Yesterday, we tried to quantify the magnitude of the roster-build that the new Houston Texans general manager, whoever he will be, is undertaking. It's not going to be easy. One thing, though, that the new Texans' GM won't have to worry about is living up to an unattainable standard from the prior regime in drafting collegiate players.
Prior to taking his extended leave of absence last week, Rick Smith had overseen the Texans' last 11 drafts. If there was a calling card for Rick Smith the Drafter it was that he drafted tremendously in the first round from 2008 on (five players who eventually made Pro Bowls), and he and his staff were seemingly pretty good at unearthing an undrafted free agent or two, at least a couple of whom went on to become paid like marquee players on their second deals.
Now, there IS that little bugaboo of every round from the second to the seventh. That was a bit of an issue for Smith, not that he didn't find an occasional player here or there, but you need more than occasional hits in those rounds if you're operating without a franchise quarterback, which the Texans generally were until the keys were handed to Deshaun Watson at halftime of Week 1 this past season.
Basically, if Rick Smith's draft history were a script for a movie, we'd point at the beginning (the first round) and the end (undrafted dudes) and say "I like what you've done here and here," but then we'd point at the entire two hours of empty dialogue in between (rounds two through seven) and say "Now, Rick.... you need something HERE."
So as another favor to the next general manager, let's relive the drafts of the Smith Era, so that lessons can be conveyed and learned, shall we? Here we go, ranking them in reverse order from eleven down to number one..... (NOTE: Players with an asterisk were signed to a second contract after their rookie deal expired. This will be valuable information when we are done doing the rankings.)
11. Class of 2007
1 (10). Amobi Okoye, DT, Louisville
* 3 (73). Jacoby Jones, WR, Lane College
4 (123). Fred Bennett, DB, South Carolina
5 (144). Brandon Harrison, DB, Stanford
5 (163). Brandon Frye, T, Virginia Tech
6 (183). Kasey Studdard, G, Texas
7 (218). Zach Diles, LB, Kansas St.
COMMENT: A couple things here — first, because this is Smith's one draft class where the first round pick was an unadulterated bust (although Kevin Johnson better step his game up, too, because he's veering that way), this almost, by definition, makes it Smith's worst class. Second, the best player in the class was probably Jacoby Jones, who like many former Texans, went on to big things elsewhere, nearly winning a Super Bowl MVP in Baltimore in 2012. When the best player from a draft class is run out of town for one too many muffed punts after five years, like Jones was after the 2011 season, that's a bad class.
10. Class of 2008
* 1 (26). Duane Brown, T, Virginia Tech
3 (79). Antwaun Molden, DB, East. Kentucky
3 (89). Steve Slaton, RB, West Virginia
4 (118). Xavier Adibi, LB, Virginia Tech
5 (151). Frank Okam, DT, Texas
6 (173). Dominique Barber, DB, Minnesota
7 (223). Alex Brink, QB, Washington St.
COMMENT: If you think I'm going in chronological order in this ranking, I'm not. This is in reverse order of quality. As it turns out, maybe drafting NFL players is an exercise you need to do a couple times before you get even moderately proficient, because aside from Duane Brown and a killer rookie season from Steve Slaton, this is another class with virtually no contributions to the Texans in the few years after they were drafted. So Smith's first two classes were essentially Duane Brown and a slew of premature cuts.
9. Class of 2015
1 (16). Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest
2 (43). Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi St.
3 (70). Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona St.
5 (175). Keith Mumphrey, WR, Michigan St.
6 (211). Reshard Cliett, OLB, South Florida
6 (216). Christian Covington, DT, Rice
7 (235). Kenny Hilliard, RB, LSU
COMMENTS: This class was trending in a better direction when Kevin Johnson appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the better young cornerbacks in the league. However, last year he was one of the worst, statistically and via the eye test. Bernardrick McKinney is highly thought of in the building, but didn't really show improvement in Year 3 of his career. They will probably give him a big extension this offseason, which is a LITTLE scary. The real boat anchor in this class, other than Johnson's 2017 performance, is the fact that four of the seven players in the class were gone by Week 3 of this past season. Keith Mumphrey wasn't even on the draft board for some teams when he was selected, and the Texans took him in the fifth round.
8. Class of 2010
* 1 (20). Kareem Jackson, DB, Alabama
2 (58). Ben Tate, RB, Auburn
3 (81). Earl Mitchell, DT, Arizona
4 (102). Darryl Sharpton, LB, Miami (FL)
* 4 (118). Garrett Graham, TE, Wisconsin
5 (144). Sherrick McManis, DB, Northwestern
6 (187). Shelley Smith, G, Colorado St.
