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Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Mystery surrounds QBs and Bush

By John Clayton

The Texans' stunning decision to take Mario Williams No. 1 overall threw the top of the draft into chaos. Now, the two burning questions are who ends up with Reggie Bush and where do the top three quarterbacks find homes.

There's a good chance Bush will go No. 2, but who picks him there is up in the air, with the Jets the team that seems to have the best shot to move up to get him. But will they be willing to give up what it will take?

While the headlines are now focused on the Texans' decision to take Williams, the quarterbacks remain a real mystery.

Vince Young of Texas, Matt Leinart of USC and Jay Cutler of Vanderbilt are the top three quarterbacks and sure first-rounders. What isn't certain is where they will fall, and that's the unusual part of this draft. Because of the nature of the position, quarterbacks always rise to the top, but that won't be the case this year.

The quarterbacks find themselves in limbo. The Titans' front office is debating with the coaching staff whether to take Leinart or Young with Young being the likely pick because the scouting department believes he could be the better quarterback in the long run.

Where do Leinart and Cutler fall?

Welcome to the mystery of this draft. With that in mind, here's what to watch in the 2006 draft:

1. How the QBs fall: The top of the draft will be determined by where the quarterbacks go. Whether the Titans take Leinart or Young will dictate a lot. The Jets need a quarterback, but they aren't expected to take Leinart or Young at No. 4. The Raiders would take Young at No. 7 but there is no guarantee they would take Leinart over safety Michael Huff. The longest fall for Leinart could be to No. 13 in Baltimore. And what about Cutler? If Detroit at No. 9, Arizona at No. 10 and St. Louis at No. 11 pass on him, Cutler could drop to the Vikings at No. 17. Regardless, the quarterbacks will be ratings-grabbers in the first round. A Leinart fall could spark high intrigue because most people thought he would be the first player taken had he turned pro last year. One thing that's interesting for Cutler is that while slipping will cost him money, it will also mean he'll end up on a better team. Still, Cutler obviously doesn't want to fall. Some teams have him as the No. 1 quarterback on their boards. Most people hear the Jets have him as their top quarterback. The only problem is that they aren't taking a quarterback at No. 4.

1a. Who drafts Reggie? After Reggie Bush blew it by not taking a 10 percent increase over the Alex Smith contract of 2005, he now might have to rely on the Jets to bail him out. For him to salvage any credibility, he has to hope the Jets are willing to give up the No. 35 pick in the draft to move up to No. 2. That might not happen. The Jets might try to play coy and get Bush at No. 4, figuring the Saints and Titans won't take him. Still, Bush and the Jets are interesting partners. Bush could make big money in the New York market. Bush could buy the Jets protection from criticism they will face if they don't draft Matt Leinart. Of course, the Saints could make things simple by staying at No. 2 and taking Bush. But I'm not sure that makes sense with Deuce McAllister already in the fold. At No. 2, Bush loses at least $6.5 million in guaranteed money compared to what he could have received at No. 1.

3. The cornerback run: Normally, cornerbacks are hot commodities toward the bottom of the first round and into the early part of the second. A big run on cornerbacks usually starts early in the second round. This year is different. The first round -- particularly starting at No. 19 -- is going to be dominated by defensive backs. As many as six defensive backs could go in an eight- or nine-team stretch from the Chargers pick at No. 19 to the Panthers pick at No. 27. Expect the taller, bigger corners to go first. Most teams believe bigger is better when it comes to drafting corners. That gives an edge to Jimmy Williams of Virginia Tech (6-foot-3, 213), Antonio Cromartie of Florida State (6-2, 208) and Jason Allen of Tennessee (6-1, 209), who should be among the first to go after Huff. The Rams need a cornerback at No. 11 but they could trade back and get one later because they like Tye Hill more than Williams. Even teams at the bottom of the round can get good corners. Kelly Jennings of Miami and Ashton Youboty could be available toward the bottom of the round. And don't forget Richard Marshall of Fresno State. He could be a sleeper first-rounder.

