NFL Nation: Rick Smith
Blue was a sixth-round pick out of LSU, joining an armada of rookies out of LSU to have solid starts to their NFL careers. For Blue that meant becoming the first player in Texans history to score touchdowns on a return, a reception and a rush.
The Texans could look at that position again this season, for a variety of reasons.
"I think when you look at our needs in the draft, I would say running back is a position that we could look at," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "I’m not going to tell you exactly what type of running back we’re looking for, but that’s something that we could probably add to our team in some shape or form that would help our team if the right guys out there."
Arian Foster is still a dynamic running back when he's healthy, but with each passing day, the need to manage his health becomes more and more important. He turns 29 in August and missed three full games last season and parts of three others due to injuries.
"I think any time a player reaches that age of 30 or close to that age of 30 (you have to manage him)," O'Brien said. "And you know that the guy can still play, you know that he is a very talented player. Arian is a very talented guy in a lot of phases. He can run the ball, he can catch the ball, he’s a good pass protector, he’s a smart football player, but you’ve got to manage him. How do you manage that? You manage him in practice. You manage him in the games. That’s something we’ll always take into account."
This year's draft class is conducive to getting a solid running back.
"There is a good group of running backs, good looking group that just weighed in," Texans general manager Rick Smith said. "It’s a good looking group."
This year's group should include a first-rounder in Georgia's Todd Gurley or Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. There's plenty of talent beyond that too, in players like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Miami's Duke Johnson, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and Northern Iowa's David Johnson.
The problem for running backs, though, is that there isn't a premium on snapping them up early. Teams have had so much success waiting with running backs or even finding them undrafted. Two of the three running backs on the Texans' roster were never drafted.
That could be a boon for the Texans, who draft 16th overall. They'll probably have options that could help them into the second round.
Upon arriving at the podium for his combine media session, that was the very first question posed to general manager Rick Smith.
Though they don't need to make any moves to get under the salary cap, freeing up some cap space will be important for both re-signing their own pending free agents and taking a look at external free agents.
Working out the details of how that will work will be more complicated than just both parties hoping for something to happen. Johnson's uncle told the Houston Chronicle during the season that Johnson wouldn't mind taking a pay cut. Johnson bristled when asked about that, saying he had not begun to think about that, had not been offered a pay cut, and hadn't discussed the possibility with his uncle.
With concern for the future of his contract, Johnson held out of most of the offseason, returning in time for training camp. Publicly and privately, Texans coach Bill O'Brien stressed the respect he had for the longest tenured player in franchise history and the best offensive player the Texans have ever had.
Last season his production dipped to 936 yards after 1,407 in 2013, and nearly 1,600 regular season yards in 2012.
"I know that we would like to have him back, we’d like to see him retire a Houston Texan," O'Brien said. "But again, I don’t think retirement is in his mind. When I say that, I just mean in the future. We don’t want him to play anywhere else. He’s a Houston Texan and we want him back."
Texans general manager Rick Smith offered this update in an appearance on Sirius XM NFL radio:
"That surgery requires a pretty significant amount of time that you are not weight bearing, and then you kind of gotta work yourself back to it. He's been diligent in his rehab. That's the thing he can control right now. He understands that. It's an arduous process for him because he's limited right now in what he can do. There's just a few exercises that he can do to maintain some of the strength in his leg. Once he gets to the point where he can put weight on the leg again and start to really get into a rehab process, I know he's anxious to do that. He's anxious to make the contributions that we all know he's capable of making. Some of the things, the flashes that we saw even in the preseason, it's important to him that he returns to full health so that he can contribute and help our football team."
Clowney suffered a lateral meniscus tear and articular cartilage damage in a non-contact injury he suffered during the first game of the Texans' season. He had arthroscopic knee surgery to repair the injury, and the Texans had hoped that was all that would be necessary. But when the knee wasn't performing properly, they resorted to microfracture.
Microfracture surgery involves poking tiny holes into the knee to increase blood flow and help the cartilage regenerate on its own. The recovery from that surgery is difficult, the rehab is demanding and the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft has a lot of it ahead of him.
Texans general manager Rick Smith was asked Friday if there have been any talks between the teams. There have not, according to Smith.
Rick Smith says the #Texans have not had any conversations with the New England Patriots about trading Ryan Mallett.— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) May 9, 2014
This doesn't mean the sides couldn't strike up a dialogue at some point, but the belief here remains that Mallett has more value to the Patriots as a No. 2/insurance policy than what the club could possibly receive in return (projected by me as a late-round draft pick).
