NFL Draft Notebook: Deshaun Watson, the New Era of QBs, Joe Mixon and More
The 2017 NFL draft is over, but it stirred up more questions than it did answers.
New quarterback controversies, moral dilemmas, front office quandaries, league office power distribution and more—there is no shortage of storylines. And now with the league's most important event in the books, these are the topics we'll be talking about from now until training camp.
To help set up the rest of spring and the coming summer, here are takes on some of the biggest stories in the NFL.
Bill O'Brien's Texans and Deshaun Watson
Houston coach Bill O’Brien is no stranger to extreme challenges.
During his two years at Penn State, O’Brien was tasked with pulling one of the greatest programs in the history of college football out of the ugliest controversy the game had ever seen.
There was no escaping the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case. It was impossible because the team was working in the building where Sandusky committed many of his crimes.
O’Brien would recruit players, and the parents would ask all sorts of questions. Up to and including, where did it happen? Grudgingly, O’Brien would explain it was in the showers in the building, knowing full well that there was no good answer.
Avoid the question and you risk being viewed as untrustworthy. Explain that it happened right down the hall and risk creeping out the parents.
From that perspective, the task O’Brien faces in Houston this season is hardly a problem. Trying to measure a quarterback controversy against a sex crime is intellectually insulting.
That said, Houston’s trade of two first-round picks to select Deshaun Watson puts O’Brien in the midst of a challenging coaching situation. It’s one that several people within the organization acknowledge is going to be hard to navigate.
“You can say all you want about how Watson isn’t ready to play or whatever,” one member of the organization said. “Whenever we stumble or something happens that makes people worry about [designated starter Tom] Savage, people are going to be screaming for Watson. They’ll show highlights of the [college] title game and say, ‘Why can’t he do that for us?’”
Even if it's not a logical plan.
The source sighed.
“Logic? Come on, this is football,” the source said. “Everybody thinks they know more than the coaches.”
Unlike Chicago and Kansas City, who either have no immediate expectations or have a clear veteran presence at quarterback to deal with young quarterbacks who obviously need time, the Texans are perceived to be a quarterback away from something special.
Just think about it. This is a team that has gone 9-7 each of the past three years and made the playoffs twice while starting eight different quarterbacks. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler were rarely, if ever, producing special quarterback play.
Now, the Texans just drafted a quarterback who did some very special things the past two national championship games against Alabama. That includes winning a title this year in one of the most dramatic ways possible.
In other words, nobody will care about plans or concepts by the time September rolls around. The first time Houston loses back-to-back games, the calls for Watson will be loud.
And that’s just among the fans.
Players have already given an indication of what they feel about Watson. Offensive tackle Duane Brown sent out a welcoming tweet to Watson, and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who like Watson went to Clemson, put out a smiling face emoji right after Watson was selected. Hopkins talked before the draft about wanting Watson, and former Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson said after the draft, “I’m just so happy [Watson] landed in Houston.”
All of that must make Savage feel insecure about his job. Several people within the organization have already taken note of that reaction among players.
Not that the Texans should kowtow to Savage, who has yet to prove anything in the NFL. The issue is more about how any early struggles by Savage could split the locker room. Worse, going back and forth if both struggle could undermine what the Texans have built.
After all, this is still a team on the right track. Last year, even without star defensive lineman J.J. Watt, the Texans made the second round of the playoffs. In that game, Houston held Tom Brady to his second-lowest quarterback rating of the season. If the Texans had a quarterback, that game might have been more interesting.
Now, for the first time under O’Brien, the Texans have a quarterback prospect with a serious pedigree and resume. By all accounts, Watson is a great leader, a man who coaches such as Sean Payton have raved about in the interview process.
The question is, will that overwhelm the Texans too quickly?
Referendum on the Spread
While on the subject of Watson and the other quarterbacks who teams scrambled to draft in the top 12 picks of the first round on Thursday, there is an important two-pronged issue playing out.
First, can they actually play? Second, will they be ready to fill the coming void, as the greatest era of quarterback play comes to an end soon?
Start with the second question for a moment. The NFL is in the early stages of a quarterback drain that figures to rival the late 1990s, when Jim Kelly, John Elway, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Troy Aikman and others retired. In the past two offseasons, Peyton Manning and Tony Romo have quit.
Over the next three years, the league could lose Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer. That figures to be four or five Hall of Famers and a handful of very good passers.
