Retrospectus: The 2014 top-of-draft debate

It’s May 2014, the Texans have the No. 1 overall pick, and last year’s starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, was about a month away from being traded. Bill O’Brien was entering his rookie season as a head coach. What should they do?

That was the conceit of what Steph Stradley asked assorted smart football brains in May 2014, in a piece titled “Houston Texans 2014 first draft pick time capsule.” I was also asked to contribute, so I joined along.

There were four basic camps at the time of this draft that we can sum up the positions on like so:

— The Texans have to draft a quarterback — there were about four legitimate answers in this subset between Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, and Derek Carr. The Manziel crowd was much more vocal than the other crowds, which made some sense because he was a divisive prospect and nobody on the outside knew the extent of his off-field issues.
— The Texans have to take the best player available, which in this case is Jadeveon Clowney, a generational pass rushing prospect on pure athleticism.
— The Texans have to take the best player available, but Khalil Mack is better than Jadeveon Clowney because Clowney’s last year in college wasn’t very productive.
— Trade down (which I am going to gloss over because it was impossible for them to trade down for real value without a legitimate No. 1 quarterback prospect enticing a trade up — and you know they were taking that player if he existed in this draft.)

I was of the opinion that the Texans had to come out of the draft with either Bridgewater or Manziel. Here’s my full capsule from the time:

I was stronger on Bridgewater, but I think the relentless Manziel hype got to me a bit at the time — mostly because I recognize that quarterbacks who can make plays outside of the structure of an offense have a real place in today’s NFL. I thought Manziel could hit that and develop in a structured game, but I think we can safely say at this point that he wasted his opportunities to become that kind of player. I was completely out on Bortles because I didn’t think he was consistent enough with his accuracy. I was out on Carr because I thought his play in the pocket when pressured was horrendous.

So the cut-and-dried analysis of the No. 1 pick, in retrospect, looks like this:
— Jadeveon Clowney was a good No. 1 overall pick.
— Khalil Mack has been the better player, though mostly because of Clowney’s health in my opinion. Mack’s just a smidge better.
— Aaron Donald was probably the best actual player in the draft — he went 13th overall to the Rams because he was short and that matters to scouts … because reasons.
— Picking a quarterback No. 1 overall would have been a bad investment in retrospect.

However, go back and read what I wrote at the time — most of that actually did come true. The more nuanced view is that not picking up a quarterback did blow up on Houston.

The Texans quadrupled their win total in 2014, going from two wins to nine wins. They had no way to address quarterback. Quarterbacks went 1-2 in the 2015 NFL Draft and there wasn’t another one picked until the third round — the most successful quarterback in the class after Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota was probably Trevor Siemian. The Texans selected Kevin Johnson at 16th overall, signed Brian Hoyer, and still weren’t a real contender. (Notably, the Chiefs came into NRG and destroyed them.) In 2016, they signed Brock Osweiler to a contract that was so bad they needed to trade a second-round pick to get rid of it. In 2017, they traded up to select Deshaun Watson. It cost this team $26.03 million in paid salary, two first-round picks, and a second-round pick to pass on quarterback in 2014. And, along the way, yes, it wasted the end of Andre Johnson’s prime. It wasted some of DeAndre Hopkins’ prime, some of J.J. Watt’s prime — and that’s just to name off the actual Hall of Fame candidates.

Bridgewater didn’t wind up being a good pick, but that’s because he was felled by a catastrophic non-contact knee injury. In his two years as a starter, he varied between competent and promising, depending on what you wanted to emphasize and how much credit you wanted to give him for the trash offensive line the Vikings put in front of him. Bridgewater only had one season of healthy Stefon Diggs — Diggs’ rookie year. He also threw for nearly 3,000 yards in 12 starts in his rookie season despite his top five receivers (by targets) being a 31-year-old Greg Jennings, second-year Cordarrelle Patterson, Matt Asiata, Jarius Wright, and Charles Johnson.

This was a clear scenario where, given a choice between two outcomes, the answer should have been “yes and yes.” The Texans should have selected Clowney, then traded up for Bridgewater rather than using the 33rd overall pick on a guard.

I’m a big fan of the aesthetic idea of futures that will never happen. (I was a big Chrono Cross fan, loved The Dead Sea, even though the game itself was lacking in some areas.) So that timeline would have been fascinating to live through. It was always weird to me that the Texans would stick their noses up at a good quarterback prospect because of size and arm strength. Remember that Watson didn’t exactly check all those boxes either, and frankly, I think they were obscenely lucky to wind up with Watson in 2017. There are trade-ups for quarterbacks in that range (think Blaine Gabbert) that crippled franchises for years.

It’s interesting to me to look back on this because even as I look at what Houston has done this offseason and haven’t been a huge fan of it, I can’t tell you that they won’t compete in 2019. They have top-end talent in their prime at so many important positions that the building blocks can overcome a lot of bad play if put in the right circumstances. I don’t necessarily believe they will against a tougher schedule, but I can’t discount it either.

And the main reason I can’t discount it? The quarterback is good.

When I come back to my thoughts in 2014, I don’t think they were off. I don’t think they would have been better off in 2019 if they’d taken Bridgewater over Clowney, but they certainly passed on a chance to get a real quarterback prospect. And they paid for it, over and over again.

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