4. Jets have home field: With picks No. 4, 29 and 35, the Jets will be under the microscope in front of the hometown crowd and that's probably not good news. The Jets fans will be out in force at Radio City Music Hall and if Leinart is there at No. 4 they are going to want him. As it stands, the Jets look like they're leaning toward offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Some fans will cheer the pick, but expect many more to boo. Remember Eagles fans when the team drafted Donovan McNabb ahead of Ricky Williams? Leinart has tried to sell himself to Jets fans as a Joe Namath-type. He's a popular media figure. He was in L.A. and he will be a big sell in New York. In the ideal world, though, the Jets would like to upgrade their bad offensive line in the draft. It would be wonderful for them to get Ferguson at No. 4 and guard Davin Joseph or center Nick Mangold at No. 29. That won't be too exciting for the fans. You have to wonder if the pressure from the fans might make the Jets consider trading up to get Cutler in the mid-teens if he slips a little.

5. Running back drop: There are five first-round running back prospects -- Bush, Laurence Maroney of Minnesota, LenDale White of USC, DeAngelo Williams of Memphis and Joseph Addai of LSU. Unfortunately, there are so many good ones and so few teams looking for running backs, the four after Bush are going to slip. Teams near the bottom of the first round are the ones looking for running backs. The Panthers (No. 27), Jets (No. 29) and the Seahawks (No. 31) are the main teams looking for backs in the first round. Every team talks about taking the best athlete available, so it will be interesting to see if someone grabs one of the running backs earlier in the first round. White, meanwhile, has helped his stock lately. After looking as though he was going to drop out of the first round because he was overweight and had a hamstring injury, he looks much more likely to go in the first round now. White is the best big back in the draft and is still a favorite of the Panthers and the Steelers (No. 32). He also could go to the Jaguars (No. 28).

6. Not catching on: This might be the worst receiver draft the NFL has had in 10 years. Many teams don't have first-round grades on any wide receivers. Santonio Holmes of Ohio State and Chad Jackson of Florida will go in the first round. Sinorice Moss could slip in to the top 32, but he's only 5-8. For years, teams have been using first-round picks on tall, lanky receivers. But of the 64 starting wide receivers in the NFL, only 27 are former first-rounders. That means more starters are coming out of the later rounds. If that's the case, maybe these guys will be bargains because of the lower expectations.

7. Reaching for tackles: The NFL as a whole is getting a little old at the left tackle position. Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace are the best tackles in the NFL, but they are all 30-years old or more. The problem is that there haven't been a lot of left tackle replacements coming through the first round in the past few drafts. Ferguson should go to the Jets at No. 4 as long as the Saints pick Williams at No. 2. Then comes the intrigue. Winston Justice is the next-best left tackle prospect, and he might go to the Eagles at No. 14. Marcus McNeill of Auburn is next, but he has questions about a narrowing spinal column condition. Eric Winston of Miami is at the top of the second round but he had a knee reconstruction in 2004. But teams need to upgrade the left tackle position, so some of these guys might go higher than you think.

8. Trades winds: Don't except a lot of draft-day trades toward the top of the first round. But there will be a lot of first-round maneuvering once the draft gets into the teens. A handful of teams toward the top of the second round want to move into the bottom of the first for offensive needs -- offensive linemen or running backs. There could be as many as 18 to 20 defensive players go in the first round, so teams might jump ahead of other teams to get the offensive players they want. There could also be some trades involving veterans. Several veterans are on the market, including center Jeff Faine of the Browns, linebacker Donnie Edwards of the Chargers and wide receiver Javon Walker.

9. Hybrid craze: More teams are using combinations of the 3-4 and the 4-3 on defense, and they are looking for pass-rushers. That's inflated the value of players like Kamerion Wimbley of Florida State and Manny Lawson of N.C. State. Both could go in the top 15. Wimbley would fit the Browns' 3-4 defense as a rush linebacker. The Broncos and Chiefs like Lawson for their 4-3. Two interesting names to follow are Tamba Hali of Penn State and Mathias Kiwanuka of Boston College. They could become steals if they fall out of the first round.

10. Strong tight end class: Tight ends are becoming more valuable, and teams are positioning themselves to grab them in the first day of the draft. There could be seven to eight tight ends taken in the first three rounds. Vernon Davis of Maryland will go in the top six. Marcedes Lewis of UCLA might get into the bottom of the first round. Leonard Pope of Georgia, Joe Klopfenstein of Colorado and Anthony Fasano of Notre Dame are potential second-round picks.

John Clayton is a senior writer for