Houston Texans: 2014 NFL Combine


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jadeveon Clowney's 40-yard dash at the NFL combine on Monday morning was fantastic. Other words that have been used to describe him covering the span in an unofficial 4.47 seconds: dazzling, combustible, ridiculous (UPDATE: His official time was 4.53).

Here’s the actual word that should be used: overrated.

Although it is amazing that someone Clowney’s size (6-foot-5, 266 pounds) can move that well, his time in the 40 really doesn't mean anything when it comes to measuring his potential. NFL players, especially linemen, rarely have to run 40 yards, and if they do it’s because they’re either chasing a back or a receiver who has broken off a huge gain for a touchdown, or they’re returning a fumble/interception for a big gain.

That happens, but not often enough that Clowney will be in a dead sprint for 40 yards.

The number that is really impressive about Clowney, however, is the 1.56 seconds he took to cover the first 10 yards. That's what really should have Houston, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Oakland general managers and head coaches excited.

It's key because it shows how explosive he is from a dead start. That burst off the ball is where rushers win most of their battles against offensive tackles. They gain the edge and make the turn toward the quarterback, and the tackles can't catch up. Clowney certainly has that burst.

Chasing down quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage, getting to the sideline to disrupt a screen or tackle a running back, and dropping into coverage won't require a 40-yard dash. It requires explosiveness, closing speed, agility, and change of direction. Some of the drills at the combine are designed to showcase those things, but Clowney sat after running two 40-yard dashes, citing a hip flexor injury.

What none of those things will show, however, is Clowney's work ethic and attitude, and there are plenty of questions about those. Mike Mayock and Warren Sapp, both of the NFL Network, shredded Clowney in those areas. Mayock said there were red flags about Clowney -- but Sapp was even harsher, saying Clowney should be ashamed of the way he played at times and questioned whether Clowney really wants to play football.

Those are questions that dogged Clowney throughout the 2013 season, when he managed just 3.0 sacks one season after putting up 13.0, including 4.5 in a victory over Clemson. Clowney explained the drop by saying he was hurt early in the season and was often double- and triple-teamed.

Those issues seemed to fade into the background after Clowney ran the 40 on Monday, at least for a while, and it’s unlikely that they’ll keep him from being a top-five pick when they do resurface over the next two months. It’s hard not to be impressed when someone that big is that fast, and GMs can’t help but imagine the possibilities.

Houston could pair him with J.J. Watt. St. Louis could put him opposite Robert Quinn, whose 19.0 sacks finished second to Robert Mathis' 19.5 in 2013. The Jaguars would finally have a threat from a pass rush that finished last in the NFL the past two seasons. Cleveland and Oakland didn't have a player with more than 6.0 sacks in 2013.

Clowney’s 40 was impressive, but in its totality, it's the wrong thing on which to be focused.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won't throw, but he ran today in the NFL combine. His official 40 time ranked fourth among quarterback prospects at 4.68 seconds.

Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas ran the fastest official 40 time at 4.61 seconds. Stephen Morris from Miami was next at 4.63, South Carolina's Connor Shaw ran 4.66, followed by Manziel and Fresno State's Derek Carr, who ran a 4.69.

We'll have more official times as the day goes on. A couple other notable ones were UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, who ran a 4.93 and Alabama's A.J. McCarron, who ran 4.94.

Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater did not run. He also won't throw.

As a means of comparison, last season the fastest quarterback was a guy named Brandon Kelsey out of Midwestern State. He ran a 4.52. Jets quarterback Geno Smith ran a 4.59.

Speed is definitely not everything for a quarterback. You could argue it's one of the positions where pure speed matters the least. Still, just like everything over the next few weeks, it becomes part of teams' overall evaluation.
INDIANAPOLIS -- You can tell a lot about an executive's philosophy based on how he views risk in drafting.

Some see the bigger risk in taking the wrong player while others see a bigger risk in missing the right one. I wanted to know Texans' general manager Rick Smith's perspective on the matter this week, with his first No. 1 overall pick pending.

To Smith, the two go hand-in-hand.

"I think the risk is if you take a player that is not reflective of the value," Smith said. "Because what you ultimately do is you miss on another player you should have been taking that has that value. That’s why we don’t rank our board with any type of consideration for need because when you do that, you make mistakes. Not only would you maybe take a player at any position that’s not worthy of the spot or may not be able to perform the way you would expect he would, you also lose out on the other player that would have. That ultimately is not something that’s good for your team."

