September 22, 2005
by Ric Sweeney
Cherry picking is easy, especially when it comes to reinterpreting the NFL Draft. Every Sunday, your successes and failures are on full display all around the NFL, or, working a double shift at Applebees. Either way, it’s not hard to evaluate how teams draft, nor is it terribly difficult to reimagine drafts after the fact when all the evidence has been collected. Looking back with what we know now, the Texans should have drafted Clinton Portis, not Chester Pitts; Jason Witten over Bennie Joppru; and Julius Peppers instead of David Carr – oops… was that out loud?
But really, what’s the point of a “what if…” exercise? Charley Casserly is no different from the hundreds of other general managers – they’ve all made mistakes that can only be corrected with the power of hindsight. Case in point: Every single NFL team passed on Joe Montana. Twice! Drafting isn’t, it never has been, and never will be an exact science. You have to do your homework and then get really lucky.
With such uncertainty, it seems the key to a successful draft is simple: hit on your first and second rounders, nail at least a third or fourth rounder, find a gem late and then hope picks in rounds 5-7 can make your team and provide your roster with quality depth. Which roughly translates to two starters; two contributors (in nickel packages, multi-receiver sets and/or on special teams) and a bunch of guys who push the better guys Tuesday through Friday. That’s about it. To expect much more is really asking too much; there’re simply too many variables GMs and scouts can’t predict, no matter how meticulous and thorough they are in their research.
So yeah, Casserly has passed on guys he shouldn’t have. That’s not what this exercise is about. I wanted to genuinely evaluate what Casserly has done with his picks in terms of how they’ve positively (or negatively) impacted Houston’s roster and by what we’ve seen on the field of play.
In his four drafts, Casserly has made 39 total picks (including two supplemental picks). Of those, 23 are currently on the active roster (with 2 more on the practice squad and one, Joppru, on the permanent injured reserve). At this rate, Casserly’s hitting on roughly 59% of his picks. Considering 23 of his 39 picks came in round 4 or later, that, I would surmise, is a decent number.
Eight of the 23 players on the roster are starters, however, and that’s a far worse percentage (35%), especially when you consider where the Texans have been drafting. That number gets further downgraded because of the eight starters (David Carr, Chester Pitts, Andre Johnson, Antwaan Peek, Domanick Davis, Dunta Robinson, Jason Babin and C.C. Brown), Pitts, Peek, Babin and Brown would probably not be starters if, well, Casserly had done a better job stocking the veterans on his roster, but that’s another column for another time. Truly, from what we’ve seen so far, only Johnson and Robinson would start for the majority of other NFL teams with Carr and Davis likely starters on maybe 8-10 teams. Maybe.
Considering the Texans were awarded additional picks in 2002 and 2003, including three picks in rounds 1-3 (when you have access to the top 100 prospects in the draft), those numbers look even worse. Digging still deeper: Carr, Johnson and Robinson were all top ten picks. Nothing is guaranteed in a draft but a general manager with the league’s largest scouting staff should not – repeat, SHOULD NOT – miss on top ten picks. And when building a franchise from scratch, a general manager can’t miss on those picks. With that in mind, Casserly has essentially found five starters among his 36 picks that didn’t fall in the top ten.
And therein lies Casserly’s greatest failure in his four drafts and, I think, a glimpse into why. Sure he found Davis in round 4; but Davis doesn’t make up for him drafting exactly two starters with his nine picks in rounds 2 and 3. Part of the problem, of course, was that he traded four picks in those rounds for Babin and Phillip Buchanon, who both found themselves benched in Sunday’s loss to the Steelers for poor play. How, if you’re building a roster through the draft as Casserly has claimed is his plan, can you trade four shots at top 100 prospects (plus Aaron Glenn) for just two players? Did he really believe the Texans were only two players away from being contenders? If so, then Casserly is in deeper denial about his track record than I ever could have imagined.
Further, after making Carr the first-ever pick in franchise history, how can you justify drafting four additional quarterbacks, including wasting the 88th overall pick on Dave Ragone? (Not that Ragone, himself, is a waste, but what’s the point? You’re going to pass on the 88th best player in the draft for a backup quarterback?) Sure, he turned Drew Henson into a third round pick, and deserves credit for doing so, but it’s a pick in next year’s draft. In theory, the team should be on pace to collide with the playoffs this year or next, meaning, again in theory, that future draft picks shouldn’t rate as high priorities.
What’s most discerning is the tenor of Casserly’s four drafts – doesn’t he seem infinitely more concerned with proving how smart he is rather than building the best roster possible? Reaching for Pitts, Wand and Babin in rounds that should be producing NFL-ready talent, not long-term prospects, cost him opportunities to add three players from the best 75 in those respective drafts. But if he reaches and hits on the trio… oh, the accolades! What a genius! What a talent evaluator! Meanwhile, conventional thinking (did I mean common sense?) held that Casserly still could have landed each with later picks.
To wit, Pitts was the 50th player selected in 2002, though few publications had him ranked among that elite group prior to the draft (they know less than Charley!), probably because Pitts had only two years of organized football experience under his belt. With the Texans holding the 66th, 83rd and 99th picks, wouldn’t Pitts have made more sense later? If you’re sold on the guy, it’s a gamble you’ll lose him, but considering the leap of faith you’re taking on a prospect as raw as Pitts, it’s a gamble worth taking if, instead of Pitts, you can corral a player ready to play in the NFL. Same goes for Wand in 2003. He was the 75th pick with the Texans holding the 83rd, 88th and 101st picks. Babin was selected 27th overall, but it cost you the 40th, 71st and 103rd picks in the 2004 draft. At that cost, Babin has to be a sure-fire playmaker; instead, he’s a work-in-progress who’s done little to justify the deal in his first 18 games.
In the NFL, it’s rare to draft long-term projects among the top 75 picks – this isn’t the NBA, nor was this an established roster where Pitts and Wand could mature behind the Munchaks and Matthews on the world while Babin learned the ropes from Robert Brazille. In my opinion, it reeks of Casserly wanting to prove to everyone he knows more than they do – what else can it be? Same holds true for nabbing Ragone and using (wasting?) picks in the supplemental draft on Milford Brown and Tony Hollings. Casserly’s four drafts feel like an exercise in hoisting up his enormous love of his own skills as a talent evaluator.
Whatever went into the thought process, the bottom line is that as it’s currently constructed, the Texans’ roster is below average, talent-wise, despite having a blank salary cap, an expansion draft, additional draft picks in 2002 and 2003, four drafts total and four free agent signing periods. Casserly either has a lot of faith in himself or his coaches and that faith has not been rewarded yet. And because of that, the Texans are staring at the possibility of having to push and hold the RESTART button, but with fewer fringe benefits this time around.
Chris Palmer became the first casualty of war on Monday. As more things change, but really don’t, and the failure of Casserly’s drafting becomes more apparent, expect Palmer to be merely the first, certainly not the last scapegoat.
Ric Sweeney is from Vermont and has an emerging maple syrup conglomerate.
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