One night in early January kick-started a love affair that resulted in Houston GM Rick Smith doing something he’s never done before. Plus notes on the Jets rebuild, a QB’s ideal landing spot and early 2018 buzz
When scouting quarterbacks, evaluators dig on them differently along the way. Texans GM Rick Smith got his first strong clue that Deshaun Watson might be a match for Houston from the Raymond James Stadium stands on Jan. 9.
Smith knew that if he was going to draft a signal-caller three months later, whoever it was would be joining a playoff roster full of strong veterans. How would a new QB handle it? With two minutes left in the national title game, and Alabama’s vaunted defense and 69 yards of Bermuda grass in front of him, Watson answered.
“It’s in the heat of the moment, the enormity of the moment, they have to go down and score,” Smith explained from his office on Wednesday afternoon. “And just his presence, his confidence, his poise, the way that he handled himself in that situation, in that moment, it was very impressive. … That’s why I go to those games—you can see how they respond to adversity, how they react to their teammates, how they react to their coaches, different situations during the game.
“I saw just tremendous poise and confidence in him. And obviously he went and performed in one of the all-time great games you’ll ever see. He functioned in a very competitive and highly charged environment with a lot of poise and execution.”
You know what happened next. So having seen it with his own eyes, and not just what we saw on TV, Smith acted with Watson-like self-assuredness in dealing up last Thursday to get the 21-year-old Tiger.
I figured Smith had to swallow hard before sending next year’s first-round pick to Cleveland to move up 13 spots and grab Watson at No. 12. I figured wrong.
“I didn’t experience it like that,” Smith said with a laugh. “My feeling about the way it was happening, it all worked the way it was supposed to work.”
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going quarterback heavy—explaining what the Bears saw in Mitchell Trubisky, why the Chiefs fell for Patrick Mahomes, and how the 2018 quarterback class may well have influenced what teams did this year at the position. Plus, we’ll look at the drafts of the Patriots and Jets, and much more.
But we start with Smith—now in his 12th season as Texans GM—making the massive move that he hasn’t in the past. In his previous 10 drafts (he took over just after the 2006 event), he moved up in the first round once, and that was last year when he went from 22nd to 21st overall to get wide receiver Will Fuller. The highest pick he’d spent on a quarterback was the fourth-rounder he used on incumbent Tom Savage in 2014.
So this is, without question, a departure from form for the Texans GM.
“What you’re getting at, and you’re right in the assumption, I value picks,” Smith said. “I do, and so to have to give up draft picks in order to go and acquire a player, you just have to have conviction that the player is worth whatever value is assessed. And in this instance, that was the case.”
What I wanted to get to with Smith was how he came to that conviction, and it turns out there were three important checkpoints along the way, from his perspective—the title game, the combine and Watson’s visit to Houston. The tape is the tape. Everyone sees that. Trusting that a franchise-shifting investment is worth it (a year after striking out on another big one, in Brock Osweiler) is different.
So here’s how Smith came to feel comfortable:
THE TITLE GAME
Watson’s command of a pressure-packed situation was only part of the equation coming out of Tampa. Smith had the good fortune of sitting with a Clemson contingent and met Jessica Jefferson, who worked in the football office. They just talked, but Smith took mental notes.
“She happened to be sitting beside me for a quarter and a half, and she just raved about the type of person he was and the leader that he was,” Smith said. “And she knew [Texans receiver/Clemson alum] DeAndre Hopkins, so we talked about different guys in the program. But she was really complimentary of Deshaun and how he operated around the program, and not just as a football player.”
So Smith’s picture of the person, rather than the player, was falling into place.
Clemson’s offense has more pro elements in it than most people think. It’s a spread in that the quarterback takes the ball from the shotgun and usually there are three receivers on the field, but Watson had to read and throw from the pocket plenty. That said, there is a projection made here, so the 15-minute whiteboard session Watson had with the Texans staff mattered. How does he talk football?
“The fact that the guy had a command of what they were doing offensively, he was very intelligent, understood ball, knows that he’s got a lot to learn, was humble but confident, that was a good interchange,” Smith said. “That exchange of ideas, it was a good conversation. You could tell right away he was smart, he was humble, he knew football and knew he had to work to do and was willing to do it.”
Thus, Smith felt more comfortable that Watson would learn to do the things that he wasn’t asked to do in college.
Watson’s visit to Houston was set for April 18, which was the day of Dan Rooney’s funeral service in Pittsburgh. It meant Smith would miss the bulk of the time the Texans got with Watson, so he adjusted and decided to drop in on the dinner Watson was having with quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan, line coach Mike Devlin, offensive assistant Pat O’Hara and Alabama tackle Cam Robinson. (Initially, neither Smith nor coach Bill O’Brien was scheduled to be there.)
Smith got a table in the back at Steak 48—“It was like the Godfather, we joked about that,” he says—and summoned Watson.
“One of the things we talked about at the end was what the expectations would be if we were in a position to take him,” Smith said. “So we talked about what those are, and I won’t share those, but there was a connection between the two of us where I believe that he was willing to make the necessary commitment to be the best football player he can be.
“I wanted agreement with him on that, and a commitment from him that if he were to become a part of our football team, he was going to do that and recognize the significance of the position, and do everything he could to be the best football player and man representative of Houston that he could be. I walked away from that confident he would do it.”
The rest is now history. Smith had the framework of a deal in place with Browns EVP Sashi Brown before the draft, which allowed him to move smoothly when the board fell as it did. I asked if instinct played a role in pulling the trigger when he did, two picks after the Chiefs made a similarly big move up to get Patrick Mahomes, and he said, “It’s absolutely instinct. It’s intelligence gathering, instinct, all that stuff.”
In the end, if Smith is right, the price he paid won’t matter. And if he’s wrong, it may be someone else making the next quarterback decision for the Texans. That’s how the NFL works.
That pressure will be on Watson too. But after going through this process, Smith is confident his new quarterback won’t wilt under what’s ahead of him.
“Just like I didn’t have a swallow-hard moment, I don’t think that part will affect him at all,” Smith said. “He handles situations and adversity in a way where none of it negatively impacts him. In fact, if anything, it honed him in to what needs to be done.”
And, over time, that honed in Smith in the decision he just made.
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FIRST AND 10
1. I like the four teams that struck twice on the defensive back class—Oakland (Gareon Conley, Obi Melifonwu), Indy (Malik Hooker, Quincy Wilson), Green Bay (Kevin King, Josh Jones) and New Orleans (Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams).
2. Almost every rival team I’ve talked to raved about the Redskins’ class. From DE Jonathan Allen and LB Ryan Anderson early to TE Jeremy Sprinkle late, Washington seems to have crushed it. They found value in falling players across the board.
3. The Cardinals didn’t get their quarterback of the future, but they were encouraged with Carson Palmer’s finish to 2016. Through the first half of the year, things weren’t right around him, and his play suffered because of it.
4. Speaking of Arizona’s draft, I’ve heard Budda Baker’s versatility as a DB compared to that of one his new teammates—Tyrann Mathieu. If that proves true, defensive coordinator James Bettcher will be able to have some fun schemewise.
5. Mentioned this Sunday—one impact that first-year Buffalo coach Sean McDermott had on the Bills’ class was that he was active in removing guys from the board who didn’t fit his character parameters. Internally, a number of staffers believed it was needed.
6. Three receivers going in the top nine was as big a surprise as three quarterbacks in the top 12. If you talked to enough teams, you’d find neither Corey Davis (Titans) nor Mike Williams (Chargers) nor John Ross (Bengals) was a unanimous first-round receiver.
7. Fair comp for the off-field issues that new 49ers LB Reuben Foster faces: Dez Bryant. Foster had a similarly rough upbringing to Bryant and similar questions related to his social maturity, given that his childhood was so unusual.
8. We’ve mentioned it before, and the Malcolm Butler situation still bears watching in New England. He knows exactly how much money the Patriots are keeping him from, because the Saints showed it to him.
9. Last year, you could see the new identity of the Titans take shape in the draft (Jack Conklin, Derrick Henry). That’s the Jags this year, with Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone welcoming RB Leonard Fournette and OT Cam Robinson.
10. I think the Eagles mean it when they say they’ll play it safe with new CB Sidney Jones, coming off the Achilles he blew out at his pro day. A redshirt year is not out of the question.
