In the weeks leading up the 2006 NFL draft, with fans and media debating what Houston should do with the first overall pick, then-Texans general manager Charley Casserly placed a call to Mike Tannenbaum, the New York Jets' new general manager at the time. Casserly was preparing to make a critical selection for a floundering franchise and wanted to explore the possibility of a trade. But when Casserly asked Tannenbaum what he was willing to give up for the pick, he was struck by the reply. "I think you've got it backwards, Charley," Tannenbaum said. "I'm wondering what you'll give me to take that pick off your hands."
Casserly can chuckle about that moment today because he no longer has to fret over the difficult decision of deciding on the first pick in the draft. He can relate to the general manager who will find himself in the position next spring to make a choice similar to the one he faced seven years ago. Casserly ultimately chose defensive end Mario Williams over running back Reggie Bush. In May, another GM may have to decide between a dominant defender and a talented offensive player, both of whom could be early entrants in the 2014 draft: South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Even with all the predictable shifting that will occur over the next few months, those two underclassmen dominate the conversation as the potential top pick in this upcoming draft. Clowney, a 6-foot-5, 258-pound junior, has been the undisputed leader of the pack ever since producing a jaw-dropping, highlight-reel hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in last season's Outback Bowl. Bridgewater, also a junior, has been incredibly efficient and surely will benefit from Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, whom scouts regarded as the top signal-caller in the country, deciding to stay in school next fall.
The problem is that although Bridgewater is the best quarterback right now, Clowney is the better prospect.
That means some team could face the daunting task of deciding between a once-in-a-lifetime talent or a quarterback who isn't guaranteed to be elite.
"That will be a very tough choice if that scenario ends up playing out that way," said ESPN NFL analyst Billy Devaney, who was the St. Louis Rams general manager from 2008 to 2011. "When you're picking first, you don't want to hear about a player's upside. That's a general manager's nightmare."
The popular thinking is that Bridgewater would be the obvious selection for any team picking at No. 1. A franchise in that position is likely to need a quarterback, and that position has dominated the top of the draft for nearly two decades. In the past 16 drafts, 12 quarterbacks have been selected first overall. Only two defensive players have been chosen No. 1 during that same period, and both played the same position as Clowney: Williams and former Cleveland Browns defensive end Courtney Brown, the top choice in the 2000 draft and one of the biggest busts in recent memory.
It's not hard to understand the logic there. "If you don't have that guy at quarterback, then you want to negate a great passer by having an elite pass-rusher," said Arizona Cardinals defensive line coach Brentson Buckner.
It's even easier to see why passing on Clowney could be the worst move a team could make with the first overall selection. As one AFC scout said, "If you don't have a stud left tackle to deal with him, then you don't have a chance. When he doesn't want to be blocked, there are few people who can block him."
Added ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay: "It's rare to see a player with his size, a true 4-3 end, who can bull-rush and also has great balance, body control and closing burst. I haven't seen many players in my 14 years of scouting who have Clowney's skill set."
It's comments like those that make Clowney a safer bet as the top overall choice.
"The No. 1 thing you have to do when you're deciding on the first pick in the draft is determine whether the player really is worthy of being the best player in the country," said Casserly, who now works as an analyst with NFL Network. "People can say that certain players wouldn't be the best players in certain years, but you don't have that luxury [as a general manager]. It's not like you have the option of picking multiple players with the selection."
It's not a popularity contest
Casserly's choices when he faced such a predicament in 2006 also weren't nearly as daunting as they'll be for a franchise next spring. When the Texans' personnel department was sifting through prospects, they quickly removed the most compelling player, Texas quarterback and Houston native Vince Young, from the conversation. Nobody on the Houston staff envisioned Young as a great NFL quarterback, and the Texans were still willing to give David Carr, the top pick in the 2002 draft, time to prove himself. When it came to choosing between USC's Bush, the Heisman Trophy winner (since vacated) in 2005, and Williams, Casserly relied mainly on the physical evidence.
At 6-foot-7 and 295 pounds, Williams had tested impressively in pre-draft workouts -- he posted a 4.7-second 40-yard dash and a 40.5-inch vertical leap -- and he had been coached by a defensive coordinator at North Carolina State, Reggie Herring, who had worked with the Texans. Casserly also was sold on his durability; there was little doubt that Williams could handle 60 plays a game if Houston invested $9 million a year in him. Bush -- 6 feet, 205 pounds -- was a different story. The Texans saw him more as a role player despite his college achievements and were especially concerned about his ability to withstand NFL punishment with a lower body that compared to that of a wide receiver.
Casserly also knew something else equally important about making such a potentially controversial pick: He had to prepare Williams for the scrutiny that would come with being selected over a national championship-winning quarterback and a rock-star runner with Hollywood charisma. "The whole world knew who Reggie Bush was, and hardly anybody knew Mario Williams," Casserly said. "And I remembered how Philadelphia Eagles fans booed [quarterback] Donovan McNabb when he was drafted [second overall] in 1999. So when we decided on Mario, I publicly said that if anybody didn't like the kid, they could boo me. And they booed the hell out of me."
