In 2013, there was endless debate about whether any NFL prospects were worth a No. 1 overall pick. Teams drafted an unprecedented three offensive tackles in the first four picks, and two guards in the top 10. The naysayers looked smart when very few 2013 first-rounders went on to make a big impact.
In 2014, the debate isn't about whether there's a player worth the No. 1 overall pick, but about which of several outstanding prospects will go No. 1 overall.
NFL Media's Mike Mayock called 2014's draft class "the deepest draft in ten years," per Pro Football Talk's Curtis Crabtree. It's top-heavy and fat in the middle rounds, with intriguing prospects available all the way through the second day.
Will teams let the draft come to them, relying on those intriguing mid-rounders to fill positional needs, or will they pay a premium for the cream of a rich crop of talent?
Will the No. 1 pick be a quarterback, as usual? If so, which quarterback? Will the top pick be super-prospect Jadeveon Clowney? Maybe an offensive tackle, but which one? Could there be a surprise like edge-rusher Khalil Mack or receiver Sammy Watkins?
Which prospect do the Houston Texans like—and will the Texans even be the ones sending the first card to the Radio City Music Hall podium on May 8?
The Mighty No. 1 Overall
According to Pro Football Reference, there have been 84 No. 1 overall draft picks.
Fourteen are Hall of Famers, with more yet to be inducted. Thirty-two were quarterbacks. Since the draft became a major televised event, all of them have been paraded around on stage at the draft and in the media for days afterward.
Even after the 2011 collective bargaining agreement reduced rookie contracts, No. 1 overall picks are still paid like quality veterans. 2013 top pick Eric Fisher has a four-year, $22.2 million contract with roughly $16.7 million guaranteed, per Spotrac.com. He received a $10 million check within five days of inking the deal, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport (via NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal). The vast majority of players in this draft will never see that kind of payday.
For good or for ill, No. 1 overall picks become the faces of their franchises—either a great player, or a great disappointment.
The only player everyone agrees is worth the hallowed No. 1 is Clowney, the beastly pass-rusher from South Carolina.
Writers have spilled gallons of ink on his freakish athleticism and incredible potential. At 6'6" and 266 pounds, per NFL.com, with 34.5" arms, a combine-timed 4.53-second 40-yard dash and mind-boggling explosion numbers across the board, he projects as a once-in-a-generation monster off the edge.
His final season's production didn't match his hype, however; analysts have been questioning his commitment and dogging his effort for the last seven months. With less than two weeks to go before the draft, NFL Media's Albert Breer reported an anonymous NFL executive's doubts, recounted by NFL.com's Bryan Fischer.
"What are you buying?" the executive asked Breer. "I'm not sure. He can be a big-time player, but is he gonna be? The wiring, the motor, the questions about shutting it down—it's really scary. It's boom or bust. I don't know how important football is to him."
Even if Clowney isn't going to unlock the weight room every morning, or pull a Ronnie Lott and get a broken finger amputated to keep playing, passing on a Hall of Fame talent could not only get a general manager fired, but remembered forever as a laughingstock.
As far as quarterbacks go, Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller has been adamant: Teddy Bridgewater is clearly the best in this draft, essentially tied with Clowney as the top prospect.
Bridgewater is clearly the most polished passer of the group, and the most NFL-ready in terms of reading defenses and executing an offense. He's a smart, athletic, quick decision-maker who makes great throws.
The only hole in his game is a lack of elite size. Coming off of a season where 5'11" Russell Wilson led his team to a Super Bowl championship, you'd think that wouldn't be much of a negative.
Yet, Bridgewater's ill-advised decision not to throw at the combine, his underwhelming performance at Louisville's pro day, a report by Chris Mortensen of ESPN that Bridgewater's private workouts were "shaky," per Pro Football Talk, and a ridiculous narrative about the size of his hands have combined to drop Bridgewater's public draft stock.
But is he really falling down NFL teams' boards? How much weight will teams place on rumors over his lengthy track record of excellent play?
Back in February, John McClain of the Houston Chronicle told Bleacher Report that Texans head coach Bill O'Brien would likely opt for Blake Bortles, as Bortles played for O'Brien's mentor, George O'Leary, at Central Florida:
Bortles looks the part of the "Golden Boy" No. 1 overall quarterback. He's tall, big, strong, athletic, interviews well and carried Central Florida to a 12-1 season and a No. 10 overall ranking in his senior year.
Yet, as I saw on film, there are holes in his game and some real question marks about how quickly he'll be able to translate his college performances into NFL success.
Worse yet, if Bridgewater's 9.25" hands truly are a fatal flaw, Bortles' are, too. NFL.com measures Bortles' at 9.375". Is .125" of pinky-finger length going to be the difference between glorious success in the NFL and miserable failure? Of course not.
With the evolution of the passing game and offensive line, left tackle has become a real option at the top of the draft.
In the first 72 years of the draft, only three offensive linemen were taken No. 1 overall, including Orlando Pace in 1997. Since then, Fisher and Jake Long have been the first picks off the board. Five others were taken in the top five since Long in 2008, including those three in 2013.
Greg Robinson, as I wrote just before he exploded at the combine, is blessed with the exact combination of top-notch physical features and athleticism that causes players to explode at the combine—and rocket up draft boards. Not only does he possess the elite size (6'5", 332 pounds) and tools you can't teach, he developed rapidly over his final year at Auburn.
Jake Matthews is a more polished, more NFL-ready left tackle, but at 6'5", 308 pounds, he's not much smaller than Robinson. His combine-measured 30.5" vertical leap and 7.34-second three-cone drill time, per NFL.com, reflect the fast, fluid athlete he appears to be on film.