It's generally a good idea to ignore need when ranking your board. Having too many good players at marquee positions is never a problem, and any team that thinks it can be is going to put itself in a poor position.

The opinions on a marquee position can differ, too, and in Smith's view there isn't a more important one than the quarterback.

"Quarterback is obviously the most important position in our game because it’s difficult to win without one," Smith said. "… If you polled 32 general managers, you’d probably get a bunch of them to say the quarterback and others who said the guy getting after the quarterback."

That answer came after I posed this hypothetical to him: If there were two players who you knew for sure would be five-time Pro Bowlers, one a quarterback and one a defensive end, which would you take? Smith said he'd want both, but ultimately went with the quarterback.

If the Texans truly stick to their need-free philosophy, that mentality won't matter. They won't pass on the player they view as the best in this draft, even if he doesn't fit what the Texans need most.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Public figures are sometimes coached into the annoying habit of giving a completely unresponsive answer to a question.

Bridgewater
It's a common theme among coaches. You ask about the problems with the red zone defense, they tell you about special teams. You ask why a certain player didn't practice, they let you know that it was raining outside.

This time of year, it's also common among some of the more high-profile NFL combine participants who spend a lot of time in media training. And when you ask a quarterback why he's decided not to throw at the combine, he'll usually deflect to the fact that he plans to throw later at a private workout.

Not Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

"The biggest thing was just me being a perfectionist, and I just want everything to go right," Bridgewater said. "Whether I’m taking a five-step drop and the guy’s not on top of his route at the time, I just want to have that chemistry with the guys. I tend to look at it from a pro standpoint. When you’re throwing in the offseason, you want to be with your guys to have that timing and that connection, so that was the biggest thing."

That's exactly the reason most quarterbacks make the decision to do so, and one that makes perfect sense, but not the one that's often given. Not that Bridgewater hasn't been coached, but he projected an air of sincerity and likability throughout his combine news conference.

The meeting between Bridgewater and coach Bill O'Brien, whose Texans have the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, will be an important one. Bridgewater is eager for it. The relationship between a quarterback and head coach is an important one, especially when it works. When it works it can last for more than a decade, both parties increasing the other's job security.

Bridgewater's poise will matter. So will his obsession with football. His mind will be heavily analyzed and he seemed up to that task this afternoon.

"The biggest thing I think is my accuracy," said Bridgewater, when asked what separated him from other quarterbacks. "This past season, I was able to complete 71 percent of my passes. My third-down passing completion percentage was pretty much off the charts. My pocket presence, I’m a competitor. Each day I go out there and I’m eager to learn, remain a student of the game, and I think that right there just separates me."

INDIANAPOLIS -- The question didn't faze Jadeveon Clowney one bit.

You'd figure he expected to be asked why we should believe that, after getting the paycheck of a No. 1 overall pick, his career trajectory would continue to go up, what with all the talk about his work ethic and motivation, including some from his college coach.

"I want to be one of the greatest of all time," Clowney said, with the quiet forcefulness that cloaked all his words during his news conference at the NFL combine Saturday.

And why should the Texans commit their top overall pick to a defensive player rather than a quarterback?

"It takes defense to win championships, hands down," said Clowney, who used this year's Super Bowl as an example.

Yesterday I asked Texans general manager Rick Smith this question: If there were two hypothetical players available in this draft who were guaranteed to become five-time Pro Bowl caliber players, one a defensive end and one a quarterback, which one would you take? Smith said with that guarantee, he wants both, but that quarterback is the most important position, and he'd take the quarterback.

But that guarantee might not exist in this draft for any quarterback. It might with Clowney. And if the Texans don't think it does, you can bet some other team will.

As the combine week has progressed, I've heard more and more that Clowney's talent is so remarkable that the concern about his motivation is moot. It reminded me of a comment I once heard about one elite NFL pass-rusher -- he doesn't always go full speed, but when he makes up his mind to get past someone, nothing can be done to stop him. It's almost harder to face a guy such as that because of the unpredictability.

