Charley Casserly knows exactly the dilemma that Texans general manager Rick Smith is facing this week with the first pick in the NFL Draft. Casserly sat in his exact seat, with nearly identical issues, 12 years ago.
Casserly, as general manager of the Texans in 2002, had the No. 1 pick, had a new head coach, and badly needed a franchise quarterback, like the team does now. None of the prospects in the draft were sure-fire picks, similar to the crop this year.
Defensive end Julius Peppers was considered by most as the top prospect, but the Texans wanted a quarterback, no matter what. So the Texans over-inflated David Carr’s draft grade to vault him to the top of their board.
“We put him at the top of the draft board because we were going to take him,” Casserly jokes now. “We did not see David Carr as being a superstar, but we saw him as what we thought to be a solid NFL quarterback.”
Carr did not develop into a franchise quarterback. The Texans lost both of their starting offensive tackles before the season, Carr was sacked a league-record 76 times, and the experiment failed after five seasons.
“You do get into the mind-set that I’ve got a new coach coming in, and I’ve got to get my quarterback to get going. If I don’t get him now, I’m a year behind,” Casserly said. “If somebody would tell me, ‘You’ll have no tackles,’ we wouldn’t have drafted David Carr. We would’ve drafted Julius Peppers.”
Smith and the general managers from Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Tennessee all face the same agonizing decision: To QB or not to QB? None has a young franchise quarterback on the roster, but do they absolutely have to take a quarterback in the first round?
There’s no right answer, unless you can predict the future. Former Seahawks and Browns executive Mike Holmgren recently said, “you’ve got to take one,” while former Pro Bowl quarterback Rich Gannon said the Vikings would be “foolish” to take one with the No. 8 pick.
Are Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, or Derek Carr franchise quarterbacks? They show signs of potential, but scouts almost unanimously agree that none are elite, no-brainer, NFL-ready prospects like Andrew Luck or Matthew Stafford.
“None of these guys, you sit there and go, it’s a slam dunk, this is an easy one,” says the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock. “And the more tape I watch of all three of them, the more questions I have.”
Then again, quarterback is obviously the most important position in football. Having a top-10 pick is pretty much the only way to land a franchise quarterback in today’s NFL. If you pass on the opportunity this year, who’s to say another one will come along later this year or next year? Or that a guy you want later in the draft will be there? The Dolphins went almost 30 years between drafting first-round quarterbacks. The Chiefs haven’t done so since 1983, and the Saints since 1971.
“If you don’t take one and you need one early in the draft, there’s no guarantee you’re getting who you want later in the draft,” former Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. “There’s no guarantee that Colin Kaepernick or Andy Dalton’s going to be there in the second round. If you need a quarterback and you have a quarterback coach and quarterback system in place, get the process started, start developing him.”
The Texans certainly have a quarterback coach in Bill O’Brien. Should they draft Bortles and trust O’Brien to develop him into a franchise guy? Or do they think they can wait on a second-round quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo, Zach Mettenberger, or AJ McCarron and trust O’Brien to be able to develop him?
One front office executive with a top-10 pick thinks it’s pretty clear that no team views this year’s quarterbacks as true franchise players.
“Isn’t it ironic that every team that perceivably needs a quarterback this year signed one in free agency?” the executive said.
True enough, only Cleveland didn’t sign a significant veteran in free agency, but the Browns already have Brian Hoyer and recently signed Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen. Every other team signed a solid veteran so it won’t be forced to draft a quarterback high, or start one right away. Ryan Fitzpatrick signed with Houston, Josh McCown signed with Tampa Bay, Matt Cassel re-signed with Minnesota, Chad Henne re-signed with Jacksonville, Charlie Whitehurst signed with Tennessee, and Matt Schaub was traded to Oakland.
“I think the important thing is to get the pick right, and if they are not in love with any of those three quarterbacks, this is one of the best position top-10s I’ve ever seen,” Mayock said. “Taking a position kid or trading down makes a ton of sense for these guys.”
Quarterbacks tend to be over-drafted because of their importance, but that trend may not hold true this year. Many of the teams that need a quarterback need one for a reason – they recently reached for a quarterback, and failed. No position cripples a franchise quite like a failed first-round QB, and only eight of the 23 drafted in the first round since 2005 have worked out reasonably well.
The 2011 draft, especially, has teams wary of over-drafting quarterbacks. Other than Cam Newton, the other three quarterbacks drafted high all fizzled – the Titans with Jake Locker at 8, the Jaguars with Blaine Gabbert at 10, and the Vikings with Christian Ponder at 12. All three teams are back in the quarterback market this year.
Meanwhile, Dalton and Kaepernick, both taken in the second round, proved to be the best quarterbacks from that year not named Newton. And a couple of third-rounders from 2012 have turned out well — Russell Wilson and Nick Foles.
“I think [the 2011 draft] kind of scared teams, saying, ‘Hey, let’s stay true to our board. While we need a quarterback, let’s not force it,’ ” said former Ravens and Eagles scout Daniel Jeremiah. “I think there’s a theory going around, ‘Let’s build up our roster with as many talented players as we can, and then we can insert the quarterback at that point in time.’ ”
Then again, what if the scouts are wrong (it’s happened before) and Bortles or Manziel turns out to be a star? The Dolphins chose left tackle Jake Long over Matt Ryan with the No. 1 pick in 2008, and spun their wheels at .500 with Chad Henne while the Falcons flourished with Ryan.
“I don’t think anybody thought that Matt Ryan was as good as he turned out to be,” said Gil Brandt, the longtime Cowboys personnel man who now helps run the draft and Combine. “But the one thing that was unusual about Matt Ryan, not only was he very bright but he was very quick mentally, and that’s important in the NFL.”
The decisions teams such as the Texans, Jaguars, Vikings, and Buccaneers are having right now between taking a quarterback or a top position player are excruciating.
“You do so much to create just a fraction of a difference to create a priority order,” the front-office executive said.
And there’s no right answer.
“Without the quarterback you have no chance, and it’s hard to get them,” Casserly said. “You just want to do everything you can to not force the pick.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin