Word-weary players just want Saturday's draft to arrive

Friday, April 28, 2006

Experts have Leinart sliding down in draft.

NEW YORK -- Two days before the NFL draft, even the players who will be picked at the top are tired of listening to the chatter and reading the gossip.

In other words, just get on with it.

"There's so much uncertainty I don't even pay attention to what they're saying anymore," Southern Cal quarterback Matt Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, said Thursday during an NFL-sponsored media session for six of the top prospective draftees. Those players have spent the last few days in New York at similar events leading up to Saturday's lottery at Radio City Music Hall.

"I don't want to watch television. I don't want to look at mock drafts. I just want it to happen."

Of all the top picks -- and there's a general consensus on the top 10 or 12 -- Leinart seems to be the one sliding in the final days, although no one is sure why. In fact, there are a few people who think he could end up going to Minnesota at No. 17, 16 spots below where he almost surely would have been selected if he had come out a year ago, and 10 spots or more below where he is likely to end up.

That is typical of this draft season, where everything is murky, in part because of an unusually long period between the end of the college season and the draft. That gives teams all the opportunity in the world to overanalyze everyone, even Reggie Bush, Leinart's Trojans teammate, his successor as the Heisman winner and the player almost everyone has conceded Houston will take with the top pick.

Even that seems a bit up in the air. But just a bit.

The Texans announced Wednesday they are negotiating with both Bush and Mario Williams, the North Carolina State defensive end who has been described as a cross between Julius Peppers and Lawrence Taylor, who both played at rival North Carolina. Williams' stock has been soaring and Houston owner Bob McNair, who was at Thursday's gathering, insisted there is still discussion over the choice.

McNair said the negotiations are important so the Texans can avoid a holdout.

But he also said the indecision is legitimate -- it usually is a ruse -- because the front office still hasn't decided which of the two can provide the most help to his team, which finished 2-14 last season.

"We are very serious about this, not nervous," McNair said. "We will address where we have the greatest needs and where the player can help us the most. It's not often we have the opportunity to select a player of this caliber. You want to make a pick of a player who will be with you and make a contribution for a long period of time."

Bush?

He seems to understand the process having played, like Leinart, for the most scrutinized team in a major media market without an NFL team. Playing in Los Angeles for two-time national champion Southern Cal is just about the same as playing for, say, the Giants or Jets or Bears or Patriots.

So he doesn't seem fazed by the Texans' juggling act.

"This is like everybody is playing high-stakes poker," he said. "Everyone has their sunglasses on ... at the end of the day you can't control it. You have to trust the organization to make the decision based on who they feel will most help the team."

Bush, probably the highest-rated running back since Barry Sanders 17 years ago -- he's often compared to Sanders and Gale Sayers -- is still likely to go No. 1 to Houston.

Picks 2-7 are supposed to be, in some order: Leinart; Williams; quarterback Vince Young of Texas; offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson of Virginia; tight end Vernon Davis of Maryland; and linebacker A.J. Hawk of Ohio State, the only one who wasn't present Thursday. Teams 2-7 are New Orleans, Tennessee, the New York Jets, Green Bay, San Francisco and Oakland.

That order and those players (add in Jay Cutler of Vanderbilt, the third quarterback in the top group) make it seem unlikely Leinart will fall anywhere close to 17. If Tennessee takes Young with the third pick -- owner Bud Adams wants him, the coaching staff may not -- Leinart still might not get by the Jets or Raiders and certainly not beyond Arizona at 10 or Baltimore at 13.

In fact, other teams might try to get up for a quarterback or one of the other players in that top group.

"My gut tells me once one or two of these players starts to slide a little bit, teams might come flying up there for them, especially a quarterback," says Scot McCloughan, the director of personnel for the 49ers, who took Alex Smith with the 2005 No. 1 pick, a choice they might well have used on Leinart if he was available.

" I have not seen a top 10 this sporadic this late in the process of the draft. ... Some of the things that I am hearing from the agents blows my mind. It is just a very unique year."

That it is, except for one thing. As in most years, no personnel director, coach, or general manager will even utter the name of a player they are considering.

Except for one: Reggie Bush.

"If he's there when we pick, we'll take Reggie Bush," general manager Ernie Accorsi of the Giants said, echoing the thoughts of Marv Levy of the Bills, Ozzie Newsome of the Ravens and several others.

The Giants draft 25th, the Bills eighth and the Ravens 13th.

Reggie won't be there.

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