Clowney talked Saturday about being good in space. If the Texans drafted him, he'd likely be an outside linebacker opposite Whitney Mercilus in the Texans' base defense. I could see the Texans' defensive front looking like this: J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith at defensive end, Brian Cushing at mike linebacker, Clowney and Mercilus on the edges, and players to be determined at nose tackle and the other inside linebacker spot.

That's a really strong lineup, especially as Mercilus learns to use his physical tools better under linebackers coach Mike Vrabel's tutelage.

Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's traditional front demands less attacking from the inside than Wade Phillips' did, which is part of why they got so much pass-rushing production from Watt and Smith. But it'd be foolish to think Crennel wouldn't adapt to Watt's skill set. Texans coach Bill O'Brien indicated zero concern on how Watt would fit into the Texans' new defensive scheme -- a scheme that wouldn't be constrained by its base.

Clowney was late getting to the combine. After his flight out of Columbia, S.C., was delayed, he drove to Charlotte, N.C., and was delayed again. He finally got into Indianapolis on Friday evening, not exactly a speedy arrival.

Now that he's here, he's not expecting speed to be an issue. Clowney hopes to run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds or better. That kind of performance would only confirm what's already known about what he can do.

He can be one of the greatest ever. That's exactly what you want with the top pick in the draft.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Before the season ended, I asked a few pending free agents what their gut feeling was about whether or not they would be back.

The responses were often ones of uncertainty. Who knew what the new coaching staff would want?

Smith
If you assumed the Texans were finished with Antonio Smith, that might have been a premature assumption. Smith told Houston's Sports Radio 610 last week that his agent told him the Texans and Bill O'Brien like him. It made him optimistic about returning next year.

O'Brien was highly complimentary of Smith when I asked yesterday.

"Good player," O'Brien said. "Have a lot of respect for Antonio and what he’s done in this league. Really tough, good player. Good teammate from everything we hear. Enjoyed meeting him. I can only say hello to him. Meeting was really brief, but have a lot of respect for what Antonio does in this league."

O'Brien wouldn't go into more specific evaluations of Smith, but calling him a good teammate is a great sign for Smith. That quality is hugely important to O'Brien.

I asked general manager Rick Smith if he had started conversations about re-signing Smith, and he answered circuitously, while bringing up two names unprovoked:

"This is the time when we really start to sit down with the agents and start to talk about what the prospects look like for all those free agents, (tight end) Garrett Graham, (nose tackle) Earl Mitchell, there are a few guys that are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this year. This is the time we start to formulate those conversations."

Graham and Mitchell are two more guys I might have assumed wouldn't return. Graham because it might be easier to keep Owen Daniels. Daniels is better today than Graham, but over the next four years, Graham might have the advantage. Mitchell just doesn't seem to fit in Romeo Crennel's defense as well as he would in a 4-3 system.

We'll get more clarity on that over the next few weeks.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Texans are absolutely looking for a quarterback in this year's draft (where they take him is still a question in my mind), but that doesn't mean the fate of the three quarterbacks currently on the roster is sealed.

In fact, at least publicly, the Texans are open to several options.

Schaub
Schaub
"There’s different stages to the process," coach Bill O'Brien said. "You don’t get to know somebody during a dead period where you can only have an introductory type of conversation with him."

So far, the new coach has spoken with every player on the team, either on the phone or in person, he said. His conversation with QB Matt Schaub, who began last season as the Texans' starter, was in person. Though O'Brien wouldn't reveal the contents of that conversation, he called Schaub, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates good guys.

O'Brien knows what he wants in a quarterback and isn't publicly closing the door that he'll find that in Schaub.

I'd bet some of this is a contingency plan. You don't know how the draft and free agency will unfold, and Texans owner Bob McNair said last month that the Texans will have a veteran quarterback on the roster even if they bring in a rookie.

It would be awfully difficult, though, to sell Schaub even as a bridge guy to the franchise's next quarterback. Too much has happened.

O'Brien was also asked if Keenum, who went 0-8 as a starter last season, could be a starting NFL quarterback. The coach said he doesn't know.

Arian Foster's rehab progressing well

February, 21, 2014
2/21/14
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Texans running back Arian Foster's rehab is going well, general manager Rick Smith and head coach Bill O'Brien said Friday.

Foster
Foster
"He's working hard, he's in the building, he's in the training room consistently," Smith said. "The reports I'm getting from Geoff [Kaplan, head trainer] indicate he's going to be fine."

