March 18, 2003
The Class of 2002: A Progress Report
by Warren DeLuca
As we look forward to the 2003 draft, we should check on the progress of the last year’s draftees. The Texans invested six of their first seven draft picks on offensive players. Those six started some or all of the season at key positions and will continue to be counted on heavily in the future. The Texans hope that the rookies of 2002 will form a good chunk of the team’s offensive nucleus for years to come.
This is not one of those articles that says, "a draft should not be graded until three or four years later, but we’re going to do it now anyway." You will find no grades here, no second-guessing, no hindsight general managing – it’s just too early to do that. What I do hope to provide is a look at how the Texans’ rookies have done so far, and how the future looks for each. I have also included the undrafted rookie free agents that were with the team at some point in 2002 and who will be back in 2003.
Round 1 1. QB David Carr, Fresno State. The Texans drafted Carr to be the cornerstone of the franchise and so far he has met or exceeded all reasonable expectations. Although statistically Carr had a below average year for a starting quarterback, he played very well for a rookie. His 62.8 passer rating ranks only behind Tim Couch’s 73.2 and Peyton Manning’s 71.2 among the rookie signal callers over the past several years who played in at least eight games. That group includes his chief rival, Joey Harrington, who ended 2002 with a 59.9 rating. Carr took every snap for the Texans, and showed great toughness in enduring a record number of sacks. He also displayed a cannon arm, quick release, and impressive accuracy. While he did have several passes batted down at the line, it was not an unusually high percentage (3.15% of his attempts, which ranks near the bottom among 2002 starters but was better than notables like Harrington (4.43%) and Chad Pennington (3.26%)), and at least a portion of those knock-downs can be attributed to a lack of protection rather than his highly-scrutinized delivery and release point. While Carr is not a Michael Vick-type running threat, he is an above-average athlete for the position and showed more mobility than advertised. He made his share of rookie mistakes but seemed to improve as a decision maker as the season progressed. Carr handled the pressure of being "The Man" well, displayed the competitive fire that a leader needs, and seemed to have the respect of his teammates. He must continue to progress and show he can handle a more complex offense, as opposed to just 25% of the playbook that the Texans utilized in 2002 according to reports. The team must also protect him better and give him some weapons with which to work. If these things happen, Carr should develop into the franchise quarterback that the Texans envision him becoming.
Round 2 33. WR Jabar Gaffney, Florida. Gaffney started every game except for two, and one of those that he did not was when the Texans opened in a single-receiver set. He had at least one catch in every game except for the Pittsburgh offensive debacle, and finished the year with 41 receptions for 483 yards and 11 touchdowns. Gaffney showed a nice arm for trick plays when he threw a 39-yard touchdown pass. He saw spot duty as a punt returner, but did not distinguish himself, other than with the lateral to Aaron Glenn that helped set up the win in Jacksonville. Costly drops plagued Gaffney as a rookie; he needs to improve his concentration. He did not really stand out in any phase of the position or have a big highlight film play in which he flashed future superstar ability. Gaffney is supposed to be a downfield threat who should be a perfect fit for Chris Palmer’s deep timing attack, but he averaged only 11.8 yards per reception, which was only fifth best on the team. All of this must be kept in context, though, since most receivers don’t really break out until they have a couple years of NFL experience under their belts. Gaffney should be expected to be even rougher around the edges than most young wideouts, as he played for only two years at Florida before entering the draft early. Perhaps with more experience he will get into a comfort zone and his natural ability will emerge.
50. OG/OT Chester Pitts, San Diego State. The Texans drafted Pitts, a tackle in college, with the idea of moving him to guard, but after Tony Boselli was unable to go, Pitts played every down at left tackle. He struggled in this trial by fire, as rookies at the most challenging position on the line almost always do. Pitts did show above-average athleticism for a big man and never seemed to lose confidence or give up, even when he was clearly overmatched. The Texans did have their most success (on average) running to his side, although that was still only an unimpressive 3.3 yards per attempt. He needs to improve his technique, as might be expected of someone who did not play football until he reached college. The Texans would like to move him inside to left guard as originally planned, but if Boselli is not able to return and the team decides Zach Wiegert fits better on the right side, Pitts will likely again be headed back to left tackle to protect Carr’s back.
Round 3 66. OG/C Fred Weary, Tennessee. Weary started the first four games of the season at right guard until Ryan Schau returned from injury. Four games later, when Schau went down again, Weary stepped in again at right guard and started the rest of the way. He also played in every game on the placekicking unit. Weary is a big, physical blocker who should excel in the running game, but the Texans struggled to move the ball up the middle (2.9 yards per attempt) and to the right (3.1). Like Pitts, and most other young offensive linemen, Weary should improve with experience as he learns the nuances of the position. The guards will be interesting positions to watch in training camp, as the Texans have several players who could battle for the starting jobs: Pitts is expected to move to left guard, with Weary and Milford Brown battling for right guard and former starters Schau and Cameron Spikes also in the mix (should the two unrestricted free agents re-sign). Weary may also back up Steve McKinney at center, since he also spent some time at that position in college.
