Back in June of 2012, Houston Texans General Manager Rick Smith gave a fairly memorable interview to SI.com NFL scribe Peter King in which he laid out his philosophy on roster construction in today's NFL.
Now, keep in mind that, looking back, if ever there were a time during the Rick Smith era that Houston Texans fans could call "halcyon days," it was probably that offseason, the summer in between the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
The team was coming off its first division championship and a playoff run that ended with a hard-fought divisional-round loss in Baltimore.
J.J. Watt finished that 2011 season showing dominant flashes that would coalesce into a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012, Arian Foster had just put the finishing touches on another season with over 1,800 total yards and Wade Phillips's defense was ranked in the top five in the league.
By Texans standards, it was a glorious time.
Hell, it was so glorious that Texans fans entered 2012 looking forward to the return of quarterback Matt Schaub!
And overseeing the operation was Smith, the perceived architect of what was believed to be a budding perennial powerhouse going forward.
So when King asked Smith about his strategy in building an NFL roster, the Texans' general manager waxed poetic about how he had read a business leadership book by former GE boss Jack Welch and how he subscribed to Welch's "20/70/10" philosophy.
"If you have a 53-man roster, maybe you've got ten or 11 core players, and then 25 to 30 role players, and then you're always looking to churn the bottom of the roster," Smith espoused.
So basically, the top 20 percent is your elite class, the next 70 percent your middle class and the bottom 10 percent are disposables.
Smith's mantra (or more accurately, his restating of Welch's mantra) is actually very logical, and Smith's tenure has proven it, both positively and negatively.
In the NFL, two roster characteristics determine a team's trajectory -- quarterback play and overall team depth, depth being a more conventional football term for Smith's Welchian "25 to 30 role players."
In a league where roster constitution is shaped by the constraints of a salary cap, the role players on a roster are the NFL proletariat and, as such, must carry salary amounts that qualify them as football's version of "cheap labor." In the NFL, they're generally young, drafted players toiling on their multi-year rookie contracts.
The Texans' two division championship teams in 2011 and 2012 had a role-player layer that was stacked with quality picks from the 2009 and 2010 drafts. Connor Barwin, Glover Quin, James Casey, Brice McCain (when he was good), Kareem Jackson, Ben Tate, Earl Mitchell, Garrett Graham.
So deep were those 2011 Texans that they overcame season-ending injuries to Mario Williams and Matt Schaub and a season-curtailing injury to Andre Johnson.
Eventually, however, role players move on.
It's the transient nature of the league. You can't pay everybody, so when the time comes, you pay big money to your elite players (Smith's Welchian "20 percent," the aristocrats) to retain them, and hopefully fill in the "role-player" gaps with the next couple of draft classes.
Unless you're the 2013 Houston Texans, in which case you backfill your role players with stiffs like Ed Reed and your two division championships come crashing down on top of you in a 2-14 heap.
The simple forensics on the Texans' 2013 collapse, for most fans, point to Matt Schaub's sudden inability to play quarterback in the NFL, and that's partially correct. However, the draft proficiency shown by Smith (and then-head coach Gary Kubiak) in 2009 and 2010 at the "cheap labor" levels (rounds two through seven) was nonexistent in the 2011 and 2012 drafts.
And if you're looking for a really scary harbinger for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, just know this -- the Texans' 2013 draft class, in their short time in the league, have been dotted by one collapse or departure after another, a nine-man crop beset by injury, illness or poor front-office decision-making that slowly and silently is sucking part of the life out of any hope for a playoff-level rebound in 2014.
Just how abnormally inept and unlucky have the Texans been with their 2013 draft class? Well, consider the following:
• Of the Texans' nine players drafted in 2013, four are no longer with the team. Only two teams in the NFL have let as many players from their 2013 draft class go. However, those two were both playoff teams in 2013 (Indianapolis and Super Bowl champion Seattle), so they're excused. No other team in the NFL has let that many of their 2013 draftees go, and only two have even let three go. (As a basis for comparison, half the teams in the league still had all their 2013 draftees on their rosters entering the first weekend of preseason games.)
• All four departed Texans players were drafted prior to the seventh round of the 2013 draft. No other team in the league has let go of more than one player drafted before 2013's seventh round.
• Two of the four Texans players cut loose were drafted in the third round, and those two are the only 2013 draftees in the entire league to be drafted before the fourth round and, in turn, cut loose by their original teams.
• One of those two 2013 third-rounders, offensive tackle Brennan Williams, had multiple injury issues in college. As it turned out, his entire playing career consisted of a portion of the fourth preseason game in 2013 before he was let go in late July with a bum knee.
• The second of the two 2013 third-rounders, defensive end Sam Montgomery, was drafted so the Texans could move him to outside linebacker. This, despite the fact that his coaches at LSU openly warned he would have difficulty transitioning to that position. Montgomery showed up to rookie camp out of shape, flunked his conditioning test and eventually was cut after a Week 7 incident at the team hotel in Kansas City involving some sort of mysterious form of tobacco.
• The first of all those players to be cut loose by the Texans, sixth-round defensive tackle Chris Jones, started 11 games for the New England Patriots as a rookie in 2013, but apparently wasn't good enough to make the Texans' roster.
• Two more 2013 Texans draftees have been on injured lists virtually their entire tenures with the team, fourth-round outside linebacker Trevardo Williams and sixth-round wide receiver Alan Bonner, who suffered a foot injury the first day of training camp this season. Another sixth-rounder, offensive tackle David Quessenberry, who spent last season on injured reserve, was diagnosed with lymphoma in June.
• Even a couple of the undrafted free agents from the class of 2013 have proven to be problem children, with outside linebacker Willie Jefferson and running back Cierre Wood both cut from the team as a result of the same incident in Kansas City that triggered Montgomery's release.
The remainder of 2013's draft class actually shows some promise. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, safety D.J. Swearinger and tight end Ryan Griffin have all demonstrated they can play in the league. Unfortunately, the implosion of the rest of their classmates has given them almost no margin for error.
They must become productive players for the 2013 class to even become salvageable.
The past two seasons in the NFL, we have seen 2-14 teams from the previous year return to the playoffs. On the strength of their core group, the "20 percent" -- guys like Johnson, Foster, Cushing, Watt, Brown and rookie beast Jadeveon Clowney -- the Texans have become a vogue "bounce-back" selection for league pundits.
Unfortunately, that elite "20 percent" is being propped up by a vapid layer of clutter, role players in name only. The heavy-lumber pillars holding up the teams of 2011 and 2012 are gone, and they've been replaced by Tinker Toys, if they've even been replaced at all.
In 2013, we watched the Texans and we saw what happens when an NFL team has nothing with which to replace its depth.
What's going to happen when they have nothing to replace the nothing?
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Sean-Cablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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