Mallett is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2014 season, and if he has a big preseason the Patriots could benefit next offseason in the form of a high compensatory draft choice should Mallett sign a larger contract elsewhere.
There the Texans were, having taken Jadeveon Clowney first overall then having sat pat for the rest of the first round, rather than addressing what remains their biggest need.
Blake Bortles went third overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Johnny Manziel waited hours until the Cleveland Browns took him 22nd. The Minnesota Vikings traded up to the 32nd pick, one slot before the Texans drafted next, to take Teddy Bridgewater. And just like that, the three most talked-about quarterbacks in this year's draft were gone.
Panic in the streets.
Only, if you listened to what the Texans have been saying since March, this fits.
They said they didn't see three clear-cut top players. Coach Bill O'Brien said he didn't see much separation between that trinity and other quarterbacks. General manager Rick Smith agreed.
"There's some depth in this draft class in general and I think one of the positions that illustrates that is the quarterback position," Smith told me on March 25. "A lot of people talk about the three guys Manziel, Bortles, and Bridgewater, but there’s some good quarterbacks out there, the whole group."
On the same day, O'Brien mentioned Alabama's AJ McCarron, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo and Pittsburgh's Tom Savage, when bringing up names of other "guys that can play quarterback." He didn't mention Derek Carr, David's younger brother, but some (including Mel Kiper) consider him to be the best quarterback remaining in the draft.
That the Texans have waited fits.
Trust me, they realize it's a need. It was a need even before Houston traded Matt Schaub away to the Raiders. His story with the Texans was finished. This new Texans regime has no intention of going into 2014 with only the three quarterbacks they have now -- Ryan Fitzpatrick, signed in free agency, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates. If that happens, something went wrong. They've had internal discussions about Patriots backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, but as of Thursday evening they have had no talks with the Patriots.
The Texans considered moving back into the late first round, but apparently decided against it. And while I think getting Clowney and Bridgewater in the same draft would have been one heck of a coup, their sights clearly weren't set on the former Louisville quarterback.
The Texans had the night to reset and the morning to take a look at their draft board and decide what to do. We won't know for a while -- maybe a few more years -- whether they made the right move to watch Bortles, Manziel and Bridgewater slip by. But what we do know right now is the Texans are doing what they said they would.
They are acting like they told the truth all along.
That was, in essence, what happened when they traded Matt Schaub.
"To me it was the right time for our organization as we start continuing this foundation that we're building with coach [Bill] O'Brien and his staff that we did it in a way that we started fresh. I think that was best for him. That's why I worked so hard to find a situation that was a good one for him and a club that [understood his] value and worth."
That deal came together slowly as the Texans and Oakland Raiders, who sent Houston a sixth-round pick in exchange for Schaub, hashed out details. As it happened, former Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick became available during that process. The Texans, who had said they would sign a veteran quarterback regardless of any other circumstance, filled that void.
To me, the activity around the signings, re-signings and trades of veteran quarterbacks means teams are making sure they aren't put in a position where they're forced to start one of the rookies. Smith disagreed that it was any more active than normal.
"There's an importance placed on that position," Smith said. "If you have a good one you want to keep him and if you don't have one you're trying to find him."
In that process of trying to find him, Smith's view on the quarterback situation is similar to his coach's.
"There's some depth in this draft class in general and I think one of the positions that illustrates that is the quarterback position," Smith said. "A lot of people talk about the three guys -- Manziel, Bortles, and Bridgewater -- but there's some good quarterbacks out there, the whole group."
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 that knocked him out for the rest of the season when he decided to have surgery.
Foster's back injury required microscopic lumbar discectomy 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.
Instead, we continue to discuss what they might do with the top pick a little more than three months from now.
Let's get to it.
The Texans take plenty of chances on players with questionable off-the-field pasts. Sometimes those chances work better than others. But would they gamble with the most important position on the field, with what might be the most important draft pick in franchise history?
They will if they think he can win. That's the only question that matters.
What the Texans have done so far at the position hasn't worked. The even-keeled David Carr and Matt Schaub never made off-the-field headlines the Texans didn't want. Instead, those quarterbacks made plenty of cringeworth on-the-field headlines. At their best, their play was as bland as their quotes and more dependent on everything around them than you want a quarterback to be. At worst it cost the Texans big.