Round 4 99. RB Jonathan Wells, Ohio State. Many tabbed Wells as a sleeper to watch when the Texans selected him with the first pick on the second day of the draft. Wells was the Texans’ leading rusher with 529 yards, which ranked third among all rookie runners. He split time with James Allen but played in every game, starting the final 11, and got the majority of the carries in ten games. Wells averaged only 2.7 yards per carry, significantly below the NFL average of 4.2 yards, but the Texans’ struggling offensive line must share the blame for that deficiency. He was not utilized much as a receiver, catching more than one ball in only two games, and never catching more than two in any contest. Wells fumbled three times and lost one, and that miscue at Indianapolis proved to be a costly mistake both for the team (it set up an easy score for the Colts) and for Wells himself (Capers benched him for the rest of the day). While the line did not give him much with which to work, Wells did not flash exceptional power, elusiveness, or vision. He also lacked the speed to turn the corner and threaten defenses on the flanks. Wells broke very few long runs, with only one run of over 30 yards and two of over 20. He could develop into a decent north-south runner, but did not show qualities as a rookie that would indicate that he could be a special back with a little help.
136. FB Jarrod Baxter, New Mexico. Baxter played in every game as a rookie and started every one in which the Texans opened with a two-back set (ten games). He had a carry or a catch in nine games, but never had more than two touches in any game and finished the season with only seven rushing attempts and five receptions. Baxter also contributed on special teams, returning a squib kickoff for 19 yards against the Bengals. Having split time between fullback, tailback, and one-back in college, Baxter’s inexperience as a blocker showed at times. He will probably never be a dominating lead blocker in the NFL, but he may develop into an effective runner from the fullback position as well as a reliable outlet receiver. Baxter should have a chance for more touches in 2003 as Palmer has expressed a desire to diversify the running game.
Round 6 (Supplemental Draft)
OG Milford Brown, Florida State. Brown had planned on being a starting guard at Florida State in 2002 until the NCAA ruled that his eligibility had expired. Brown had enrolled in classes at South Alabama College in 1997, which, according to the NCAA, started the clock on the five years in which he could play four seasons of college football. He played at East Mississippi Junior College in 1999 and 2000, and then started for Florida State in 2001. After losing his NCAA appeal late in the summer, Brown decided not to wait for the 2003 draft and petitioned the NFL for a special supplemental draft held at the end of September. The Texans used a sixth round pick on Brown and signed him on October 1. Because he joined the team midway through the season, the year was basically a redshirt season for Brown, who was active for four games but never played. Early reports had Brown rated as one of the better guards who would have been available in the 2003 draft, and probably a middle-round pick. He has good size and is supposedly a tenacious, athletic run blocker who needs work in pass protection. Brown should factor into the competition for one of the guard spots (most likely on the right side) with Pitts, Weary, and possibly Schau and Spikes.
Undrafted Free Agents WR Atnaf Harris, Cal State-Northridge. Harris played two years of college ball at Fresno State and then transferred to I-AA Cal State-Northridge for more playing time but ended up academically ineligible for the 2001 season. Harris managed to turn the scouts’ heads with his size/speed combination when he served as a target for Carr at Fresno State’s pro day. Harris signed with the Texans after the draft, and was cut at the end of training camp. The Texans then signed him to the practice squad for most of the season. They moved him up to the roster for the final five games, although he was inactive for four of those. He started the last game of the year (ahead of Gaffney) and caught one pass for eight yards. Harris has the raw tools to provide depth in the receiving corps if he continues to improve.
WR John Minardi, Colorado. Minardi was denied a medical redshirt season by the NCAA after he tore a knee ligament in the fourth game of his senior year. He signed with the Texans after the draft and was cut at the end of training camp. The team re-signed him for 2003 and assigned him to NFL-Europe, where he will play for the Scottish Claymores. Minardi was considered a draftable possession receiver before he hurt his knee. If he can show the requisite speed and quickness and depending on what other receivers the Texans’ bring in this offseason, Minardi should have a shot at a roster spot in 2003 since he brings a different skill set (soft hands, precise routes) than any of the wideouts currently on the team.
TE Rashod Kent, Rutgers. The Texans signed Kent, a starting forward on the Rutgers basketball team, after the draft even though he had not played football since his freshman year in high school. They cut him at the end of training camp, added him to the practice squad for a week, and then re-signed him for 2003. The Texans assigned Kent to NFL-Europe for some much-needed seasoning, where he will play for the Scottish Claymores. Kent has an intriguing combination of size (6’6", 275 lbs.), speed (4.7 40), and athletic ability (39" vertical jump) but is obviously very green and needs to improve in order to earn a roster spot next season, especially as a blocker. Although definitely a long shot, there is precedent for a player with Kent’s background making it: Marcus Pollard was a power forward at Bradley who did not play college football but has developed into a starting tight end for the Colts.
OT Jelani Hawkins, San Jose State. Hawkins signed with the Texans after the draft and it appeared that he was going to make the team until he was cut to make room for some waiver wire pickups in the week before the season opener. He had a couple stints on the Texans’ practice squad and re-signed with the team for 2003. Given the Texans’ problems at offensive tackle last season, the fact that he did not get a longer look indicates that Hawkins’ NFL career will probably be short. The Texans’ upgrades at tackle (Wiegert, Greg Randall, and, hopefully, Boselli) mean Hawkins will have to really impress to make the team this year.
Next week: Defense Jabar Gaffney Return to Houston Pro Football