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1. Why the Bears went in on Mitch Trubisky. Do I think the Bears overpaid to move up one spot? Yes, I do. The old Jimmy Johnson draft-pick value chart says so, too—the second pick is worth 2,600 points, while the haul the Bears sent to the Niners (3, 67, 111 this year, and a third-rounder next year) is worth 2,715—and it’s not as if San Francisco was overcome with offers.
But what’s more important? If Mitch Trubisky is the team’s quarterback in 2026, a decade from now, it won’t matter. No one talks about what the Giants gave up to get Eli Manning, plenty still discuss what the Redskins did to get Robert Griffin III, and the reasons why are obvious. Bottom line, if Chicago believes it have a 10-year answer at the position, a couple mid-round picks are irrelevant. And that belief is why they were so aggressive.
As I understand it, Trubisky wasn’t just the top-rated quarterback on the Bears’ board—there was no close second, and they weren’t going to take a QB if he’d gone first overall to Cleveland. After vetting all the quarterbacks, the Bears brass believed Trubisky was the most athletic and the most accurate and carried the most upside of any of this year’s prospects. And as for the fact that Trubisky has only started 13 games, the conclusion the Bears came to mirrored what the North Carolina coaches told a lot of teams—politics played into the Ohioan spending three seasons on the bench. Marquise Williams, the Heels’ starter in 2014 and ’15, was an outstanding leader and hails from a Charlotte high school that’s a recruiting hotbed for ACC schools, and those sorts of things matter within a college program.
Now, all of this doesn’t mean the Bears are right. But their belief in the player was deep-seated, so they acted with conviction. I wrote back in March that Mike Glennon’s three-year, $45 million deal (which is a de facto one-year, $15 million deal) wouldn’t prevent the Bears from taking another quarterback third overall. This came down to whether they’d find one of the guys in a down quarterback year good enough to spend the pick. Turns out, they believed Trubisky was worth even more than that.
2. The Patriots’ gamble. Take a look at New England’s draft class, and you’ll see four relatively unknown players, none taken within the first 80 picks. You won’t see Brandin Cooks’ name, nor will you see Kony Ealy’s or Mike Gillislee’s. But they are part of the equation here. And as rival teams view it, this is an overt acknowledgement of the urgency of trying to get everything possible out of a 40-year-old all-time great quarterback.
“Well, start with the fact that they certainly got a good player who’s a very good fit for their offense in Brandin Cooks,” said one AFC exec. “But the second part is that, with Brady, there’s a short-term window. So trying to capitalize on that has perhaps an influence on all this. And if that works—and you get back to the Super Bowl—it’s all worth it.”
Cooks’ malleability to line up in different spots and age (23) makes him the right match for New England, while Ealy fills a hole left by Chris Long, and Gillislee feels like an example of the Patriots seeing an undervalued asset in-division (like Chris Hogan, Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, etc.) and striking. The problem with all this? That comes in a couple years. This year makes two straight for New England without a first-round pick, and that means the opportunity cost is missing out on the chance to have two very affordable, top-of-the-roster players in 2019 and 2020. But the Patriots have managed that circumstance before. Last year’s championship team had just four of the club’s former first-round picks (Devin McCourty, Nate Solder, Dont’a Hightower, Malcom Brown) on its final roster.
And so I’d say, when you add it up, these are calculated gambles as an acknowledgement that Brady’s continued greatness needs to be taken advantage of now, because history tells us the sand could run out of the hourglass at any time. Another acknowledgement of that? Jimmy Garoppolo’s continued presence on the roster.
3. Jets double down at safety. Woody Johnson’s comments over the past few days are proof positive that the Jets football braintrust has sold its owner on a teardown. And if you want to know why the Jets took two safeties in the first 40 picks last weekend, that’s a good place to start. The picks are indicative of a number of things in the way the team is internally mapping this out.
First, they were the best players available. The Jets saw LSU’s Jamal Adams as a Top 3 player in the class, and Florida’s Marcus Maye as the top player not selected on Thursday. Second, and related to that, the double-dip acknowledges that the team knows it’s in no position to push needs now, given the state of its roster. Third, they reflect coach Todd Bowles carrying over to New York in earnest the player that defined his Arizona defenses—the hybrid. Maye is a better centerfielder than Adams, and Adams is more versatile overall and more comfortable closer to the line, but both can play in different spots, on different calls, and do different things. Tony Jefferson had that sort of adaptability for Bowles in Arizona, and it’s why the Jets went after him in March, with the idea that having two safeties, as one Bowles’ confidant describes it, that are “mirror images of one another so you have no idea where either is coming.” And fourth, and this shouldn’t be overlooked given the Sheldon Richardson and Mo Wilkerson situations, both guys were cultural fit. The Jets’ work showed that Maye and Jarrad Davis were the alpha dogs on a stingy Florida defense last fall, and Adams drew comparisons, from an intangible standpoint, to Chiefs All-Pro Eric Berry.
