The general manager made up his mind weeks before the NFL draft: The Houston Texans would be taking a defensive end with the first overall pick. Now all he had to do was convince everyone else that it was acceptable to pass on a quarterback.
Sure, the Texans needed a splashy player, but this quarterback, in this slot? Houston wasn’t winning the Super Bowl the following season anyway, so why not add a transcendent pass rusher — maybe the most talented player in the entire draft — to its defense?
“The pressure outside the organization was immense,” said Charley Casserly, the former Houston GM who in 2006 used the No. 1 overall pick on North Carolina State’s Mario Williams instead of home-grown quarterback Vince Young.
Even so many years later, with Houston again on the clock with Thursday night’s top pick, there’s stress on executives with a top-five choice to reach for a quarterback — any quarterback — over a more dominant player at a different position. Since 1998, a dozen quarterbacks have been taken with the top choice, amplifying the expectation that the first step toward rebuilding a broken franchise is drafting a passer.
It doesn’t help that, again, the Texans are reportedly considering a local quarterback, this time Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, instead of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, said to be the draft’s most talented player and perhaps the most NFL-ready defender since Williams. Central Florida’s Blake Bortles also is considered a likely first-round quarterback, with Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and several others having recently dropped from many opening-round discussions.
Not that a team won’t change its mind as the lights go on at Radio City Music Hall.
“If they fall in love with a quarterback, you got to believe in him, you got to take him at one,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said in a conference call with reporters last week. “That trumps everything else.”
Eight years ago, Casserly never fell in love with Young, a Houston native who had grown up steps from Reliant Stadium and led Texas to the BCS national championship. But he was the favorite son among the city’s half-million Longhorns alumni. The week of the draft, with the Casserly’s mind already made up, three full-page newspaper ads pleaded with the team to select Young. A marketing man said on the radio that fans should sell their season tickets if Casserly dared take a different player, including Southern California running back and Heisman Trophy winnerReggie Bush.
But here was the secret inside the organization: Casserly didn’t think Young’s abilities translated to the NFL game. He didn’t think Bush’s slight frame could hold up to the NFL grind. Shortly before the draft, he wanted to know where everyone else — coaches, scouts, the owner — stood.
“Through the whole process, I felt that Williams was the best player,” said Casserly, a former Washington Redskins GM. “But we didn’t sit there until maybe a week or so before the draft to get everybody in the room to go on record.”
News leaked shortly before the draft that not only were the Texans planning to take Williams, but they had already agreed to contract terms with the defender’s representatives. When Williams’s name was indeed announced with the top pick, Texans fans booed, and when Casserly appeared publicly, they booed him, too.
“A total uproar,” Casserly said by telephone this week. “You make your decision, and that’s it.”
New Orleans drafted Bush with the second pick, and the late Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams reportedly overruled his coaches and personnel men, ordering them to select Young at No. 3 — following that by holding Young’s news conference near Houston, in part to rub the Texans’s noses in it.
Williams, of course, went on to three Pro Bowls and 761 / 2 sacks. He’s now a starting end with the Buffalo Bills. Young hasn’t played an NFL game since 2011, and Bush, who is with his third team, has had an erratic career.
Casserly’s bold move didn’t do much for his career — in an oddly timed move, he left the Texans less than three months after the draft, reportedly to pursue a job with the league office — or the notion that top picks should be spent on quarterbacks. Since 2007, eight passers have been selected among the draft’s top five choices; half of those players have been named to Pro Bowls.
The tradition of reaching for a quarterback is, for now, still alive: In 2011, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder were first-round picks; neither is expected to be a starter this season. That custom might be on the decline, though. Because of players such as Gabbert and Ponder — to say nothing of disappointing former No. 1 overall picks Tim Couch, David Carr and JaMarcus Russell — teams last year seemed more reluctant to draft a quarterback. Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel was the only first-rounder, and only three more passers went among the top 100 selections, influenced in part by the success of non-first-round quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton.
“The first time we saw true value at the quarterback position,” Mayock said, “in a bunch of years.”
But Casserly said he is uncertain whether Thursday’s first round will support the old trend. There’s Manziel, seen as an undersized wild card, and Clowney, who had 24 sacks in three college seasons despite having issues with motivation. This year, Casserly said, the defender is actually expected to be the top pick. A quarterback at No. 1 would represent the surprise, unlike in 2006. “This year,” he said, “will be more of a test to the theory.”
Although Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst, won’t be in a draft room this week — it’s his successor, Texans GM Rick Smith, with the burden this time — he said he’d again take the defensive star instead of the risky quarterback.
This time, it seems no one would blame him.