Every year the buildup to the NFL Draft feels like it lasts forever, but this year—with the draft occurring in May, instead of mid-April, due to scheduling conflicts at Radio City Music Hall—it really feels protracted. That’s been even more pronounced for people in Texas, who stand to gain the most in one of the more intriguing drafts in recent memory. The twin questions we’re facing: What will the Houston Texans do with their number one overall pick, and what’s going to happen with Johnny Manziel?
Instead of predictions or mock drafts (which are really quite useless and expose ignorances more than expertise), we’ll explore the real issue by looking at all of the possibilities for both the Texans and Johnny Football. (Cowboys fans: remember, your team has the number sixteeen pick because your season wasn’t as atrocious as Houston’s, which should serve as a small consolation for being left out in our analysis.)
What The Texans Might Do:
Draft a Quarterback With the First Overall Pick
The current projected starting quarterback for the Houston Texans is an ace signal caller who goes by the initials “TBD,” as longtime starter Matt Schaub was traded to Oakland after the season ended. As of this moment, the team has a few quarterbacks under contract: Case Keenum, who proved to the team after a wildly uneven stretch of games that he’s not a guy you can count on to lead your team; T.J. Yates, who proved the same thing in relief duty in previous seasons; and free agent acquisition Ryan Fitzpatrick, who proved it to both Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans fans in recent years. So while there are a lot of QBs warming the bench, the Texans currently have no starting quarterback, a pretty big problem if you’re a football team.
With the top overall pick, the Texans can choose anybody they want, and the team’s fans seem to want Manziel (or at least that’s true of high-profile attorneys and of Texas rapper Slim Thug). In addition to the aforementioned major problem of not already having a starting QB lined up, it’s easy to see why fans feel this way: Manziel is as exciting a quarterback as they come, and everybody loves a hometown hero.
Still, there are legitimate doubts about Manziel’s pro potential. College QBs who specialize in backyard-style, “draw it in the dirt” football don’t always make for a good transition to the pro way of play. For every Brett Favre, there are a dozen Tim Tebows, and that makes Manziel intriguing as hell, but a big risk at the top spot. Other prospects include Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (who looked more poised and polished during his college career but had a lackluster pro day and a general lack of hype) and Central Florida passer Blake Bortles. Bortles is the sort of prospect that a traditionalist like new Texans head coach Bill O’Brien likely covets: He’s tall (unlike Manziel), white (unlike Bridgewater, something that is relevant when there are only six projected black starting quarterbacks in the league at the moment), lantern-jawed and hunky (seriously, look at this dude). These physical characteristics make him a prospect that a coach can feel good about taking with the top pick. O’Brien is also close to Bortle’s college coach, George O’Leary (he was O’Leary’s assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech).
But it’s also probably a safe assumption that Bortles isn’t a sure-thing prospect in the mold of, say, Colts starter Andrew Luck—in a year when the QB hype didn’t surround unconventional athletes like Manziel and Bridgewater, Bortles would probably be a mid-rounder. Houston’s certainly quarterback needy, but it’s fair to argue that the best player in the draft isn’t a passer at all.
Draft a Defensive Player
By “draft a defensive player,” we essentially mean “draft Jadeveon Clowney.” Clowney, a physical marvel of a human being, is without much dispute the most talented player in this year’s draft. He’s a pass rusher who turned 21 in February, and who fell out of favor with some draft observers because his college coach, Steve Spurrier of South Carolina, was lukewarm in interviews about Clowney’s work ethic. That may be true, but the circumstance of Clowney’s college career are a bit unusual: He was so dominant two seasons ago that the consensus around the league was that, if he were to have entered the 2013 NFL Draft, he’d have easily been the top overall pick.
Alas, the NFL and the NCAA have conspired to ensure that players as young as Clowney are required to spend a little more time in the college game than they may want to otherwise, and Clowney—whose entire future would have been disrupted had he suffered an injury—may not have played to win in his final year at South Carolina the way that he had the year before. That’s enough to bum out Spurrier, but may not be enough to turn off the Texans.
There is another option for defense, though it’s the sort of longshot that sports press folks tend to toss out there when they’re bored with waiting for things to start: Kahlil Mack, Buffalo linebacker, is now rumored to be on the Texans’ radar. It’s possible that the team will take him, of course, but it’d defy some serious conventional wisdom to choose Mack over Clowney.
Trade the Pick
By most accounts, the Texans aren’t as thrilled to have the number-one overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft as one might assume—or, at least, they’re open to the idea that it might be more valuable to another team than it is to them, and offering the opportunity to grab Manziel, Clowney, or Bortles to a team that is desperate for them could yield the chance to improve the roster in other places, as well.
The most logical candidate for a trade partner is probably the Atlanta Falcons, who own the sixth overall pick, and who have been flirting hard with Clowney, who, being a Georgia boy, is essentially their version of a hometown hero. A team that’s desperate to land Clowney or Manziel, and who wants to ensure that no one else gets the opportunity to do so, might offer Houston its 2015 first-round pick (or potentially more, depending which team it is and when their pick is) in exchange for swapping spots.
