NFL teams will rue the day they snubbed Polk

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comApril 30, 2012 

Chris Polk was not selected in the NFL draft.

The most productive Washington Huskies running back since Napoleon Kaufman was darting between tacklers almost 20 years ago did not draw a ceremonial commissioner’s hug from Roger Goodell on Thursday night, did not celebrate with his family and friends Friday night, and did not receive a phone call Saturday until the Philadelphia Eagles signed him from the scrap heap labeled “UFA.”

It stands for Undrafted Free Agent. In Polk’s case, it could also stand for Underrated Forgotten Athlete.

While Polk waited, and waited, and waited some more – if you think the draft is laborious to follow on TV, try following it as an Underrated Forgotten Athlete – 253 college players were chosen.

A guy from Baylor, Robert Griffin, was chosen by the New York Jets in the sixth round. (No, not that Robert Griffin. This Robert Griffin is an offensive guard unassociated with Roman numerals.)

A guy named Molk was chosen by the San Diego Chargers. David Molk, an offensive lineman from Michigan, went in the seventh round. I’m sure there is a lot to like about Molk – he was a first-team All-American and winner of the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s premier center – but I know about Chris Polk, and David Molk is no Chris Polk.

While Polk waited, the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Bryan Anger in the third round. Anger is a classic name for a blocking back, or a safety with a penchant for creating collisions. Except the officials will throw a flag if anybody collides with Anger.

He’s a punter.

That’s right. A punter was taken in the third round, but Chris Polk wasn’t taken at all.

While Polk waited, 22 other running backs were selected, some whose names I recognized (Alabama’s Trent Richardson) and some whose names I didn’t (Alabama’s Brad Smelley). It wasn’t surprising that a pair of Alabama running backs were taken in the same draft: Alabama is a football factory and a longtime member of a college conference famous for its football factories.

But Utah State isn’t a football factory, and to whichever conference the Aggies are pledging allegiance – Big West today, Mountain West tomorrow? – it isn’t famous for its football factories.

Yet two Utah State running backs were drafted Saturday: Robert Turbin, to the Seahawks in the fourth round, and Michael Smith, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the seventh round.

I wish no ill will toward Michael Smith, a change-of-pace speedster who backed up Turbin at Utah State. But I don’t believe Smith will achieve anything close to the success Polk figures to enjoy in the NFL, simply because Smith didn’t achieve anything close to the success Polk enjoyed in college.

Why wasn’t Polk drafted?

“I really don’t know,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian told reporters after the Huskies spring game Saturday, adding: “We will try to dig and find out.”

Nobody at Arizona State will try to dig and find out why linebacker Vontaze Burfict went undrafted. Burfict has athletic ability, but the self-discipline of a sloth. Scouts were more concerned about the red flags surrounding Burfict off the field than the yellow flags that always seem to surround him on the field.

Polk deserves no such suspicion. He earned his degree by going to class, and on fall Saturdays he taught one: How to Play Football.

When there was a hole to run through, he found it. When there was no room, he’d manage to salvage the play anyway, often with a minimal gain but sometimes with a “how-did-he-do-that?” burst into daylight.

His uncanny peripheral vision enabled him to return kicks. His soft hands made him an ideal target as a safety-valve receiver. He wasn’t the fastest player, but like Walter Payton, he was fast enough – faster, at least, than the linebackers in pursuit, and tougher than the corners and safeties who caught up.

A split second before contact, Polk’s body language seemed to say: “Hello there! This is gonna be more fun for me than it’ll be for you. Now, excuse me, I must show you my straight arm.”

Polk’s signature show came in the 2010 Apple Cup, when he rushed for 284 yards – second-most in school history, behind Hugh McElhenny’s 296-yard afternoon against the 1950 Cougars – but just as impressive was his MVP effort in the Holiday Bowl that followed the Apple Cup.

Nebraska’s “Blackshirt” defense was loaded with NFL-bound talent, and Polk blistered the Cornhuskers for 177 yards.

A surgically repaired knee didn’t hamper Polk in 2011. He ran with abandon, and caught passes, and didn’t miss a beat. He looked like a first- or second-round pick against Eastern Washington in the season opener, and he looked like a first- or second-round pick against Baylor in the Alamo Bowl.

And then, somewhere between the bowl game and the draft, word obviously spread that he was damaged goods, victim of a bum left shoulder destined to degenerate. Well, he did have shoulder surgery as a freshman, and additional shoulder surgery after the 2009 season.

But this wasn’t confidential information. The surgery was performed more than a year ago. If Polk was thought to be a first- or second-round draft candidate after the Alamo Bowl, how did he fall into UFA status over the weekend?

He’s 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, the ideal size for a running back. He brings it on every play, full-tilt, regardless of whether his number has been called in the huddle. He’s admired by teammates and respected by opponents. He’s a college graduate.

Yet 22 running backs were selected over the three-day NFL draft, and Polk wasn’t among them. A punter was chosen in the third round; Polk wasn’t chosen at all.

Chris Polk will prove the scouts wrong. He will survive the last roster cut. He will earn carries in the Eagles’ running-back rotation.

The MVP who was reduced to a UFA will make Huskies fans proud.


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