6 (197). Trindon Holliday, WR, LSU
7 (227). Dorin Dickerson, WR, Pittsburgh
COMMENTS: Kareem Jackson's eight seasons of largely decent cornerback play is enough to keep this class ahead of the three before it. Other than Kareem, though, this class is probably best known for the sometimes truculent, and oft-injured Ben Tate, a couple decent backup seasons from Earl Mitchell, and a misfire on a second contract for Garrett Graham. The Trindon Holliday pick was unsung for its unintentional comedy in watching him try to field punts in his rookie training camp, and the faux outrage over what Holliday did for Denver in the 2012 playoffs.
7. Class of 2016
1 (21). Will Fuller, WR, Notre Dame
2 (50). Nick Martin, G/C, Notre Dame
3 (85). Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State
4 (119). Tyler Ervin, RB, San Jose State
5 (159). K.J. Dillon, S, West Virginia
5 (166). D.J. Reader, NT, Clemson
COMMENTS: So far, this class has only lost Dillon, who was injured pretty much from jump when he got here in 2016, and couldn't separate himself from the pack at safety this past preseason. The best player from this draft class, hands down, has been Reader, who's solidified the nose tackle position, post-Wilfork. The key to this class will be the health and growth of Fuller, Martin, and Miller. Fuller had seven touchdowns in 17 catches with Watson as his QB in 2017. Martin was solid early in the 2017 season, but by the end of the year, had been dragged down with the rest of the offensive line. Miller finally started to click in December before getting concussed against Tennessee in Week 13. This class can move up rapidly if Fuller and Martin play consistently to the levels they've shown in spurts.
6. Class of 2014
1 (1). Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
2 (33). Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA
* 3 (65). C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa
3 (83). Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
4 (135). Tom Savage, QB, Pittsburgh
6 (177). Jeffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama
6 (181). Alfred Blue, RB, LSU
* 6 (211). Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn
* 7 (216). Andre Hal, DB, Vanderbilt
7 (256). Lonnie Ballentine, DB, Memphis
COMMENTS: Clowney is one of the four best draft picks of the Smith Era, which he should be as the first overall pick. The rest of this class is really hit or miss, mostly miss. Hits would include Andre Hal as starting free safety, and C.J. Fiedorowicz as a serviceable tight end (when not concussed). After that, it's a lot of disposable parts, including two of the biggest misses of the Smith Era — trading up in the third round to draft nose tackle Louis Nix (who was cut after one injured season) and the selection of Su'a-Filo with the 33rd overall pick, which when you consider ripple effects, could be the worst pick in the history of the organization.
5. Class of 2012
* 1 (26). Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
3 (68). DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio St.
3 (76). Brandon Brooks, G, Miami (OH)
4 (99). Ben Jones, C, Georgia
4 (121). Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan St.
4 (126). Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska
5 (161). Randy Bullock, K, Texas A&M
6 (195). Nick Mondek, OL, Purdue
COMMENTS: This is the rare Texans draft class where nearly everybody got on the field — sorry, Nick Mondek — and half the class became regular starters during their rookie four-year contracts. Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones were regular starters in the interior of the offensive line, and Jared Crick was the answer to a trivia question as the defensive end starting opposite J.J. Watt in Watt's near MVP season of 2014. Keshawn Martin was the master of the fair catch as a punt returner, and DeVier Posey was just named MVP of the Grey Cup final in the CFL. Another great class of WR picks. Yeesh. The crown jewel, like most Rick Smith draft classes, is their first rounder, Whitney Mercilus, who has developed into one of the more explosive pass rushers in the AFC, when healthy. (NOTE: Randy Bullock will forever be remembered as the kicker who was drafted instead of Justin Tucker. Thanks a lot, Kubes, Aggie loyalist.)
4. Class of 2013
* 1 (27). DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
2 (57). D.J. Swearinger, DB, South Carolina
3 (89). Brennan Williams, OL, North Carolina
3 (95). Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
4 (124). Trevardo Williams, DE, Connecticut
6 (176). David Quessenberry, OL, San Jose St.
6 (195). Alan Bonner, WR, Jacksonville St.
