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Dallas confident in the route Bryant will take

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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No one squabbles about Dez Bryant’s talent. That’s where he’s special.

Personnel officials from three teams reached by the Globe agreed. Strip down the issues, look at Bryant as a football player, and you have as good a receiver as Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy is a defensive tackle, or Eric Berry is a safety, or Sam Bradford is a quarterback.

The difference is similarly easy to see. The other four “clean’’ prospects went in the draft’s first five picks. Meanwhile, 23 teams (all trades taken into account) came on the clock with Bryant available and took someone else. It took a 24th for the Oklahoma State star to come off the board.

So now he’s a Cowboy. Whether Bryant will make two-thirds of the league regret that they bypassed him — the way so many kicked themselves for passing on Randy Moss in 1998 — is up for debate.

“He should’ve been top 10, maybe top five, and by the grace of God, we were able to get him,’’ said jubilant Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman. “I’m not going to complain. That’s a blessing from above.’’

But so many NFL decision-makers feared the curse.

Bryant’s story is well-documented. He was born to a teenage mother who was in jail by the time he was 8. He had an itinerant childhood, never truly having a place to call home. After fighting through that to emerge as a star in college, Bryant lied to NCAA investigators about his relationship with Deion Sanders, which got him suspended for the final nine games of his junior season.

That’s it. No drugs. No DUIs. No arrests.

“One thing it always came back to, you hear about all these issues, and it’s, ‘Yeah, but he really is a good kid,’ ’’ said a veteran scout assigned to the Big 12, who added that the Dallas offense will be “absolutely terrifying’’ if Bryant pans out.

“They’d always tell me nine, 10 different things that went wrong, but then it was, ‘Yeah, we really like him, he’s a good kid,’ ’’ he continued. “I’m convinced that he does have it in him. But good kids need to grow up, and this one needs to grow up more than most.’’

He had trouble getting to practices and workouts on time, though he did bust his tail when he got there. Toward the end at Oklahoma State, he had a large group of hangers-on. Scouts worried he’s too easily swayed by those around him, and could be ruined by money.

And here’s the other issue: His landing spot. Dallas is within an afternoon’s drive of his hometown (Lufkin, Texas) and his college town (Stillwater, Okla.). Also, the Cowboys aren’t exactly camera-shy, and they’ve already played this one big — draping the No. 88 worn by Michael Irvin and Drew Pearson on their new attraction.

“They’re going to put too much pressure on him,’’ another scout surmised. “He’s going to be expected to be the savior, better than Irvin, all those things. If he went to another team, he’d have a better chance to develop.

“Being from Lufkin, with Deion there in Prosper [a Dallas suburb], their advisers are around there, it’s a comfortable environment. He’s in that comfort zone he got in trouble in to begin with. He’d be better off being away from that.’’

One Cowboys official countered by saying, “No one’s putting more pressure on him than he is. It’s his dream to be a Cowboy. It’s so important to him. I promise you, he’ll fit in.’’

And so, taking all that into account, how did Dallas come to a comfort level so many other teams couldn’t? Outside of clearing him medically (a heart condition was the final straw for some to remove him from consideration), the Cowboys met with him. Extensively.

Again, the talent was obvious.

Some receivers are quick-twitch, others are long-strider speed demons, and Bryant is the rare athlete who is both. He returned punts at Oklahoma State, at 6 feet 2 inches and 225 pounds, the way a scat back would. He attacks the ball, catches it with his hands, and plays a smart game.

But what really showed Sherman what he needed to see was having Bryant in the film room. Bryant called out plays. He called out formations. He explained what his responsibility would be on the board. And, in turn, Sherman formed an idea of how Bryant would be coached.

Then, he delved into finding out more about the person, who came off as a polite yes sir/no sir type.

“I talked to a couple people who are close to him, who know him, and neither one had talked to the other,’’ Sherman said. “They gave me information that was exactly the same, or close to it, and that’s that he’s a special kid. That told me the kid’s going to be OK.

“If there was a discrepancy, I might say, ‘Don’t touch the guy.’ But there was nothing but positive, and these are people I trust.’’

So Sherman started to see things differently. He began wondering why the rumors about Bryant didn’t kick in until after he’d be suspended. He viewed Bryant’s upbringing no longer as a hindrance to his progress, but an example of his resolve to get past it.

The start of the next step was a little messy. Bryant was bent over and gassed at several points in his first practice Friday.

