2017 NFL Draft — 4 Things to Watch For

It's a big draft for Bill O'Brien and his staff as they head into Year 4.
It's a big draft for Bill O'Brien and his staff as they head into Year 4.
Eric Sauseda
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It's been more than three months since the 2016 Houston Texans season ended, buried underneath a pile of Brock Osweiler interceptions and other assorted errant throws in Foxborough on that chilly January playoff evening. In the three months since, here's what's changed with the Texans:

1. They managed to unload Osweiler (and his $16 million guaranteed salary) on the Cleveland Browns.

2. J.J. Watt appears to be, by all accounts (including his own), fully healthy for the first time since early in the 2015 season.

3. They watched three defensive starters walk in free agency — CB A.J. Bouye (Jacksonville), OLB John Simon (Indianapolis) and S Quintin Demps (Chicago) — and replaced them with...well, nobody.

So free agency was beyond quiet for the Texans, as they were the only NFL team to refrain from signing another team's free agent players. For someone like me, with the patience of a kindergartener, it's been painful to watch that $30 million in salary cap space just sit there dormant. Now comes the NFL Draft, and if you're trying to nail down areas of need, here are the gaping holes on the Texans roster:

* Future franchise quarterback
* Starting right tackle
* Running backs that scare opponents
* Starting outside linebacker
* Starting safety
* Cornerback depth

So if you're watching the draft tonight, it's worth noting how the above positions unfold, especially that first one — FUTURE FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK. With that in mind, here are four things to watch for tonight in the NFL Draft (which you can hear all weekend long on SportsRadio 610!):

4. The bullish running back market
It's crazy to think that just three drafts ago, back in 2014, we had our second consecutive NFL Draft where no running backs went in the first round. It's almost like Trent Richardson's selection at third overall in 2012 sent the entire RB market into a first-round freeze for two years. Two thousand fifteen saw the nightmare for ball carriers end, with two in the first round, and then in 2016, there was only one (Ezekiel Elliott), but he was picked fourth overall. Now, the 2017 draft should fully put us back to normal, with two RBs expected to go in the top ten (Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, both of whom skipped their bowl games, so we know how important THAT is to scouts) and another (Dalvin Cook) sometime later in the first round. The running back to watch this weekend will be Oklahoma's Joe Mixon, who comes into the league with a ton of great film (more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage) and one piece of really bad film (security footage of Mixon punching out a female student in 2014). I am forecasting the second round as the time for Mixon to hear his name called.

3. What happens if the Texans' big need supply dries up before No. 25?
The most urgent needs the Texans have are the future franchise quarterback and offensive tackle. There are three players at each of those positions who are perceived to be worth taking with the 25th overall pick — quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, and tackles Cam Robinson, Garrett Bolles and Ryan Ramczyk. The reaction by fans at the Texans draft party at NRG Stadium when the last of those six guys goes off the board, if it happens before the Texans choose, should be chilling and palpable, and would probably only be surpassed by the shower of boos that would occur if the Texans then traded back out of the first round (a perfectly acceptable approach that would be a disaster in trying to entertain a stadium concourse full of drunks).

2. Could a "move up package" include a player?
What about the Texans trading the other way to move up and make sure they get one of those guys? It could happen, but would be completely out of character for general manager Rick Smith, who's moved up in the first round just one time on his tenure as GM (last season, moving up one spot to get Will Fuller). The package to move up all depends on how far they decide to go. Moving from 25 to, say, 16 wouldn't require a "godfather" package. Start trying to get near the top ten, though, and the team's ability to put together a package without gutting future (and/or current) drafts gets dubious, which raises the question — would the Texans trade a current player as part of a package to move up? The only players on the Texans roster who would keep an opposing GM on the phone to continue talking are Watt, Clowney, Mercilus, Hopkins and Kevin Johnson. That's it. And I'm guessing the only one Smith MIGHT consider moving would be Johnson. So a move up may not come until the first round unfolds a little bit.

Also, here's one more thing to concern yourselves with...

1. Danger zone — 15th pick and the 18th pick
Picks No. 13 through No. 24, the dozen picks in front of the Texans at No. 25, are all owned by teams with current starting quarterbacks in place (or, in the case of Denver, a recent first-round QB pick on the roster, Paxton Lynch). Now, this doesn't mean the Texans should feel safe that no quarterbacks will be chosen here. Quite the opposite, actually. These teams are prime targets as trade partners for a team looking to swoop in and get the last of the "big three" quarterbacks in this draft. In particular, I am fearful of scenarios with the 15th pick (Colts) and the 18th pick (Titans) where those two AFC South teams would be completely open for business as a trade partner to allow some team to steal Watson or Mahomes before the Texans get a crack at him. What better way to keep the two-time division champ from solidifying their most glaring long-term need?

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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