USC star players take free fall on draft board

April 30, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Every season, the NFL draft reminds us wannabe experts that we really don't know anything. Yesterday's first day of the 2006 draft was a particularly cruel lesson.

We had no idea, for instance, that USC was a gathering of decent parts that happened to fit together perfectly. Or that North Carolina State was a defensive juggernaut.

The NFL made us wonder all afternoon whether the Bowl Championship Series had gotten the Rose Bowl matchup all wrong. With the 11th-hour No. 1 overall pick, Mario Williams, on one end of the defensive line and two other first-rounders joining him up front, how did N.C. State get left out? Well, besides finishing 6-5 and barely eking out the regular-season finale at home against Maryland to become bowl-eligible.

And the mighty Trojans? Easily more than the sum of their parts. Sitting there to be snapped up early were Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Winston Justice and LenDale White, the core of a team that won 34 straight games, a share of two national championships and nearly a third and collected back-to-back Heisman trophies.

Yet in the first 38 picks, Maryland had as many players selected as USC.

The NFL wasn't as impressed as the writers, coaches or computer programmers who kept putting USC atop the polls nearly nonstop for three years. Together, they were kept from immortality only by Vince Young's dream game. Separated from each other - and, it seems, from the Pete Carroll system and the competition of the Pacific-10 - the talent didn't look bad, but not like dominators at the next level.

Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bush went not first, but second overall. Leinart went not second or third (particularly third, where his former college coordinator, Norm Chow, is the Titans' offensive coordinator), but 10th to Arizona. Justice dropped some 25 spots from where some had projected him, to Philadelphia at 39 in the second round. White went after that, also in the second round, 45th to Tennessee.

Granted, the worst evaluations of any draft are the ones taken moments after Paul Tagliabue calls the names. The reasons for the plunges run the gamut, including the differing needs of every team that let them get by. Every player might prove to be worth more than his draft slot - with Bush, it's almost a sure thing.

Still, one of the most decorated collections of players ever, suddenly turned radioactive, and a lot of money got lost in the process.

You could say that, as consolation, Bush, Leinart, Justice and White still have their string of victories and championships. Then again, depending on what emerges from the investigations of Bush and his family's living arrangements last season, they might not have that, either. All in all, a bad week for a program basking in the glow of its return to glory.

Give the snubbed players credit for their brave faces. Bush got the rug pulled out from under him at the last second, but looked content enough when the Saints caught him at No. 2.

Six hours and 43 picks later, White showed bravado, appearing on television with a shirt bearing the words "Got Robbed?" A hamstring tear, and speculation that he had a bad work ethic, had sunk him. "I kind of take that as a slap in the face, because I know how hard I work," he told ESPN.

More bravado from Leinart, excited about staying near the West Coast, vowing vengeance on the teams that passed him over, and insisting, "I was still in the top 10."

True - just not the top two (because the Saints chose to sign a quarterback coming off shoulder surgery, Drew Brees) or top three (because Chow's Titans took Young, proving they weren't paralyzed with fear at his reported Wonderlic score or his supposedly poor mechanics).

The belief was that had Leinart left USC after his junior year, Heisman and titles in tow, he would have gone No. 1, ahead of Alex Smith and everybody else. The price he paid for living the carefree student-athlete/Tinseltown celebrity life: no third title, no second Heisman, no top-three pick and a lot less money including a year less of earning power.

Williams, as the top pick, signed for a reported $26.5 million in guaranteed money. If previous history is an indication, Leinart may have cost himself $17 million; two years ago, as reported in The Sun in 2005, the guaranteed money for the first pick was about triple that for the 10th pick, $23 million to $8 million.

Not to cry a river for Leinart, of course. Or even for White and Justice, who will feel the sting of the loss of first-round money and who might need to have their pride re-stitched before training camp.

Save the tears for us. Because when it comes to figuring out what NFL teams like about the college superstars we think we know so well, we don't know very much at all.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

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