Which brings us to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who will enter the NFL draft according to sources. An electric personality is not a reason to draft someone, but it doesn't hurt. More importantly, Manziel's ability to improvise, his success at scrambling out of problems (6.3 yards per carry during his time at Texas A&M) even against the fast and physical defenses he faced, and his increasing comfort at passing from the pocket could make him a successful NFL quarterback.
I'd have concerns about his size, especially since Texans coach Bill O'Brien likes big quarterbacks, his durability and whether he would resort to his legs too often. Improvisation isn't always necessary. That's a lesson Texans quarterback Case Keenum learned the hard way.
But I wouldn't have concerns about the celebrity lifestyle he's embraced.
He's already shown the ability to be an elite player despite the partying with models and Texas fraternities. The NFL spotlight won't be bigger than the one that's on him now, though the league's media rules will force him to be a more public face than he's allowed to be in college.
Save for egregious criminal offenses, the only kinds of character concerns that scare the Texans away are ones that will impact someone's play. So far Manziel has shown that his antics haven't.
Alex Smith, general manager John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid.
On the Texans, Chadiha writes: "The Texans don't have to worry about hiring a general manager, because Rick Smith is one of the best young executives in the business. They also have far more talent than Kansas City had at the end of last season, which is why they might be able to put their disastrous season -- now 2-11, with 11 consecutive defeats -- behind them quickly."
Chadiha likes the thought of former Bears coach Lovie Smith or Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt as the Texans' next coach. He also echoed my thoughts from a week ago, that no decision Texans owner Bob McNair has made in his time as the Texans owner has been bigger than this one.
Give it a read, and offer your thoughts.
So when I sat down across from Texans' general manager Rick Smith three months ago, I looked around to see what noteworthy details would find their way into my story. I didn't notice the most interesting thing: an empty glass box.
That empty glass box matched two others that aren't empty. They contain footballs that commemorate the two Super Bowl wins he was part of with the Denver Broncos.
The empty box awaits his first Texans' Super Bowl ball.
My final piece for the Houston Chronicle profiled Smith and ran on Sunday in the Chronicle's special section.
In it, Smith gives insight into why he has been so successful at such a young age. He talked about the lessons he learned from a semester he had to spend at a junior college, away from Purdue, when he became academically ineligible.
We also talked about balance, meditation and his spiritual beliefs.
My favorite little anecdote in the story was one about how Smith's first NFL job came to be. Very shortly after he took a job with TCU, the Broncos called to offer him a job.
To the shock of his new coworkers, he turned it down.
"I felt like I was led to TCU," he said.
He spent the spring with TCU, then returned to Indiana to finish moving out of his apartment. He had already requested for his phone service to be turned off and went back one last time to an apartment that was completely empty except the phone in the kitchen.
Then the phone began to ring. A Broncos employee on the other line said Mike Shanahan wanted to know why he turned them down. They did what it took that time to hire Smith.
The two are key pieces to Wade Phillips’ defense, and need to be around long-term.
New deals would also help the Texans gain some cap cushion. Cushing’s 2013 cap number is $4.643 million; Smith’s is $9.5 million.
As far as Cushing knows, no conversations have started up, per Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle. He allowed for the possibility that his agent has talked to the Texans and said he wouldn’t necessarily know. He’s concentrating on knee rehab.
While I understand the singular focus players like Cushing like to have, even in May, I also think an agent is bound to mention to a client that some level of contract talks have kicked off. Cushing is represented by Drew Rosenhaus.
Cushing’s ACL tear suffered early in the 2013 season certainly didn’t help accelerate things. All reports say he’s recovered well however, and will be ready to go for training camp. So any concerns about the knee that might have prompted the Texans to wait before initiating contract talks should be past.
“I know it wasn’t the best thing to really help with getting it done,” he told Ganguli. “I think they know the kind of player I am, they know I’ll come back to be the same player if not better, so I’ve got that going for me. I’m on the right track right now and very confident that I’ll be back and won’t miss a step.”
There is no real ticking clock here. General manager Rick Smith doesn’t talk contract during the season. The Texans got deals done with Duane Brown and Matt Schaub last year, with Schaub’s deal revealed after the team’s opening day game.
If the Texans fail to extend Cushing and/or Smith, it won’t be because they didn’t have sufficient time or because they didn’t give it a solid shot.
