03 Apr 2014
This year, the Texans have the No. 1 pick. It's been a full-frontal assault of stupid since the day the season ended. From people implying that Matt Schaub isn't actually so bad, to using their mock drafts to create a hot take that is generally not accepted -- Khalil Mack is totally going to be better than Jadeveon Clowney, not because of his talent, but because he didn't ever quit! -- to stirring things up based on the latest innuendo they've heard at the combine rather than using their actual eyes.
Here is my one contribution to the draft seas:
It seems to me like there are three prevailing arguments against Teddy Bridgewater -- the player I'd select -- being the No. 1 pick. The first is that it is inherently risky to take a quarterback in the first round, because we've done studies that include Jim Druckenmiller and first-round quarterbacks don't have a high "hit rate" compared to other positions. I think that context is a great thing to remember when you are thinking about selecting a quarterback who there are conflicting grades on. (Let's call said player B. Bortles ... no, too obvious, how about Blake B.) However, it doesn't really make much sense to me to group players that "only one team needed to believe in," such as Druckenmiller or Christian Ponder, with sure-fire first-round picks such as Carson Palmer and Robert Griffin. And, I feel like if a player like Ryan Leaf or Akili Smith had come out today, their statistical red flags would be more well-understood, and that would cause them to slip a bit. Quarterback evaluation is still very much in the eye of the beholder, but I think if there's one thing analytics has done for general managers, it's opening their eyes to understanding that completing 55 percent of passes (or a similarly poor statistic) isn't something you can give a college quarterback a pass on without a lot of scrutiny.
An offshoot of that argument, one that is rooted in Houston history, is something like: "We picked David Carr No. 1 overall and look how that turned out." Well, yeah, it went really poorly. But there were a lot of mitigating factors to that situation that don't exist today. A No. 1 overall quarterback is no longer married to the franchise for years, especially now that the rookie scale has eliminated him from haunting the salary cap for years to come. I will never be leading the David Carr Excuses club -- it's my belief that his pocket presence wouldn't have played in this league, no matter the team -- but part of the reason he played as poorly as he did was that he was on an expansion team with a pretty bad offensive line. Letting the fact that Carr was bad keep you from wanting to select another quarterback first overall would be like never dating again because the first relationship you hopped into was abusive.
The second main point I've seen revolves around the body type. Bridgewater doesn't have a "projectable" body, or the classic quarterback build. There are a lot of ways to word my objection to this, but perhaps the best way is that this criticism feels like we are scouting from the 1980's. I mean, yeah, it'd be nice if Bridgewater was 6-foot-5 and built like an Adonis too, but I'm way more concerned with how he plays on the field. I'm no Mike Mayock, or even Matt Waldman. I don't break down college tape for a living -- in fact, I think it's practically impossible to follow both the NFL and college football at similar levels -- but the little work I've put in on the subject, both with my own eyes and through the eyes of people I trust, suggests that Bridgewater has a chance to be a very special quarterback at the NFL level. If he does that without the ideal body mass index, whatever. We just saw a 5-foot-11 quarterback lead his team to a Super Bowl. (One that is nothing like Bridgewater, admittedly, but my point is that obsessing over body type is a "We're Not Selling Jeans Here" error, and it's 2014.) I've also heard innuendo that Bridgewater's combine interviews weren't flawless, and that he came off as meek in them. I also don't care about that. Sign me up for 11 players with that meekness. Mentality matters, but how a player handles his initial failings is more important to me than how rah-rah he is in the locker room. Cam Newton is vocal and pouty and he couldn't avoid the body language critics either. Somehow, I think he still wants to win at football. Just a hunch.
Finally, there is the idea that pairing J.J. Watt with Jadeveon Clowney will create the sort of explosive doomsday defense that skeptics were afraid of when the Large Hadron Collider was going full speed. I can't deny that this would be fun to watch, nor can I deny that I think Clowney is going to be a very good player at the next level, but I think scouts tend to overrate anything that jumps off the screen that much and not consider the full picture. If you want an NFL example, Percy Harvin was traded for a first-round pick and given an enormous contract by the Seahawks. Injury problems limited him throughout the season -- as they often have -- and while he appeared in the Super Bowl and returned a kickoff for a touchdown, nobody would tell you that on a seasonal basis, he was worth the investment. That doesn't mean he won't be worth it in some future years -- he's a damn good player that presents some unique matchup problems for a defense -- but the injury issues and lack of snaps are a part of the total package of his value. You're rolling the dice on it. Ben Tate has produced highlight reel broken tackles and flashed an amazing size-speed combination that makes scouts drool. On the other hand, his pass blocking is pedestrian, he's finished two years on IR, his vision comes and goes, and he's almost a complete zero as a pass-catching back. The whole is less impressive than the 20 best plays, but those 20 best plays are so amazing that scouts are drawn to him.
I suspect this would be the end result of a Watt-Clowney pairing. They'd have some plays where they'd make an offense look silly, and they'd have some ridiculous games where they would shut down a poorly-quarterbacked team singlehandedly. But ultimately, they can't play safety. They can't make Whitney Mercilus a better pass rusher. They can't make Brandon Harris not be a trainwreck at nickelback. They can't keep middle linebacker from being a disaster when Brian Cushing gets hurt. Hell, the Texans got a vintage J.J. Watt season last year and he couldn't keep them from going 2-14. Don't get me wrong, the Texans could really use an outside linebacker that can rush the passer, but if Mercilus had 12 sacks last year, how much would that have swung the bottom line? Would the Texans have been a four-win team? Six?
To be sure, there's an inherent risk in selecting anybody No. 1 overall. The goal isn't necessarily to minimize that risk, but to find the right balance of risk and reward. If Bridgewater is, as I believe, a man who ultimately will be a top-10 quarterback in this league, and Matt Schaub's contract is off the books after 2014, then the Texans are well on their way to the Seattle blueprint of having a lot of money to spend elsewhere in the short-term. If he's a bust, the Texans lose probably two years, and they likely get another shot at a franchise guy at that point. If they take Clowney, they leap to a six-win team, but now they are going to have to find the most difficult asset to create in the NFL -- a good starting quarterback -- with lower picks, trades, and free agency. Good quarterbacks are available in free agency only so rarely, and even if the Texans find their own Alex Smith, they are on the path to becoming the new Kansas City Chiefs. Is that something to aspire to? Isn't that just where they were with Schaub at the end of 2012, before he completed his decline?
There isn't a more game-changing asset in the NFL at this point than a cost-controlled quarterback that can play with the best in the game. Even if the Texans feel there's only a 50 percent chance Bridgewater is that good, it will likely be higher odds than they'll see for a long time. It doesn't seem like they share that view, or at least there's been little in terms of media connections to it. The Pro Day talk seems to have quieted Bridgewater's stock dramatically, even if he's empirically and -- subjectively, in my mind -- the best quarterback prospect in this draft. (I like Johnny Manziel too, and think he may have a higher ceiling, but I think there's a much lower chance that he hits it. Still, I could be talked into that one.) Granted, the Texans have thrown a lot of smokescreens around. John McClain's ratio of calling the 2013 Texans "pathetic" to having to contradict wrong national reports is nearing 1:1. But as someone used to the Kubiak administration's silence, it's hard to really have a handle on what this team is doing.
He's not a sexy pick, he's not a scout's pick. But in my mind, he's the correct one.
31 comments, Last at 11 Apr 2014, 9:58am by Will Allen
Guest columnist Zachary O. Binney fact-checks a story in a national publication and finds that everyone makes mistakes.