- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS — In a division that features three dependable running back combinations — Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts in Washington, Julius Jones and Marion Barber in Dallas and Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter in Philadelphia — the New York Giants are swinging for the fences in their search to replace Tiki Barber.

New Giants general manager Jerry Reese has verified rumors that the team might pursue Buffalo Bills running back Willis McGahee, who has averaged 1,121 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons.

“There is some talk about Willis out there,” Reese said yesterday morning at the NFL Scouting Combine. “We’ll investigate Willis. We’ll investigate everybody out there with the trade talk. We’ll leave no stone unturned as far as that goes.”

The Giants’ in-house option at running back is Brandon Jacobs, who has only 134 carries in two seasons and is looked upon more as a short-yardage bulldozer (16 career touchdowns) than as an every-down presence.

If Jacobs had more experience, the Giants could go in a less expensive direction and add a running back in the later rounds of the draft. But Barber’s early retirement as forced their hand to bring in an established runner.

The free agent running back class, led by Green Bay’s Ahman Green, is thin. The Eagles’ Buckhalter is a free agent, but he isn’t a No. 1 back.

McGahee, 26, sat out his rookie season with an ACL injury sustained in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, but has missed only two games in three seasons as a starter.

“In this day and age, you always want to have two running backs,” Reese said. “We feel that Brandon is going to carry the majority of the load for us. But we will definitely look for a teammate to share the backfield with him.”

49ers look to upgrade

San Francisco mismanaged the salary cap in the 1990s. But every team is envious of the 49ers this year because they will start free agency more than $40 million under the $109 million salary cap and have 10 draft picks.

San Francisco is expected to make a push for Buffalo cornerback Nate Clements and Baltimore linebacker Adalius Thomas.

“We’ll add good players during the middle, beginning and end of free agency,” coach Mike Nolan said. “There are certainly players you would like to get done early but others choose to wait.”

The 49ers could potentially have eight picks in the opening four rounds. They own the Washington Redskins’ fourth-round pick as part of the Brandon Lloyd trade.

“We’ll continue to build through the draft,” Nolan said. “I’m confident in the way we’ve done things for the last two years.”

Bush waits his turn

Louisville running back Michael Bush isn’t working out at the combine because he’s still recovering from a broken leg sustained in the Cardinals’ season opener in September.

Bush, who was projected as a first- or second-round pick before the injury, will probably slip into the third, fourth or fifth round.

“I think I kind of got lost when I had the injury,” said Bush, who rushed for 1,143 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2005. “But that’s what I expected. But good players bounce back.”

Bush, who was told he would need six to eight months of recovery time, is doing light conditioning work and hopes to run the 40-yard dash March 26.

If healthy, Bush could be a steal for a team in the middle rounds. He’s 6-foot-2 and 243 pounds and scored 39 touchdowns in 36 college games.

Hampton shines

Hampton University has five players at the combine, a record for a non Division I-A school. It’s more than several major conference schools, including Southern Cal and Virginia.

National champion Florida has a combine-high 13 players attending, and 105 colleges are represented.

Hampton’s best player is inside linebacker Justin Durant, who is projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick. Durant had at least 98 tackles in each of his final three seasons with the Pirates.

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