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Texans: quality rates over quantity


Equipped with his own private library on recent NFL expansion, general manager Charley Casserly needs only to roam the halls of the Houston Texans' offices to find a ready answer for virtually any sticky question.

That's because the Texans' head coach is the same Dom Capers who coached the Carolina Panthers through their infancy in 1995.

And their offensive coordinator is none other than Chris Palmer, who was head coach of the reborn Cleveland Browns' expansion team three years ago.

That gives Casserly a treasure trove of expansion perspective at his elbow, and he is quick to utilize it.

"One of the fun things here is that if I personally have a question about what happened with an expansion team in the past, I don't have to pick up the phone, I just walk down the hall," Casserly said.

"Dom was in Carolina, you have Chris in Cleveland and they both worked in Jacksonville. ... I've asked them a million questions. They've been great. That has certainly helped us formulate our plans there."

Those plans will go public today when the Texans' expansion draft unfolds at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, starting at 3 p.m. on ESPN. The NFL's newest team is expected to select between 15 and 25 players from a surprisingly stout veteran allocation pool of 155.

Unlike 1999, when none of the 150 players available to the Browns had ever graced a Pro Bowl roster, this year's list of unprotected players includes 20 who have been selected to a total of 63 Pro Bowls.

Those are deceptive numbers, however, because many of the all-stars are well past their prime. Tennessee center Bruce Matthews, with 14 Pro Bowls, is 40 years old and on the verge of retirement. San Francisco 49ers guard Ray Brown is 39, Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Randall McDaniel is 37, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler is 36 and Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski turns 36 in April.

Indeed, the gems in this class of expansionists are young, unknown talents on the rise or star-quality players with high salary-cap numbers. New York Jets offensive tackle Ryan Young, who helped running back Curtis Martin roll up a club-record 1,513 rushing yards this season, fits the former category. A pair of Ravens - linebacker Jamie Sharper and kick returner Jermaine Lewis - fit the latter.

Sharper, a big-play linebacker who often was overlooked playing beside Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, could be one of the first players taken today. Although a team can pull one player off the unprotected list once another player has been selected, the Ravens aren't expected to pull back Lewis, who has a $4.164 million cap figure. The salary cap number is a combination of prorated signing bonus and annual salary.

The Texans sound intrigued with the Ravens' specialist, who scored touchdowns on kick or punt returns in each of the past two postseasons. Two other return specialists - Charlie Rogers of the Seattle Seahawks and Michael Bates of the Washington Redskins - also are available, but Lewis, 27, is unquestionably the best of the group.

"They're important," Casserly said of kick returners during a national conference call last week. "If he is a game-breaker or close to a game-breaker, certainly that's a valuable part of the game. If you have somebody that can score from anyplace on the field, that's a weapon. Starting out, we're going to be short in some areas. A weapon like that could be a tremendous asset for you."

Some assets will fall under a cloud of medical reports. Because the Jacksonville Jaguars are more than $23 million over the 2002 salary cap, they left unprotected five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tony Boselli. But Boselli had operations on both shoulders last season and has had injuries to his knees and ankles.

Although reports suggest Boselli took a physical in Houston that alleviated those concerns, the Texans have not committed publicly to the seven-year veteran.

Neither would they express an opinion on Buffalo Bills quarterback Rob Johnson, who carries a prohibitive cap number of $11.2 million. The Texans reportedly will take Fresno State quarterback David Carr with the first pick in April's college draft.

Under expansion draft rules, the Texans are required to select either 30 or more players, or fill 38 percent of their salary cap - $27.2 million - with players chosen in the draft. The three previous expansion teams - Panthers, Jaguars and Browns - all opted to take 30-plus players.

On June 1, the minimum salaries of players taken in the expansion draft become guaranteed. That money would still be owed players who were cut, creating so-called dead money.

By Casserly's calculations, if the Texans elected to draft 30-some players, it would leave them with $10 million in dead money. So he decided to take the other approach, fill 38 percent of his salary cap and apply that $10 million toward better players.

To avoid eating salaries of players who might not complete their contracts, Casserly decided to eliminate from consideration all players over 30 years old.

Then, because this year's class of unrestricted free agents is expected to be the weakest since free agency began in 1993, he opted to place more emphasis on the expansion draft.

"This is the thinnest free-agent group there's ever been," said Casserly, a former general manager with the Redskins. "So you only have so many slots to work with your big-money players.

"The majority of our big-money signings are going to come in the expansion draft as opposed to free agency. We will be taking some players ... that are going to be starters."

Of the 35 players Capers got in Carolina's 1995 expansion draft, only 14 made the opening day roster. (Twenty of Jacksonville's 31 picks were on the roster on opening day.) Back then, Capers drafted for older, more experienced players, particularly on defense.

Looking back, he decided it wasn't the best choice, even though the Panthers won their division and reached the NFC championship game in their second season.

"We all learn from our experiences," Capers said. "In many ways, I think the success we had early at Carolina - we won 20 games the first two years - ended up hurting us in the long run. We were going into the third year, we were picking 27th in the draft, we were playing the first-place schedule."

Carolina went 7-9 and 4-12 the next two seasons, costing Capers his job, and hasn't been back to the playoffs since.

"When you have older players, they play great the first couple years," Capers said. "But as they descended, we didn't have the youth there to pick it up. It actually worked against us.

"The blueprint we have here ... might take a little longer. We'll have to be more patient, have the courage to stick with it, but hopefully it's a blueprint to eventually win a championship."

Expansion draft

What: Draft for expansion Houston Texans.

When: Today, 3 p.m., Houston

How it works: The Texans must select between 30 and 42 players, or fewer as long as the salaries total 38 percent of the Texans' cap. Teams can remove one of their five players exposed when one has been taken. No team can lose more than two players.

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