The problem with this strategy, of course, is that everyone recognizes that there’s not a ton of true, top-tier talent at the top of this draft—in fact, Clowney may be the only guy who really deserves to be taken at number one, and Houston needs a quarterback so badly that Clowney might fall to number two—or later—as teams that need passers, offensive tackles, and wide receivers make a run for the special talent at those positions. All of which means that the Texans, as much as they’d like to trade down, are going to be unable to get the value they want.
In any case, that about does it for Houston. They can take a quarterback with potential, but who is perhaps not the sort of surefire prospect that teams picking number-one overall like to grab; or they can take a defensive end who would make their defense downright terrifying when paired with JJ Watt, but who would leave them hoping that Ryan Fitzpatrick was just going through a rough patch during his tenures in Tennessee and Buffalo. Other quarterbacks, of course, will be available in the second round.
What Might Happen To Johnny Manziel:
He Gets Taken With the Top Pick
The best-case-scenario for Johnny Football, iconic young man that he is, would appear to be playing for Houston as the top selection in the draft. There are possible alternate scenarios here—perhaps Houston trades the pick to, say, quarterback-needy Jacksonville, in which case Manziel has to move to Florida but still gets taken first overall—but the odds are that if Manziel goes number one to the Texans, a whole lot of people in Houston are going to be real, real happy.
Manziel might butt heads with Bill O’Brien, but there’d be some real benefits to playing close to home for him, too. The Texans would probably have to be about as patient with his style of play as any team ever would be, and the idea of him tossing passes to Andre Johnson really could be a thing of beauty.
He Goes to a Team That Isn’t Houston
Seeing Manziel in red and blue would make writing about the Texans more fun next season, but if Houston opts for Clowney, Manziel is likely to land somewhere else in the top ten. The next four picks are held by St. Louis, Jacksonville, Cleveland, and Oakland. St. Louis has an entrenched starter in Sam Bradford, but Bradford isn’t actually all that good, and when his contract expires, he’ll be incredibly expensive to re-sign because he was the last quarterback taken with the top overall pick before the rookie wage scale was enacted. Until this week, the thinking was that the Rams were out of the hunt for Manziel, Bortles, or Bridgewater, but either boredom or a leaky operation suddenly has them in play.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, is no more settled at the quarterback position than Houston, with Chad Henne—a career backup—their most promising player at the moment. The Jaguars would presumably be thrilled to have the chance to land Manziel.
They might not have the opportunity, though—if St. Louis decides to stick with Bradford, they might still trade the pick, which could send Johnny Football to Tampa Bay, who reportedly covet the splash of Johnny Football to an otherwise non-descript offense. Potentially another team might try to sneak into that number two spot, as well—maybe even the Cowboys?—as bidding could get frantic if Manziel stays on the board.
He Falls Way Down the Board
It wouldn’t be a huge shock if Manziel ended up having a draft-day slide, though. He is an unconventional player, and whichever team takes him early will be staking its future on someone with a higher boom/bust factor than most prospects.
If that happened, it could make for a very interesting day for Johnny Football. Reports from the frighteningly-accurate NFL reporter Jay Glazer are that both Cleveland and Oakland are planning to pass on Manziel, if he falls to them. If he makes it out of the top ten, the number of teams who need a player like him falls a bit. In that case, he could slide way down the board and find himself in a very different position than that of assumed-franchise-savior. That would also make it tempting for the Texans to trade some of its lower (and future) picks to try and get him there.
But if Manziel slides to, say, #29, the New England Patriots’ pick, he could find himself backing up Tom Brady for a couple of years while the future Hall Of Famer plays out his twilight years—then get handed the reins to the team himself. Such a scenario would probably outrage a whole bunch of Aggies, and make for a sad day at the publicist’s office for Manziel as he learns how to sound humble—but it could also be the best possible solution for his actual football prospects.
The challenge surrounding Manziel—and one of the reasons teams may be hesitant to take him as early on in the draft as Texans fans would like to see him go—is that he’s perceived as a bit of a loose cannon, as smitten with the idea of being an icon and an entertainer as he is with winning football games. With that in mind, the humility he’d learn watching player after player get called before him would probably provide some real fuel for Johnny Football’s fire: If he’s handed the expectation that he’s going to go off and be great, he might spend some time partying and signing endorsement deals. If he’s forced to prove people wrong, though, the chip it’d leave on his shoulder could help make him the next Aaron Rodgers (who also slid way down the board on draft day).
Ultimately, it’s going to be an unpredictable year in the NFL draft, and that is not something you can say every year. Usually the top overall pick has been revealed days, if not weeks, in advance, while various hot prospects have some sort of consensus about where they’ll go. The draft this year may be late in coming, but it should be plenty exciting.
(AP Photo/Patric Schneider)