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Saturday, April 29, 2006
Updated: May 1, 6:21 PM ET
Holmes should be nice addition for Steelers

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Every year after the draft, it seems, there is a headline suggesting that the rich got richer in the lottery. And for the most part, every year there is an already-deep franchise that used the draft to further add to its depth chart bounty.

The truth is, though, it is the smart franchises that get richer through the draft.

Teams that know how to choose players, that have stability within their system and don't become too paralyzed by the information overload that is part of player assessment, are usually teams that do well on draft weekend. It's not just happenstance that teams such as New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh annually draft well. It's not an accident that all three performed well again this year.

But let's just focus on one of those teams, the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers, and this year's draft haul. The Steelers began the weekend with 10 selections, courtesy of three compensatory choices, wheeled and dealt, and ended up actually exercising nine choices. In truth, Pittsburgh probably didn't even want to come out of the weekend with that many new players because the Steelers brass knows its roster is deep enough that so many rookies won't have a chance to earn spots.

Of this much, though, you can be sure: Most of the nine players the Steelers picked -- with choices in all but the second round, which Pittsburgh intentionally swapped out of to get a pair of third-rounders -- will be on NFL rosters in the fall. And the reason is a simple one. The Steelers pick football players, tough kids, prospects with a physical dimension and guys who have delivered at every level of their respective careers.

The Steelers' draft brain trust -- coach Bill Cowher, director of football operations Kevin Colbert, college scouting director Ron Hughes and their staffs -- is of like mind. And the results, once again, were excellent this weekend. How come? Because this is an outfit that knows what it's doing.

Santonio Holmes
Santonio Holmes should be an impact addition for the Steelers.
Some critics wondered about the Steelers' move up in the first round, from the 32nd slot to No. 25, to snatch Ohio State wide receiver Santonio Holmes, a player the franchise had targeted weeks ago. There was a school of thought that Pittsburgh, in surrendering third- and fourth-round draft choices to the New York Giants to jump seven spots, gave up far too much. But on the draft choice value chart, it wasn't as if Pittsburgh overspent too much. The difference between spots No. 25 and No. 32 is 130 points. The value of the third- and fourth-round choices Pittsburgh sent to New York was 159 points.

It was a small price to pay for a player the Steelers coveted. Holmes will bring the deep-ball dimension Pittsburgh has lacked since Plaxico Burress bolted in free agency. He will allow offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to devise ways to move Hines Ward into the slot more on third down. He will permit quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who throws one of the most accurate long balls in the league to air things out a little more. And in so doing, if that forces opponents to back off some, it creates more natural creases for tailback Willie Parker.

We're not into grading drafts anymore, thankfully, but if we did, the Steelers certainly would be near the head of the class again. What allows them to get richer every year in the draft is not that they're rich. They're just smarter, and better, at it than almost every other team in the league.

Some other draft observations

• The newbies: There were three "newbie" teams in the draft, franchises that went into the lottery with changes at the top of the personnel department and the coaching staff: Buffalo (general manager Marv Levy and coach Dick Jauron), Minnesota (personnel director Fran Foley and coach Brad Childress) and the New York Jets (general manager Mike Tannenbaum and coach Eric Mangini). The results of their first draft? Decidedly mixed.

The Bills' first four choices could play quickly, and Buffalo certainly addressed its secondary needs by grabbing safeties Donte Whitner (No. 1) and Ko Simpson (No. 4) and cornerback Ashton Youboty (No. 3). But the steals of Youboty and Simpson in their respective rounds were offset by the choice of Whitner with the eighth overall selection. Many felt that Whitner, despite being a player on the rise, represented the biggest "reach" of the entire weekend.

The Jets had 10 picks and, on a whole, did nicely. It isn't sexy to take a pair of offensive linemen in the first round, but left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold were the top two blockers, period, in this draft, and both will help rebuild a very shaky unit. The choice of Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens in the second round, though, over a guy like Charlie Whitehurst of Clemson, will come under some scrutiny.

The Vikings had only six selections, but linebacker Chad Greenway (No. 1) and defensive back Cedric Griffin (No. 2) will speed defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin's implementation of the Cover 2 scheme. A little less solid, perhaps, was the choice of Alabama State quarterback Tarvaris Jackson at the end of the second round. Jackson has a whip of an arm and was on the rise the last few weeks, but the Vikings seem to have grabbed him a little earlier than anticipated. All in all, though, the "newbie" draft teams performed pretty well.

• Family ties: Certainly the most notable surname not included among the 255 players chosen over the weekend was Vick. As in Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick, whose myriad off-field woes certainly played a part in him not being selected at all.

