It all started with the final offensive play for the Houston Texans on December 29 2013 versus the Tennessee Titans. Quarterback Matt Schaub had just air mailed a belated Christmas present to an opposing player. Said player, Michael Griffin, as happy to see Matt Schaub throwing in his general vicinity as a child is at the thought of Santa Claus descending from the chimney, happily gathered in the errant pass and mercifully put an end to the Bataan Death March that was the 2013 Houston Texans season. Schaub’s descent from 2010 Pro Bowl MVP to reviled back up was complete and all that was left for him was to pack his bags, say his goodbyes, and wait for the Texans to tell him his services were no longer needed. The Texans waited until March 21 to make it official when they traded Schaub to the Oakland Raiders for
some magic beans a 6th round pick and a business class ticket out of town. That Texans GM Rick Smith was able to get that much is impressive, and indicative of the “acumen” of Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie. But that story is for another blog post. Instead we’re here to talk about the Great First Pick Debate of 2014.
In possession of both the first pick in the draft and a gaping hole at the most important position in the sport, it was immediately assumed that the Texans would take the best QB available in the NFL draft. But while Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, and Blake Bortles of the University of Central Florida are all considered fine NFL talents and worthy of being chosen in the first round, none are thought to be sure-fire franchise caliber QB’s, a la Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Meanwhile a pass rushing demon from South Carolina named JaDeveon Clowney is gnashing his teeth and wailing at the NFL’s gates waiting to descend on hapless QBs league-wide. Already in possession of similarly bestial pass rusher JJ Watt, the Texans could pair the two in a defensive front scary enough to make opposing QBs verify their wills before game time next year. Or the Texans could trade the pick for additional selections later in the draft, a legitimate option considering this draft class is thought to be one of the deepest and most talented in years. The Texans have many leaks to plug and no player, no matter how great he is, is going to put this team back in the 2014 playoffs without some help.
QB was a revolving door for the Texans last season. If Schaub wasn’t tossing interception returns for touchdowns, Case Keenum was being blitzed into oblivion, incapable of reading the defensive schemes. Hapless 3rd stringer, T.J. Yates, tied for most playoff wins in Texans history, sat miserably and must have wondered if he couldn’t start for this team maybe he should consider another career. Clearly the Texans needed a change at the position and did so by signing Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard educated QB late of the Tennessee Titans. A journeyman, Fitzpatrick is clearly not the long term answer. He is merely to teach and compete with whichever young QB the Texans choose in the draft. But will that player be chosen in the first round or later? There are concerns about Bridgewater’s size and arm strength, Manziel’s maturity and penchant to run first, throw later, and Bortle’s overall lack of experience. Meanwhile there are other talented prospects such as Derek Carr of Fresno State and Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois who could be had early in the 2nd round and potentially surpass any of the above three in the NFL. With the first pick of the second round, the Texans will have many quality players still to choose from. And lets not forget the washout rate of highly drafted quarterbacks. Of the 11 QBs chosen with the 1st pick since 1999, 3 are confirmed busts (David Carr, Tim Couch, and Jamarcus Russell), 2 started fast but flamed out (Carson Palmer and Sam Bradford), 2 never did much and have settled into mediocrity (Alex Smith and Matthew Stafford), 1 killed a bunch of dogs, lied to his employer, and went to jail before becoming a journeyman (Michael Vick), and 3 appear, although its still early, to be hits (Eli Manning [say what you will about Eli, but he has two Super Bowl rings. How many do you have?], Andrew Luck, and Cam Newton). Lets call that a 27% success rate. Now lets look at the QB’s drafted within the first 15 picks of the second round (in order to gain a similar sample size) during the same time period, Drew Brees, Kevin Kolb, John Beck, Drew Stanton, Pat White, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, and Geno Smith. Brees and Kaepernick were hits, since they’ve both taken their teams to the Super Bowl, Kolb, Beck, Stanton, and White busted, and Dalton has settled into solid mediocrity. Smith struggled in his first season as a starter, but it’s too soon to write him off. Giving Smith partial credit due to his undetermined future, that’s a 31% hit rate in the top of the second round. Obviously that certainly doesn’t mean the Texans for sure should wait until the 2nd round, but given the depth of this draft, there’s reason to believe they can get a good, potentially great QB if they do wait.
