Andrew Luck: Can we say it now?

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I’m not usually one to kick a player while he is down (unless he’s a Cowboys player and isn’t down because of injury). I also feel that some of Andrew Luck’s bad luck this and last year has a shared responsibility (GM and HC). This year, one can comfortably say that Andrew Luck isn’t great because his team isn’t great. He’s come back from 2015 showing he can play on par with his previous non-injury seasons. But, coming into his 5th year in the NFL, and into his big contract (being the highest paid QB in NFL history, with a 6 year, $140 million contract with an $87 million injury guarantee/$47 million guaranteed at signing, which levels out to $23.3 million a year average), Andrew Luck still has a lot to prove in the NFL.

Coming back from his terrible start and later injury-laden season, Luck has shown some improvement – albeit simply getting back to his previous play. 2015 worked a number on Luck, even before he was sidelined with a shoulder injury, and then later with a lacerated kidney (knocking him out for the rest of the season). In his first 3 starts, he threw for 7 interceptions – putting him on pace for a record incerception count. After a shoulder/rib injury sidelined him for 2 games (where the Colts actually went on a 2 game winning streak), he began to show some signs of improvement (can the “he was still injured” talk. He was cleared for play, and no results came from investigating his non-status on the Colts injury reports), but still fell short of an improved year.

The question is can Andrew Luck improve from what his 4 (and coming into 5) year stint has shown? Basically, he’s played the same with little to no improvement. In his 5th year, he’s beginning to learn how to slide. He’s still not learning to back off the linebacker mentality and takes hits he shouldn’t. He makes bad throwing decisions that has led to his interception count to be one of the highest counts in the league for a starter. There is a learning process, of course, when it comes into reading the field and making better decisions. Experience leads the way here. However, Luck is coming into his 5th year and he’s barely showing any progress here. The season is still early, though, so perhaps his banged up 2015 have taught him to take fewer chances.

One argument here is Andrew Luck has been carrying the team for the past 4 years and counting. During that same tenure, he was playing with a top 10 offense for 2 years (#3 in 2014), and a top 10 defense for 2 years (and coming into year #3). Unfortunately, they all happened in different years, with 2013 being the most balanced team (#15 in offense and #13 in defense). So, Luck’s had weapons. It hasn’t been JUST him the whole time. Truth be told, if anything carried the Colts through the Luck era, it has been the consistent mediocrity coming out of the AFC South. I’ll say it – it’s the same advantage that the Texans have had in the past few years of playoff appearances (especially in 2015). Outside of the overwhelming domination of the AFC South, the Colts are 22-21 under Luck.

So stop with that talk. If Colts were in another division, Luck would not likely have a single playoff win under his belt.

Only time will tell if Luck has learned from the past 4 years in the NFL to improve on his decision-making on the field. This is where his weakness lies. You can’t argue his talent. He’s got the arm and accuracy. He’s mobile. He is a prototypical NFL QB in terms of build and talent. What he lacks is decision making skills. This is what turns a good QB into a top 5 or elite QB. Currently, Luck sits at good. He is better than average, has the natural ability to succeed in the league, and could quite possibly take any well-rounded team far into the playoffs – even all the way to the championship. What gets him to the next level is all on him, though. Not the coach. Not the team. Not even the owner. What gets him there, and what will hold him back, is him. Until that happens, we can say it: he’s overrated.

Houston Texans: Buckle up

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One quarter of the season has been played, with the Texans sitting atop the AFC South and a 2 game cushion, at 3-1. Not a bad start, with a brand-spanking-new offense and some key injuries on both sides of the ball. The offensive line is still shaky, with Duane Brown hinted at coming back this week, after his season-ending injury last season, and the defense lost their top player, JJ Watt, for the season. O’Brien has taken play-calling duties over for Godsey, who couldn’t figure out a way to use the running game’s biggest weapon, Lamar Miller, in 3 games.