In terms of family ties, tailback Gerald Riggs Jr. of Tennessee, son of the former Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins star running back, also was not drafted, likely because of injuries and a lack of top-end speed. Donovan Raiola of Wisconsin, the younger brother of Detroit Lions starting center Dominic Raiola, was not chosen.

Among the other most notable prospects who fell all the way through the seven rounds: tight end Tim Day (Oregon); wide receivers Greg Lee (Pitt), Hank Baskett (New Mexico) and Anthony Mix (Auburn); linebackers Mike Kudla (Ohio State), Brian Iwuh (Colorado) and Kai Parham (Virginia); and cornerbacks Charles Gordon (Kansas) and Anwar Phillips (Penn State).

• Tough weekend for USC: Remember the projections of about a month ago, including one by us, that suggested there could be as many as five or six Southern California players chosen in the first round? Well, there were two: tailback Reggie Bush and quarterback Matt Leinart.

The other possible first-rounders? Tailback LenDale White tumbled to the second round because his torn hamstring kept him from running a 40-yard dash for scouts and teams perceived he lacks a solid work ethic. Not even a superb "pro day" performance April 2 could override some character issues that also pushed offensive tackle Winston Justice into the second round. Safety Darnell Bing lacked athleticism and ball skills in the analysis of most scouts, free-fell into the fourth round and will be switched to outside linebacker by the Oakland Raiders. And guard Taitusi Lutui, well, is a guard, and they simply don't get chosen in the first round very often. Lutui dropped to the second round.

• ACC makes its mark: So much for the ACC being just a basketball conference, huh? The first round began with an ACC defensive end being chosen (Mario Williams of North Carolina State) and ended the same way (Mathias Kiwanuka of Boston College), and that certainly set a tone for defensive players from the conference. There were 18 ACC defensive players chosen on the first day of the draft, with 13 of them among the lottery's top 35 choices. Leading the way was Florida State, with four defensive players in the opening stanza, then NC State, with three. In all, nine ACC schools had at least one defensive prospect selected on the first day.

• Quarterback shuffle: Choose a quarterback in the first round and it makes someone a short-timer. And occasionally that someone isn't just the incumbent starting quarterback. Take the case of the Tennessee Titans, who opted for Vince Young of Texas over USC star Leinart with the third overall choice. Young looks likely to require a two-year apprenticeship before he is ready to assume the starting reins. In two years, coach Jeff Fisher and his staff could be gone. Owner Bud Adams has options on Fisher's contract and, if he chose not to exercise, the Titans' coach would be a hot commodity as a free agent. There are no signs yet that Fisher wants out, but, given the salary cap purge of the last two seasons and the fact there remains considerable work to be done rebuilding the roster, he might be ready to move on.

As for the other quarterbacks chosen in the first round, the selection of Jay Cutler by Denver certainly puts Jake Plummer on notice that coach Mike Shanahan is shortening the leash, and the pick of Leinart in Arizona makes him the heir apparent to Kurt Warner. Last week, Warner acknowledged that he was a bit miffed at all the rhetoric that the Cardinals might select Cutler as his eventual successor. Guess coach Dennis Green wasn't paying attention. And all the good will Plummer seemed to amass during the 2005 regular season, when he dramatically reduced his interceptions, apparently was undone by his four-turnover performance in the conference championship game loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, huh?

Linebacker

Baltimore Ravens

Profile

2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
46 38 8 0 1 1

• Ravens respond to Ray: The squeaky wheel, also known as Ray Lewis, got greased in Baltimore, where the Ravens responded to their middle linebacker's plea for a wide-bodied defensive tackle by taking Haloti Ngata in the first round. That ought to shut up Lewis long enough to come up with whatever excuse he deems necessary for the continuing decline in his overall performance. Lewis is still better than 80 percent of the defenders in the league right now. But this time a year ago, he was better than 90 percent of his peers. That's called slippage. And for whatever reason, no one seemed inclined to remind Lewis last week, while he vented about having to take on guards and not being insulated by the Ravens' tackles, that the team moved back to a 4-3 under coordinator Rex Ryan in 2005. The two tackles in '05, Maake Kemoeatu and Kelly Gregg, weighed a combined 650 pounds. As much as we like Ngata, and don't necessarily agree with the assessments that he takes too many plays off, he might not be as good as Kemoeatu, who departed to Carolina as a free agent. But at least Lewis got the big tackle he wanted. So it's time for him to start making some plays instead of making excuses.