Foster struggled with several injuries last season, starting with a calf strain during organized team activities then a back injury that healed in time for him to start the regular season. Foster also dealt with a hamstring injury and then finally a back injury which knocked him out for the rest of the season when he decided to have surgery.

Foster's back injury required microscopic lumbar disectomy surgery, which was performed by Robert Watkins in California in November.

The running back posted a video on Instagram of himself doing a backflip into water two weeks ago. It included the caption "Healthy, happy. Vibes."

Running back will be a position of need for the Texans in this year's draft, but they're hanging onto Foster. They'll have to address depth, though, as they're going to lose running back Ben Tate in free agency.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The buzz Friday morning was about former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel being shorter than expected, with huge hands.

Manziel's hands measured at almost 10 inches -- 9 7/8 to be exact -- while he was just shy of six feet tall.

Manziel
Good news for Manziel, who would love for the Houston Texans to take him first overall: coach Bill O'Brien doesn't care too much about height, but he does love a quarterback with big hands.

"It’s really important because of the grip of the football, especially in bad weather games when you have to grip the football," O'Brien said. "I think it’s an important trait for a quarterback to have."

O'Brien's apathy for the height stat stems from the fact that it's not complete enough to offer a full picture of the player's physical attributes.

"Is he a skinny 5-11 or is he a stout 5-11?" O'Brien said to a question that was not specifically about Manziel. "Does he have bigger hands or smaller hands. All those things go into it I think. It’s not just what his height is."

Beyond physical qualities, this is what O'Brien wants:

"Our quarterback will always have to have intelligence, toughness, the ability to think quickly, be a good teammate, be a hard working guy, be a guy who throws the ball accurately. Be a guy that can perform under pressure. So many of these games come down to the last two minutes of the game, we gotta make sure the guy that we have is a guy that can perform under pressure."

INDIANAPOLIS -- We began Friday at the NFL scouting combine with measurements at the start of the quarterbacks' journey.

Johnny Manziel wasn't quite six feet tall, like he insisted he was earlier this week. The former Texas A&M quarterback measured just a quarter of an inch short of six feet, but his hands measured a gigantic nine and 7/8ths inches, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. By comparison, Houston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins' hands measured at 10 inches last year. Another comparison: Russell Wilson was slightly shorter but with bigger hands.

Former Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater measured at six-foot-two, 214 pounds with hands 9.25 inches. Amid all the Manziel madness, it's important not to forget about Bridgewater, a quarterback some people think will really impress Texans coach Bill O'Brien when they talk.

Former UCF quarterback Blake Bortles measured in at 6-foot-5, 232 pounds with nine and 3/8 inch hands.

We'll talk to Manziel on Friday at some point, and should get Bridgewater and Bortles, too.

Also on today's combine schedule are appearances from O'Brien and Texans general manager Rick Smith. This will likely be the last time we talk to them until just before the draft, so stay tuned for more on free agents, current Texans and their draft philosophies.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Texas A&M is quickly turning into O-Lineman U (or some other more clever version of that) with its latest offering: left tackle Jake Matthews.

But Matthews' media session today quickly turned to talking about his lightning-rod teammate: quarterback Johnny Manziel.

"I don't consider him a me-first guy at all," Matthews said, after being asked about Manziel's reputation as such. "My whole experience with him and having him as a quarterback was nothing but good things. When he was on the field he was just a tremendous competitor, great leader and someone that I loved playing for. I was glad to have him as a quarterback."

Manziel is a bit of a polarizing player. He was combustible in college on and off the field and some of those off-the-field antics are raising eyebrows in the pre-draft process. The Texans, who own the draft's No. 1 pick, have always talked about wanting guys who work hard and love football, and that won't change under the new regime. In Matthews' opinion, Manziel is that.

"Everything I've ever seen him do is all out," Matthews said. "He worked hard at everything he did. When it was time to practice, he would be out there competing just as hard as he would in a game. that's all I ever saw from him, nothing but good things."
INDIANAPOLIS -- What's been talked about a lot regarding this draft is how deep it is.

Part of the reason for that depth is the record number of underclassmen who declared for the draft. Eighty-five of them are at the combine.

Youth comes with pitfalls, though.