The team is finally showing some flashes of greatness, stalled by some bad decision turnovers from Osweiler. Hopkins hasn’t yet been utilized to his 2015 playtime, with most of the turnovers coming off of forced passes to him. The stumbles and stalls haven’t stopped the Texans from picking up a winning record so far, and gaining that 2-game cushion on the rest of the flailing AFC South (including what shouldn’t have been such a nail-biting game against the Tennessee Titans last Sunday). Each game brings a few signs of improvement (we’re not going to talk about that one game).

The Texans have a powerhouse defense that can keep the offense in the game. Even with the loss of JJ Watt, the Texans have bounced back with other key players like Mercilus, Clowney, Cushing, and Simon, with Wilfork putting in a heck of a season so far. The CB depth is enough to keep the passing game in check (although there are still some tackling issues being settled). The offense, however, doesn’t create a march down the field with the same ease, and has had some pretty rough turnovers in the interim. And special teams is finally figuring out that you get 25 yards on a return by taking a knee.

If you’re like me, you’ve been scratching your head at the ST kickoff return game plan in the first few games of the season, considering the new touchback rule that adds 5 yards to the line of scrimmage. In at least 1 game when we’ve seen turnovers after a returning from the endzone, you’d think the Texans ST coach is crazy. They’re not alone, though. Despite the rule’s intentions of lessening the chance of injury in those rough, full velocity return tackles, returns have actually increased throughout the league. That hasn’t worked well for the Texans, though, and it looks like they’re finally getting wise to this.

But the meat of the schedule is about to start, and we’re left to wonder if they’re ready for it. The Texans are next facing the undefeated and rather mesmerizing Minnesota Vikings, who lost both Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson within a few short weeks. Despite losing their 2 top offensive weapons, they’ve managed to go 4-0 with Sam Bradford, now seemingly healthy and playing with a vengeance, without even a hiccup. Led by a top defense, the Vikings have capitalized on creating turnovers and then scoring on them, but can just as readily march down the field for a touchdown.

With Osweiler as a continuing work in progress (and I hate to break it to you, but this work in progress looks like it will be continuing throughout the season), are the Texans going to play conservatively to lessen the chance for turnovers, or keep forcing him into making better pressure decisions? I’d bet on a little bit of both. Duane Brown’s impending return will be a great help with keeping Osweiler out of such pressure situations, as it will open up the possibility of shuffling the line around to bolster it on both ends. This will open up the running game down the middle a bit more too.

That’s not likely to all click in place this Sunday, so I’d expect to see more conservative calls on offense to keep from giving the Vikings an opportunity to do what they do best – force a turnover and turn it into points. That may also mean that Hopkins will see a few more games without a target – which may work out best for him and the team in the long run. One of the keys to this offense is having limitless targets on field, and it seems to be working so far. That lingering if/when will Osweiler clean up his throws and make better decisions will decide what level the team will eventually play at this season.

Moving forward? Remain cautiously optimistic. Osweiler’s struggles with decision making under pressure are not an anomaly from a newer QB. I don’t care when he was drafted, he’s not even had a full season starting under his belt. That matters, because you don’t pick up experience to improve on the bench. He’s also got a brand new offense to work the kinks out with, as well. So, be prepared for this to be a season-long test. It should be, when you’re giving a new QB the opportunity to be the franchise QB. We’re well past the days of next QB up. It’s new territory, guys, and the rules are different.

And, at the end of the season if he doesn’t pan out, it’s really not as bad of a deal as you think. Osweiler is guaranteed for 2 seasons at 18 million per season. That’s the average pay for a starting QB in their second contract in the NFL. And if he still continues to have some of the problems under pressure, then the concentration in the free agency and draft for 2017 will beQB and o-line. He’s our guy for at least this season and next, so let’s get used to that. For the time being, recognize he’s in his 2nd year (and 1st full season) as a starter, and give him the room to improve.

Minnesota may not be a win, but it won’t mean the season is over. This won’t be an easy win for either team, and it won’t be another blow out embarassment for the Texans. I’ll put my predictions that far. What we’ll see from the Texans, hopefully, is an extension of the improvement on the running game seen last week, with some quick, up-tempo short passes to move the ball down the field. If Duane Brown returns, that puts a little more strength on the o-line (especially if Clark can slide down to RT for a few plays). I’d really like to see some movement on the o-line with Brown’s return.

