INDIANAPOLIS -- Leaning against a wall in a back corridor of the Indiana Convention Center on Friday morning, Lee Evans paused during an individual interview to follow with his eyes the advance of University of Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, as one of the 2004 draft's premier players navigated his way through a crowd.
"What a great, great player, and a great guy," said Evans, shaking his head as Fitzgerald passed by. "He really deserves everything that is coming to him."
There wasn't so much as a hint of jealousy from the Wisconsin wide receiver as he went on to speak about the burgeoning group of standout pass-catchers here for the combine, with the wide receiver contingent possibly the draft's deepest position. Then again, Evans could have been forgiven a moment of pettiness, given that, just a couple years ago, he was the Larry Fitzgerald of the college game.
Coming off a sterling 2001 campaign for the Badgers, the explosive Evans flirted with the notion of leaving school and petitioning for the 2002 draft as an underclassman. He opted, after months of examining his various alternatives, to remain in college. And five games into Wisconsin's 2002 spring game, to the horror of everyone who witnessed the freak incident, Evans blew out the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee.
Nearly two full years later, following a pair of reconstructive surgical procedures, it's as if Evans is now an afterthought. Not until some teams mention the names of Fitzgerald, Roy Williams of Texas, LSU's Michael Clayton, Washington's Reggie Williams and Rashaun Woods of Oklahoma State, do they bring up Evans as a prospect. There are a group of other teams, however, that feel the Wisconsin star will be a steal.
As for Evans, well, he is taking the same approach he adopted when rehabilitating from his two knee surgeries.
"Work hard, my father always told me, and things will go your way," Evans said. "I've been asked by a lot of people here, scouts and coaches and the media, if I regret now not coming out of school early. Hey, I gave that decision a lot of thought, and weighed all of the variables. And there's never been a day I regretted what I did. I mean, if I look back and regret that, I'd have to rethink every decision I ever made in my life. It wasn't a deal where I rushed into (a decision). It was well thought out, the way I do everything, and the bottom line was that I wasn't ready for the NFL at that point."
There is an inner calm and a peace with himself that Evans exudes when discussing the hand he was subsequently dealt. It would be easy, he grudgingly acknowledged, to just walk around now with a chip on his shoulder. Watching the more highly-touted receivers here for the combine, players who weren't even starting for their respective college teams back when Evans set a then-Big 10 record with 1,545 receiving yards in 2001, he has the right to mentally question why things transpired for him the way they did.
But it seems, instead, that Evans is more about self-worth than self-pity.
To feel sorry for himself, Evans said, would just create a distraction he can't afford. In coming back from the knee surgeries, re-establishing himself as a top-flight playmaker over the second half of last season, Evans drew strength from the work ethic ingrained in him by his father.
Lee Evans Jr., his dad, works in an automobile assembly factory. Said the father: "During the really bad times, the lowest of the low, he was encouraging me not to worry about him. It was like child was father to the man. He kept telling me he'd be back, and be back as good as ever, you know? For him to say he got that from me, well, it makes me proud, but, look, it was all about him and his perseverance."
The consensus here is that, after the pretty well-established top three wideouts, the group will be reshuffled and, as always, teams will take players based on their own subjective ratings on them. There remain a few teams, clubs that have shared their prospect reports with ESPN.com, who feel Evans can reclaim a spot in the first round if he is solid in his workouts over the next month.
Getting back to first-round status, though, doesn't seem to be the priority for Evans. He was quick to remind that last season's rookie of the year, Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin, was a second-round choice. And that recent drafts are littered with wide receivers who were picked in the first round but struggled as rookies.
"It's (cliché), I know, but I just want to be picked and have a chance to play in the NFL," said Evans, who recently received his degree in financial management. "I mean, I was at the top of the mountain, got knocked down, and know what it's like to start the climb all over again. For those two more years I stayed in school, I learned a lot of lessons, on and off the field. I got a great education. Back in 2002, was I ready for the league, really? No. My maturity level wasn't there yet. But it's there now so, honestly, I can't say I look back and regret the things that happened to me."
Around the combine
Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald a tremendously grounded young man, has been very impressive in interviews with teams, and had a terrific Friday session with the media as well. There continue to be rumors that the Arizona Cardinals will eschew a quarterback, and select Fitzgerald with the third overall pick in the draft, and that would be fine with the Pitt wideout. Fitzgerald is very familiar with new Cardinals coach Dennis Green, having been around the Vikings organization since he was a teenager, and working out with players like Cris Carter and Randy Moss. "Coach Green opened the door for me," Fitzgerald said. "He let me see from up-close the atmosphere of the pro game, how the players work, the professionalism of things. How many 13-year-old kids can say that?" Fitzgerald, who set an NCAA record with scoring receptions in 19 consecutive games, will not work out here, but said he believes he will run in the 4.4s when he has his individual audition for scouts. He also noted, interestingly, that he would not have challenged the NFL draft rules in court, as did Maurice Clarett. The well-spoken Fitzgerald was granted entry to the draft because he actually qualified under the rule that stipulates a player can apply if he is three years removed from high school graduation. Essentially, the Clarett case had nothing to do with Fitzgerald being declared eligible for the '04 draft by NFL officials. "Me, I would have gone back to school for another year (had the league rejected his application)," Fitzgerald said. "You don't want to be fighting the NFL, believe me. It would not have been in my best interest."
