Secondhand Smoke Signals

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April 18, 2006
Secondhand Smoke Signals

by Keith Weiland

The Texans are finally playing the game. After spending the last three months totally giving off every signal possible that they intend to select USC running back Reggie Bush with the first pick in the 2006 draft, the team is now causing some to second guess their well-telegraphed intentions.

Good news.

As owners of the top pick, the Texans can do as they damn well please. They are the power brokers entering the draft. Should someone really want a specific player and feel the need to move up to get him, then talking trade with the Texans is the only way to guarantee the selection.

Up until a week ago though, it appeared the Texans were content to just pick Bush and go home happy. Fine, but wouldn’t someone at Reliant Park always wonder what might have been if they instead had tried to play the draft game with a little more misdirection?

Apparently someone wondered.

A week ago, the Texans invited North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams to Houston for a visit, and the pre-draft buzz noticeably changed. Williams, who has prototype measureables at 6’7” and 290 pounds, is projected by some to be the next generation of Julius Peppers, a fearsome end capable of both stuffing the run and sacking the quarterback.

It is easy to fathom that Williams is the top defensive player on the Texans’ draft board, but even still, prevailing logic remains that the Texans will select Bush come draft day. I mean, wasn’t that what losing down the stretch was all about last winter?

But then the murmurs continue to build after the visit. The Texans reportedly entered preliminary contract discussions with Williams’ agent. Prudent pre-draft behavior, right? Sure. Maybe it’s posturing to keep Bush’s team from asking for too much at the negotiating table. Or maybe it’s just worthwhile to kick the tires. I mean, what the hell, right?

So the smokescreen keeps building. Adam Schefter, the foghorn for the league’s official website and televison network, reported on Monday that he has significant doubt of Bush being a lock for the Texans with the top pick of the draft. Schefter cites a lack of contract negotiations between Bush and the Texans while at the same time noting that the team has initiated talks with Williams. He also notes that the Texans don’t NEED a running back, but they sure seem to need a lot everything else, including a defensive player like Williams.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. The Texans are playing a game. They want Bush. They NEED Bush.

But they also might be working to trade down, too.

The Texans have reportedly contacted the teams immediately below them in the first round to announce their demands for a trade down between now and draft day. There is a certain limit to which they would be willing to move down, although when pressed, general manager Charley Casserly would not reveal how low so as not to tip his hand in any way as to whom the team might be considering.

So here’s a thought: What if all this posturing with Williams is being done by the Texans on behalf of another team?

Makes some sense, right? Only a team picking first overall can legitimately negotiate a contract with a draft prospect. But a team thinking of trading up to the top pick might also want to kick the tires themselves to see how much it might cost to get said player under contract. And the only team capable of doing any pre-draft kicking right now is the Texans, who are indeed still the power brokers of this draft.

Let’s map out this far-fetched conspiracy theory a bit. What team picking near the top of the draft might have enough interest in Williams to trade up with the Texans to select him?

The Saints? After signing quarterback Drew Brees, there is some logic here that they might want Williams on draft day. But why trade up to get him if they think the Texans will just be picking Bush anyway? And how likely is it that the Saints want to pay that much more in bonus money for a defensive player? Not very.

But the Saints’ possible interest in Williams is key here. Without it, there might not be another team thinking they need to jump ahead of the Saints to secure Williams.

The Titans? No chance. They figure to be taking a quarterback with their pick. And there is even less of a chance the Texans and Titans, division rivals, are eager to get in bed with each other on a trade of such magnitude.

The Jets? They were once thought to be the team most likely to move up to the top spot in the draft, but such talk has cooled in recent weeks. Also thought to be looking for a quarterback, the Jets might not feel they need to move anywhere on draft day to get a solid player, whether it’s Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler, or heck, even left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson.

That drops us down to the team sitting at fifth overall in the draft, the Packers, a team thought to be desperate for a defensive player. While they might be satisfied with taking linebacker A.J. Hawk if Williams is gone when their pick hits the clock, they might also be jonesing big time to add Williams to their defensive line.

For the Texans, trading down to the fifth pick still keeps them in the mix for an elite player in the draft at a position of need. From a draft pick value chart approach, the Packers would need to ante up in a big way to consummate a deal, but it’s still feasible.

Using that well-worn value chart, the first pick in the draft is worth 3,000 points while the fifth pick is worth 1,700, a difference of 1,300 points. The Packers’ second round pick at #36, worth 540 points, would have to be included in the deal, narrowing the spread then to 760 points.

This is where it could get tricky, making up the rest of that difference. It could be next year’s first round pick from the Packers. It might also be a combination of additional picks this year and maybe even include an actual player already on the Packers’ roster. Whatever it is, the gap can be bridged.

A trade down from first to fifth overall isn’t unprecedented, either. The Chargers, after failing to reach an agreement with Michael Vick, traded with the Falcons a day before the 2001 draft. In addition to swapping first rounders, the Chargers also acquired a third, a second the following year, and Tim Dwight.

And here’s the beauty of a trade down with the Packers: After the trade, the Texans could easily then call up the Saints, who might be eager to bail on the second overall pick, and trade right back up to still bring Bush to Houston. Such a move might cost the team the newly acquired second round from the Packers plus the Texans’ top pick of the third round, but again, quite feasible.

The trick is what is the net gain between moving down to #5, then back up to #2.The value chart suggests about 400 points, which equates to roughly a second round value as a single pick, but perhaps the Texans can get more than that by playing the game.

Such an up-and-down move isn’t unprecedented for Casserly, either. While in his final year with the Redskins seven years ago, he famously accepted the entire Saints draft to move down from #5 to #12. But he then also moved back up to #7 to ensure he still drafted his targeted player, cornerback Champ Bailey.

Fast forward to 2006, and ironically, Casserly appears to be a lame duck yet again on draft day. His sights are apparently set on assuming a position with the league office later this summer.

So could it all happen again? If it did, maybe the draft plays out like this:

1. Packers – Mario Williams, DE, NC State
2. Texans – Reggie Bush, RB, USC
3. Titans – Vince Young, QB, Texas
4. Jets – Matt Leinart, QB, USC
5. Saints – D’Brickashaw Ferguson, OT, Virginia Tech

Well, who knows, maybe it does seem unlikely, but because the Texans are playing the pre-draft game, the intrigue has finally returned.

Keith Weiland has spent the last three months wishing April 29 were yesterday. Mario Williams Mario Williams Home

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