins their highest-paid
player in average salary, doling out a four-year, $16.9 million
contract with a whopping $5 million bonus.

They did that despite the fact that Collins has been in a free
fall since he quarterbacked the Panthers to the 1996 NFC
Championship Game. Of the 29 quarterbacks who have started at
least 15 games over the past two seasons, Collins is last in
quarterback rating (58.7), last in percentage of passes
intercepted (4.9) and 28th in passing accuracy (50.4%). Then
there are the off-field problems: allegations that he directed
racial slurs at two Carolina teammates in '97; allegedly asking
out of the lineup last October, which led to his release; and
his arrest on DWI charges about two weeks after being picked up
by the Saints.

New Orleans officials groused privately about his lackadaisical
work habits, and at the team's postseason personnel meeting, no
coach or front-office executive spoke in favor of re-signing the
quarterback. Collins's agent, Leigh Steinberg, told SI that only
two other teams inquired about his client's services. Both
wanted to discuss a backup role, and neither made a concrete
offer.

So why did New York fork over such a big bonus? Giants general
manager Ernie Accorsi says, "That's the market rate for a
quarterback." No, that's the market rate for a good quarterback.

Collins has tools: size (6'5", 240 pounds) and a strong arm. He
would be worth bringing to camp as a low-salaried backup--the
Giants insist, implausibly, that Kent Graham will be their
starter in 1999--with the hope that he might develop into an
above-average starter. But it's obvious the Giants are banking
on Collins to run their offense. "It's a worthwhile risk," says
coach Jim Fassel. "The odds are very much in our favor."

--Peter King

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JONATHAN DANIEL At the scouting combine, Texas A&M-Kingsville running back John Humphrey tried to leap up the draft board while offensive linemen flipped out during drills.
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