There's always the "if" hanging over Antonio Cromartie.
If he had gone back to Florida State, he would probably be the No. 1 cornerback in the 2007 draft class. If he had held on another 12 months, he probably would have been a top-10 pick. And of course – the one that stabs at him the most – if he hadn't injured his knee in the first place, he might be fighting with North Carolina State's Mario Williams and Ohio State's A.J. Hawk to be the first defensive player selected in this month's NFL draft.
"I don't look back on it," said Cromartie at the annual scouting combine while expounding on the knee injury that robbed him of his junior season with the Seminoles. "You can go crazy. It's time for me to move on."
Move on and move up.
After raising eyebrows by declaring for the draft despite missing his entire junior season with a left knee injury, the FSU cornerback has rallied in recent months, wowing teams at the combine and the Seminoles' pro day. Now it looks like Cromartie could end up being this year's Willis McGahee – a super-talented player who overcomes an injury nightmare to become this year's surprising first-round pick.
Not that Cromartie landing in the first round would be a total shock. Even with his injury, word around the league is that he's carrying a grade of late first round to second round on NFL draft boards. The real surprise might be how high Cromartie actually goes. Considered by most to be a risky pick who likely will land with a team that has the luxury of easing him in for a year, it now appears that Cromartie could vault as high as the middle of the first round.
According to John Murphy of Next Level Scouting, Cromartie has drawn strong interest from seven teams: the Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots. Two of them – the Patriots and Chargers – have had personal visits scheduled. Nearly every team in the league also was on hand for Cromartie's pro-day performance when he posted a 42-inch vertical, clocked 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had an impressive showing in defensive and special teams drills.
"You put your hands over your ears with the knee and just go on what you see and you say, '[He's] at the top of anyone out there in the secondary' – without a question," said a defensive assistant in the NFC North. "But you factor in that knee, which I don't think he's totally back from, and you move him down the board because that's a huge deal.… He looks good running around, and he looks good on all of his tape before the injury. So you say, 'This kid is the real deal.' But when it comes time to make the pick, someone has to take the risk."
The last few weeks would have been impressive for any corner, but for one the size of Cromartie – 6-foot-2¼ and 203 pounds – they were downright unique. With the NFL's elite cornerbacks standing between 5-10 and 5-11 and weighing 190 pounds (like all of the starters in this year's Pro Bowl), the big corner has been largely absent – or playing safety. But few corners have displayed the athleticism and coverage ability in college that Cromartie did during his first two seasons at Florida State.
"He's a great big, physical guy," said Florida wideout Chad Jackson, who also is expected to be a first-round pick. "He's got great size and great speed. He's a tall guy, and he should be able to play the safety spot or the cornerback spot. Honestly, I was surprised to see him at the cornerback spot when I played against them."
In his first two years, Cromartie lived up to the hype as one of the nation's most coveted cornerback recruits. Despite playing in a deep and talented secondary, Cromartie played in every game as a true freshman, then earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team honors despite starting only one game as a sophomore.
Heading into his junior season, Cromartie was expected to vault to All-America status. That expectation was scuttled when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and hamstring in a voluntary offseason workout. The injuries cost Cromartie five months to surgery and rehabilitation and made his medical charts just as popular as his workout numbers at the combine.
"To me, I have to prove something to myself," Cromartie said. "I feel like I don't have any pressure on me right now – just go out and do what I've always done and that's play football."
MORE IMPACT DEFENSIVE BACKS
Here are five more difference-makers in the secondary:
Michael Huff, S, Texas – It's looking more and more like Huff is going to have to stay at safety rather than corner, but some think he's an Ed Reed type of player at safety. He struggled to catch the ball at Texas' pro day. Scouts say: He's got the explosion and range to be special.
Jimmy Williams, CB/S, Virginia Tech – Some personnel people have been turned off by his cockiness. And it's clear that some are projecting him at safety, even though he's been adamant that he wants to play cornerback. Scouts say: He's great in press and man-to-man, but he's slow to react in zone coverage and tends to guess.
Jason Allen, S/CB, Tennessee – He's fluid and fast, but his future still seems to be at safety. His ballistic numbers at the combine put to rest the short-term fears about his surgically repaired hip. Scouts say: His injured hip has tested out with about 85 percent of the strength of his healthy one, and it could be an issue as his career progresses.
Jonathan Joseph, CB, South Carolina – Joseph has drawn the "upside" label after injuries and junior college limited him to only one full season at South Carolina. Had he played two years, he might have developed into a "total package" cornerback. Scouts say: He's fast and has all the physical tools and instincts, but he still is polishing his raw coverage technique as a cornerback.
Tye Hill, CB, Clemson – If you're looking for the super-fast track athlete at corner, with amazing agility and leaping ability, Hill is at the top of the list. He has shown a good ability to find and go after the ball when it's in the air. Scouts say: His size (5-9) is going to scare off some teams because it's a liability against the run and the league's bigger wideouts.