The problem with answering those two questions about Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Mitchell Trubisky is they are complicated by the fact all three come from spread offenses. That wide-ranging system is increasingly creating a gap between what quarterbacks know about how to play coming out of college and what they need to know to play in the NFL.
Jordan Palmer, Carson's brother, sees it all too clearly. Jordan helped train Watson in advance of the draft.
“It would be really interesting if you could build a graph with one line that represented what college quarterbacks know coming out of college and what NFL quarterbacks are expected to know,” said Palmer, who spent part of six seasons in the NFL.
“The line with what they know would be steadily decreasing each year and the line with what they are expected to know would be increasing really sharply. The interesting part with the gap between the two … I’m not trying to downgrade the guys in this draft. It’s just that what they’re being asked to do at the college level is less and less every year.”
Palmer, 32, has seen the quick progression of the spread. From quarterbacks taking signals and then calling the play in the huddle to only calling the protection for the offensive linemen to having the entire team look to the sidelines.
Or now, to the entire team looking at cards that have pictures or colors.
“It’s amazing how little the colleges ask the players to know,” Palmer said.
The problem starts with things that most fans don’t look at. From calling a play in the huddle accurately and convincingly to making changes and reads at the line of scrimmage, so much more goes into quarterbacking than simply the act of throwing.
Former longtime NFL assistant coach Mike Sheppard, who worked with Mahomes, laid out an 11-step process that the quarterback has to go through from the time the play is called in to before the snap. When Jim Zorn worked with Cal’s Davis Webb, another spread quarterback who went in the third round to the Giants, Zorn had to break down the whole process from the huddle to simply taking a snap from center.
But the biggest issue is that the spread, particularly when played at a high pace, exacerbates the knowledge gap because it further limits what the defense can do. Talk to the likes of Denver VP of football operations John Elway, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht, Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter and Stanford coach David Shaw, and you get one factor after another.
There are only so many ways that defenses can play in college. The wide line splits and spread-out formations mean that offensive linemen don’t have to be developed. The wider placement of the hash marks in college forces safeties to declare where they are going to cover long before the snap and also creates easy throws to the wide side of the field. Quarterbacks rarely have to read the entire field because reads are predetermined.
“You’re always isolating the other’s teams worst defender,” Elway said. “You’re typical college defense is lucky to have one guy who can cover. Now you’re asking them to have four. It just makes it easy to figure out who you’re going after. And then nobody plays bump coverage in college, so you don’t ever go against that.”
Said Koetter: “I thought when I came to the pros that it was going to be so much easier because the hash marks were so much closer together. I found out just the opposite cause the safeties at this level can disguise what they’re doing right up to the snap.”
Finally, there was Shaw describing the hard part of trying to distinguish one quarterback from another. While quarterbacks such as Alex Smith and Cam Newton have had success as pros, other spread quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel have been colossal flops. While the success rate for pro-style quarterbacks is not a lot better, the overall results are generally more positive.
“It’s almost impossible,” Shaw said. “The one thing I look for is can a guy read the field. Does he naturally know how to scan from one side to the other to go through progressions. I saw that last year with Dak Prescott, and he was able to have success. I see that with one of those guys this year.”
Takkarist McKinley's Many Saviors
UCLA defensive end/linebacker Takkarist McKinley provided one of the sweetest moments of the draft when he held up a picture of his late grandmother Myrtle Collins on live TV after being selected No. 26 overall by Atlanta.
The story of McKinley and his grandmother is relatively well known. She raised him in West Oakland, California, after he was abandoned by both his parents. McKinley has never known his father, and his mother left him when he was five. That left Collins and later his aunt and older cousin to raise him.
Late Thursday after being drafted, McKinley met with reporters. After propping up the photo of Collins on a table, McKinley fought back emotion to describe how he promised her on her deathbed that he would escape the streets of Oakland and Richmond by getting a Division I football scholarship and eventually play in the NFL.
But that scholarship might not have been possible without further help by UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure. Long after the draft ended, UCLA coach Jim Mora recalled how McClure essentially played the role of private investigator to help get McKinley to Los Angeles.
McKinley had been offered a scholarship by Cal, but then the offer was rescinded when Cal thought McKinley was not academically eligible. McKinley spent a year at junior college as McClure got involved with recruiting him for the Bruins.
“Angus did a lot of research because he thought Tak really was eligible,” Mora said. “And I mean a lot. He went way beyond the norm. He went back and actually found the teacher who taught this one class and found out Tak actually passed the class and that the grade hadn’t been recorded. Whatever it was. The teacher signed something to prove that. Angus was on it.
