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Revisiting Saints trading entire draft for Ricky Williams and the deals that almost happened

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“Twenty years ago—that’s crazy,” the Washington coach at the time, Norv Turner, said Friday. As was the deal. At the time, so much about it was revolutionary. The noted draft-value trade chart, invented by the Cowboys a few years earlier, had the Saints trading away 4,441 points of draft value in exchange for 1,700 points—the value of the fifth overall pick. “When the coaches were told about it that day,” Turner said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t real. You gotta do that.’ “ And GM Charley Casserly, negotiating with Saints GM Billy Kuharich, agreed to it eagerly.

Ditka was smitten with Williams after his 2,124-yard, 27-TD senior year at Texas, and he proclaimed at the league meetings a month before the draft that he’d trade his entire draft for Williams. “Put us in line,” Casserly told Kuharich. Except New Orleans didn’t have a second-round pick that year. So Casserly said he’d have to have a first and third in 2000 to make up for the lack of a second-rounder. The Saints did it. (Man, why not ask for Ditka’s first-born too?) “A generational trade,” Casserly called it.

From the moment the deal happened, there were problems. Big problems. Williams was intensely shy. The Saints flew him to New Orleans for a post-draft press conference. On the plane, he was given a Saints cap to wear. “I’m not wearing that,” Williams said. He was told he’d be doing the press conference from a podium. “I’m not doing that,” he said.

Uh-oh.

When the dreadlocked Williams got to the Saints offices, Ditka greeted him wearing a wig with dreadlocks, and a flowered shirt and shorts. Williams did the press conference, standing to the side of the podium, not behind it. There was a fan fest with maybe 5,000 fans there on the property, fans going crazy because they got the best player in college football, and they chanted for Williams. Someone with Williams that day said, “Ricky looked around, and he was in shock. This was not what he thought the NFL would be. The look on his face was, ‘What the f— is this?’ “

Ricky-mania was in full swing. Williams dressed in a wedding gown and Ditka in a wedding tux, and they posed as bride and groom for an August 1999 cover of ESPN The Magazine. Heaven knows why Williams did that, but the season started bad and got worse. Williams’ shyness bordered on the weird. I went into New Orleans to interview him, and though pleasant enough, he insisted on doing the interview with his helmet on, with the dark shield covering his face. The Saints went 3-13, and Ditka was fired.

Williams lasted three seasons with the Saints before being traded to Miami in 2002. Other than helping New Orleans win a division title in 2000, Williams’ tenure in New Orleans was more circus than football. I texted Ditka on Friday and would have loved to speak with him about the trade and the weird year, but he didn’t get back to me.

“Oh my God,” his assistant head coach, Rick Venturi, said the other day. “That trade was a sugar rush for the franchise. We were at a low ebb. Everyone makes fun of the deal, because we gave up the farm to get Ricky, but we really trusted Mike. He’d won before, and he gave us faith we’d win with him.”

Postscript I: The Bengals, picking third, had a chance to make the same deal Washington made. Eight picks to move from three to 12 with New Orleans. Nope, the Bengals said. We’re staying. We’re picking the guy we want badly. Akili Smith.

Postscript II: Casserly thought he had a deal with Chicago, picking seventh, to move from 12 to seven if the player Washington wanted was available. That player: Champ Bailey. So after the deal with the Saints went through, Casserly called the Bears back, ready to move up five slots in exchange for third, fourth and fifth-round picks. “We had a deal, but they upped the ante on me when I called back,” he said. The Bears wanted Washington’s third-rounder in 2000, or there’d be no deal. Casserly, fuming, took a deep breath and agreed to the ransom. “If you really want the player, you’ve got to take a step back and take the emotion out of it,” he said. Washington got Bailey at seven.

Postscript III: I didn’t ask Casserly if he got any satisfaction from the quarterback Chicago took to be its long-term QB solution at 12—Cade McNown, who won three games in two years for the Bears. McNown was a disaster, and was out of football after two seasons.

Postscript IV: Casserly’s reward for getting those eight picks and maneuvering to pick up Bailey, and following that with Washington winning the NFC East? He got fired at the end of the year after new owner Dan Snyder took over.

Postscript V: Bailey lasted only five years in Washington before a contract dispute prompted the team to trade him to Denver for Clinton Portis. Bailey played 10 of his 15 seasons in a 15-year career for Denver. After being elected to the Hall last February, Bailey got a call from Casserly. “You realize I never would have traded you,” Casserly said.

Postscript VI: Williams had a good NFL career, in between missing two years for a “retirement” and a marijuana suspension. He finished with 10,009 rushing yards in 11 seasons, 31st on the all-time rushing list. Interesting who is 32nd: Clinton Portis.

They don’t make trades like they used to. 