Now, I can’t tell you that this is all going to work out, of course. But I can say that, in terms of how Mike Maccagnan and Co. see the total rebuild they’ve promised Johnson, last weekend went about as well as they could’ve hoped with their first two picks.
4. Patrick Mahomes landed in the perfect spot. How long will it be before Mahomes sees the field in Kansas City? Here’s how one Chiefs staffer explained it to me—they won’t think about it until he’s going to the line of scrimmage looking at what the defense is doing rather than thinking about what the offense is doing. In other words, he has to understand the playbook well enough to not just know but understand the ins and outs of all the plays, to point where he gets how to attack whatever defense is being thrown at him. And based on Mahomes’ background, it’ll probably be more than a year before he gets there.
Of course, there are reasons why they drafted him in the first place. Once the Chiefs flipped on the Mahomes tape, they had trouble turning it off. It was unconventional. It was mesmerizing. It didn’t translate that well to the NFL on surface. But what caught the eye of the Chiefs coaches was the way he improved on a week-to-week basis, slowly looking more and more natural, and less mechanical, running Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. Then they got him in the building, and love his unscripted, authentic way. And the truth is that Mahomes should be reciprocating that love to the Chiefs for drafting him. He gets to sit and learn this year—working on tying his footwork to the offense’s routes and learning the system—without the Chiefs having much pressure to play him. Then, they can come back and reassess next spring.
Will Kansas City stick to the plan to redshirt? History says most teams don’t. But Andy Reid’s job security added to Alex Smith’s presence says that, at least on the surface of it, this situation might be different.
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OFFSEASON LESSON TO TAKE WITH YOU
We’ve been over how forcing a quarterback investment in the wrong year can be catastrophic for a franchise. And several teams seem to be listening.
Why? I’d love to say it’s because they read it here. The truth is, this year it’s easier, because next year’s quarterback class figures to be much better. Maybe Trubisky, Mahomes and Watson wind up making it. The consensus in league circles is that USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Wyoming’s Josh Allen have a significantly better chance too.
So the Niners and Browns and Jets may well look pretty sharp in 12 months time.
“I think all three (this year) are bottom 10 starters, maybe Mahomes with his upside creeps in to the bottom 15,” said one AFC college scouting director. “The kid from USC has a chance; Rosen has a ton of ability but tons of issues, like dedication, to work through. And the Wyoming kid is a big, talented player. It’s a good group. It should be much better than this group.”
The Niners, by the way, took Iowa’s C.J. Beathard in the third round, the Browns took DeShone Kizer in the second round, and the Jets punted on the ’17 class all together. So each team left its quarterback options open, and in addition to the college kids, Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins could be available.
Put it together, and we’ll all be over-analyzing how Rosen, Darnold and Allen perform in 2017 (should they all declare). Should we just go ahead and start now? Let’s do it! Here’s a second executive, this from another AFC team, to break down quickly the holes in the résumés of Rosen, Darnold and Allen.
• Allen: “I’ve heard all good things. And from what I’ve seen, the raw tools are all there, but he needs to develop his accuracy and his toughness. The size and arm talent are outstanding.”
• Darnold: “The USC kid, the makeup, the intangibles, the intelligence, everything is there. He’s the most accurate of the group. He’s probably the least physically talented (of the three), but he’s the guy you’d pick to play a game right now if you had to. He does have a little bit of a windup.”
• Rosen: “He’s the one I know the best—he’s got size, athletic tools, velocity. He’s just a mess off the field and he’s coming off the injury. He needs to grow up, but the talent is off the charts.”
As for how this group stacks up to the one just drafted into the NFL, our exec said, “I like Trubisky best, and I think they have a chance to be better than Trubisky was coming out. This was not a good year (at QB).”
And if next year is what we’re expecting, sitting this one out figures to make a handful of teams prescient in their restraint.
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