Of course taking a DE with the first pick is also a crap shoot, but the measuring stick isnt quite the same. For a QB selection to be considered a hit, he must make it to the Super Bowl. Fair or not, that’s simply how QB’s are measured for greatness. DE’s however, are judged by sacks and the ability to alter offensive game planes. By that metric taking a DE with the first pick has been a much safer pick. Since 2000, Courtney Brown, Justin Smith, Julius Peppers, Mario Williams, Gaines Adams, Chris Long, Tyson Jackson, Marcel Dareus, Dion Jordan, and Ezekiel Ansah are DE’s selected within the first 5 picks of the draft. Brown, Adams, and Jackson busted, Dareus was a borderline Pro Bowler last year, while Peppers, Williams, and Long were definite hits. Jordan and Ansah are still young but both are off to fast starts and so far are looking like possible hits. Giving partial credit to Dareus, Jordan, and Ansah, that comes out to a 45% success rate. But of the DE’s chosen within the top 10 picks of the 2nd round, Darren Howard, John Engelberger, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Kalimba Edwards, Travis LaBoy, Phillip Merling, Koa Misi, Jabaal Sheard, Brooks Reed, Andre Branch, and Tank Carradine, only Vanden Bosch could be considered an impact player, making it to three Pro Bowls. Darren Howard had a solid career before fading away. The rest basically served as bench filler and spot starters. That’s a pretty miserable 18% success rate. The stats here point to taking the superior DE talent while its available at the top of the draft, because history says the talent falls off a cliff after then.
The final option we’re going to look at is trading the pick for more picks later in the draft. This is fairly obvious thought as every year, unless a Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck type of cant miss prospect is coming out, every GM holding the 1st pick always mentions trading back. And why not? Lets look back at the teams that actually have managed to trade the 1st pick for more choices later. In 1984, the Cincinnati Bengals traded the #1 pick to the New England Patriots. The Patriots picked WR Irving Fryar who went on to play 17 years and make 5 Pro Bowls. The Bengals chose DE Pete Koch and OT Brian Blados. Blados did little and Koch did even less, neither making it to a single Pro Bowl between them. A couple of times the team holding the 1st pick went ahead and picked a player with it and then traded his draft rights. The then Baltimore Colts traded the rights to John Elway in 1983 to the Denver Broncos. He went on to become one of the greatest QBs in NFL history, taking the Broncos to 5 Super Bowls, winning 2. And what of the Colts? They got a very good OT in Chris Hinton, who went on to make 7 Pro Bowls, G Ron Solt, and QB Mark Herrmann, whose short, journeyman career could make him the anti-Elway. Finally, in 2004 the San Diego Chargers selected Peyton’s little brother, Eli, and then sent him packing to the New York Giants for three picks. Eli, whose regular seasons have run from above average to fugly, has been an undeniable playoff demon, leading his team to two surprising Super Bowl wins, including over the then undefeated New England Patriots in 2011. Meanwhile the Chargers picked QB Phillip Rivers, K Nate Kaeding, and LB Shawne Merriman. Rivers career has yo-yo’d from near elite to below average. His yo-yo came back up year last year leaving the Chargers with the head scratching conundrum of whether he is the long term answer at QB or not. Merriman was a dominant pass rusher until the new drug testing league rules forced him to pull the steroid needles out of his arm, upon which time he promptly faded into oblivion. Kaeding was a kicker. Advantage Giants. While there isn’t much history of teams trading the #1 pick, the little history there is suggests the team that gets the #1 pick wins.
Since no cant miss, home-run QB prospect is available this year, and trading the #1 pick has yet to work out for the trading team, they should take Clowney. Pairing him with Watt is the closest thing to a cant miss a prospect the Texans are going to find coming out of the draft. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year had a drop off last year due to his lack of support on the defensive line, as Antonio Smith (recently departed to Oakland) continued to crumble and Whitney Mercilus kept looking more and more like a 1st round bust. Watt and Clowney can form the premier, impossible to defend, defensive duo of the NFL. Its the Texans best shot to return quickly to the playoffs.