The lead into Brian Gaine's press conference last week gave us the first glimpse into the stated goals of the draft coming up this Thursday:
“We have four picks here in the top 86, so we get four selections here in the top three rounds. We’re going to get four very good players. As it relates to that, we have seven picks overall. We’re certainly excited about that. Ready to go to work. We’ll let the board speak for itself and let the board talk to us.”
As we reported Monday, "four picks in the top 86" was repeated on multiple occasions throughout the press conference, a reminder that Gaine is probably excited about the opportunity, but also acutely aware of how crucial hitting on all of these picks is in order to fortify a roster that is quite top heavy, with many holes for a team that won 11 games last season. In short, Deshaun Watson's greatness can only cover up so much.
To me, hitting on all four of those picks would mean finding a couple foundational pieces (i.e. players you could see the Texans signing to a second contract) and a couple guys who contribute during their four year rookie deals, and then maybe they stay or maybe they leave for more money in free agency. You can't re-sign everybody.
The foundational pieces, though, are the big key. Right now, I would say the Texans' foundational players, players either on their long-term deals or approaching them after their rookie deals are up, are Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney (someday), and Bernardrick McKinney, for sure. Will Fuller, D.J. Reader, and Justin Reid are all guys I feel could find their way onto that list. After that, not much there.
So what can we learn from the Texans' history in finding "foundational" players, or anything close to that? Well, the good news is that, since the Texans have only been around since 2002, examining the entire franchise's history is pretty easy. Listed below are the top 25 Texans of all-time, according to Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value metric. I think it's safe to call all of these players either "foundational" or ATTEMPTS at finding something "foundational." Let's take a look:
1. ANDRE JOHNSON, WR (2003-2014, 169 games, Career AV: 120)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft with the 3rd overall pick.
2. J.J. WATT, DE (2011-present, 104 games, Career AV: 108)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft with the 11th overall pick.
3. DUANE BROWN, LT (2008-2017, 133 games, Career AV: 79)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft with the 26th overall pick.
4. MATT SCHAUB, QB (2007-2013, 90 games, Career AV: 74)
TRADED from Atlanta to Houston for two second round picks before 2007 season.
5. ARIAN FOSTER, RB (2009-2015, 76 games, Career AV: 62)
SIGNED as an undrafted free agent after the 2009 NFL Draft.
6. CHRIS MYERS, C (2008-2014, 112 games, Career AV: 61)
TRADED from Denver to Houston for a 6th round pick before 2008 season.
7. BRIAN CUSHING, LB (2009-2017, 104 games Career AV: 60)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft with the 15th overall pick.
8. JOHNATHAN JOSEPH, CB (2011-present, 119 games, Career AV: 59)
SIGNED as an unrestricted free agent before 2011 season.
9. DeANDRE HOPKINS, WR (2013-present, 95 games, Career AV: 57)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft with the 27th overall pick.
10. CHESTER PITTS, G (2002-2009, 114 games, Career AV: 51)
DRAFTED in the second round of the 2002 NFL Draft with the 50th overall pick.
11. KAREEM JACKSON, CB (2010-2018, 132 games, Career AV: 50)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft with the 20th overall pick.
12. ERIC WINSTON, RT (2006-2011, 92 games, Career AV: 48)
DRAFTED in the third round of the 2006 NFL Draft with the 66th overall pick.
13. DAVID CARR, QB (2002-2006, 76 games, Career AV: 45)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft with the 1st overall pick.
14. WHITNEY MERCILUS, LB (2012-present, 99 games, Career AV: 45)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft with the 26th overall pick.
15. DeMECO RYANS, LB (2006-2011, 86 games, Career AV: 44)
DRAFTED in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft with the 33rd overall pick.
16. MARIO WILLIAMS, DE (2006-2011, 82 games, Career AV: 44)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft with the 1st overall pick.
17. OWEN DANIELS, TE (2006-2013, 100 games, Career AV: 41)
DRAFTED in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft with the 98th overall pick.
18. JADEVEON CLOWNEY, DE (2014-present, 62 games, Career AV: 40)
DRAFTED in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft with the 1st overall pick.
19. ANTONIO SMITH, DE (2009-2013, 2016, 92 games, Career AV: 39)
SIGNED as an unrestricted free agent before 2009 season.
20. KEVIN WALTER, WR (2006-2012, 109 games, Career AV: 38)
SIGNED as a restricted free agent before 2006 season.
21. BENARDRICK McKINNEY, LB (2015-present, 62 games, Career AV: 37)
DRAFTED in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft with the 43rd overall pick.
22. DOMANICK WILLIAMS, RB (2003-2005, 40 games, Career AV: 34)
DRAFTED in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft with the 101st overall pick.
23. WADE SMITH, G (2010-2013, 64 games, Career AV: 33)
SIGNED as an unrestricted free agent before 2010 season.
24. STEVE McKINNEY, C (2002-2007, 83 games, Career AV: 30)
SIGNED as an unrestricted free agent before 2002 season.
25. DEREK NEWTON, T (2011-2016, 82 games, Career AV: 30)
DRAFTED in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft with the 214th overall pick.
The breakdown of these 25 players' acquisition methods are as follows:
10 - DRAFTED in the first round
4 - SIGNED in unrestricted free agency
3 - DRAFTED in the second round
2 - DRAFTED in the fourth round
2 - TRADED for them
1 - DRAFTED in the third round
1 - DRAFTED in the seventh round
1 - UNDRAFTED free agent
1 - SIGNED in restricted free agency
OK, a few thoughts here:
The Texans cannot afford to screw up the first round
Putting David Carr aside, because to think he is the 13th most valuable Texans is to completely recalibrate the definition of the word "valuable," nine of the top 20 or so players in franchise history were first round picks of the Texans, including all of the first rounders taken from 2008 through 2014. The Texans have no choice but to find a "ten year long" Texan with their first round pick. If trading some middle round draft capital to move up and improve the hit rate is something Gaine feels necessary, to move up and get an Andre Dillard, than I'm cool with that.
The third round has been the Texans Achilles heel
That the Texans have found more foundational players via trades and via the fourth round, that they've had as many second-contract seventh round picks as they've had third round picks (and ironically, that seventh round pick, Newton, replaced the third round pick, Winston, in a salary dump), is a complete abomination. The Texans history in the third round reads like Pauly Shore's IMDB page — an slew of decisions and productions.
The Texans missing out on deeper playoff runs in 2011 and 2012 really hurts
Aside from DeanDre Hopkins at number 9 Chester Pitts at number 10, the other nine players in the Texans' top 11 of all time were all core pieces on the 2011 and 2012 playoff teams, and three of the next four players were on the team in one of those two seasons. That was a really nice core nucleus that was, unfortunately, not really built to last, or certainly not built to overcome a completely pick six prone quarterback, as we found out in 2013.
Charley Casserly's final act was clearly his best
The 2006 draft class doesn't have any players in the Texans' all-time top 11 players, however it does have four of the players listed in between number 12 and number 17 — Winston, DeMeco Ryans, Mario Williams, and Owen Daniels. While none of those four went on to become super elite players as a Texan (all due respect to Williams, but Ryans was probably the closest, until he suffered a torn Achilles), it was a solid class with lots of pieces that would fit nicely on a roster like the Texans' current roster.