By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006
NEW YORK, April 27 -- The notion that Mario Williams could be chosen with one of the first several picks in the NFL draft Saturday sneaked up on some outside observers. It even sneaked up on some people within the league, who were mildly surprised when Houston Texans officials narrowed their choices for the top selection to Williams and University of Southern California tailback Reggie Bush.
But it didn't sneak up on Williams. The defensive end says he knew from the moment he decided to skip his senior season at North Carolina State that he had a realistic chance to be the top overall pick.
"I always felt like I had an opportunity to be number one," Williams said here Thursday. "Maybe it just clicked in for some other people. It wasn't a surprise to me. I always set my goals high."
Williams didn't have the national profile of some of the players seated near him Thursday during the league's annual pre-draft luncheon, including Bush and quarterbacks Matt Leinart of USC and Vince Young of Texas. But he is the best of the pass-rushing defensive ends available, and that always-coveted commodity is more valuable than ever now that the league has used rule modifications to make it next to impossible to defend the passing game if a quarterback actually gets off a throw that's not under duress.
"The rush guys, they don't make very many of them, the real good ones," Kansas City Chiefs Coach Herman Edwards said at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February. "If you find one, you probably need to get him."
Williams's teammate at N.C. State, Manny Lawson, is viewed as a likely first-round choice Saturday, along with fellow defensive ends Kamerion Wimbley of Florida State, Tamba Hali of Penn State and perhaps Mathias Kiwanuka of Boston College. It's possible that Lawson and Wimbley will play outside linebacker in the NFL.
In their quest to find speedy pass rushers, NFL teams regularly have found themselves plugging in comparatively smaller players at defensive end. The league's talent evaluators love Williams because he's big -- at 6 feet 6 and 291 pounds -- as well as quick, meaning that he won't get shoved around by offensive tackles on running plays.
But Williams knows what his most important task will be once he reaches the pro ranks.
"I can't wait to get into the NFL and get my first sack," he said. "That's something I'll always remember. That's something I'll tell my kids about."
He conceded Thursday that he expects Bush to be the Texans' pick, but he declared himself the best defensive end to enter the league since Julius Peppers was the second overall choice in the 2002 draft by the Carolina Panthers. And a great defensive end, he maintained, is rarer and perhaps more valuable than a great running back.
"You're going to have two or three good running backs every year," Williams said. "You had that last year with Cadillac [Williams] and Ronnie Brown. You'll have it next year. As far as a good defensive end, you don't have that every year. When is the last time you had a true defensive end coming out in the draft? I guess it was Julius Peppers four years ago. Plus, a running back has to rely on his blocking. As a defensive end, I can just go out and do my thing, rush the quarterback, and not depend so much on everyone else."
If the Texans take Bush, the New Orleans Saints probably will choose between Williams and Virginia left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson with the second pick, unless they're successful in their attempt to trade down in the first-round order. It's a highly unsettled draft. But it's unlikely that Williams would fall out of the top five, and he said Thursday he wasn't overly nervous as the draft approached. In fact, he called himself relaxed.
"If it's the first pick, it would be an honor," he said. "But I'm not hung up on that. I want to go to a team that really wants me and be a valuable member of the team for a long time. [Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback] Ben Roethlisberger is the perfect example. He didn't go first, but he's already won the Super Bowl. You can be the number one pick and be a bust. To me, it's not just about right now. It's about getting on a team and contributing in 2007 and 2008 and after that, not just about where you get drafted now and what you do in 2006."