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Could Kyler Murray go No. 1 overall? Peter King thinks it could happen

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INDIANAPOLIS—It’s Kyler Murray’s Combine, followed by Kyler Murray’s Pro Day, followed by the spring of Kyler Murray Rumors, followed by, mercifully, the first round of the NFL Draft on April 25 and the official landing place of Kyler Murray.

Who, by the way, did nothing here over three days except measure taller than he was supposed to (by a whole quarter of an inch!), talk to 10 teams, and geek out over seeing the coaches he’s been watching on TV for years.

Until the defensive linemen ran fast on Sunday, the player who did nothing here was the mega-story. A lot of it was the size thing. “I’m just sitting here and I’m on the TV. You can’t really get away from it,” a bemused Murray said in his only media availability here, a 40-question, 20-minute session with reporters Friday.But this was more than the mania over 5-10 1/8. Murray’s fate and his story just hung over the whole shebang. “I don’t know any player who’s attracted as much attention at any Combine that I’ve ever seen,’’ Combine guru Gil Brandt said Sunday night. Kim Jones said on NFL Network on Saturday that people around the league believed “almost universally” that Murray would be the first pick in the draft, by Arizona. Draft analyst Tony Pauline reported Sunday that Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury was saying at the combine that Murray to the Cardinals is a “done deal.”

I don’t know enough about either of those reports to confirm them, and I do believe there’s a good chance the Cardinals take Murray number one. I can say five things about Murray and this draft after doing some legwork at the combine Friday and Saturday:

1. GM Steve Keim has final say on Cardinals personnel, including the draft. I would be shocked if today, 53 days before the draft and not having had a private workout nor a long conversation with Murray, that Keim has decided to pick Murray. “I don’t believe it for a second,” said Greg Gabriel, a veteran of 31 NFL drafts as a scout. “Could he have the lead in the clubhouse now? Sure. But nobody makes decisions like that this far out, without doing their due diligence.”

2. There are two Josh Rosen problems. Last year, Arizona traded third-round and fifth-round picks to move up five slots in the first round to choose the UCLA quarterback. So now, if they pick Murray, the Cardinals would have to dump Rosen after 13 shaky starts, and it’s a tricky proposition. “The danger is, you start to shop Rosen, and everyone knows you’re picking Murray,” said former NFL front-office man Mike Lombardi.

3. Rosen Problem 2: What could you get in trade for him? Miami (13th pick in the first round), Washingon (15), the Chargers (28) and New England (32) would be worth investigating … unless the compensation for Rosen has crashed. I asked Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who lives in Arizona and watched Rosen last year, what he thinks the value for Rosen is. “I would give a three for Josh,” Warner said. A third-round pick. Yikes. Saturday night, I asked a renowned NFL GM what he thought the value of Rosen in trade would. “Probably a three,” the GM said. “Not what the Cardinals would think his value is.” Scary, on the surface, for Arizona. But if you’ve decided you want Murray, and you’ve decided Rosen’s not your guy, you’ve got to move on, regardless what you get for Rosen.

4. Oakland coach Jon Gruden, picking fourth, loves Murray. He and GM Mike Mayock have gone out of their way to say multiple times that Derek Carr is their quarterback. Maybe they’re rock-solid on Carr, and maybe it’ll be a moot point if the Cardinals stay at number one. But with all their draft loot in the next two drafts (five first-round picks), and with Gruden’s crush on Murray, the Raiders bear watching.

5. Murray met with 10 teams in Indianapolis, but I wouldn’t read a lot into that. The usual suspects were among the 10 teams—Arizona, Oakland, the Giants, Jacksonville, Miami and Washington. But he also met with Detroit, Seattle and the Chargers. Detroit. Hmmm. Seattle: probably just fact-finding. I’m not sure of the 10th team. But as I said, don’t read too much into that.

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Two teams are set to dominate the 2019 NFL Draft: Patriots and…the Raiders?

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The owner of the 2019 NFL Draft? Oakland, with rookie GM Mike Mayock, who counts Bill Belichick as one of his best friends in football.

The power broker, potentially, of the 2019 NFL Draft? New England, which will have the ammo to move up, down and sideways—and Belichick has always loved wheeling and dealing on draft weekend.

The Raiders have four picks in the top 35. The Patriots have one pick in the top 55. But that’s a misleading part of the story. There’s great depth in this draft from pick 25 to 100 and even deeper, some scouts at the Senior Bowl thought. So there could be fine value in the Patriot picks when they are slated to choose five times in a 45-pick span from 56 to 101.

Raiders and Patriots picks in the top 110 overall choices of the draft, as of today:

• New England: 1st round, 32nd overall; 2-56; 2-64; 3-73; 3-97^; 3-101^

• Oakland: 1st round, 4th overall; 1-24; 1-27; 2-35; 3-66; 4-106

^ Projected compensatory picks for the losses of Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler in free agency, as calculated by Over the Cap’s Nick Korte.

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