Defense needs to keep being defense. They’ll have a tough time getting to Bradford, but should have some success shutting off the running game. Time to start forcing some turnovers, as well. The Vikings haven’t faced a defense like the Texans just yet, so that should shake up Bradford and co, and make them reach outside of the comfort zone. This will be another game where the defense will be counted on to carry the load, but I’ve got the confidence they can step up and do this. Secondary will have to make some leaps in this game as well, because Bradford can use his arm effectively.

And the Fuller on ST was a nice trick, but I wouldn’t use it for this game.

I predict the Texans will come out of this with their second loss, but still sitting on top of the AFC South in 1st place (and it’s quite possible to keep that same 2 game cushion). This is an early test for the readiness of the team, and it’s fine if they don’t pass. There’s still a lot of season left to improve on offense (which is the game changer), and like I said, it will take the season to vastly improve. The next few games should show whether or not Osweiler begins to make better decisions under pressure, and I’d expect him to. But if he does, and starts throwing it away, don’t scold him for that.

Sometimes, that’s all you’ve got.

In the long run, if the Texans can manage to dominate the AFC South (and currently signs point to that being quite possible) then they have some wiggle room to improve the offense overall. They’re actually quite fortunate with that this season. It’s the same circumstance that has put the Andrew Luck Colts in the playoffs practically every year, but the key difference is that the Texans have actually build a team. This next game may not be pretty, and the season may not be pretty, but it’s a season going on a learning curve that will eventually pan out.

Houston Texans: How Belichick emasculated O’Brien

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It began Monday morning, but we didn’t realize it. Reports that Garoppolo would sit the game out, 3rd string rookie Jacoby Brissett would start his 1st NFL game. Back up to Brissett would be WR, once QB in college Julian Edelman. He didn’t even bother the insurance of a FA QB signing in the interim. For once, Bill Belichick did not hide his game plan for the short week and Thursday night game, and this game plan told the story of what we saw unfold last night.

On Monday Belichick’s actions said, without saying a word, we don’t need to prepare for the Texans; the Texans need to prepare for us. It was a call to the Texans, and a challenge to Bill O’Brien. It was cocky, insulting, and downright genius. And it got in their heads. Belichick, with that small, yet bold, move, won the game before it even started.  And none of us realized it until the Texans hit the field and started crumbling before our (and the nation’s) eyes.

In those three days – that short week to prepare for the Patriots game Thursday night, it’s hard to really see exactly what the Texans did to prepare. Granted, they were at the slight disadvantage, having to face a rookie QB with half a game’s worth of NFL film on him. To the Texans advantage, however, they were facing a rookie QB in the 1st start of his professional career, so simplified play-calling to this rookie QB’s strengths would likely be the game plan.

Through most of the 1st half, this is exactly what we saw from the Patriots on offense. Conservative plays, ball protection, and limited drives. Enough to manage the game, protect the young QB, and eliminate turnovers. Enough to take Texans strongest weapon – the front 7, out of the game. On defense, all they had to do was cover receivers. That’s it. The Texans o-line destroyed everything else, as well as Godsey’s terrible usage of Lamar Miller. Their game plan was simple, and almost relaxed.

After that relatively simple prepwork, all the Patriots had to do was to sit back and watch the Texans defeat themselves; overcompensating for how little Belichick and the Patriots took this match up seriously. Because that’s pretty much how predictable the Texans play-calling has already become this season. And defeat themselves they did. The bonus for the Patriots was the lousy Texans special team play, which allowed the Patriots to not only defeat the Texans, but humiliate them on National TV.

The good news out of this is that the Texans have a good core of veteran players that don’t give up, and can lead their team. This is 1 game, and 1 loss. The better news is that this core group usually comes back steaming mad and ready for revenge when they have a terrible game like this (see Falcons and Dolphins games in 2015). The best news is that the team has upgraded their talent since 2015, and the team and staff have a long week to start working to fix these issues.

