The can't-miss-QB in this year's draft? Bill O'Brien doesn't see one
ORLANDO -- I had breakfast Tuesday morning with the man who owns the 2014 NFL draft, but Bill O'Brien didn't have time to eat much. Too many questions. Too much ground to cover. Too many momentous choices looming just ahead. Houston's new head coach inherits the team slated to pick first on each day of the league's three-day draft, in what is considered the deepest and most talented draft class in decades.
It's a pretty fortuitous spot to find yourself in if you're a rookie head coach facing perhaps the most pivotal draft pick in Texans team history.
And for the record, no, he doesn't know yet who Houston will choose first overall on the night of May 8 at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Not by name or even the position at this point, with six weeks and two days left before the picking starts.
"I don't think it'll come to me in a dream,'' quipped O'Brien, holding court at the AFC head coaches media breakfast on Day 3 of the league's annual meeting. "It might come to me in a nightmare. ... I don't think it's an easy decision. But we'll make a good pick.''
Houston has 11 picks (thanks to three compensatory selections awarded Monday) and a lot of options in this draft, and there's little time to waste in preparing for the haul that O'Brien hopes is on the way. After he leaves Orlando on Wednesday, he'll fly back to Houston and attend quarterback Johnny Manziel's much-anticipated pro day workout at Texas A&M on Thursday ("We'll go up and watch Johnny spin it''), then jet up to the University of Iowa on Friday to speak at the football clinic of his friend and fellow coach, Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz. It's roster-building season in the NFL, and nobody in the league has the draft spotlight on them quite like O'Brien's Texans.
"I do think it's a deep draft and it has a lot to do with all those young guys coming out, all those juniors,'' O'Brien said. "We have 11 picks, and you can really set your team up for the future by doing your due diligence in this draft. Which is what we're doing. We're working on it, and I think we're going to have a really good draft.
"As we sit here right now, we have the No. 1 pick in every round, and the No. 1 pick in the second round is another first-round pick, and the No. 1 pick in the third round is a second-round pick. You don't want to be in that position every year, but if you do a good job and it works out ...''
If it works out, the Texans should have both their quarterback of the future (taken somewhere in the opening three rounds presumably), and a sizable jump on the task of returning to playoff contention after last year's stunning 2-14 unraveling in Houston. That's the plan anyway. Now it's up to O'Brien and incumbent Texans general manager Rick Smith to execute it.
Though everyone wants to talk quarterback with O'Brien, the former Patriots offensive coordinator and Penn State head coach, that may not necessarily be where Houston starts its selection process. The more I listen to O'Brien, the more I'm starting to believe passing on a QB at No. 1 overall is truly in play for the Texans. I'm not predicting someone other than a quarterback is the end result, but it's a possibility. O'Brien consistently reminds anyone who asks about the quarterbacks in this year's draft that there are more than just the three consensus top-rated passers to choose from, those being Manziel, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Central Florida's Blake Bortles.
With the Super Bowl seasons turned in by Seattle third-round pick Russell Wilson and San Francisco second-round pick Colin Kaepernick providing something of a model the past two years, it would no longer shock me if the Texans targeted a quarterback like Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo atop the second round, and used their first overall pick on South Carolina pass-rusher extraordinaire Jadeveon Clowney or Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack. Plenty could change in the coming month and a half, but O'Brien doesn't sound locked in on anyone so far.
"It's important to note there's a lot of quarterbacks that are winners, that have played well [in this draft],'' O'Brien said, toward the beginning of his hour-plus session with reporters at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grand Lakes. "You've got A.J. McCarron and [Zach] Mettenberger and Garoppolo. [Pitt's Tom] Savage, we were at his pro day. You can go right down the line. There are a lot of guys who can play quarterback.
"I don't [see a lot of separation among the quarterbacks]. I see strengths and weaknesses with every one of these guys, and I don't see where there's two or three guys that are just light years ahead of the rest of these guys. McCarron and Mettenberg, those guys played in the SEC. So did Johnny. That's a tough conference. They won a lot of games in the SEC, so they must have been doing something right. It's a very intriguing position [in this year's draft class].''