“We were like three weeks into the  season, and I kept saying, ‘Angus, he’s not showing up.’ Angus kept saying, ‘Just wait, he’ll be here.’”
Among the things that running back Joe Mixon did before the draft in an effort to rehabilitate his image and, more importantly, fix his issues was take an eight-week course in anger management and domestic violence while he was staying in Dallas, two NFL sources said.
The course was loaded with hardcore criminals and multiple offenders, one source said. Mixon attended the course while using an alias to avoid being recognized. The running back was charged with misdemeanor assault in 2014.
“The point was for this to be eye-opening, so he would know where he was going to end up if he didn’t get this under control,” one source said.
One NFL coach said the decision was a positive for Mixon and showed he was at least willing to do the diligence required to get his life in order. However, the coach stopped well short of saying Mixon was completely rehabilitated.
“It’s a good thing he went, but that doesn’t mean it’s all good,” the coach said. “Frankly, I wasn’t completely convinced when we interviewed him that he really gets it yet. Maybe that’s unfair to him. He has told and retold the story so many times by now, maybe he doesn’t feel it anymore.
“He did a terrible thing, but I don’t think he’s a terrible person. I think he’s a young man who doesn’t know how to handle situations. Hell, I know plenty of coaches who don’t know how to handle situations. The important part is that I think [Mixon] will learn.”
That’s when the coach, who said he would have taken Mixon with a late-round pick, turned philosophical.
“I see both sides of this. Nobody really wants to go to a game and cheer for a guy who broke some woman’s jaw like that. I get the women’s groups who protest and want the guy out of the league. When we take guys like that in the second round, it shows we don’t care. You think the Bengals are cutting a second-round pick anytime soon? Hell, no.
“But there’s one part I worry about. How are guys supposed to heal themselves? He did this as an 18-year-old. You do some terrible thing as an 18-year-old and your dream is gone just like that? He didn’t kill somebody. He didn’t do something sadistic and planned out. He didn’t do something that went on for months or years. He snapped when he got shoved. She was wrong and then he went over-the-top wrong. I just have a hard time saying he never gets another chance, that’s it, throw him out. I don’t think that’s forgiveness.”
The coach was then asked about New York Giants kicker Josh Brown and Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who are both out of the league. The coach was uncomfortable with both.
“To me, Brown is easier to understand. Whatever happened there, it went on for a while. My only worry is … those [journal entries], no question, that was part of his therapy. His attempt to fix himself was used against him. Now, if I have a player who is dealing with a problem and he goes to a counselor, what’s he supposed to do?
“With [Rice], that could have been fixed if [the league] had the right approach. If everybody was upfront about the whole thing from the start, explained it, showed the video, done serious therapy, donated a lot of money to a women’s shelter and had Ray really work at it, he would have had a shot. But once the thing dragged on and it came out the way it did and looked like a cover-up, he’s done. To me, it’s a shame. We have a chance to really fix a problem and do some good, and all we want to do is hang guys immediately. I don’t think that’s helping anybody, not even the victims.”
Can DeShone Kizer Save Hue Jackson?
Give the Cleveland Browns and their analytics-heavy approach a lot of credit this year for coming up with a draft loaded with strong prospects. Not only that, but the Browns picked up an additional first-round pick next year after the trade with Houston in the Deshaun Watson deal.
However, for all the attention that players such as Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku have generated, the most important pick by the Browns was second-round selection DeShone Kizer. In Kizer, the Browns found a quarterback they can pin their hopes to. At least that’s how one general manager sees it.
“If they hadn’t have gotten Kizer, I would have bet on Hue Jackson to be fired at the end of the season,” the GM said. “I would have bet a lot, too. If they didn’t get a quarterback to give them some hope, it would have been ugly. Now, they have hope. Better yet, at least for Hue, they have developing hope. They can sell Kizer as a long-term project as a second-round guy and say that Hue is there to develop him. To me, it’s really smart.”
What the GM also explained is that without Kizer, there would have been two overarching issues.
If the team were to not win again, there would be the usual doubt that goes with any coach who doesn’t start to win. Additionally, the lack of a strong prospect at quarterback would have made that tension even greater.
“You have a guy you can say, ‘Give him a year or two and we’re going to turn the offense around.’ Meanwhile, you play defense, make some games competitive, maybe win five games and people are OK. But if you win five games and there’s not even a prospect at quarterback, it would have taken a miracle to keep the players from tuning out the coaching staff,” the GM said.