As was the case with Fitzgerald, one of the more compelling interviews on Friday was that given by Miami tailback Jarett Payton, the son of the late Walter Payton. Although not a starter until the 2003 season, Payton is drawing some interest from scouts, likely as a choice in the latter middle rounds or the late rounds. Payton isn't blessed with the kind of skills his father possessed, but certainly shares his work ethic, and consistently used the term "privilege" to express his feelings about playing in the league. "I know that if a team gives me the opportunity, they won't be sorry, because I work hard to do everything they ask," Payton said. "I want to make my family proud but I'd like to think I've sort of done that already. But to have the Payton name in the NFL again, to hopefully carry the name the way my father did, yeah, it would be a privilege, for sure."
There is no denying the "pocket presence" of the three highest-rated quarterbacks here at the combine. Eli Manning of Mississippi checked in at 6-feet-4 1/2 and 221 pounds. Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio) was 6-feet-4 7/8, 241 pounds. And North Carolina State's Phillip Rivers was 6-feet-5, 229 pounds.
ESPN.com has learned that the Chicago Bears have granted defensive end Phillip Daniels permission to open discussions with other teams. Daniels is due a roster bonus of $1 million next month. He has faded from the Bears' plans for 2004 and will be released just before the team has to pay the bonus. Don't be surprised if the Washington Redskins, who need help on the defensive front, are the most ardent suitors for Daniels' services. The Redskins' new defensive line coach, Greg Blache, was defensive coordinator for the Bears the past six years and is known to be a Daniels admirer.
Scouts continue to be impressed by the size and obvious athleticism of the wide receiver class this year. It seems that, in the past two or three years, the wideouts show up here and look more like tight ends. "You love to have those guys," said Miami wide receiver coach Jerry Sullivan. "I mean, you know that there aren't that many cornerbacks in this league who can measure up size-wise to these guys. They make your eyes bug out." Of the first seven wide receiver prospects who came into the media room for interviews, four of them checked in at 220 pounds or more. Reggie Williams, the University of Washington star, was 6-feet-3 and 229 pounds. "And none of it," Williams said, "slows me down, man. I can carry this weight and either overpower people or still just run by them."
While tailback Maurice Clarett reiterated he has still not officially retained an agent, Jimmy Sexton, who had been counseling the former Ohio State star the past week, said he is confident he will be the representative of choice. Sexton huddled Thursday night with Clarett and said pertinent paperwork, essentially the NFLPA's "standard representation agreement," will be filed soon. As for the barrage of negative press directed at Clarett after his Thursday interview, Sexton noted: "People can say what they want, but the truth is that the kid didn't even decide to come here until Monday or Tuesday, and he probably wasn't as prepared as he should have been for some of the questions. He was nervous about how the whole thing would go. And, yeah, people saw those nerves on display." To his credit, some teams told ESPN.com that Clarett was far more poised and candid with them in individual settings than he was at the Thursday media circus.
One offensive lineman who seems to be growing on teams is Ohio State center Alex Stepanovich. A little undersized, Stepanovich possesses excellent functional strength and very good movement skills. Some teams feel he can play guard if he adds some weight. Stepanovich figures to be a middle-round choice.
Colorado wide receiver D.J. Hackett on the current scandals rocking the Buffs' program: "It's unfortunate, because (coach Gary) Barnett is really strict. He's a stand-up guy. It's hard to believe that any of this stuff they're saying is true. I don't know if anything is true, but to blame it on the coach just seems ... how can a coach keep tabs on all his players? You can tell your players, 'Don't do this,' which he has several times. But what they do at night, you can't control. If he tells us what not to do and what to do, and we don't do it, unless he finds out about it, what can he do?"
This is not, scouts have pointed out, a big year for the big back. Then again, that has become the trend of late in the league. There are a few backs -- Steve Jackson of Oregon State, Florida State's Greg Jones and Chris Perry of Michigan -- who checked in at over 6-feet tall. But this is increasingly becoming an era of the tailback who is in the 5-feet-10 range, and that is reflected in the players invited to the combine. Two backs who, even without getting into the RCA Dome for workouts, have made good impressions: Tatum Bell of Oklahoma State and fullback Troy Fleming of Tennessee.
The agent for Washington Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey departed here late Friday noting that he has 4-6 teams very interested in acquiring his client via trade. "And of that group, I would say there are four teams that probably would write the check right now," said agent Jack Reale. "Washington might have to decide soon, if, indeed Dan Snyder is going to trade him, just what it wants in return."
Phillip Rivers, QB, N.C. State: Because the on-field workouts begin later in the week this year, it is a bit unfair to judge players, but there seems to be no stopping the momentum of quarterback Phillip Rivers of North Carolina State. He began to surge up draft boards after his work at the Senior Bowl all-star game, both in the practices and the contest, where he was named the most valuable player. Rivers has terrific size and, despite an unusual release point, a strong arm. He won't work out here, in terms of throwing the ball, but likely will run the 40 and do some of the other drills. Most teams now view him as a certain first-round prospect and one team currently has him rated ahead of Roethlisberger.
Jared Lorenzen, QB, Kentucky: Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen weighed in at a whopping 288 pounds and that isn't good for a guy most scouts felt was only a borderline prospect to begin with. There is no denying Lorenzen's ability to zip the ball in the 18- to 20-yard range but much of his productivity came earlier in his career, when the Wildcats were basically running a run-and-shoot type offense under then-head coach Hal Mumme. The mammoth Lorenzen is a classic streak-shooter, has suspect arm strength on some of the deeper throws, and is given to bouts of petulance. Does he possess some talent? Yeah. Should he have even been invited here? Some scouts think not.
The last word
"I've had all the 10,000-mile checkups I'm ever going to need. I told them to put a lifetime supply of oil in there, because I never want to be cut again, ever. The good thing is that I'm over all that stuff now and ready to rumble." -- Florida State tailback Greg Jones on his past knee problems
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.