NFL rosters are generally filled out with players secured under contract in one of three ways — high-priced free agents, low-level street free agents and undrafted guys, and your own draft choices (on rookie deals or subsequent extensions).
The easiest way I can think of to translate the importance and cachet of each of these roster elements is to compare stocking an NFL roster to purchasing a meal in an upscale restaurant:
High-Priced Free Agents: These players are like the wine list in that they're all really expensive, most of them are overpriced, several are considered luxury items, yet their performance collectively is oftentimes the difference between having a good season and having a bad one.
Low-Level Street/Undrafted Free Agents: The productive players from this group generally top out at "appetizer" level. (Arian Foster is the exception.) Think of a nice bruschetta or a plate of calamari. The roster filler from this group is like the free bread at the table.
Your Own Draft Choices: This is the steak, the entrée, the absolute barometer for the final evaluation of the meal. Draft well and you not only have your cheap labor under contract for four seasons, but you also have the inside track at keeping these guys under a second contract, most of the time. The draft is the foundation of any good team, the same way the steak is for any good meal.
So we focus in on the draft, which is really fun to do as a Texans fan if you only look at the first round. Since 2008, the first round picks go like this — Duane Brown (2008), Brian Cushing (2009), Kareem Jackson (2010), J.J. Watt (2011), Whitney Mercilus (2012), DeAndre Hopkins (2013), Jadeveon Clowney (2014) and Kevin Johnson (2015). This is a huge portion of the core of the current team, with a massive investment on the defensive side of the ball (another post for another time). That's a nice list.
It gets significantly less fun if you look at the subsequent rounds, especially in 2013 and 2014. At the moment, with Ryan Griffin on injured reserve, the only 2013 draft choice (out of ten of them!) that is on the 53-man roster is Hopkins. The rest have attritted through a franchise-crippling combination of injury, underperformance, illness and possibly weed. The contributions of the 2014 draft have been buoyed significantly by Clowney's return to the field, but overall, it's still nothing to write home about.
Perhaps the round that best signifies the Texans' foibles in the draft over the past three years, which date back to the end of the Kubiak/Smith leadership duo, is the third round. In 2013, the Texans had two third round picks and used them on tackle Brennan Williams and defensive end Sam Montgomery. Williams suffered a knee injury his first week of rookie minicamp and eventually was released after microfracture surgery, and Montgomery was released after months of yo-yoing between defensive end and outside linebacker and, eventually, an incident at the hotel on the Kansas City road trip that may or may not have involved weed.
Then, in 2014, the Texans again wound up with two third round picks, using their own pick on tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and trading up to draft defensive tackle Louis Nix III. Fiedorowicz is actually the starting tight end now, in his second year, and has six career catches, which is a good half of one game for Rob Gronkowski. Nix came into camp out of shape last season, was put on injured reserve, was mocked and ridiculed by the masses, and came back this season unable to play football at a high level. So he was cut.
Needless to say, when you draft four third rounders in two years and your crown jewel (through attrition) is C.J. Fiedorowicz, you are botching the "steak" part of the roster meal horrifically.
Then comes Bill O'Brien's Monday press conference after the loss to Carolina this past weekend, a loss in which the Texans' 2015 third round choice, wide receiver Jaelen Strong, was inactive and did not dress. (As a point of reference, fifth-round rookie WR Keith Mumphrey and undrafted rookie WR Chandler Worthy were both active for this game.)
This is the latest touchpoint in what's been an underwhelming tenure with the Texans thus far for Strong, who showed up at rookie minicamp out of shape (recurring third rounder theme!) at around 20 pounds over his playing weight, then celebrated on Twitter when he lost the weight over a matter of just a few weeks. (True story: When we interviewed Jaelen Strong on my radio show after the Texans drafted him, he was doing the interview from a Cheesecake Factory. Fact.) Once training camp began, his struggles to pick up the offense and focus on ball skills were well documented on Hard Knocks.
Strong suited up for the Texans' opener, but didn't see the field. Then, this past Sunday, he was inactive. When he was asked Monday about why Strong was inactive, O'Brien said, "He needs to practice better." When asked what Strong needs to do better at practice specifically, O'Brien short answered again, "Just improve like everybody else."
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If there were a font that could capture O'Brien's disgust with Strong appropriately, I'd use it. It doesn't exist.
The Texans obviously loved Strong when they drafted him, as they moved up in the third round to nab him when he was still on the board (one pick after Tyler Lockett, who is making big plays for Seattle). Many thought they got a steal with the selection of Strong at the time. However, we've seen this movie before…if the trend with Strong holds true, as it did for Williams, Montgomery and Nix, the Texans 3rd Round Curse will swallow him whole as well.
The good news is that, if Strong does survive, he needs only seven catches to become the team's biggest third round success story the past three seasons. So yay.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.