As the saying goes in coaching, if players don’t think a coach can help them win, they tune out that coach forever.
Ryan Pace Chasing His Inner Jimmy Johnson
Most people with even a passing interest in the NFL have skewered Bears general manager Ryan Pace repeatedly over his decision to trade two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder to move up one spot to draft Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick.
Pace has defended the decision as part of a strategy “to try to be great.” Fact is, Pace had been talking about this idea even before signing quarterback Mike Glennon in free agency in March. This was not some idea that Pace hatched recently. But the criticism is mostly knee-jerk and ignores several key issues.
First, Pace knew full well which other teams were interested in the pick and what they were willing to pay to move up. How? Because those same teams were talking to Pace about moving up for exactly the thing he wanted to draft.
As an aside, this is one of the reasons a lot of teams don’t talk trade in advance of the draft, one executive explained. They don’t want to clue in other teams that might be interested in the same player.
Second, people in Chicago shouldn’t complain about the Bears investing too much in the quarterback position. This is an organization that has drafted exactly two Hall of Fame quarterback. Sid Luckman in 1939 and George Blanda in 1949.
Blanda only started 23 games for the organization, and the only way that Luckman even played football is Bears coach and founder George Halas made him the highest-paid player in the NFL (a whopping $5,000 for the season at the time). If not for that contract, Luckman was taking his Columbia University education and headed for a career in business.
Third, and most importantly, Pace’s move is hardly unprecedented.
In fact, one of the greatest talent evaluators and drafters ever pulled a similar stunt years ago. In the 1989 draft, first-year Dallas head coach Jimmy Johnson drafted Troy Aikman with the No. 1 overall pick. The move was not only expected, it was also completely logical.
The Cowboys were a rebuilding team in desperate need of a quarterback. What’s forgotten is that only a few months later, Johnson doubled down on his quarterback bet. He drafted quarterback Steve Walsh with a supplemental first-round pick. That pick also ended up being the No. 1 overall choice in 1990 after Dallas went 1-15.
What happened later is more important. After Aikman finally secured the job as Dallas’ starting quarterback and began his 12-year career, Johnson was able to deal Walsh. And he got a lot. Three games into the 1990 season, Johnson traded Walsh to New Orleans in the famous “Guy Lombardo Trade” (millennials can look up Lombardo on their own), getting a first-, second- and third-round pick for Walsh.
A one and a two and a three is the better way to view it if you want to get the reference.
The Aikman-Walsh situation is exactly what inspired Pace, who was a 12-year-old Cowboys fan at the time growing up in Dallas.
"I had that in the back of mind the whole time," Pace said. "You have to fix the quarterback position once and for all or you're never going to be a great team. I remember thinking, 'OK, the Cowboys just took Troy Aikman and then they took another swing at it a couple of months later with Walsh.' That reinforced in my mind the importance of that position even way back then.
"Jimmy and (owner) Jerry (Jones) attacked that position and they took a lot of criticism for that. But they got it right and they were still able to trade Walsh later and get a lot for him."
Likewise, Philadelphia took a similar approach a year ago by re-signing Sam Bradford, spending big on Chase Daniel and then moving up in the draft to get Carson Wentz. The Eagles were eventually able to trade Bradford to Minnesota and have Wentz become the starter.
Anyway, Johnson eventually used the first- and second-rounders as part of a package to get 1991 No. 1 overall pick Russell Maryland. The third-rounder went for offensive tackle Erik Williams, who became a mainstay of Dallas’ great lines of the 1990s.
In other words, what Pace just did was get an asset. It's an asset that could one day be worth a lot more or, likewise, an asset that could allow him to trade Glennon for a lot more.
Solving the Goodell Problem
The constant booing of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not escape the notice of owners around the league. And it left one owner wondering what the league can do about it.
“I know we’re trying to fix his image, but it’s not getting better,” the owner said. “He got hammered for two days. I heard it got better when he went out in the crowd, but I just don’t understand it. One of Roger’s strengths is that he can talk to people. He’s good in a crowd. He doesn’t wilt or get annoyed with it. I just don’t get it.”
When it was pointed out to the owner that Goodell has had more than his fair share of mistakes, from Ray Rice to a nearly two-year battle with Tom Brady over some maybe-deflated footballs, the owner agreed. When it was also pointed out that the owners have created a lot of this problem by pushing so hard for the commissioner’s position to have too much power over discipline, the owner was caught off guard.
