CHARLOTTE -- When Panthers coach John Fox envisioned the defense he wanted to build here, he was fortunate to be able to draft defensive end Julius Peppers with the second overall choice in 2002.
The Houston Texans and coach Gary Kubiak feel the same way about thier own Carolina-born end, with last year's top pick, Mario Williams from N.C. State, finally showing the promise they saw a year ago when they took him first overall.
Williams had two sacks and recovered a fumble and took it 42 yards for a touchdown last week, en route to AFC defensive player of the week honors. It was the kind of game they never realized his rookie year despite the expectations placed on him.
"That's the goal to have a game like that and run with it," Williams said. "Just keep getting better, correcting the mistakes that I made. The game is behind me; I have a tough opponent this week with the Carolina Panthers. I have to go out and there and run with it like I said and just keep going."
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Of course, since he arrived, the Texans have been justifying his choice. Most thought taking Reggie Bush was a no-brainer, and some wanted them to take in-state quarterback Vince Young.
But when asked if they'd do everything the same now, Kubiak answered quickly with a "You bet," and said the constant comparisons to his draft class were unfair.
"It kind of goes with it, we are the ones that put him in that situation, it's not the kid's fault," Kubiak said. "It's part of the game and I think that he has understood that from day one. I've been impressed with how he has handled it. Even though you have to listen to that all the time, I don't think Mario has ever gotten caught up in that."
Panthers quarterback David Carr, Houston's other top choice (in 2002) said last week that most folks didn't realize Williams spent his rookie year dealing with a painful foot injury, which helped limit him to 4.5 sacks, hardly what anyone thought he was capable of.
"He was injured last year and his foot was giving him a lot of problems," Carr said. "I would walk in with him in the morning and he's limping, probably 80 percent of the time last year. It went all the way through the last game and he didn't have the power or explosiveness that he wanted.
"Mario is not a bad player. He's a great football player. They made it sound like he was a bad football player. To tell you the truth, he wouldn't have been in consideration with those top three picks if he was a bad player. So it's not his fault. He got drafted where he got drafted and he's doing what he can do. You can't ask any more of the guy. But as far as the choice, that will always be a debate and will go down until those guys retire."
• IN THE SAME CLASS: Kubiak had high praise for his quarterback, former Atlanta backup Matt Schaub, saying he belonged among the first-round quarterbacks the year he came into the league.
Even though Schaub had just two NFL starts, the Texans traded away two second-round draft picks for him (along with moving down two spots in this year's first round), got rid of Carr to make room, then lavished a six-year, $48 million contract on him to run the team.
Schaub was originally the 90th overall choice in the 2004 draft, the fifth quarterback taken after first-rounders Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and J.P. Losman.
"I studied him extremely hard when he came out," Kubiak said. "He came out with the class that you thought would be successful in this league. We thought he belonged with that group, we thought he would be a guy who would get a chance to be a starter in this league. That's what drew our attention to him.
"Of course the fact that he was running a system that was very close to ours. We knew a few guys in this league that had coached him in the past that I have a lot of respect for, they had nothing but good things to say about him. So we are getting the guys that football is extremely important to. He works hard at it, and is a gym rat. We are going to have to build a good football team around him for him to be successful, but he is definitely doing his part. He works very hard at it."
• EXTRA POINTS: Former Panthers receiver and current ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson said last week he expected the Panthers to either win the division or push New Orleans and make the playoffs. Of course, he also expected them to start 0-2, apparently.
Johnson picked the Panthers to lose at St. Louis last week, and he's calling a Houston win this week. ...
The Panthers added two starters to the injury report Friday, with defensive end Mike Rucker probable and safety Deke Cooper questionable with the ever-popular "thigh" injury. Both practiced on a limited basis. To no surprise, safety Nate Salley was listed as out, while defensive end Stanley McClover was doubtful. Those two didn't practice Friday. ...
Even though he was hit with a unnecessary roughness penalty last week for nailing St. Louis receiver Isaac Bruce (knocking his helmet off in the process), Panthers safety Chris Harris wasn't fined by the league for the incident.