2006-05-05 / Sports

Jets Rebuild One (Offensive ) Line At A Time

By Brian Bohl

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.-Inside the Jets' draft headquarters at Weeb Ewbank Hall, it came down to an interesting dilemma for the team's front office.

With Reggie Bush and Vince Young off the board by the time New York was on the clock with the fourth pick, rookie general manager Mike Tan-nenbaum has his choice between local product and top rated offensive lineman D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Matt Leinart, the quarterback with the California cool.

Despite Leinart's potential to be the next Joe Namath in terms of marketability and passing prowess, Tannenbaum and new head coach Eric Mangini made the safe choice in their first NFL draft, tapping Ferguson to anchor the left side of a depleted offensive line.

"For us to get a left tackle of D'Brick-ashaw's caliber, it is a nice fit for us in terms of need," said Mangini.

The selection ended months of speculation that included a slew of trade permutations. By taking Ferguson, a Freeport native, the Jets passed on the chance to trade up for Bush with the second pick and get a player that could have been groomed as an explosive successor to aging running back Curtis Martin.

They also passed on taking the media-savvy Leinart, who would have brought his championship pedigree to the Meadowlands. In a remarkable career at USC, Leinart garnered a Heisman Trophy and two NCAA championships. Though considered either the first or second best quarterback in the draft by many experts, Tannenbaum said acquiring a player to protect the quarterback position was the best choice for the franchise.

"Rarely is it so pronounced where a need and the board match up."

Tannenbaum admitted his team had conversations with the Saints to trade up for the number two pick, but declined to specify if a specific proposal was made. Both the head coach and general manager were adamant that they selected Ferguson because they felt he was the best player on the board and one that fills an immediate need, regardless of any outside considerations.

"For us, he was the total package," said Tannenbaum. "He played in a program we have a lot of familiarity with. He's grounded and looking to improve as a player."

Newly acquired quarterback Patrick Ramsey and the rehabilitating Chad Pennington will now have a 6'6- 312 pound left tackle to keep them upright as they battle for the starting job.

Ferguson was a four-year starter at the University of Virginia. He is coming off a senior season in which he allowed only three sacks and two quarterback pressures in 10 games. His presence should alleviate the pressure on an offensive line that was in the lower echelon of the league statistically last year.

"I don't think there could be a better feeling," said Ferguson. "Whenever you can come back home, it definitely speaks volumes and I'm real proud to be a part of this organization."

The reaction by Jets fans inside Radio City Music Hall was typically mixed, with the customary boos mixed in with a fair amount of cheers. While some fans may have wanted the personable Leinart, a large number in attendance were excited to have a potential 10-year starter as the cornerstone of a rebuilding line.

"The fact that the Jets fans showed me a lot of love really spoke volumes to me," Ferguson stated. "I know that I'm welcome here at this city. It is my home. So let's make it happen."

Many draft experts had Leinart as a top five pick, but he saw his stock drop considerably, falling all the way down to Cardinals with the tenth selection. Ferguson is the first offensive tackle taken by the Jets in the first round since Dave Cadigan in 1988.

Though the first pick gets the most publicity, the Jets had five picks in the draft's first day. They fortified their offensive line depth even more, taking Ohio State center Nick Mangold 29th overall near the end of the first round. He will be given the chance to replace Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae, who was cut earlier this off-season for salary cap reasons.

Though they waited until the 53rd overall selection, the front office did get a quarterback, taking Kellen Clemens in the second round. The 6'2 Oregon star was chosen after the Jets traded down earlier in the round, switching positions with Washington in exchange for a sixth rounder this year and a second round pick in 2007. Ohio State ILB Anthony Schlegel and Michigan State SS Eric Smith rounded out the team's third round, in which the Jets had their own selection and a compensatory pick.

The 71st annual NFL Draft put the Jets in a familiar predicament, having a high draft pick with multiple holes to fill. With two first-round draft choices, they had the resources to target any player they wished, but Tannenbaum said the 2005 All-American and Offensive Lineman of the Year was the perfect fit for a club that is looking to rebuild off a 4-12 season with a new coaching staff and front office shakeup.

He also cited the fans generally positive reaction as something that will hopefully continue when they start playing the games.

"I just hope they have the same feeling after opening day," said Tannenbaum.

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