With the clock ticking toward noon Saturday, the Houston Texans are going to have to make considerable progress in a short period of time if the team is to complete a contract agreement with Southern California tailback Reggie Bush before the start of the draft.
Despite reports that contend the two sides are close to an accord, and that there was a breakthrough in a long bargaining session earlier this week, ESPN.com has confirmed through sources close to the talks that movement has been incremental at best.
One source termed the talks "a little bit like being in quicksand."
There were discussions each of the last two days, but they were brief -- particularly Thursday -- and the two sides remain far apart on the numbers. The Bush camp is hoping to reach the maximum value for a six-year contract. Under the restrictions presented by the collective bargaining agreement guidelines, that is likely to be in the area of $54 million, with about half of that in guarantees after the option mechanism is exercised. There remains ample time to consummate an agreement before the draft, but just the hours required to craft what could be a 30- or 40-page contract document could make things challenging.
It is believed the Texans, who feel they should not award a premium contract to a non-quarterback, even a Heisman Trophy winner possessing Bush's scintillating playmaker skills, are well shy of those numbers. Last year's top pick, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, signed a six-year contract worth $49.5 million, with $24 million guaranteed.
Another factor that slowed talks a bit was a report suggesting the Texans had cleverly leveraged Bush by simultaneously negotiating with North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams, the only other candidate for the top spot in the draft. That report angered some members of the Bush family and seemed to further steel the USC star's resolve to land a contract he considered to be market value.
Because they own the No. 1 spot in the lottery, the Texans are permitted to conduct negotiations with as many prospects as they want, and general manager Charley Casserly has said his team is in talks with the representatives for Williams, the top defensive player on many draft boards. But negotiations are not as far along with Williams, who received a new proposal from the Texans on Tuesday or Wednesday, as they are with Bush, who is still expected to be the first player selected.
There is speculation the Texans have spent time this week doing their due diligence after weekend reports that Bush's family had been living in a home supplied to them by a man who hoped to represent the star running back in marketing pursuits.
Houston officials certainly don't want any surprise allegations that might tarnish Bush's image as a high-character player. On Tuesday, Bush spoke with Casserly by phone to allay any such concerns. ESPN.com has learned that Bush met with NFL security officials on Thursday to answer their questions.
Although it is not imperative that the first choice in the draft be signed before the proceedings commence, Houston owner Bob McNair prefers that be the case. But over the past 10 years, only three of the top picks had deals in place before the draft began. One of those players was Texans quarterback David Carr, the first selection in the 2002 draft.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.