Laughing, the rookie said, “I know exactly what you mean now,’’ referencing Sherman’s message on being in football shape. “But I’ll be ready. I’ll be in shape.’’

And a receivers coach who knows says, “He’s gonna be special.’’

His ability to be that is undeniable. Whether he gets there or not will, at the very least, be a fascinating story to watch.

ALL LINED UP FOR BRADFORD

Pieces put in place before Rams took QB

The Rams’ selection of Sam Bradford may have taken place 10 days ago, and the decision may have come weeks earlier, but the truth is the stage was set for St. Louis to commit to a franchise quarterback in April 2009.

That’s when the Rams took, with the second pick in the draft, Baylor tackle Jason Smith to become the bodyguard for whomever would wind up slinging it long-term for the team.

“Whether it was Jason or one of the other linemen, we wanted to do that first,’’ general manager Billy Devaney said. “We made the decision last year, even with some quality quarterbacks available, that the prudent thing to do was get our offensive line together as much as possible.

“That’s why we signed [center] Jason Brown, that’s why we drafted Jason Smith. That was kind of our thought process, that if we add offensive line talent first, and that quarterback was available [in 2010], that would make it an easy pick.’’

Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff employed a similar, albeit accelerated, strategy in 2008 with Matt Ryan, adding tailback Michael Turner to take the pressure off the young QB, kicker Jason Elam to be a points-producer when drives stalled, and left tackle Sam Baker as a blind-side protector.

The key in both cases was creating a palatable environment in which a quarterback could grow.

“I go back and look at when Ben Roethlisberger came in,’’ Devaney said. “It’s never easy, but for him to be able to turn and hand the ball to the Bus [Jerome Bettis] was huge. And they played great defense, so the quarterback didn’t have to throw the ball 30 times to win.’’

Having Steven Jackson in the backfield will help Bradford, too.

The Rams were ready to make the leap after Bradford’s Pro Day, when he showed almost no fatigue as he ripped through a 100-throw workout, allaying any fears the team had about his shoulder.

“I think he’s got a tremendous ceiling, and wherever that ceiling is, he’ll achieve it, because he’ll work his butt off to get there,’’ Devaney said.

ADVICE FROM THE EDGE

Keep things covered in making transition

For all the hype about college edge rushers converting from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker, almost all of the premier prospects among these types went to 4-3 teams. Koa Misi, taken by the Dolphins at 40th overall, was the first edge-rusher type to be drafted by a club employing a base 3-4 front.

But don’t take that as a sign that teams are scared off by the projection. Players might be hesitant at first, but eventually guys like Misi and even the Patriots’ Jermaine Cunningham will settle in.

“Coming out of college, I preferred to keep my hand in the dirt,’’ said Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, a banshee of a defensive end at Arizona State. “That’s what I was most comfortable with. I’d been successful with that. But fortunately for me, I was drafted to play in the 3-4, and that forced me to sharpen my skills, and made me better.’’

Suggs is one of the success stories, having posted 12 sacks his rookie year and making the first of his three Pro Bowls in Year 2.

But it wasn’t always easy. While Suggs rushed more often than not on passing downs, Baltimore did leave him in coverage some, and unless it was a slow-footed fullback out there, it wasn’t all that comfortable.

“I became the go-to guy: Whoever I was covering, the quarterback made sure to throw to,’’ said Suggs. “You could hear it: ‘Check, check 55!’ It definitely took me at least a year. Some guys learn faster.’’

His advice for guys like Misi and Cunningham?

“One is do the little things,’’ Suggs said. “You have to get your footwork right, when you have time, because that’s new to you and those are things you haven’t done, dropping in coverage. And No. 2, get in your playbook. Know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and you won’t be second-guessing.’’

Remember, this is a guy who at one point questioned the idea of playing the hybrid role. Now, he has a six-year, $63 million contract that says it worked out.

“It makes you a more dangerous player,’’ said Suggs. “Teams can’t key on you.’’

Etc.

