They have three of the most frightening defensive attackers in football: J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus. But that means little to fans of the Houston Texas, as long as their team has no quarterback.
The Texans were resembling the Cleveland Browns as they sifted through the likes of David Carr, Matt Schaub, Case Keenum, Ryans Fitzpatrick and Mallett, Brian Hoyer leading all the way down to Brock-bottom Osweiler.
But just when the fans are resigned to entrusting their offense to Tom Savage until-he-gets-injured, hope suddenly emerges at the NFL Draft in Philly. The usually slow-triggered general manager Rick Smith trades up from No. 25 to 12 so he can have exclusive negotiating access to Deshaun Watson, college football’s most successful quarterback.
No one has ever played in back to back national-title games and emerged both times as the outstanding player. His underdog Clemson Tigers challenging Alabama, the sport’s greatest dynasty, Watson won one game and almost won the other. He was relentless, tireless, inspirational, unbreakable.
The more the NFL scouting departments learned about Watson, the more convinced they were that he had leadership skills that may be unprecedented.
He has a beaming countenance, a reassuring self confidence with never a hint of bluster. Teammates respond to him. Yes he had tremendous receivers at Clemson (including LA Chargers first-round draft pick Mike Williams), but he worked with each one of them to place the ball exactly where they wanted it.
DeAndre Hopkins no longer will wander through secondaries with his quarterback having no idea where he is.
There were others in the draft – Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and DeShone Kizer – who have a stronger arm than Watson and comparable mobility. Two or three years from now they may be more productive than Watson.
But not now. The others did not lead their college teams to greatness, didn’t win a bowl game. The teams that drafted them know they’re not ready to lead a pro team.
Of this elite group of young guns, Watson is the quarterback most likely to succeed, though perhaps the least probable to be a Hall of Famer. He’s farthest ahead on the learning curve and the one most likely to keep learning. Bill Polian, Hall of Fame general manager, observed, “There’s a lot to be said for Deshaun in the intangibles area. Any others who are drafted high, it’s for potential only.”
Polian warned that Watson’s adjustment to the NFL is compromised by his upbringing in a spread/shotgun very different from the low-risk, pound-the-ball alignments of Texans coach Bill O’Brien. “Deshaun is going to make a jump from a non-NFL-friendly offense,” Polian pointed out.
But Watson is bright, and I can’t imagine him bewildered by the intricacies of the snap from under center.
Prior to the draft, I compared Watson to Kansas City’s Alex Smith as “a fine all-round athlete and an accurate short-range passer.”
But that was a simplistic assessment, more so than it was intended to be. To expand and clarify: Watson and Smith are both smart field generals, but with different leadership styles. Smith is cautious, unwilling to throw to a tight window in the red zone. Watson is more daring, which led him to 30 interceptions in his final two college seasons. He also threw 76 touchdowns.
In the NFL, where most games are won or lost on turnovers, he will have to be more like Smith, without becoming Alex Smith the Ultimate Game Manager.
The Texans expect Watson to be a playmaker. The Chiefs expect that, eventually, from Mahomes, whom Andy Reid traded up to select at No. 10. Reid may do for Mahomes what he did for Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb, transform them into Pro Bowl/Super Bowl quarterbacks.
Mahomes has completed passes in games that traveled 70 yards. He’s thrown some in practice that have gone 80. At Texas Tech he beat out stout competition in Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb, dispatching them to other Power Five starting jobs.
Two years from now Mahomes could be better than Mitchell Trubisky, who enticed the Chicago Bears to bundle mid-draft picks to rise from No. 3 to No. 2. Their idea is for Trubisky to spend the remainder of this year as understudy to Mike Glennon and then push him out of his job next year.
Does anyone doubt the Bears will have a unified team this season?
So what were the Cleveland Browns doing trading the pick for Watson? Did anyone need a quarterback more than they did? They haven’t drafted one on the first round since Johnny Goofball in 2014. Which does explain why they’re gun-shy. Still, they should have taken a shot. They’re planning to go into the season with Osweiler or Cody Kessler at quarterback. Or maybe Kevin Hogan.
They did go for a QB in the second round, Kizer, with his big arm, big mouth (“I could be the greatest ever”) and very little polish or sense of perspective. He’s immature even for a 21-year-old. A project if ever there was one, but he’s likely to be starting by midseason, given the caliber of competition.
Unfortunately for the Texans, they gave up so much of this draft and the next to wipe their hands of Osweiler that they’re as likely to finish last as first in the AFC South.
The Tennessee Titans hugely upgraded by using their two first round picks on a fast and shifty wide receiver, Corey Davis, and a disruptive cornerback, Adoree Jackson.
General manager Jon Robinson has assembled a team that’s solid at all position groups. If the talented but spindly quarterback Marcus Mariota recovers fully from a broken leg and can avoid other fractures, the Titans could dominate a division that for several years has been led, haltingly and intermittently, by the Texans and the Indianapolis Colts.
Watson gives Houston reason for hope, but the free agency exodus of cornerback A.J. Bouye, safety Quintin Demps and linebacker John Simon left holes that Smith could not fill with his depleted stash of draft picks.
Smith’s middling performance as GM has created tension with O’Brien. The Osweiler Effect lingers, with Smith blamed for no due diligence before handing out 37 mil guaranteed.
A few minutes at the chalkboard, and Smith would have seen that his old pals in Denver had bum-steered him onto an asset they wanted to lose.
But to be fair, O’Brien has to answer why the Brockster played so much better for Gary Kubiak.
Smith is relying on Watson to save his job. Seldom has a rookie quarterback been pressured from so many directions. The odds against him seem ridiculous, and Savage may be better than we think, but I’m betting that Watson figures it all out before the postseason arrives. And by the way, that’s where he’s best.