• Orchestra seats: Almost every franchise in the league provides at least an assortment of free munchies for the media covering the two-day proceedings at team complexes. And, perhaps fearful of losing that media membership card, just about every reporter partakes. No word as to what they were serving at the Houston Texans facility, but we're betting that Kool-Aid was among the beverages on the menu. How come? Because a lot of folks with laptops and Minicams certainly were drinking the Kool-Aid when it came to the spin the Texans were privately offering up for media consumption. At least in their public stance, that the decision to choose defensive end Mario Williams over tailback Reggie Bush was based on football needs, the Texans were more forthcoming. But the Houston brass, which at times has questioned the media over matters as incidental as a misplaced comma, was pretty shrewd in manipulating the media during negotiations with Williams and Bush last week. And certainly after the deal was done, when the Texans quietly planted the seed that the Bush camp had been seeking a prohibitive contract, they orchestrated one of the best misinformation campaigns in recent draft history.

The endgame to Houston's master strategy began Wednesday when the Texans leaked word that, because of a breakthrough negotiating session Tuesday night, they were on the verge of completing an accord with Bush to become the draft's top pick. But there was no marathon session Tuesday and, clearly, no breakthrough. In fact, the leak served to prod Williams and agent Ben Dogra, who had been reluctant to enter substantive talks because they felt they were only being used for leverage, to get serious about negotiations. Great irony, huh, given that everyone thought the Texans' interest in Williams was a contrived charade meant to scare Bush into a deal. Actually, it was the reverse, with Bush the guy used to nudge Williams into negotiations.

As for the media contentions that Bush and agent Joel Segal had been seeking an exorbitant $30 million in guarantees and that they blew it by not jumping at the offer Williams subsequently accepted? Well, the Bush camp, which had been working on proposals for a month and had counseled with NFL Players Association officials about the restrictions posed by the collective bargaining agreement, knew $30 million in guarantees was essentially unattainable. The top end for guaranteed money in a deal for this year's first pick was in the $28 million range, and that was Bush's target. Never was there a proposal for $30 million. Nor, as Houston owner Bob McNair claimed Saturday, did his team make the same offer to both candidates for the top spot. In fact, a calculation error, a technical matter that reduced the total guaranteed money proposed to Bush, means he never received an offer as high as the one Williams accepted. When Segal phoned the Texans to point out the error, he was told the club was suspending negotiations with him. The next time the two sides spoke was 10 minutes after Houston officials distributed the press release announcing the Williams agreement.

As for who made the call on Williams over Bush, well, it's hard to believe general manager Charley Casserly was the primary catalyst on that one. Casserly has historically toed the "chalk" in the high rounds, typically selecting the proven commodity over the guy with potential. That wasn't the case this time around, which lends credence to suspicions around the league that first-year coach Gary Kubiak has more sway in personnel matters than predecessor Dom Capers ever did. And that McNair, despite protests to the contrary, was scared to death of the off-field issues that swirled around Bush last week.

• By the numbers: As for the Texans' contention that they chose Williams over Bush because their needs were more on the defensive side, consider this: Williams played on a North Carolina State unit that in 2005 statistically ranked as the ACC's third-best defense. Fourth in defense versus the run, fourth in defense against the pass and No. 3 overall. Among his teammates were a pair of fellow first-round selections, defensive end Manny Lawson (San Francisco) and defensive tackle John McCargo (Buffalo), along with linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who was chosen by Tennessee in the fourth round. And the team's record, despite having four defenders chosen among the top 116 players in the draft, was 7-5 overall and 3-5 in the conference.

• MAC attack: The Pittsburgh Steelers might be trying to corner the market on quarterbacks from the Mid-American Conference. The defending Super Bowl champions selected Omar Jacobs of Bowling Green in the fifth round, and he becomes the third MAC quarterback on the roster, behind starter Ben Roethlisberger (Miami) and Charlie Batch (Eastern Michigan). The other two quarterbacks for the Steelers, Rod Rutherford of Pitt and Kentucky's Shane Boyd, are going to have a difficult time breaking the MAC stranglehold. Despite a funky delivery, and a very low release point, Jacobs is a strong-armed guy with plenty of potential. In his final two college seasons, Jacobs, who has excellent size (6 feet 4, 232 pounds), threw 67 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. Hard to imagine him not winning the No. 3 spot on the depth chart.

• Out of character: For years, the Cincinnati Bengals were notorious for taking character risks in the draft. Then, along came coach Marvin Lewis, and most of the gambles on prospects with checkered pasts stopped. But not completely. Lewis still turns a covetous eye every so often to a prospect with a wart or two on him. Sometimes football skills still get in the way of common sense. He had such a lapse last year when he plucked Chris Henry in the third round and, although the former West Virginia star was a productive No. 3 wide receiver for the Bengals as a rookie, he hasn't been able to stay out of trouble during the offseason.