There probably won't be booing if Bridgewater becomes the top pick over Clowney. But there will be reasonable speculation about what kind of quarterback he will become in the immediate future. There's little doubt he looks the part: 6-foot-2½, 220 pounds, 4.67 speed in the 40-yard dash and stats that jump off the page (6,986 passing yards, 69.6 completion percentage, 52 passing touchdowns and just 11 interceptions over the past two seasons). But nobody in scouting circles is putting Bridgewater in the same class as Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the first pick in the 2012 draft and a player widely hailed as one of the best quarterback prospects in the past 20 years.
One AFC scout said Bridgewater "is a really good athlete with a nice arm, but from what I saw, Mariota was the better prospect." An AFC general manager added that Bridgewater "has dropped off some [since his sophomore year]. He does have that quick release, but he's as thin as can be. All his weight is in his ass and he has skinny ankles and wrists. This is the big-boy league, and you have to be able to absorb pounding. He's a great kid, and he'll get drafted high, but is he a sure thing? I can't say that."
Still, Bridgewater remains talented enough to excite a quarterback-needy team selecting first overall. When the St. Louis Rams held the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, they had to choose between Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The former was a Heisman Trophy winner who played only three games during his junior season because of an injured throwing shoulder. The latter was a dominant interior lineman who could terrorize an entire offensive line nearly single-handedly.
But when Devaney flew to Los Angeles to discuss the draft with his owners after the 2009 season ended, he told them he was taking Bradford as long as the quarterback was healthy. Despite Suh's significant talent, the Rams' need at the game's most important position made the choice an easy one. That allowed Devaney to avoid the pressure that comes with making such a pick, even though he sympathizes with teams that don't have a surefire prospect awaiting them with that selection. "There are teams right now where it's obvious they can't win with the quarterback they drafted," Devaney said. "But you have to play it out at that point, and it takes about three years for some teams to admit they made a mistake. It's the worst position you can find yourself in when you need a quarterback and you feel that temptation to force one. Those decisions cost people jobs."
Why wait for an impact?
The instant appeal of Clowney is that a team probably wouldn't have to wait for an immediate return. When Casserly chose Carr with the first pick in 2002, the team selecting right after Houston -- the Carolina Panthers -- took defensive end Julius Peppers, a player who was as hyped as Clowney is today. All Peppers did in his first season was produce 12 sacks and win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors despite missing four games for violating the league's policy on banned substances. The Panthers made the Super Bowl in his second year.
At 6-foot-7 and 290 pounds, Peppers was so impressive in Carolina that he once rushed the quarterback in a game against Arizona, pivoted and ran 30 yards downfield to tackle Cardinals running back Marcel Shipp on a play that started with a screen pass. "Pep brought instant credibility to our team," said Buckner, who was a defensive tackle for the Panthers from 2001 to 2005. "He was an elite player, and Coach [John] Fox and [defensive coordinator Jack] Del Rio wanted to build a team from the inside out. Pep made all three spots on the defensive line better just because of all the attention he received."
Buckner added that Peppers' mental makeup was an underrated aspect of his game, saying, "If you have a bad game as a top pick, you have to be able to handle the criticism, and Julius could do that. He'd have years where he would have double-digit sacks and people would still say he wasn't doing enough." Clowney will surely face similar expectations if for no other reason than he's already heavily scrutinized at South Carolina. He's been knocked this season for taking plays off, allegedly telling Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier on game day that he was sitting out with an injury and producing underwhelming numbers (he has two sacks this season after amassing 13 in 2012).
One NFC general manager said Clowney does look "like a player who is playing around the edges to avoid getting hurt," but the AFC scout said some of the jabs at Clowney are unfair. "He does take plays off, but a lot of guys do that," the AFC scout said. "He also doesn't have any legal issues. The big thing with him is that he's used to being on his own program because that's probably how Spurrier got him in the first place."
"You go back and look at recent drafts, and most high picks that were busts didn't fail because of talent," McShay said. "Eight out of 10 times, it was a character flaw or injuries that hurt them. So everybody will do their due diligence on Clowney and try to unearth some things that have come up in this process. If it was a different prospect, those same [personnel types] would just check off the boxes because they'd know the player could handle things [maturely]."
The good news for whichever team picks No. 1 is that it will have plenty of time to do that homework on Clowney and Bridgewater. There's also a decent chance that its needs will be so apparent that the choice will be obvious or that another player will enter the conversation. That said, there's also more time for second guessing, overthinking and concerns about public reaction. As Casserly said of Williams, a two-time Pro Bowler with the Texans who's now with the Buffalo Bills, "The city of Houston never forgave Mario for being the first pick in the draft.
"I've heard people say that you can afford to make mistakes [with the top pick] because the money is different now [with the rookie salary scale]," Casserly said. "But I don't believe in that because it still comes down to taking a player you need. When you look at it that way, you wouldn't make any different decision. You still put the same amount of pressure on yourself, and you still can't afford to make a mistake."