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Monday, April 24, 2006
Updated: April 26, 1:27 PM ET
Good DEs have more long-term impact than RBs

By Michael Smith
ESPN.com

Let me begin by assuring you that, to my knowledge, I never have suffered a head injury, not even a minor one. I've never used/abused recreational or prescription drugs. And it has been well over a week since I last consumed any alcohol. Also rest assured that when I wrote the following, I did so with a straight face.

With the first pick of the 2006 NFL draft, the Houston Texans should not select running back Reggie Bush of Southern California. And my reason has nothing to do with the recent report that his family allegedly accepted extra benefits during Bush's junior season.

And sorry, Houstonians, this isn't another plea for the Texans to pass over Bush in favor of University of Texas quarterback (and hometown hero) Vince Young.

They shouldn't trade down, either, or they might miss out on the player they should take. Mario Williams, the North Carolina State defensive end, should be the Texans' pick.
Super Bowl winners since 1986
Of the past 20 Super Bowl winners, only four had a leading rusher that was drafted in the first round:
Year Team Top RB How acquired
2005 Steelers W. Parker Undrafted FA
2004 Patriots C. Dillon Trade
2003 Patriots A. Smith Veteran FA
2002 Bucs M. Pittman Veteran FA
2001 Patriots A. Smith Veteran FA
2000 Ravens J. Lewis 1st round (No. 5)
1999 Rams M. Faulk Trade
1998 Broncos T. Davis 6th round (No. 196)
1997 Broncos Davis 6th round (No. 196)
1996 Packers D. Levens 5th round (No. 149)
1995 Cowboys E. Smith 1st round (No. 17)
1994 49ers R. Watters 2nd round (No. 45)
1993 Cowboys Smith 1st round (No. 17)
1992 Cowboys Smith 1st round (No. 17)
1991 Redskins E. Byner Trade
1990 Giants O. Anderson Trade
1989 49ers R. Craig 2nd round (No. 49)
1988 49ers Craig 2nd round (No. 49)
1987 Redskins G. Rogers Trade
1986 Giants J. Morris 2nd round (No. 45)

Choosing Williams over Bush is the smart choice if not the most popular. It isn't that Williams is the better player; a college scouting director whom I swear by told me that Bush is the best player he's ever evaluated, that Bush received a rating one point below perfect on his scale, while Williams graded out one point behind Bush. So I believe the Texans are in fact torn between Bush and Williams, whom they have rated equally atop their draft board.

The choice of Williams comes down to whether the Texans want to sell tickets now or distribute Super Bowl tickets later.

Turn off your television, turn down your radio, put down your draft guide, and ignore the mock drafts. Look at the facts.

History teaches us that you don't need to draft a star running back as much as you need a running game to win a Super Bowl. The Steelers were the latest example, having won February's Super Bowl with a running back tandem of undrafted Willie Parker and 33-year-old Jerome Bettis.

Consider what happened (or didn't) this offseason with regard to several high-profile running backs. Indianapolis let Edgerrin James go as a free agent (the same James general manager Bill Polian drafted after he dealt Marshall Faulk to St. Louis, and the same Polian who, when he was in charge of the Bills, picked Thurman Thomas in Round 2). Shaun Alexander re-signed early with Seattle because the money was with the Seahawks and not on the open market. Free agents Jamal Lewis (Baltimore) and Ahman Green (Green Bay) ended up re-signing with their old clubs for short money.

