The Houston Texans closed out the 2013 season with a 16-10 loss in Week 17 to the Tennessee Titans. Their 2-14 record earned them the dubious honor of being awarded the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
General manager Rick Smith must have already started his “big board” by that time, but it was obviously in its infancy. As the college bowl season wound down, the big-name prospects began to formally declare their intention to enter the draft. Once the Jan. 15 deadline passed, the big board could start to take a more definitive shape.
The NFL Scouting Combine begins Wednesday, Feb. 19, and wraps up on Tuesday, Feb. 25. The workouts will change the minds of some analysts and teams, while others will use the results to confirm what they already believe.
Over the last month, the vast majority of Houston Texans fans have decided which collegiate phenom is the best of the bunch. The decision comes down to one of three quarterbacks or, lacking faith in any member of that trio, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Taking Clowney with the top pick is not an impossibility, just highly improbable. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, there have been 44 drafts. Twenty quarterbacks have been taken with the first pick, with 12 of those selected since 1998.
That’s right, only eight quarterbacks were chosen No. 1 overall in the first 28 drafts after the two leagues merged—the exceptions since 1998 being Courtney Brown (2000), Mario Williams (2006), Jake Long (2008) and Eric Fisher (2013).
That the NFL has become a quarterback league is not just a cliché. Among the quarterbacks taken first overall in the last 15 years, there have been a couple of absolute busts, namely Tim Couch (1999) and JaMarcus Russell (2007), though the aforementioned exceptions have not fared much better: Jake Long is the only one to have even a remote chance at a Hall of Fame career.
The question then becomes whether Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel is the man to take this franchise where it has never gone before. Making this decision is not as easy as telling the waiter at a wedding reception that you want the beef, the chicken or the vegan plate.
Some years the best player is so obvious the decision is made for you. Andrew Luck was a no-brainer for the Indianapolis Colts in 2012. The flip side was last year’s draft when one skill player, wide receiver Tavon Austin, was chosen in the first 10 picks. The Kansas City Chiefs had to use the first overall selection on offensive lineman Eric Fisher, who had a most undistinguished rookie campaign.
One thing is apparent after trying to fathom what Rick Smith and head coach Bill O’Brien might be thinking. When your team has been terrible enough to receive the first overall pick, the reward is not having to guess what the teams drafting before you will do.
The ongoing analysis within the Texans organization boils down to a debate over the three quarterbacks. Their big board for the first round has been effectively reduced to this all-important discussion. Due diligence requires the brain trust to rank every available prospect, even those the team stands no chance of drafting, in the event a too-good-to-refuse trade comes its way.
1. QB Johnny Manziel
There is the chance the evaluations have been done, everyone’s opinion taken into account and all the bases covered. The choice has been made and all that could change it is some earth-shattering incident, a character flaw or an appealing trade scenario.
A more realistic scenario is a two-man race between Bortles and Manziel. This is based entirely on external factors, i.e., the lack of buzz surrounding Bridgewater. The technician from Louisville was the safe choice from the start, the steadiest player with the soundest fundamentals of the three candidates.
O’Brien does not come across as a man that takes the safest path. That sort of person would not have taken control at Penn State in the aftermath of the biggest scandal in the history of college football. The program was ripped from the hands of Joe Paterno, an iconic figure who was treated as a demigod in State College, PA.
To cope with the politics of the situation while keeping the program intact and competitive was a deft balancing act made by a man who had never held the position of the head coach at any level. That kind of experience would leave O’Brien fully equipped to go his own way when filling the most critical position on the team.
How far out on a limb could O’Brien be willing to go? The biggest reach is Bortles, who most observers agree has the potential but must go further than Manziel to reach it.
Bucky Brooks, NFL Media analyst with NFL.com, declared Bortles was “not an elite QB.” While Brooks praised his athleticism and arm strength, he came up short in pocket presence and called attention to his “shoddy footwork under duress,” criticism that has been echoed by other analysts.
George O’Leary, Bortles’ head coach at the University of Central Florida, thinks “a franchise quarterback comes out once every 10 years.” In an interview with Sports Radio 610 in Houston, the coach cited Andrew Luck as an example of such a franchise QB. O’Leary believes Bortles has “all the tools to get it done,” but he will not be ready to do it in his first year.
Which bring us to Johnny Manziel, the most polarizing quarterback in these parts since Vince Young. Opinions vary wildly from veteran NFL writers such as Greg Cosell of NFL Films and John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.
Cosell said Manziel looked “almost undraftable” in losses to LSU and Missouri last season on the Midday 180 program in Nashville. Cosell then summarized his assessment of Manziel:
At times, he's shown very strong flashes of structured pocket play that clearly projects to the NFL. So I think it will come down to how you balance these issues. He's much more of a see-it, throw-it quarterback than an anticipation thrower. He's not really a timing and anticipation thrower on film.