O'Brien made it clear Houston is still very much in the decision-making process on the quarterback front. But he certainly talks as if he has studied the so-called second tier of quarterbacks intently, and it's easy to read Houston's recent trade of Matt Schaub to Oakland and signing of ex-Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick as moves that portend a veteran "bridge'' starter at QB this season for the Texans. Playing Fitzpatrick, who has starting experience with the Rams, Bengals, Bills and Titans, while developing a younger quarterback (be it a first-rounder like Bortles or someone taken lower in the draft), could wind up being the route Houston takes in 2014.
"No question,'' said O'Brien, when I asked him if Wilson's and Kaepernick's success was a reminder that quarterback-needy teams do not have to invest at a first-round level. "Obviously we're not ready to sit down as a staff and say what we're going to do, but the more I study these guys, I see a lot of guys with experience and production in college. There are a lot of quarterbacks I've watched that are decent players.''
O'Brien talked about "all options'' being open for Houston, but in the next breath he conceded that rookie starting quarterbacks face tremendous challenges, even though circumstances dictate some of them have to play right away.
"I think it's very, very difficult for a guy to play quarterback as a rookie, right away,'' he said. "To expect a guy to go in there and play right away against a Rex Ryan defense is very, very difficult. But at the same time, you better be ready to do it, because you never know what might happen. If it ends up being a guy's got to play as a rookie, then that's what he's got to do.''
But it does sound like that might be the worst-case scenario in O'Brien's view, starting a rookie QB, and in late March, he can still afford to largely hope for the best case.
"We still have a lot of time left,'' O'Brien said. "What fun would it be if you already knew who you were going to pick? You could go on vacation if you knew that. That would take the fun out of it.''
And the guesswork. The Colts didn't seem to mind missing the drama two years ago, when they locked onto Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck atop the 2012 draft months and months before they had to turn in the card with his name on it. But that's just it, isn't it? There isn't a Luck-like can't-miss quarterback in this year's draft. Thus the Texans have some decisions to make.
"I agree with that,'' O'Brien said. "We don't believe we're in a draft where we know where we're going and there's an [obvious] guy, no. That would take the fun out of it.''
O'Brien said he was "sure we'll have something in mind maybe a week or two in advance'' of the draft, but the process of arriving at a selection at No. 1 will "be a while.''
One thing he promises the Texans won't do? Listen too much to the team's fan base, esepcially in the case of Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, the brother of Houston's 2002 first overall pick David Carr, whose quarterback career with the franchise never lived up to its expectations. Texans fans don't want anything to do with drafting another Carr at QB, and have made that known.
"With all due respect to the fans of Houston ... if we start asking the fans about who we should draft, I'll be sitting next to you at the next game,'' O'Brien said to a reporter.
Some other notable nuggets from O'Brien on Tuesday morning:
• On Clowney's reputation for not playing with full effort and whether it scares the Texans away from him?
"I've studied him pretty closely, and not to make an excuse for anyone, but in college there's 85-90 plays a game. He plays all the time, and I think if you look at any player in college, especially at the defensive line spot, playing in a league were most of the teams are in the shotgun, throwing the ball and you're rushing the passer, I dare you to find a guy who plays 90 snaps like his life's on the line every game. But when the game's on the line, Jadeveon plays hard. He's an explosive player, he's a productive player, he's an instinctive player. So I think that's kind of blown out of proportion.''
• On the first thing he looks for in a quarterback?
"To me it's really two things. The guy has to be able to throw the ball accurately and a guy has to have intelligence. He has to have a quick mind. He's got to be able to process things in two or three seconds.''
• On Bridgewater's widely panned pro day performance.
"I was at Teddy's [pro day] too, and people made a big deal about Teddy's day, but I thought Teddy had a decent day. He had some incompletions, but Teddy's obviously worked extremely hard to improve his footwork and his throwing mechanics. I've seen improvement there and I'm sure we'll see improvement with Johnny when we show up on Thursday [at his pro day].''
• On whether Manziel's improvisational skillset requires an offense committed to building around what he does well, and if O'Brien's offense is flexible enough to accommodate him?
"With a guy like Johnny, you certainly can't box him into a certain way of playing. He's been successful since he was 4-5 years old playing the way he plays. You can't force a guy to be something he isn't. But we have a system adaptable to many different types of quarterbacks.''
• On whether his experience in New England coaching Tom Brady complicates the search for Houston's quarterback of the future, in that it sets an impossibly high bar?
"For us in Houston, especially myself, we have to guard against looking for the next Tom Brady. Those guys are few and far between. What we're looking for is a guy with some of Tom's qualities; a great teammate, a great leader and accountable guy.''