HOUSTON – As much as the Houston Texans have improved this year – from 2-14 to 9-7 – there’s little applause in this city for general manager Rick Smith. He’s under fire on local talk radio for sluggish, mediocre drafting and for mismanaging the salary cap.
The most compelling piece of evidence against him is the apparent waste of the NFL’s top draft pick on Jadaveon Clowney, South Carolina defensive end who had all the Combine scores you could ever want and a highlight film like Lawrence Taylor’s.
But his college coach, the highly credible Steve Spurrier, had questioned his work ethic, and he had a history of injuries to a variety of body parts. Coach Bill O’Brien did not want Clowney as the No. 1 pick, and neither, really, did Smith.
The Texans’ GM was hoping for an RGIII type ransom for his draft prize. So he turned down multiple lesser offers for it. True to his form, Clowney suffered a sports hernia before training camp began and a knee injury during it, and he ended up involved in only a smattering of plays in his rookie year.
O’Brien chafed when Clowney in RGIII fashion disclosed details of his knee injury to the media. “Dr. Clowney,” the player was called by his coach, not as a sign of respect.
It turned out that Clowney, whose knee was being drained on a regular basis, did indeed have an injury real enough to necessitate reconstructive surgery and a recovery period of nine months. In other words, he will miss all of the next training camp and part of the next season.
It’s not that Clowney is exaggerating the severity of injuries, as O’Brien was implying, but that he has an unusually high number of real injuries.
Rick Smith chose to take the risk that he would have more injuries, and it’s proved to be an unwise risk. It always was.
Smith’s main flaw, however, is paying enormous sums of Bob McNair’s money for the declining years of star players such as Andre Johnson and Duane Brown, while not offering enough to keep rising stars Connor Barwin and Glover Quin.
Among Smith’s personnel misjudgments: he decided not to bid for Peyton Manning when Houston was his first choice after his neck surgery and free agency of 2012.
The unnecessarily generous contract extension Smith gave Johnson means the team will suffer a salary cap hit of $16.1 million in the 2016 season when the receiver is 35. He’s at least a step slower this season than he was in the last one, so it’s difficult to see him as much of a weapon two years from now.
Brown, whose salary next season will count $9 million against the cap, made the Pro Bowl last week as an alternate, but at 29 he admits he does not have the physical skills he had two years ago, that “I have to get by on technique.”
He was once the best left tackle in the league, but he’s been worn down by it and is now barely above average at his position. Brown’s salary will keep rising through 2018.
As for Barwin, one of the fastest linebackers in the league, he left the Texans as a free agent to sign a contract with Philadelphia for six years and $36 million, but less than a third of that guaranteed. Barwin, 26, is among the league leaders in sacks this season with 14.5.
And we see safety Glover Quin, 28, representing Detroit in the Pro Bowl after intercepting seven passes this season. Houston could have kept him for less than $5 million a year.
Smith’s one impressive achievement is acquiring and securing J.J. Watt, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 and a contender for this year’s MVP overall. The Texans drafted Smith at No. 10 in the 2011 draft, and his 6-year, $100 million extension, half of it guaranteed, seems a bargain, given Watt’s work ethic and his age of 26.
But Smith’s subsequent drafting has been spotty. The Minnesota Vikings outmaneuvered him to trade up in last year’s draft to grab Teddy Bridgewater just ahead of Houston’s pick at the top of the second round. Bridgewater is, so far, the best of the rookie quarterbacks. The second best, Derek Carr, was available, but Smith passed on him because of the team’s disappointment with brother David Carr.
The Texans did not draft a quarterback until Tom Savage in the fourth round, and this was the position that plagued them throughout the season.
Smith is not among the 10 worst general managers in the league, but his error rate is too high to make it likely he can direct the Texans to the Super Bowl.