During his time at the NFL scouting combine, Sam Montgomery addressed concerns about the consistency of his effort as a college player.
The problem is that he admitted there were concerns about his effort as a college player.
He’s now a member of the Houston Texans, who Friday used their second third-round pick, 95th overall, on Montgomery, the LSU defensive end.
If there is an effort issue, it will fall on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and linebackers coach Reggie Herring to get week-to-week and snap-to-snap effort from Montgomery. He seems to be a more complex character than they discussed.
At the combine, Montgomery said he didn’t play all-out because weak opponents allowed for some respite.
“You know, some weeks when we didn't have to play the harder teams, there were some times when effort was not needed,” Montgomery said in Indianapolis. “But when we had the big boys coming in, the Bamas or the South Carolinas, I grabbed close to those guys and went all-out.
“Of course, this is a new league, the NFL, and there are no small teams, small divisions. It is all Alabamas and LSUs every week. It's definitely something I have to get adjusted to, but I'm sure with the right coaching I will be fine.”
In a conference call with Houston media, Montgomery said his best quality is his relentlessness -- contradicting the idea that he didn’t give his all against teams like North Texas, Idaho and Towson.
Herring suggested that Montgomery got caught up in entertaining the media, given that he likes to talk, and that his film didn’t show a lack of effort -- something general manager Rick Smith has said he cannot accept from a player.
“If anything, the young man is guilty of being a bit na´ve," Herring said.
A scout I asked about Montgomery didn’t reply with an effort question.
“He plays very hard,” he said. “Good pick.”
The Texans plan to start Montgomery out as a strongside linebacker, so their first four picks have addressed three areas of concern.
DeAndre Hopkins should be the No. 2 receiver, D.J. Swearinger could play a lot as a nickel or dime safety, tackle Brennan Williams could win the right-side job from the recovering Derek Newton and Montgomery should be part of a rotation.
Houston hopes he’ll be part of a three-man gang, along with Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus, that splits up the work at outside linebacker.
Last season, when the Texans drafted Mercilus in the first round, they said the same thing about using him with Connor Barwin and Reed.
But Reed’s playing time only really dipped when he missed four games hurt. Barwin, who’s since gone to Philadelphia as a free agent, played 93.8 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Even with four starts, Mercilus was on the field only 46.6 percent of the time.
The Texans will have to learn how well Montgomery can drop and cover, something he wasn’t doing as a college defensive end in a 4-3 scheme under LSU coordinator John Chavis.
“He’s big, strong, powerful, explosive individual,” Herring said. “The one thing that he will have to learn is that he will have to learn to drop a little bit and things that he hasn’t done as a defensive end at LSU -- understanding that they don’t cultivate OLBs in college, so we have to pull from the defensive end position.
“Basically, you have to give and take with their ability to drop out in space, something they haven’t done. That remains to be seen. That’s something we’ll have to work on. As far as playing the run and having pass rush skills and having the play strength that’s above average in college, he has a foundation to be a good outside backer for us.”
One thing that might have hastened the draft drop by Montgomery, once rated as a first-round prospect, was his inclusion on a list of 10 players by LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt.
Moffitt posted the names for scouts and said they were athletes who “miss workouts and always have an excuse.”
“They lack the self discipline and motivation to take care of their responsibilities,” the sign on an office door in the Tigers' facility said. “I will not answer questions regarding their performance numbers or character, as they care only about themselves.”
ESPN.com scout Matt Williamson said he likes the idea of Montgomery as a strongside linebacker in Phillips’ system.
“They really play a 5-2, so strongside 5-2 defensive end/outside linebacker,” Williamson said. “Supposedly had some awful interviews at combine, though.”
Williamson is the second person in one night who mentioned that to me.
Clearly, Montgomery’s interview with Houston was fine, but a guy who bombed in multiple other opportunities seems concerning.
Perhaps what Montgomery said about playing with Antonio Smith hints that he can qualify as wacky to some, wacko to others.
Montgomery said he knows Smith, the Texans defensive end who calls himself the "ninja assassin."
"I'm willing to take the ninja's teaching," Montgomery said, “and make ninjasonic out of it."