McClain is in the midst of posting a five-part series in the Houston Chronicle that portrays Manziel as a likeable, hardworking young man hungry for success as a professional quarterback. This gave the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner an opportunity to address the character issues that have dogged him since he burst on to the scene.
I was a kid who made some goofball decisions. That's been part of my journey. Maybe it's part of the whole Johnny Football deal that I'm trying to get away from. I'm trying to show people I've grown up and I've learned from my experiences. I feel like you're a stupid person if you continue to make the same wrong decisions.
Tom Brady is thought to be “the ideal quarterback” for O’Brien’s offense. A statuesque pocket-passer who will stand strong and make the quick timing throws that are Brady’s primary weapon. Based on size alone, the 6’3” Bortles fits the prototype.
O’Brien observed firsthand what an undersized quarterback can do as an assistant at Georgia Tech. Joe Hamilton was basically the same height as Russell Wilson (5’10”), and set an ACC career record for total touchdown passes (65) while O’Brien was coaching the Yellow Jackets' running backs.
When O’Brien took charge in 2012 amidst the off-the-field chaos at Penn State, senior Matt McGloin was the only logical choice at quarterback. McGloin fits Manziel’s specs (6’1’, 203 lbs), and credits O’Brien with turning him into an NFL-caliber player.
George Whitfield Jr., Manziel’s quarterback guru from Whitfield Athletix, insists his student measures out at 6'0" even in the McClain profile. Does this answer the size concern for the Texans, or is it still a questionable component of the evaluation process?
Arm strength, reading defenses and “escapability” are also considerations. Bortles said via Twitter he is “fired up” to throw at the combine, while Manizel will wait until his pro day at Texas A&M. The competition could continue right up until draft day, but for the moment Manziel is in the lead.
2. OT Jake Matthews
After quarterback Matt Schaub, Houston's right tackle Derek Newton was public enemy No. 2 when it came to the collapse of the Texans offense. As a senior at Texas A&M, Matthews switched from right tackle to cover Johnny Manziel’s blind side.
His strength is run-blocking and needs to get lighter on his feet to stick with speed-rushers. If the new regime follows the “Patriot Way,” the emphasis on pass-blocking would make Matthews more of a project than the first pick should be.
3. OLB Anthony Barr
Most pass-rushers in college defenses are not asked to do anything more than get after the quarterback. Redirecting running backs to the inside and dropping into coverage are additional job requirements for NFL outside linebackers. Barr must to get up to speed in both these areas to realize his potential.
4. DE Jadeveon Clowney
The clash of tangibles vs. intangibles creates a haze surrounding the true value of Clowney. Is he a dedicated football freak who is capable of a running 4.46 time in the 40? Or is NFL.com draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki on the mark when he wrote that Clowney, “Lacks discipline on and off the field and has had to be managed closely since he arrived on campus”?
Even a three-sack junior season at South Carolina could not knock him off the top of most draft rankings. The tangibles have won out for the time being. This is one combine participant whose interview sessions will carry as much weight as his physical performance.
5. OT Greg Robinson
Robinson is more fluid than Jake Matthews when it comes to sticking with his opponent on passing plays. His size (6’5”, 320 lbs) and strength are excellent, and he boasts a thick lower body that is ideal for an offensive lineman.
Matthew Fairburn of SB Nation thinks Robinson “is the best run blocker in this draft class” but didn’t have to pass block very often. Auburn attempted fewer than 20 passes per game in 2013, giving NFL scouts less video to work with than most tackle prospects. His ability to fit in with most NFL teams then becomes a matter of conjecture.
6. OLB Khalil Mack
Mack tied the FBS record of 75 tackles-for-loss playing a combination defensive end/outside linebacker. He possesses a sturdier build than Anthony Barr but cannot match his speed.
His level of competition playing at the University of Buffalo in addition to the usual transition difficulties of becoming a fulltime linebacker are the probable subjects of discussion in the scouting fraternity. A standout combine is his best shot at vaulting past Barr.
7. WR Sammy Watkins
A faster version of his old Clemson teammate DeAndre Hopkins, Watkins recorded two touchdowns of over 90 yards last season among his 12 total scores. According to Josh Kendall of The State newspaper, Watkins is prepared to “dominate the combine” with a supernatural display of speed.
He looks more like a finesse safety than an in-the-box banger like D.J. Swearinger. Clinton-Dix could have the last laugh as a ball-hawking deep safety in the Ed Reed mold, pre-2013 of course.
9. DT Louis Nix III
New Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is on the lookout for a roadblock to man the middle of his two-gap defensive line. At 6'2" and 345 pounds, Nix has the mass plus adequate mobility but lacks the conditioning to step in and contribute immediately due to the recovery from his ACL injury.