The Texans should take Williams because he plays the position with more impact, D-end. Good running backs come in all sizes, shapes and rounds. Great pass rushers are rare. That's why backs don't get paid what ends do. Look, money talks: The highest franchise and transition numbers (the average salaries of, respectively, the top five and 10 highest-paid players at each position) belong to quarterbacks, followed by ends, linebackers, offensive linemen, wide receivers and then running backs. You might even argue that cornerbacks have more value than running backs. Two years ago, Denver dealt two-time 1,500-yard rusher Clinton Portis (a second-round pick, by the way) to Washington for corner Champ Bailey. Running backs, which have the shortest career span of any position, seem to come and go, often because teams decide to let them. New Texans coach Gary Kubiak knows this, having served as offensive coordinator in Denver, where the system -- the same one he's brought with him to Houston -- has produced five different 1,000-yard running backs (and a few yards short of two more last year) in Mike Shanahan's 11 years as head coach. None of those backs was a first-rounder. So Kubiak should be able to get plenty of production, if not the home runs, out of Domanick Davis (3,195 yards in three seasons), Vernand Morency, or whomever.

Granted, none of the backs mentioned is in Bush's league when it comes to acceleration and big-play ability. He's coming into the NFL being compared to all-time greats such as Sayers, Sanders and Faulk. Bush is special as a receiver and returner, too. He's instant offense. He's a game changer.

But even if he goes on to be the best ever, Bush still won't change the game. Championships still are won with defense.

From Pittsburgh, New England, Tampa Bay and Baltimore to the Giants, Bears, Steelers and Dolphins -- they all won Super Bowls with great defenses.

Adding Bush to a Texans offense that already features Davis, Andre Johnson and Eric Moulds potentially would give Houston one of the league's most explosive attacks. Texans' opponents: You will have problems. But I have a hard time imagining Houston's offense being any better than the Colts' and Chiefs' have been the past four, five years. And how many Super Bowls have they won? That's right. None. Reason No. 1 is that they're still working on pairing those high-powered offenses with comparable defenses.

Any good defense begins with an effective pass rush, which is why you don't pass up a chance to get a freak like Williams and why if you can help it you don't let the good ones go. Two years ago, the Giants acquired the No. 1 overall pick, Eli Manning, from the Chargers, but did so without general manager Ernie Accorsi's including a then-little-known defensive end by the name of Osi Umenyiora in the deal. Indianapolis let four-time 1,500-yard rusher James walk partly because it is going to need money to sign end Dwight Freeney. Notoriously frugal New England just broke the bank for Richard Seymour, perhaps the best defensive lineman in all of football.

A Jevon Kearse, a Julius Peppers, a Simeon Rice, a Michael Strahan, a Jason Taylor … the Bruce Smiths, the Reggie Whites … those are the type of player around whom you build your defense and your team. Obviously, White and Rice are the only Super Bowl winners of the bunch, but the rest -- except Taylor -- were defensive catalysts for teams that reached the championship.

The question is: What are the Texans trying to build? Short-term excitement or a title contender? Was owner Bob McNair sincere when he told the Texans' brain trust not to concern itself with selling tickets but, because winning fills seats, to select the best football player for the team long term?

Houston's first mission has to be to catch the Colts, whom the Texans haven't beaten in eight tries. The teams that give Indianapolis trouble (New England, San Diego, Pittsburgh) are the ones that pressure Peyton Manning.

Last year opposing quarterbacks completed nearly 65 percent of their passes and threw 24 touchdowns to just seven interceptions for an efficiency rating of 100.0 against Houston. The Texans lost six games last year in which they led in the second half, suffering five such defeats to end the season (and the Dom Capers era). Houston had the league's second-worst defense in 2005, its worst run defense, forced the fewest turnovers (16, none until the fifth game), and allowed a league-high 26.9 points per game.

So, Houston, you want to try your luck in a shootout with the Colts? Take Bush. Want to get to Manning? Get Williams.

Mario Williams
Some suggest Williams beefed up his sack totals against lesser opponents.

The Texans are negotiating with the agents for both Bush and Williams, but I don't believe, as the skeptics do, that they're trying to use Williams to drive down Bush's price. I believe that, deep down, Kubiak and general manager Charley Casserly know what has to be done. I think they'd love to trade down a few slots, pick up a couple of picks, and still get Williams but they can't because no one wants to go up to the top spot and the Texans know passing Young and Bush won't be received well locally. Houston would never forgive the Texans if it turns out they picked Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan.