Cap status: Pretty tight, with just over $9 million in cushion. But the Texans can gain room with a cut (receiver Kevin Walter is the prime candidate) and have lots of room for restructures with receiver Andre Johnson and/or cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Strategy: Lay back. They are most concerned with their own guys, and safety Glover Quin and outside linebacker Connor Barwin head that list. Lose them and they could be shoppers for replacements, but we're talking midlevel to low-level guys, not the high-priced, top-tier guys getting all of the hype as free agency opens. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has an affinity for guys who've played in his system before, so keep an eye on safety Gerald Sensabaugh and, if he's released, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. They could patch in some guys later, but anything big early would amount to a big surprise.
Cap status: The Colts have just under $40 million of room. They pledge not to behave like it's burning a hole in their pocket.
Strategy: They will look to strike the right deals with some key new people who can fill holes and add production and leadership. It's easy to draw lines that connect Pagano to guys he's coached in Baltimore such as outside linebacker Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams. They are still looking to fill out the roster with people who can play in Pagano's 3-4 front. The scheme requires at least one more cornerback who can play a lot of man-to-man coverage. Maximizing Andrew Luck's chances for success is a priority, and a couple of linemen are necessary to stay on that mission. Another receiver could be a target, too. But Grigson won't force free-agent moves and hopes to have another impact draft that will have a big bearing on how this team fares, too.
Cap status: They've got more than $26 million in cap room, but they also have a couple of empty spots on the depth chart, such as strong safety, right tackle and left guard.
Strategy: All indications are the Jaguars will slow-play free agency. They are unlikely to jump out and sign a guy or two to big contracts, as some bloated free-agent contracts are one of the issues Caldwell inherits. But Tier 2 guys who the team thinks can be pillars of a new program and lead the way for young players will be the core of the franchise moving forward. They have two guys heading into the market in linebacker Daryl Smith and cornerback Derek Cox. They won't overpay, but losing them will create more holes. And this team is super thin at cornerback already.
Cap status: Over $16 million of room with easily makeable cuts that will save more as the team needs the room and finds guys to add to the roster.
Strategy: More aggressive than usual, in both willingness to spend and number of people they will bring in. This team needs an infusion of talent and leadership. Their top free agents -- tight end Jared Cook and defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks -- are expected to leave. Look for one big signing, perhaps Buffalo guard Andy Levitre, and several more with a lower price tag. Positions that could be addressed include guard, defensive tackle, tight end, cornerback and safety. They may be waiting on their pass-rusher until the draft. This is a huge time for Webster and Munchak, who will really be putting their stamp on the roster with guys they need to lift the team to a better level of play if they want to hold on to their jobs.
Connor Barwin is a core player: Sure he is, as long as he’s affordable. Barwin had 11.5 sacks in 2011 and there was an offer on the table as the 2012 season kicked off. He passed, and was far less productive after his gamble. General manager Rick Smith can call him core, but to me a core guy is one you can’t survive without, and they certainly should be able to replace him if he finds a free-agent deal that compels him to leave.
They seem content with what they have on the right side of the offensive line: They platooned at both right tackle and right guard in 2012, and it sounds like they’ll be content to allow Brandon Brooks or Ben Jones to slug it out at right guard (or perhaps split time again) and see Derek Newton as the right tackle going forward.
They will keep the option of a franchise tag for Glover Quin as a possibility for as long as possible: The safety tag is about $7 million. It’s a palatable number, but the Texans have only $5.768 million in cap room. If they can’t reach a long-term deal that will produce a lower salary-cap number for 2013, tagging Quin will force the team to restructure a deal or two or cut someone that helps create room.
Brooks Reed could play inside: But that doesn’t mean the Texans are planning to move him. Gary Kubiak made it sound like they want more of a contingency plan if they have the sort of issues inside like they did last season. Move Reed inside and you create a hole outside, especially if Barwin leaves.
They’re still a young team, experiencing what they need to in order to make a jump: Yada, yada. This was quite a bit of spin, but what else can Smith say at this point when evaluating where the team stands? “We’re going to continue to add players, which is what this weekend is all about,” he said. “But I see a group of men that have gotten the experience that’s necessary to go make a real run at it and I think that’s where we are right now.”
A young quarterback is always a possibility: Said Kubiak, "In this business, you better be looking for young quarterbacks you think have a chance to be a 10-, 12-year guy. This year will be no different." T.J. Yates isn’t a sure thing. But the Texans only carried two quarterbacks in 2013, so the team would have to find someone it prefers to Yates in order to draft a QB. I don’t think they spend a premium pick on the position.