"Any time you're talking about juniors, that's a concern," Tennessee general manager Ruston Webster said. "Young players, players that are 21 or whatever. We have to do our research. Any of those guys that we draft, we have to feel good that they're mature enough to come in here and handle playing on an NFL team, being in an NFL city and being high profile."

They're definitely questions the Houston Texans will have to consider as they make the first overall selection. Two of the most talked-about options for that pick -- Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel -- are both underclassmen with some maturity concerns.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert went stronger in both his praise for the talent in this class and his concern about their readiness.

"I've been doing this for 30 years; this is the deepest draft that I've ever seen," Colbert said. "We felt that way even before. I wouldn't say it was the deepest draft before the underclassmen came in but even during the fall our scouts were talking about the senior class was a pretty good class. ... The juniors added into it make it a very talented group.

"The one thing you talk about with these juniors and underclassmen redshirt sophomores, we're very cautiously optimistic about their emotional and physical readiness for this. This is a huge jump. Even though it's a more talented group, the most talented group I've seen, I'm also worried it's probably the most immature group and we have to be prepared for more player development type of programs."

Knowing you're dealing with more immaturity is an important tool in making the most of the players you draft. I wouldn't shy away from a guy who isn't emotionally ready yet, but the team who drafts guys like that has to be prepared. Player development means more than developing skill on the field.

One aspect Colbert talked about that I think is especially important is that players might deal with failure early in their career, and bouncing back from that is a big part of how successful their careers will be.

"It's an educated guess. Experience has told us a lot of these younger players aren't ready for this," Colbert said. "It's a huge leap. I don't think a lot of them understand that until they actually get on a playing field and see the increase in the quality of the play. That's the physical part. But the emotional part of being a college kid and the next day being a professional, I think it's a little easier to transition from your senior year to the pros."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Doug Marrone tripped on the word "probably."

I began a question during his podium session today at the combine by noting that he was probably Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien's best friend in the league.

"Did he say probably or you said probably?" the Bills head coach said with a smile. That was my word, not O'Brien's. "I just wanted to make sure. When I see him I'm going to ask him."

Garrett
Marrone
The pair coached together at Georgia Tech in the mid-1990s. O'Brien met his wife, Colleen, through Marrone and his wife right around then.

"It's a funny profession," Marrone said. "You start off, and I started off in Division III after I'd gotten done playing. You grow up with a lot of people. usually it's regional. we were all obviously in the northeast together. ... You see everyone grow and see everyone grow in the profession. It's a gratifying experience to know people in your profession have integrity, have character, that work extremely hard and are able to be successful."

Marrone didn't say much about what O'Brien was like when they were young coaches together, but I asked him off the podium if the intensity everybody talks about with O'Brien has always been part of his character.

"Bill wears his heart on his sleeve," Marrone said. "I'd say it's intense, but it's intense in a positive way, not a negative way. ... If he couldn't turn it off, that would be a negative way. ... He's done it throughout his whole career, not only as a head coach, but even when I saw him as a position coach."

Marrone recently went through the same transition O'Brien is about to. I felt similarities in their feelings about making the move. Marrone actually felt the transition from college to the NFL was easier than the transition from working in the pros to working in college.

"I was much more comfortable with the schedule, calendar, the way it was in the NFL than it was in college," Marrone said. "The schedule is different. It's very difficult to spend as much time as you'd like to coaching."

That move to the NFL makes actual coaching much more of a focal point than it is in college. Marrone made that move last season. His team went 6-10 after his move from Syracuse to Buffalo, but Bills writer Mike Rodak indicates the team has pieces in place to get better next season.

An upward trend for the Bills would fit Marrone with the new trend of college coaches who become NFL head coaches. If you asked a few years ago, conventional wisdom indicated former college head coaches struggled with a move to the NFL. That is not really the case anymore as coaches like Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly have shown.
Quarterbacks handle predraft analysis in different ways. Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is taking a more controlled route, not throwing at his pro day or at the NFL combine in a few days.

UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, on the other hand, plans to throw at the combine, he said in a tweet today.

There can be a risk to throwing at the combine. It's a high-pressure, high-stress environment where a lot is out of a player's control.

Some executives like to see a player willing to give himself to those variables. After all, their careers won't play out in controlled environments and many feel that when players have a rapt audience in every NFL team, they should embrace the opportunity.

If Bortles performs well, it should bode well for a player many think is still in an early stage of his development.

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