At the top of a lot of NFL franchises' draft boards in 1998, keeping company with an elite group that also included quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, was Andre Wadsworth, a pure upfield pass-rusher from Florida State and projected by nearly every league scout as a perennial double-digit sack threat.
Chosen third overall that spring, by the Arizona Cardinals, the incredibly athletic Wadsworth missed all of training camp in a contract dispute before finally signing a six-year, $42 million deal on the eve of the regular-season opener. Wadsworth played in all 16 games as a rookie, posted 47 tackles, five sacks and flashed Pro Bowl-caliber potential at times.
And then, in a flurry of knee surgeries and battles with the Arizona front office, his NFL career was over two years later when the Cardinals voided his contract and saved $30 million in total base salaries due Wadsworth between 2001-2003. The paltry dividend for the nearly $12 million (including a $10.49 million signing bonus) the Cardinals invested in him: Just 36 games, 119 tackles, eight sacks and three forced fumbles.
So why rub the scab, Cardinals fans might ask, off such a painful wound? Why revisit the 1998 first-round blunder?
Well, more than six years after Wadsworth played in his last NFL game, midway through the 2000 season, the former can't miss prospect who indeed missed terribly is trying to resurrect his football career. ESPN.com has learned that Wadsworth, now 32, will audition next week for Tampa Bay officials. And the bet here is that once Wadsworth's name appears on the league's internal transactions documents, he'll get a few more calls from curiosity seekers.
Because while a comeback by Wadsworth, realistically, is pie-in-the-sky stuff, every team in the NFL always is looking for edge pass rushers. And because, as long as Wadsworth can get one foot in front of the other during his workout for the Bucs, there will be at least a few more teams willing to part with airfare and a night's lodging to get a look at him for themselves.
Heck, the Bucs registered just 25 sacks in 2006, second fewest in the league. With star defensive end Simeon Rice limited to only eight games before going onto injured reserve with a shoulder problem, no individual defender had more than five sacks last season. So even if the session with Wadsworth is just a crapshoot, it's a gamble worth taking, one with essentially no risk.
Wadsworth underwent four knee surgeries between November 1999-January 2001, including the controversial microfracture procedure. But he has spent the past year getting into shape, has his weight at about 278 pounds (the weight at which he was drafted), and just wants one more chance at a career he feels was snatched from him.
Those who know Wadsworth insist he doesn't need the money. He invested well, owns a car dealership in the Phoenix area and has spent the last six years mostly raising his children. "All he wants," said a friend, "is for someone to let him get on the field and see what he can do."
Hard to believe that, nearly nine years ago, Wadsworth was viewed as the equal to Manning on some draft boards. In a week when Manning will try to win a Super Bowl ring, Wadsworth will attempt, against much longer odds than the Indianapolis star faces, to win back his past.
By Len Pasquarelli