Whether an NFL team likes Robinson or Matthews more is likely a matter of taste—and how badly it needs an excellent left tackle on the field in 2014.
Finally, there's an outside chance we could see a big surprise. Peter King of The MMQB reports a "friend" of Texans general manager Rick Smith prefers Mack to Clowney.
Could Mack be even more productive than Clowney? As a natural outside linebacker, he makes more sense as a rush linebacker in the Texans' 3-4 alignment and would have an easier transition. Then again, Clowney competed in the SEC, while Mack played at tiny Buffalo in the MAC. As explosive as Mack is, he makes more sense a few spots lower.
There's no question the Jacksonville Jaguars could use more offensive weapons, and receiver Sammy Watkins could be their choice at No. 3. Back in February, Miller reported the St. Louis Rams (who hold the No. 2 pick) sent scouts to Clemson to interview coaches about the talented wideout.
Of course, the most likely team to exercise the No. 1 overall pick is the Texans. They currently hold the pick, they have holes to fill and Smith is not a wheeler-dealer. If they stand pat, it'll be the third time they pick first overall since joining the league in 2002.
In seven drafts as Texans general manager, Smith has only made two major trades. In 2007, he sent two second-round picks to the Atlanta Falcons for Matt Schaub. In 2008, he traded down from No. 18 to the Baltimore Ravens' No. 26, picking up the Ravens' third- and sixth-round picks.
Beyond that savvy slide down (for excellent left tackle Duane Brown), Smith has let the first round come to him:
|Houston Texans 1st-Round Picks Under Rick Smith|
|2008||1||26||Duane Brown||T||Virginia Tech|
|Pro Football Reference|
Smith's predecessor, Charlie Casserly, used the 2006 No. 1 overall pick on defensive end Mario Williams, and the Texans' 2005 first-rounder on defensive tackle Travis Johnson. Were Smith to take Clowney, that would be seven defensive linemen taken with their last 10 first-round picks.
Not counting the Schaub trade, Smith has only drafted two quarterbacks in seven years: T.J. Yates, a backup found in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, and Alex Brink, who has yet to play a single NFL snap, in the seventh round of the 2008 draft.
Clearly, Smith likes defensive linemen in the first round and has been shy about pulling the trigger on a quarterback—but if he doesn't draft one in this class, who'll pull the trigger on O'Brien's offense?
"I don't think there's any question that we'll draft a quarterback in the draft," O'Brien told NFL Network in March, as quoted by Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith. "Where we draft that quarterback, I don't think we know yet." O'Brien named eight different prospects, from Bridgewater and Bortles down to Tom Savage and Jimmy Garoppolo, keeping their options open.
Lending even more credence to the idea that Smith will take a can't-miss defender first and a quarterback later, McClain—who's covered Houston football for over three decades—has since switched his projection to Clowney.
What about door No. 3? Perhaps Smith has his eyes on another prospect, like tight end Eric Ebron, or wants to snag one of the top quarterbacks at a lower draft spot, and he again looks to trade down.
Smith might be even sneakier about it. NFL Media's Gil Brandt tweeted the Texans should consider mimicking what the San Diego Chargers did in 2004: Draft the consensus best-available guy, and then flip him to another team while their real target is still on the board.
If that's their game, Smith may have a couple of willing partners.
ESPN's Ed Werder recently reported, via Rotoworld's Evan Silva on Twitter, the Texans are looking to do just that: move out of No. 1.
As CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora recently tweeted, the Atlanta Falcons may be in play to move up from No. 6, in a move for Clowney:
The Falcons aren't the only team drooling over Clowney. As New Era Scouting's Scott Bischoff recently reported, and Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Mike Freeman confirmed, the Detroit Lions are shopping All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to move up "as high as possible" in the first round.
Could this be a move up to No. 1 for Watkins, whom Lions executives, coaches and players openly covet, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press? Or if they trade away Suh to move up, would they look to replace that up-front pressure with Clowney?
This is just connecting dots, but Lions assistant defensive line coach and pass-rush specialist Jim Washburn ran many of the drills at Clowney's pro day. Could the Lions scouts and coaches have fallen even harder for Clowney than Watkins?
The Rams have two first-round picks, as do the Cleveland Browns—but the Rams pick at No. 2 and the Browns at No. 4; there's little indication that either team won't be happy to have their pick of whichever elite prospects fall to them.
After that, the options dwindle. Few teams have the ammo to move up, and in the wake of free agency many teams are pushing up against the salary cap. Moving veterans might be financially hard to pull off, and moving from outside the top 10 to No. 1 overall would require massive value in return.
And the Winner Is...
No. 1 draft picks don't get traded very often, for a number of reasons. Even though the Texans are looking to move down, it's hard to see a partner with enough ammunition and motivation to move up.
The Falcons, whose talented roster massively underwhelmed in 2013, might be a Clowney away from returning to the playoffs and saving head coach Mike Smith's job. Or they might give up a lot of much-needed depth in return for a player who needs a year or two to reach his potential.
Either way, I see the Texans ultimately executing the pick.
If a general manager like Smith needs a franchise quarterback, owns the No. 1 overall pick, believes that one of the quarterbacks available is for real and doesn't take him, he could be dooming the Texans for years to come—and sealing his own fate.
Though I like Bridgewater and Bortles much better than I liked JaMarcus Russell, Smith should take a lesson from 2008, when the Oakland Raiders passed on Calvin Johnson to take Russell: If the draft class has an obvious, no-doubt, generational talent, you don't pass on him just because you need a quarterback.
Clowney is the best player in this draft, and possibly the best overall prospect since Johnson. Smith may be dooming his team to three more years of poor quarterback play, but Clowney will likely go No. 1.