When Matt Leinart decided to return to USC for a chance at a national title in 2005, he turned down the opportunity to be the first overall draft pick.
When Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy that same year, he was seen as a shoo-in for that spot. And then, as the draft process wore on, Jay Cutler and Vince Young got some buzz because the Houston Texans were looking at quarterbacks. But, in a huge shocker, the Texans took North Carolina State’s DE Mario Williams.
The Texans were roundly criticized for this decision. Reggie Bush was viewed as a can’t-miss prospect who had a chance to be one of the best players of his generation. His college highlight tapes were legendary.
Vince Young was coming off a Heisman Trophy runner-up season in which he led his Texas Longhorns to the national championship. There were certainly questions about his ability to play quarterback at a high level over the long-term, but his Texas background and high upside made him an intriguing pick.
The Williams decision came basically out of nowhere. On ESPN.com, Michael Smith had to begin his opinion by saying
“Let me begin by assuring you that, to my knowledge, I never have suffered a head injury, not even a minor one. I've never used/abused recreational or prescription drugs. And it has been well over a week since I last consumed any alcohol. Also rest assured that when I wrote the following, I did so with a straight face.”
Within three seasons, Williams had justified the pick. He was an All-Pro defensive end and one of the best young players in the league.
Meanwhile, Bush proved to be a valuable member of a prolific Saints offense, but he never developed into the superstar, every-down back that people wanted him to become. He had constant injury issues and he averaged only 70.5 yards from scrimmage per game. He was a good player, but he was never great.
But in the last two years, the story has grown murkier. Williams tore his pectoral muscle early in 2011 and thus was not a part of the single most surprising unit of 2011: the Houston Texans defense. According to pro-football-reference.com, the Texans improved from last in the NFL in 2010 to fourth in 2011. Williams, although commonly accepted as the best player on that side of the ball, played only five games.
He was rewarded this offseason with a well-deserved $100 million contract from the Bills, and we have yet to see how that will play out. It’s worth noting that he hasn’t recorded a sack in either of the Bills’ first two games.
Bush, on the other hand, has gone to Miami and become shockingly productive. He has averaged almost 98 yards from scrimmage per game, a 39 percent uptick in his production from his New Orleans years. He is still not the dominant running back people thought he would be, but he has certainly demonstrated an ability to be a more-than-capable starting running back.
Mario Williams is still the best player from this draft. Leinart and Young are career backups, and Cutler has settled as a Top 10 to Top 15 quarterback. But we wrote off Bush as a bust quite early in his career. He is still only 27, and while hasn’t turned in the jaw-dropping performances we were all hoping for, he has become a productive football player.
The Texans, to their credit, made a gutsy choice and got it right. But just two years ago, Bush was written off as a bit player. While there’s no real way of knowing what will happen from here on out, the 2006 draft has turned into a strange illustration of the uncertainty of NFL careers.