The Houston Texans find themselves facing the 2015 NFL draft in an entirely different position than last year. The overwhelming choice for the first overall selection in 2014 was Jadeveon Clowney. The debate was about his potential for greatness—not whether another prospect was worthy of supplanting Clowney.
This draft is about contingencies, as it is for every team outside of the top three spots. If player X at position Y is not available when the Texans’ pick comes around at No. 16, what is the best move?
For the sake of argument, let’s say general manager Rick Smith and head coach Bill O’Brien have pegged Louisville wide receiver DeVante Parker as their preferred target for the pick. If Parker is gone, is the best decision to go vertically down the receiver list for Breshad Perriman out of Central Florida or make a lateral move for a defensive back or outside linebacker?
The void left by the release of Andre Johnson feels like the most pressing problem. To many, it is closer to an open wound, and nothing less than a first-round talent can staunch the bleeding. The recent additions of Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington are the stitches that can let the healing begin.
The unparalleled achievements of the 2014 class of rookie receivers is proof devoting the Texans’ most valuable draft resource to this position is the best way to go. This presumption works if the “unparalleled” part is ignored.
Greg Bedard of SI.com's The MMQB called upon Aaron Schatz and Vincent Verhei of Football Outsiders to help answer a question posed by a reader. Were the numbers posted by Odell Beckham, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin the result of “colleges adopting more pro-style systems,” and was “there a way to measure…if they are truly more prepared than in years past?” The reader was seeking confirmation of whether a trend of NFL-ready receivers coming straight out of school actually existed and whether this trend has predictable characteristics.
The guys from FootballOutsiders.com say we should wait before calling this a new trend. From their point of view, this special draft class of receivers was an anomaly. ...
Schatz agrees. He pointed out that in the Playmaker Score section of their preseason almanac, they predicted unprecedented success for this year’s rookie class of receivers.
The caution about the existence of a trend is understandable because this level of production by first-year players had never happened before. But it did happen, which forces the following question: Could the league be in for a repeat?
The draft tracker at NFL.com assigns a numerical grade to each prospect. The top 32 wide receivers in 2014 ranged from 7.3 to 4.8, with an average of 5.5 for the lot. The same tabulation for 2015 covers a range from 7.1 to 5.2, with an average of 5.6.
Ron Clements of The Sporting News published an article whose title needs no explanation: “2015 class of wide receivers stacks up favorably to 'unique' 2014 batch.” NFL Media analysts Daniel Jeremiah and Charles Davis came to a slightly different conclusion in a posting by College Football 24/7 writer Bryan Fischer: ”2014 WR class has slight edge over 2015 WR class.”
All this back-and-forth is presented to help resolve whether the Texans should go with the best available wide receiver in the first round. The answer is no. There are more urgent needs for a roster facing uncertainty in three key areas.
Where is the cornerback-in-waiting to take over after the eventual departure of Johnathan Joseph? Brooks Reed took his leave just like Andre Johnson, but no serious candidates have auditioned to replace him as the "Sam" linebacker. Former Dallas Cowboy Bruce Carter does not qualify as “serious.”
The "Jack" linebacker position is in deep disorder. Whitney Mercilus will have the stage to himself with Clowney on the mend from microfracture surgery. Mercilus will need to finally show something special as a pass-rusher for his fifth-year option to be picked up.
There are enough promising pass-catchers that Smith and O’Brien can afford to wait until Day 2 to acquire one. Fortune will be smiling upon them if Chris Conley from the University of Georgia is still on the board.
The standard evaluation of an NFL prospect would normally start with his college statistics. In Conley’s case, they are so underwhelming you would question the sanity of any scout insisting he is worth taking in the third round.
His career numbers of 117 receptions for 1,938 yards and 20 touchdowns would make for a great Biletnikoff Award season. It is not much of an endorsement for spending a high draft pick.
Conley did lead the Bulldogs in receiving yards his junior and senior years with fewer than 700 yards in each season. The passing offense was designed to spread the ball around, with 10 players getting double-digit receptions in 2013.
When the call was to get the ball to Conley, his physical advantages against defensive backs stood out. His chief weapon is speed, which allows him to punish any misstep by the defender. This touchdown catch versus Arkansas is as simple as it looks:
The corner is sold on the sideline break with a single step. The cut to go deep is smooth and completely in stride. A player with average quickness would have to be more precise with his footwork, but Conley can get away with just running past the coverage.
His catch radius is apparent in consecutive plays starting at the three-minute, 33-second mark. They are both a product of his leaping ability, which would make it tough for taller defensive backs to cover fades and outside shoulder throws.
Watch the entirety of this career highlight video, and notice how Conley can make receptions in traffic, over the middle and with defenders hanging all over him. He is not afraid of taking a hit, but there is not much footage of his blocking in the run game.
Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout proposes Conley “needs to tweak his blocking technique to better sustain.” There is more to consider when judging the total package. Brugler feels his weaknesses are substantial:
Lean-limbed and lacks ideal bulk and core strength for the position. Too upright in his routes and doesn’t consistently sink-and-shake to fool defenders and create separation. Doesn’t consistently flash the same explosive attributes after the catch and not overly shifty in space. Not a tackle breaker and he’s usually done once defenders make initial contact.
This analysis was probably done before the combine, where Conley pushed the envelope of wide receiver metrics. He pushed them far enough to make the list of “Five Players Sending Us Back to the Tape” compiled by Brugler’s colleague, Rob Rang.
While his 40-yard time of 4.35 was impressive, his vertical jump (45.0 inches) tied for third best since 2003, and his broad jump (139.0 inches) was the very best since 2003. His core may not be substantial, but his arms pumped out 18 reps on the 225-pound bench press, the fourth-best mark among wide receivers.
Off the field, Conley fits right in with the Texans’ reputation for favoring choirboys. His roll call of achievements reads more like that of a valedictorian than that of a jock headed for pro football.
SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year ... Leon Farmer Strength & Conditioning Award ... UGA Coaches’ Leadership Award ... First Team selection for Senior CLASS Award ... Winner of Community Spirit Award, which is presented annually to an Atlanta area athlete or coach who is actively involved in the community and epitomizes the highest standards for leadership, sportsmanship and integrity.
Bill O’Brien also happened to be the only NFL head coach to meet with Conley during Georgia’s pro day on March 18, according to Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner Herald.
The critiques of Conley by NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein are similar to Brugler’s assessment. Zierlein does make the highest projection, placing him in the “second/third round.” Brugler has him going in the fourth round. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has him in the fifth, as does Luke Easterling of Draft Breakdown. Dan Kadar of SB Nation ranks Conley No. 18 out of 48 wide receivers, which translates to Round 3 or 4.
Wherever he ends up, the fans will have to be patient. His game is raw in many respects, and the quality of coaching he receives will determine the extent of his development.
Conley comes into the league with a ton of potential and the work ethic to maximize it. All the Houston Texans have to do is make the pick and take it from there.