6 (198). Chris Jones, DT, Bowling Green
* 6 (201). Ryan Griffin, TE, Connecticut
COMMENTS: It's pretty astounding that this draft class, whose lack of contribution was part of the reason why Gary Kubiak got fired after the 2013 season, nearly five years later, ranks in the upper half of Smith's classes, almost solely on DeAndre Hopkins' becoming one of the top three receivers in football after being selected 27th overall. The Texans also drafted Griffin, who remains here as a tight end, and still have Quessenberry, who is an amazing story. This rookie class will be remembered as much for the guys who never played a game for the Texans as it is for the guys still here. Williams is in WWE's developmental program, Montgomery was one of three rookies (Cierre Wood, Willie Jefferson, the other two) to get sent home from Kansas City for smoking SOMETHING at the team hotel back in 2013. Trevardo Williams... Alan Bonner.... wow. At least Chris Jones became a starter for a Super Bowl champion. This class is raised a notch with the presence of A.J. Bouye as an undrafted free agent rookie in 2013. (Of course, as soon as Bouye reached a Pro Bowl level of play, the Texans let him walk in free agency.)
3. Class of 2009
* 1 (15). Brian Cushing, LB, USC
2 (46). Connor Barwin, DE, Cincinnati
3 (77). Antoine Caldwell, G, Alabama
4 (112). Glover Quin, DB, New Mexico
4 (122). Anthony Hill, TE, North Carolina St.
5 (152). James Casey, TE, Rice
6 (188). Brice McCain, DB, Utah
7 (223). Troy Nolan, DB, Arizona St.
COMMENTS: After the first two Smith draft classes ranking as his worst, the third time, in 2009, was the charm — well, maybe not the charm, but at least they found contributors. Cushing was the best defensive rookie in football in 2009 and became a fixture (albeit, an overpriced fixture the last few years) at inside linebacker for the next several years. Barwin had a double digit sack season in 2011 before leaving in free agency in 2013. Quin was a solid safety who they let go to bring in Ed Reed in 2013. Both Barwin and Quin have gone to Pro Bowls with teams not named the Texans. Casey was a solid tight end/fullback hybrid, and Brice McCain, somewhat miraculously, is still bumping around the NFL. The main reason this class shoots near the top is the presence of undrafted free agent RB Arian Foster among these rookies. Foster is the third greatest player in the team's short history.
2. Class of 2011
* 1 (11). J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
2 (42). Brooks Reed, LB, Arizona
2 (60). Brandon Harris, DB, Miami (FL)
4 (127). Roc Carmichael, DB, Virginia Tech
5 (144). Shiloh Keo, DB, Idaho
5 (152). T.J. Yates, QB, North Carolina
* 7 (214). Derek Newton, T, Arkansas St.
7 (254). Cheat Ozougwu, DE, Rice
COMMENTS: J.J. Watt alone, amidst this slew of underwhelming draft classes, is enough to vault his class to near the top of the charts. Three time Defensive Player of the Year, future Hall of Famer, enough said. This class also had a folk hero QB in T.J. Yates, and they found a starting right tackle in the seventh round. On the down side, Smith traded up to draft Harris, who never came close to living up to his "No Fly Zone" Twitter handle.
1. Class of 2017
1 (12). Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
2 (57). Zach Cunningham, ILB, Vanderbilt
3 (89). D'Onta Foreman, RB, Texas
4 (130). Julie'n Davenport, T, Bucknell
4 (142). Carlos Watkins, DT, Clemson
5 (169). Treston Decoud, S, Oregon State
7 (243). Kyle Fuller, C, Baylor
COMMENTS: Perhaps Smith is leaving on a high note, when it comes to the draft. In the most recent group, he found a franchise quarterback that nearly every team would trade for, a productive inside linebacker, and his future starting tailback in the first three rounds. If just one of Davenport, Watkins, Decoud, or Kyle Fuller becomes a regular starter, this class will be a home run, assuming the top three picks ascend accordingly.
A little perspective on the way out about the draft — I put asterisks next to all of the players who got a second contract from the Texans after their rookie deal expired. In a total of eight draft classes eligible for extensions, the Texans have retained a mere 13 players. (It will be 14 once Clowney gets extended this offseason.) Let's assume Clowney is the fourteenth — half of those 14 are former first round picks, pretty easy no-brainers for extensions.
The seven Texan draft picks given second contracts who weren't first rounders are:
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2007, Jacoby Jones (3rd round)
2010, Garrett Graham (4th round)
2011, Derek Newton (7th round)
2013, Ryan Griffin (6th round)
2014, C.J. Fiedorowicz (3rd round)
2014, Jay Prosch (6th round)
2014, Andre Hal (7th round)
That list is not exactly a case study in sound decision making. Among the non-first round draftees that the Texans let walk in free agency, Barwin, Quin, and Brooks have all been named to at least one Pro Bowl. The above listed group of non-first round draftees have been named to.... well, no need to pile on.
Future GM, whoever you may be, there's the bar! Go clear it... PLEASE.
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