Except the Texans would be picking Shaquille O'Neal.

"I've seen solid players, impact players," Titans coach Jeff Fisher told The (Nashville) Tennessean, "but nobody that has a potential to impact a defense like [Williams]."

The game hasn't seen a man of Williams' size (6-foot-7, 295 pounds and growing -- he could carry 310) and strength (35 reps of 225 on the bench press) who moves (40-yard dash time in 4.6 to 4.7 seconds, 40½-inch vertical jump) with the knee-bend that he does. Cross Peppers with Seymour and add a touch of Minnesota's Kevin Williams and you get this kid. Peppers, scouts say, was more fluid in his change of direction and a bit quicker than Williams but was not as physical and didn't have as good a motor coming out of North Carolina. There hasn't been a defensive end prospect with Williams' package in years. Asked to whom he would compare Williams, our college scouting director replied, "Nobody. I've never seen anybody like him."

Williams is that rare edge rusher who plays the run as well as he pursues the quarterback; he's no Freeney or Rice, i.e., a one-trick pony. Everyone talks about Bush's versatility but Williams not only can play but be effective all along the defensive line: at 4-3 base (left) end, 4-3 open-side (right, most often opposite the strong side) end, "three" technique (shading the guard's outside shoulder) tackle, or 3-4 end.

With Bush, you're talking 15-20 touches a game plus a few returns. Williams will play 60 snaps a game and give the Texans more for their money. Speaking of money, it's true the Texans have a lot of it invested in their defensive line. Travis Johnson and Jason Babin are former first-round picks, Antwan Peek will play for the first-round restricted tender this year, Robaire Smith was a big signing two years ago and Anthony Weaver just got $12.5 million to sign. Perhaps the last thing the Texans need to do is invest more money in their defensive line, but they don't have anyone like Williams.

No one does.

Another thing: Williams has more -- yes -- upside than Bush. He's 21 years old, still raw. Dare I say it: We may already have seen the best of Bush. I can't help but wonder if it's possible for him to look any better or even as good, and the same goes for Matt Leinart, without the line and the supporting cast he played with at USC. It's like, Tom Cruise stars in a lot of good movies, but you add Jack Nicholson, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon and Demi Moore and you've got "A Few Good Men."

Wait until Williams gets NFL coaching and learns how to really use those long arms. At NC State the coaches didn't spend a lot of time teaching hand techniques and such. "I feel like the sky's the limit," Williams said.

Critics point to the fact that 13½ of Williams' 14½ sacks last season came in the Wolfpack's final seven games and wonder about his consistency. Williams offered an interesting explanation for that. It took him four games to figure out how to better deal with cut blocks. Instead of wasting time pushing down with both hands on blockers' shoulder pads and stepping around the block the way linemen are taught, Williams learned how to handle blockers with one hand or just hurdle them. He had three sacks in NC State's fifth game, against Wake Forest.

A longtime defensive line coach says that on film, Williams appears to be playing a bit "cautious." Williams concurred with the observation. At NC State, the ends' first responsibility was outside containment (bootlegs, reverses) and at one point they weren't even allowed to take an inside rush. That discipline might give the impression that Williams was taking plays off. "I don't feel like my play changed from the beginning of the season to the end of the season," he said. "Maybe my numbers were different, but I ran the same way."

In the short term, Williams wouldn't impact Houston's defense the way Bush would the Texans' offense. They'd still have a lot of holes on defense. The offense is on its way, ready to set it off. Still, the end is the way to go.

Williams says he'd like to go No. 1 overall, but he's more concerned about where his team picks in the future.

"I want to go to a team that's going to best utilize my abilities, so I can help them win a championship," he said, "and maybe next year we can be at the 32nd pick."

Bush or Williams? Williams or Bush? The Texans can't go wrong either way. But the right choice is Williams.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.