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NFL DRAFT Today, Rounds 1-3 9 a.m., ESPN

Texans' Surprise Pick Is a Rush Job

April 29, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams was plenty disruptive when it came to hounding college quarterbacks, but that's nothing compared with how he shook up the NFL draft.

In a stunning move Friday, less than 24 hours before they were officially on the draft clock, the Houston Texans signed Williams as their No. 1 pick. That meant they passed on USC's Reggie Bush, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back long expected to be the first player chosen.

The Texans said the controversy surrounding Bush -- who is under scrutiny, along with his family, for an allegedly improper relationship with a fledgling sports-marketing company -- had nothing to do with their decision to pick Williams.

"Absolutely not," said Charley Casserly, Texan general manager. "We believe in Reggie Bush as a person. We asked him and his attorney [about] the different allegations and both of them denied [the allegations]. Both of them said that Reggie didn't do anything wrong, so we obviously took him at his word, which is what we should do. But none of that had anything to do with that. We told them this was strictly a football decision. We wanted to get a defensive end."

Suddenly, the New Orleans Saints, owners of the second pick, could have more enticing options -- such as staying in that spot and drafting an electrifying playmaker to complement running back Deuce McAllister, or possibly trading down with a team that had previously written off a chance to select Bush.

That also could affect former Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart, because the New York Jets, who might have selected him with the fourth pick, now are likely to weigh the merits of trading up with the Saints to take Bush. The Jets are also eyeing Virginia's D'Brickashaw Ferguson, an offensive tackle some draft experts once projected to go second to New Orleans.

Then there's the possibility of Leinart going third to Tennessee, where he would play under his onetime offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, and Jeff Fisher, the Titan head coach who played at USC. Tennessee has looked closely at the top three passers in recent months -- Leinart, Texas' Vince Young and Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler -- and at various times indicated it was leaning toward each of the three.

It all adds to the intrigue of what promises to be one of the most interesting first rounds in years.

The event was moved this year from the Jacob Javits Center to Radio City Music Hall, which somehow fits the stage-worthy developments of the last few days.

For one player, at least, the drama is over. Williams, who signed a six-year, $54-million deal with almost $26.5 million in guaranteed money, can now ease back and watch the theatrics unfold.

Asked about the relief and importance of getting a deal done early, Casserly said: "It's huge because what it does is it gets it behind you and it's not a distraction when it comes July for the player or the team. The player now is totally focused on him becoming the best player he can be."

Here's one observer's mock-draft first round:

1. Houston -- Mario Williams, DE, North Carolina State: At 6 feet 7, 295 pounds, the sun-blotting Williams collected 55 1/2 tackles for losses for the Wolfpack.

2. New Orleans -- Reggie Bush, RB, USC: Did the Texans nix Bush, or did Williams simply jump quicker at the money they were offering? Either way, the Saints are doing back flips. It will take a lot to persuade them to trade down now.

3. Tennessee -- Vince Young, QB, Texas: Matt Leinart seems a more logical fit, especially with the USC ties of Jeff Fisher and Norm Chow. But every indication is the Titans are leaning toward Young.

4. New York Jets -- D'Brickashaw Ferguson, OT, Virginia: Again, Leinart could be Manhattan Matt, yet a dominating tackle could be a safer pick for a nuts-and-bolts Bill Belichick protege.

5. Green Bay -- A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State: A lot of scouts look at Hawk and Bush as the two closest things to sure-fire picks in this draft.

6. San Francisco -- Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland: The Niners can't draft Alex Smith No. 1 then deny him any top-notch targets.

7. Oakland -- Matt Leinart, QB, USC: The Raiders love Young and might even trade up to get him, but Leinart would be a steal this late if the Titans and Jets pass on him.

8. Buffalo -- Winston Justice, OT, USC: Like a lot of teams, the Bills need a good tackle, and Justice's outstanding pro day shot him up the charts.

9. Detroit -- Michael Huff, S, Texas: Not another first-round receiver this year. The Lions finally think defense and pick a thinking man's safety.

10. Arizona -- Ernie Sims, LB, Florida State: Cardinals don't have the luxury to draft Cutler. They need instant production if Dennis Green is to save his job.

11. St. Louis -- Brodrick Bunkley, DT, Florida State: This guy lived in the offensive backfield last season with a school-record 25 tackles for losses.

12. Cleveland -- Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon: Gigantic Ngata could be a very nice fit in the Browns' 3-4 defensive scheme.

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