10. CB Darqueze Dennard
Dennard compares favorably to Johnathan Joseph, as he has all the tools to be a lockdown corner. Like Joseph, he also played through a double sports hernia that required surgery before his senior year. The recovery failed to slow him down since he was named an AP first-team All-American.
11. WR Marqise Lee
A combination of injuries and the exits of quarterback Matt Barkley and fellow wide receiver Robert Woods brought the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner back down to earth in 2013. His height (5’11”) makes slot receiver, a position of need for Houston, an option if he has the durability to make a living over the middle.
12. DE Kony Ealy
His renown these days is more as Michael Sam’s teammate than as the best pass-rushing defensive end available. Ealy needs to get stronger to handle the point of attack but has the feet to play out of a two-point stance as a 3-4 OLB.
13. CB Justin Gilbert
Dennard displays the kind of leadership the immature Gilbert cannot, although their talent and technique are equivalent. On the plus side, Gilbert has a knack for busting kick returns for big plays (six career touchdowns), something the Texans are desperate to add to their arsenal.
14. ILB C.J. Mosley
If the San Francisco 49ers had won the Super Bowl as the NFC representative, their unrivaled pair of inside linebackers would have been the next big thing instead of the Seattle Seahawks dynamic defensive backfield. And Mosley would have garnered more respect in the process.
That will have to wait until after the draft, when this ILB from Alabama turns into an every-down player in the image of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
15. TE Eric Ebron
This formidable tight end will not have the same irresistible impact that Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski brings to the game. Ebron (6’4”, 245 lbs) is closer to Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez in style and stature. He is only 21 and will need time to develop the necessary power to take full advantage of his gifts.
16. SS Calvin Pryor
The ideal safety could be kludged from the ball skills of Clinton-Dix and the nasty temperament of Pryor. As it stands, run support and punishing tackles are Pryor’s forte and more pertinent in a Cover 1 environment as opposed to Cover 2 in the Crennel system.
17. OT Cyrus Kouandjio
Kouandjio was born in Cameroon and highly recruited out of DeMatha H.S. in Maryland. Too often his play makes it appear as if he is new to the game. What is lacking in his pass-blocking technique is offset by his strength. The former could catch up with the latter under the right coach and system, preferably one that is devoted to running the football.
18. DT Ra'Shede Hageman
This 6’6”, 318 pound defensive tackle is not the square, squat type that could anchor the middle of a 3-4 line. The absence of any sophistication in using his long arms to gain an advantage removes him from consideration for a 5-technique defensive end.
19. DT Aaron Donald
The antithesis of Hageman, Donald is the reigning Outland Trophy winner who is barely 6’0” and just 285 pounds. But he can get that compact package moving with minimal delay and never stops trying to influence the play. Seeing whether Donald could be another Elvis Dumervil or the next John Randle will make for interesting viewing over the course of his rookie contract.
20. OLB Kyle Van Noy
This is the point where the line between the bottom of the first round and the top of the second starts to close. Should the Texans hold on to the first pick, their war room will wondering if Van Noy will be the first of the falling stars. The dilemma will be whether his striking resemblance as a player to Brooks Reed is enough to knock him off their board.
21. DE Dee Ford
Another college defensive end that must convert to linebacker. He will have to adapt to holding his own on stretch zone runs and C-gap cutbacks, give slot receivers a smack before they get into their routes and hang with tight ends wherever they go. Nothing to it, right?
22. DT Stephon Tuitt
Tuitt is indistinguishable from Hageman in just about every aspect. His length (6’6”) and weight (311 lbs) are the attraction; a lack of consistency and not much dexterity with his hands and arms are the blemishes. O’Brien should let both slide on by and wait on former Penn State DT DaQuan Jones at the top of the third round.
23. WR Allen Robinson
Another Nittany Lion with first-round qualifications who would be the perfect No. 3 receiver for the Texans. Big enough (6’3”, 210 lbs) to have the edge over the slot cornerbacks who will try to cover him on the shallow slants O’Brien used to run for Wes Welker.
24. TE Jace Amaro
Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com described the 6’5”, 260-pound Amaro as a “slot receiver." Amaro paradoxically broke the NCAA record for receiving yards by a tight end. He will remind Texans fans of Aaron Hernandez, a tight end in name only, who was also run out of the slot and not expected to be much of a run-blocker.
25. OG David Yankey
Left guard Wade Smith will be allowed to walk, opening up his position for either David Quessenberry or Ben Jones. A better alternative would be Yankey, a 2013 first team All-American at guard for Stanford. He is just the kind of power blocker who matches up perfectly with Brandon Brooks on the right side.