“OK, but it’s been like that since the 1960s. That’s what we negotiated for. At least that’s what the owners who have been around that long always tell him,” the owner said.
True, but with a growing list of issues to deal with over the years, the job has morphed. The job of commissioner does more than make someone like Goodell the judge, jury and executioner of the NFL. In some respects, it also makes him the police.
Under Goodell, the league now does its own investigations that cost millions of dollars. That’s just the symbolic side of it. Throw in that the investigations then looked botched, and you have a worse problem.
So, the owner was asked, why don’t the owners think about giving up some of those powers or at least transferring them elsewhere? That would take the burden off Goodell and whoever becomes commissioner after him.
“It’s probably wise,” the owner said.
Yes, it is.
Some Good, Some Bad
Kudos to Mike Mayock
As ESPN and the NFL Network find more and more ways to jazz up the draft, give NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock credit for pumping the brakes on one horrendously stupid move.
In the fourth round, Indianapolis selected defensive tackle Grover Stewart from Albany State. Stewart is an interesting prospect who many people didn’t know much about because he didn’t go to the NFL Scouting Combine. He impressed a lot of people while working out at EXOS in Pensacola, Florida.
However, that was overshadowed when the Colts used an orangutan from the Indianapolis Zoo to help announce the pick. With that, Mayock gave his two cents. Along with a few hundred dollars.
“If we’re going back to the zoo, I’m walking off the desk,” Mayock said. “I’ve about had the zoo, OK? Enough. Enough. I mean, is this good TV? … I think we’ve got to be a little respectful. It’s a big day for Grover Stewart, and rather than talking about that chimp, let’s get back to some football here. It’s a big day for him.”
Great points by Mayock.
Moreover, the NFL needs to take a good look at the entire process. From the red-carpet fashion shows that the league does before the draft to the barrage of propped-up drama, the league is going too far with players who are going to get slapped into reality pretty soon.
The reality is that most of the teammates and coaches they are about to meet in the coming weeks are going look at them and essentially say: “You’re not that big a deal. You haven’t played a down in this league.”
Darrelle Revis' Legacy
The good news for former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis is not just that he had charges dismissed against him from an altercation in Pittsburgh this offseason. More importantly, Revis said he has been focused this offseason and has already dropped 10 pounds from his playing weight last season, which got up to 217 pounds.
The bad news is a Jets coach said at the scouting combine Revis’ legs are “shot” and the coach doesn’t think he will get his speed back. During an interview with NFL Network, Revis sounded upbeat and focused about playing this season.
There is the lingering question about whether any team will give him more than the $6 million he is guaranteed regardless of whether he plays. If no team offers more than that, Revis will essentially be playing for free.
Of course, after such a poor 2016 season, he might need to play to clean up his end-career reputation as he hopes to one day gain entry to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Brandin Cooks and the Pats
One Saints player who has watched wide receiver Brandin Cooks extensively said Cooks may not be the perfect fit for the Patriots offense.
While Cooks is obviously fast, he doesn’t read coverages that well and was used primarily by New Orleans as a deep guy. Cooks is not the type of receiver to work the middle of the field as much. The Saints used Willie Snead as their primary receiver in the middle of the field the past two years.
Nutrition Is Better
It appears that many college players feel plenty of benefits when they change their nutrition habits in preparation for the draft. In fact, one player turned to his nutritionist during the predraft process and said, “I don’t feel that ‘itis’ anymore.”
Yeah, some stuff (NSFW) never gets old.
The Secrets of the Aussie Punter
Part of what makes cornerback Tre’Davious White, who Buffalo nabbed with the 27th overall pick, one of the top players at his position is his pure coverage ability and special teams talent.
He said he had the benefit of playing with strong punters Josh Growden and, before that, Jamie Keehn. Starting in 2011 with Brad Wing, LSU has had a run of nothing but Australian punters. Apparently, there are some added benefits to that fact.
“Even if you were one of the best players on the team, you were on special teams,” White explained. “We were fortunate to have two great punters while I was there, two Aussie punters. They were always pinning them inside the 10, and I was lucky to get down there and down the ball at the 1 a couple of times.”
So the guys with the funny accents were helpful?
“All the time, and the ladies love them too,” White said. “Ladies love the Aussie punters. Most definitely. If you want to attract some women, bring your Aussie punter with you.”