Dolphins are hopeful youth will be served
It may be hard to figure what problems the Dolphins might run into with troubled superstar receiver Brandon Marshall in the long term. But so far, so good. The 26-year-old Pro Bowler reported immediately to Miami’s offseason program after the April 14 trade from the Broncos, and has been a steady presence as the team readies for the 2010 season. The Marshall trade is consistent with the Dolphins’ plan to go with a younger team, which includes the installation of 25-year-old Chad Henne at quarterback. This offseason, the Dolphins jettisoned a pair of 30-somethings (Jason Taylor, Joey Porter) and acquired two 20-somethings (Karlos Dansby, Marshall). As it stands, the roster has just seven players who will be 30 or older when the season begins, and with 35-year-old nose tackle Jason Ferguson suspended for the first game, that number dips to six likely to dress for Game 1. Second-round pick Koa Misi or seventh-rounder Chris McCoy is likely to start opposite Cameron Wake at outside linebacker, and first-rounder Jared Odrick, expected to start at defensive end, will probably carry a similarly heavy load. But overall, this retooling looks like the roster overhaul executive vice president Bill Parcells, general manager Jeff Ireland, and coach Tony Sparano helped engineer in Dallas.

Chiefs targeted talent and leadership
It can be senseless to tag winners and losers immediately after the draft, but based on college production, it’d be hard to bring in a better haul than the Chiefs did. Their first-round pick, Tennessee safety Eric Berry, was considered the best in the nation at his position the last two years. Second-round picks Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas were also Associated Press All-Americans. McCluster did it all — running, catching, even throwing out of the “Wild Rebel’’ — at Ole Miss, while Arenas was considered among the country’s best cornerbacks and was just 9 yards short of Wes Welker’s NCAA record for career punt-return yardage. But more than that, it’s worth noting that, for a team that dealt with a fair amount of tumult in 2009 as the organization changed leadership, six of Kansas City’s seven draftees served as team captains. That may not have been intentional, but it also wasn’t an accident. “The type of player that we’re looking for just so happens to generally be the type of person that could or would be a captain on a football team,’’ GM Scott Pioli said. “We went after good football players that had the right kind of makeup.’’

Bills may be playing waiting game
The Bills took heat for not selecting a quarterback until the seventh round — Levi Brown from Troy — but what’s already on the roster may have influenced that decision. And not at the quarterback position. The Bills have many question marks on the offensive line, and throwing a young signal-caller to the wolves could make his development difficult. Buffalo hopes guard Eric Wood and left tackle Demetrius Bell can bounce back from injuries, but until they prove they can, this group is in a state of flux. The team also didn’t add an offensive lineman until the fifth round (Virginia Tech tackle Ed Wang), so help may not be on the way there, either. GM Buddy Nix has said a patient approach will be employed, and the team will build through the draft. The idea, then, could be to lay the foundation now and pounce on one of the highly regarded quarterbacks next year — Washington’s Jake Locker, Stanford’s Andrew Luck, or Arkansas’s Ryan Mallett — when the environment is better for a young quarterback to develop.

Chargers determined to get in running
Chargers GM A.J. Smith felt strongly going into the draft that there was only one thing his team had to address: its running game. That explains why Smith was so resolute in dealing the 28th and 40th picks, while swapping other spare parts/draft picks, to move up to 12th in the first round and take Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews. The price was high, but Smith has reason to be confident. Normally, college production carries over to the pros at tailback, and Mathews led the nation in rushing in 2009. From 2004-07, nine players ranked among the top three in the country in rushing (three guys did it twice). Of that group, Ray Rice and DeAngelo Williams are among the best in the NFL, Kevin Smith and Matt Forte rushed for 1,000 yards as rookies in 2008, and Jerome Harrison broke out for Cleveland last year.

Three and out
It’s worth mentioning, in the wake of the Leon Washington trade, that the Jets played their final nine games in 2009 without him. That said, for a team as loaded with talent as the Jets, they’re really counting on two rookies to produce, and neither guard Vladimir Ducasse nor tailback Joe McKnight — replacements for Alan Faneca and Washington — was a first-round pick. Ducasse, the former University of Massachusetts standout, is moving up from the FCS level of college ball, while McKnight will need to make strides as a pass blocker to fill Washington’s shoes . . . If JaMarcus Russell is, indeed, on the outs in Oakland, his washout will be historic. The last first overall pick to be jettisoned within three years was 1992’s No. 1, Colts defensive tackle Steve Emtman, and his departure was injury-related. The last quarterback to go first overall and get ousted within three years was Terry Baker, the Rams’ selection in 1963 . . . The hype machine will spin out of control again for this year’s version of the Brett Favre saga. But don’t expect it to create inner turmoil for the Vikings. The success that Minnesota had with Favre arriving in mid-August last year should be enough to buoy the team’s belief that such an arrangement can work.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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