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Four Thoughts on Rick Smith's Potential Return to an NFL GM Role

Rick Smith may be close to getting back into the NFL as a general manager.
Rick Smith may be close to getting back into the NFL as a general manager.
Photo by Aaron M. Sprecher
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Rick Smith's last day as general manager for the Houston Texans was January 1, 2018. On that day, he took a leave of absence to take care of his ailing wife, who was suffering from breast cancer at that time, and ultimately, he would not return to his post. January 1, 2018 is not all that long ago, it only FEELS like a long time ago, because the Texans are about to name their third GM since Smith's departure.

We will be talking plenty about the Texans' search for a new GM in the weeks to come, as it is tied with the choice to fill the head coaching vacancy for the most important decisions here in the early part of Cal McNair's tenure as owner of the team. But back to Smith. He's been away from the game now for almost three years, but is looking to get back in. (Note: Smith's wife, Tiffany, passed away on January 30, 2019.)

Right now, there are two teams with GM vacancies in the NFL — the Texans (for which Smith is not a candidate) and the Atlanta Falcons. Adam Schefter of ESPN.com reported earlier this week that Smith is indeed among a handful of candidates for the Falcons' opening:

The NFL is putting a premium on promoting diverse candidates, which is exactly what the Atlanta Falcons are targeting in their next general manager, league sources told ESPN.

While the Falcons have been preparing for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints, they also have been working to compile a diverse list of general manager candidates, according to sources.

The Falcons' list includes former Texans GM Rick Smith, Bears assistant director of personnel Champ Kelly, Rams director of college scouting Brad Holmes and former Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, among others, according to league sources.

As crazy as it now sounds, given how the Bill O'Brien Era evolved, regressed, and ultimately imploded, I was happy that O'Brien won his power struggle with Smith, when Smith took his leave of absence. Smith had over a decade to get this team to a Super Bowl, and they had three playoff wins total during his tenure as GM. O'Brien was coming off a 4-12 season, but it included six starts worth of Deshaun Watson, in which the Texans' rookie QB was tremendous. O'Brien was the one pushing the buttons, so there was SOMETHING there.

Obviously, had I known O'Brien would have ultimately been given roster control, GM duties, and devolve into a completely unhinged hothead (at times), I would have felt differently around Smith's departure. I say all of that to say that Smith's potential second act is intriguing to me. You can spin his resume as very sellable or very concerning. Along those lines, here are four thoughts on Smith's pursuing the Falcons' GM job:

What is the case for Rick Smith?
Three simple words — FIRST ROUND PICKS. Smith's draft history overall, first round through seventh round, is fairly sketchy, but he undeniably crushed it in the first round. In fact, from 2008 through 2017, the only pick that would qualify as a bust would be Kevin Johnson in 2015. On that list of first round picks within that timeframe are three of the best picks outside the top ten from the last decade — J.J. Watt 11th overall in 2011, DeAndre Hopkins 27th overall in 2013, and Watson 12th overall in 2017. His first round pick in 2008, Duane Brown (26th overall), is the only non-QB from the first round of his draft class still playing in the league. He made some very good free agent signings from 2009 through 2011 (Antonio Smith, Wade Smith, Johnathan Joseph, Danieal Manning) to fortify the two teams that won the division in 2011 and 2012. Also, the biggest free agent misses — passing on Peyton Manning in 2012, Ed Reed, Brock Osweiler — could be attributed to Gary Kubiak (Manning) or Bob McNair (Reed, Osweiler).

What is the case against Rick Smith?
In virtually every other round of the draft, Smith's record was well below average. His third round picks were almost comedically snakebitten, from guys who never saw the field as Texans (Brennan Williams, Louis Nix) to guys cut from the team for smoking weed at the team hotel (Sam Montgomery). The players he let walk in free agency from 2013 through 2015 went on to become good to great players elsewhere — Connor Barwin, Glover Quin, Brandon Brooks, Ben Jones. The Brian Cushing contract extension AFTER a knee injury was ill advised, and the Matt Schaub contract extension wound up being a mess. Bottom line —  the team never got over the hump on his watch, and he had over a decade to do it.

Deshaun Watson, Smith's magnum opus
Back to Watson, which will ultimately be Smith's greatest gift to the franchise. Take a listen to this snippet from Adam Schefter's podcast this week, in which Smith recaps draft day 2017 and the journey to arrive at Watson as a Texan....

If you're a Falcons fan, and they hire Smith, this audio will get you fired up about Smith as your new GM. He paints a picture in which he is a completely dialed-in wheeler dealer with the conviction to make a decision that NONE of his underlings agree with. That all may be true, but it should be noted it is SMITH'S version of the events.

Be careful, Atlanta fans ... if Smith is hired, satisfaction will be hard to come by
I would also want Falcon fans, or fans of whichever team ultimately hires Smith (he WILL work again, I feel strongly about that), to know that, when Smith makes bad decisions or is asked to do things that are unpopular, he will NOT answer for them. He rarely does media, maybe a couple press conferences around draft time. That's it. I remember specifically two decisions that BEGGED for a press conference to give fans answers, the Duane Brown trade and the Brock Osweiler trade/disposal, and there was nothing but crickets from Smith.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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