AP Football Writer
NEW YORK - A year ago, the Houston Texans bypassed the electric Reggie Bush and ignored hometown hero Vince Young to use the first pick in the NFL draft on defensive end Mario Williams. After a 6-10 season, they hear about it every day - more often as this year's draft approaches.
But the Texans still can brag about last year's draft - because of linebacker DeMeco Ryans, taken with the first pick of the second round. While Williams was bothered by injuries and made little impact, Ryans was the NFL's defensive rookie of the year. He was second in the league with 155 tackles, had 3 sacks and developed into the leader of the defense, if not the team's leader.
It's too bad everyone focuses on the first round. Too bad, because almost as many stars emerge from the second round as the first, from Brett Favre in 1991 and Michael Strahan two years later to Ryans and Devin Hester last season.
"Obviously, there's a lot of attention on the obvious picks," says Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, who in 2005 drafted middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu in the second round and started him at a key position on a team that went to the Super Bowl.
"There's a premium on workouts now and you have to be careful of that. They're so orchestrated these days that some kid who learns how to work out well ends up going in the first round and a kid who can play drops to the second."
Beyond Favre, Strahan, Ryans and Hester, the second round has produced Chad Johnson, Brian Dawkins and Deion Branch, the MVP of the 2005 Super Bowl, plus many other stars.
There's a long list of successful New York Giants second-round picks going back a quarter-century: Strahan, Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer, Osi Umenyiora and Chris Snee, going back to Jason Sehorn, Joe Morris, Jumbo Elliott and a bunch of other guys who helped the team win Super Bowls after the 1986 and 1990 seasons.
The problem for the Giants: Their first-rounders haven't always been very good. Morris in 1982 and Elliott in 1988 were drafted after first-rounders at their positions, Butch Woolfolk and Eric Moore, who weren't nearly as good.
"Ouch," said John Mara, the team's co-owner, when he was reminded recently of Cedric Jones, a defensive end taken with the fifth pick overall in 1997. Consolation prize: second-rounder Toomer, who has become the team's leading career receiver.
Why do second-rounders succeed when first-rounders often fail?
Simple, to most football people.
In the first round, teams often draft on potential - for guys who can be "the next" someone. Sometimes, they're the players who ace the tests at the scouting combine by running faster and jumping higher in shorts. The problem is they don't do the same thing in pads when there's someone trying to crush them.
Williams, for example, was considered "the next Julius Peppers." But he only came on late in his senior season after underachieving in the first half. And he was willing to agree to a contract the day before last season's draft, something Bush wouldn't do.
Bothered by injuries, Williams had an average rookie season, although it's far too early to suggest he will never be an impact player.
Ryans, by contrast, wasn't considered as "athletic," a borderline first/second choice who was looked at as an overachiever at Alabama. But his instinct overcame what athletic ability he might have lacked, and he turned into an instant leader on the defensive unit - and for the team as a whole.
"He's one of these kids who has spent his whole life learning football as well as playing it," says Gil Brandt, the NFL's draft consultant. "At Alabama, he did it all year round. That kind of thing makes you better than players with more ability. He had it inside him, not just on the outside."
Intelligence is often the secret to second-rounders' successes.
But some fall beneath the first-round radar for other reasons, ranging from behavioral questions (Corey Dillon) to late maturation (Strahan) to small colleges (Strahan and Darren Sharper) to size that doesn't meet position specifications (Strahan, Branch and QB Drew Brees).
"It's also attitude after they're drafted," says Charley Casserly, who was the general manager of the Texans when they took Williams and Ryans last year and resigned less than two weeks later. "First-rounders get big money and a lot of them hold out. Second-rounders are in camp right away and start working. A lot of them want to prove that they deserved to be in the first round. Or that they are better than the guys with the big names who got the big money."
Ask the 5-foot-9 Branch, the last pick of the second round by New England in 2002.
"My year, there were 10 wide receivers picked ahead of me because I was supposed to be too small," he says. "I wanted to prove I was every bit as good as any of them. I think I have."
Indeed he has. One reason he was traded by the Patriots to Seattle last season was his demand for the money he missed by not being a first-rounder. The receiver who replaced him with the Patriots, Reche Caldwell, was taken 17 picks earlier and isn't close in achievements to him: In five seasons, Branch has 266 catches for 3,469 yards and 18 TDs; the oft-injured Caldwell, drafted by San Diego, has 137 for 1,710 and 11.
Favre was acknowledged to be talented by everyone in the NFL when he was drafted in 1991. But he had been seriously injured in a car accident while at Southern Mississippi and carried a deserved reputation as a guy who liked to party. So he lasted until the second round (taken 33rd by Atlanta) while Seattle was choosing Dan (brother of Mark) McGwire with the 16th overall pick, and Oakland took the troubled Todd Marinovich at 24th overall.
Those two were certified busts, which was what coach Jerry Glanville of the Falcons considered Favre. Glanville traded him the next season to Green Bay and new general manager Ron Wolf, who had coveted Favre in 1991 when he was personnel director of the Jets but missed getting Favre by one pick.
Strahan almost surely would have been the first pick in 1993 if teams knew then what they know now. Instead, No. 1 was Drew Bledsoe, who just announced his retirement after a good career with New England, Buffalo and Dallas. No. 2 Rick Mirer, one of the names that comes up - Ryan Leaf, second overall in 1998, is the undisputed No. 1 - when first-round quarterback busts are discussed.
The Giants had their own failure there when they took Dave Brown in the first round of a supplemental draft in the summer of 1992. So Strahan was their first pick when they took him 40th overall in 1993, a 240-pound defensive end from Texas Southern. That was one of the few schools interested in Strahan because, as an Army brat, he had lived nowhere long enough to establish a reputation in high school.
So Strahan grew late, went to a non big-time college, and was too small for his projected position. He hit the trifecta, dropping him to the second round.
He also got a break that he didn't know was a break.
When the Giants took Jones with that fifth overall pick in '96, not knowing he was blind in one eye, Strahan was shifted from right defensive end to the left side, generally the off side for pass rushers. "I took the hit for that," said San Francisco coach Mike Nolan, then New York's defensive coordinator under Dan Reeves. "Michael didn't want to do it. He was hopping mad."
It worked out fine.
Going against right tackles, normally not the pass blockers that left tackles are, Strahan got 119 of his 132 sacks on the left side. He also built himself up to 275 pounds, although he has played the last few years at 255.
Favre, Strahan, Branch, Brees. And Ryans.
There aren't many sure things in the draft. One is that at least a couple of second-rounders will turn out better than a whole lot of guys taken in the first.