Why bring this up now? Because on Sunday, in the fifth round, the Bengals plucked Florida State linebacker A.J. Nicholson, a guy at least three franchises had removed from their boards because of troubling incidents in his past. Some of the media types in Cincinnati who sat in on Nicholson's conference call Sunday said it was hilarious listening to the former Seminoles defender recount the night police used a taser gun on him. It might not be a laughing matter to the Cincinnati management, however, if Nicholson's past comes back to bite the team. Lewis has promulgated an admirable reversal of a once-moribund franchise, and the Bengals are emerging as a powerhouse team. But you can't talk the talk about avoiding character risks without also walking the walk. Or at least walking away from them.

Andy Reid
Reid

• Philosophy class: Now here's a guy who sticks to his draft philosophy: Philadelphia coach Andy Reid -- no, uh, shrinking violet sizewise -- loves to draft big people. In Reid's first seven drafts as head coach, 1999-2005, Philadelphia exercised 58 selections, with 14 of them for offensive linemen and 10 for defensive linemen. So, it was no surprise this year that, with their first four selections, the Eagles chose four straight prospects who had played offensive or defensive line at the college level. In fairness, it should be pointed out that Philadelphia has projected third-rounder Chris Gocong, a defensive linemen from Cal Poly, to the strongside linebacker position. The others: defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (No. 1), offensive tackle Winston Justice (No. 2) and offensive guard Max Jean-Gilles (No. 4). Oh, yeah, the Eagles also landed defensive tackle Lajuan Ramsey in the sixth round, giving them five linemen in eight picks. The updated Reid draft scorecard now reads, 66 choices exercised, 29 of them on linemen.

• Christmas spirit: Scribes sometimes choose to liken the draft to Christmas Day and, for once, that hackneyed analogy might actually have fit this year. QB Cutler, chosen by the Broncos in the first round, was born in Santa Claus, Ind. And offensive tackle Daryn Colledge of Boise State, selected by Green Bay in the second round, is a graduate of North Pole High School. You can't make this stuff up, folks.

• Proof positive that yours truly and the missus, a huge NFL fan, were loyal to The Mother Ship and never flipped the channel from ESPN to the NFL Network even once during the two-day coverage of the draft: Yep, we heard Mel Kiper use the term "scrutinization" (go ahead, check the tape, we dare you) in referring to the three first-round quarterbacks. And we saw Chris Berman, at a very slow part of the action, take out his handkerchief and toss it like a penalty flag when speaking about the Seattle Seahawks. Hey, Boomer, get over the Super Bowl XL officiating, OK?

• The last round: Atlanta president/general manager Rich McKay apparently grew weary, as have most Falcons officials, of being criticized by fans and local media for rarely choosing players from the University of Georgia. The Falcons selected former Bulldogs quarterback D.J. Shockley in the seventh round, the first UGA player the franchise has taken since 1994. … At various times over the weekend, there were rumors involving several running backs being dangled in trade talks, most notably T.J. Duckett (Atlanta), Marcel Shipp (Arizona) and Lee Suggs (Cleveland). But the most interesting tailback name that came up in trade speculation was Dallas starter Julius Jones, rumored at one point Saturday to be headed to the New York Jets. … Of the 49 underclass prospects in the draft, just 27 were drafted, with nine selected in the first round. … Good for Detroit general manager Matt Millen for not caving to the pressure tactics being imposed by quarterback Joey Harrington, who will consider a deal only if it sends him to the Miami Dolphins. Everyone expected Millen to pull the trigger on a deal during the draft, but he didn't. The downside is that, on June 15, Harrington is due a $4.5 million roster bonus, so Millen has to do something before then. But, hey, let the guy sweat a little longer. … The Bengals had to defend Pittsburgh's versatile wide receiver Antwaan Randle El the past four seasons. Now, Randle El is out of the division, having signed with Washington as a free agent. This weekend, the Bengals chose a guy they hope can develop into their version of Randle El, grabbing Texas A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal in the fifth round. McNeal has mid-4.4 speed and should be able to play some wide receiver. … The Vikings might move Georgia safety Greg Blue, a big hitter with little range, to outside linebacker.

The last word: "I don't remember." -- Kicker Stephen Gostkowski of Memphis, drafted in the fourth round by New England to perhaps replace departed Adam Vinatieri, after describing in minute detail his "most memorable" field goal, then being asked which team it came against.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.