The bad news is that our special teams unit has not improved over last year. Tyler Ervin has shown, in his special team appearances, that he may not be ready for the pros just yet. Charles James II has no margin for error moving forward. The whole unit needs to make some drastic improvements, and rely on conservative play in the interim. THIS MEANS TAKING THE DAMN KNEE IN THE ENDZONE. That’s 25 yards, every time. Take it. Please. We all beg you.

In the interim, Godsey’s got to take some time making plays that utilize Lamar Miller’s strengths, as it is clear that one of Miller’s strengths is NOT running up the middle. This should be obvious by watching him with the Dolphins, as well as recognizing his build. He’s got speed, use it. And use Jay Prosch on 3rd and short. That’s why he’s on the roster. The stalled running game needs to be worked out immediately – like in this long week ahead in preparation for the Titans.

Onward and upward.

Houston Texans:The time is now

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The 2016 NFL season is here, and with that brings a new and (hopefully) improved Houston Texans squad.

In the off-season, Head Coach Bill O’Brien heavily bulked up the offense during the 2016 NFL Draft, drafting and subsequently signing 4 out of 6 offensive positions (primarily WR/RB, and a necessary C to replace defector dearly departed Ben Jones) to add speed and versatility to a Texans offense that has struggled for years. The primary struggles were an ineffective QB, combined with a nearly non-existent passing game, and littered with constant running game injury. To summarize, the Texans offense has been largely one-dimensional, over-utilizing either/or since 2013.

In the pre-season, fans were dazzled (at times) with a promising starting QB with Brock Osweiler, a prolific WR corps, as well as some surprising TE production on offense, but very little showing for the running game.  Special teams came out and showed some notable structure and improvement, with a huge nod to new ST coach Larry Izzo. We also saw some intermittent struggles with the once-again heavily limping offensive line, as well as some customary missed blocked and tackles in the defense secondary. Most of this tightened up with each preseason game, and necessary cuts were made all around.

This had both fans and beat writers at odds with the new squad, wondering if we are going to face another year with a largely one-dimensional offense. Passing plays and attempts were made nearly 2-1 versus running, which made the RB corps seems slightly anemic. However, we can calm those fears by simply looking at all the roster moves in the off-season. The first, and biggest, news is signing Lamar Miller in the free agency. He’s an outstanding all around RB, who was brought in to replace Arian Foster. He wasn’t utilized much in the preseason because his history in the NFL speaks for itself.

This left primarily seasoned RBs and a single drafted rookie RB to compete for the 53. Among those were seasoned vets Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes, who essentially had to maintain their performance from previous years, 2nd season players Kenny Hilliard and Akeem Hunt, who had to show necessary improvements to justify a spot on the squad, and newly drafted rookie Tyler Ervin, who was specifically brought in for his speed and depth on both offense and special teams. What this translates to is 2 players trying out, and 1 player justifying why he was drafted.

On the other end, the Texans brought in 2 WRs in the draft, signed an additional 4 undrafted free agents, with 5 WRs already signed to compete for 5 spots on the roster, or a place on the practice squad. Additionally, an undrafted free agent TE was brought in, and specific priority was given to the TE corps which has been perpetually anemic since the loss of Owen Daniels in 2013 to see if O’Brien’s eventual goal to heavily utilize TEs could start coming to fruition. This still has yet to be seen, but undrafted FA Stephen Anderson has already made a name for himself among the Texans TEs.

Will this be enough to give the Texans a legitimate run this season? Only time and the upcoming season will tell. One notable deficiency and area of concern heading into the season is the offensive line. 2nd round draft pick C Nick Martin, who was penciled in as starter as soon as his draft number was called, suffered a season-ending ankle injury and underwent surgery to repair a high ankle sprain was a big blow to the line.  Additionally, T Duane Brown and Derek Newton’s injuries brought on a patchwork o-line in the preseason that struggled to hold a pocket for Osweiler at times.

The good news (I guess) is that Derek Newton is slated to start in the season opener, and Duane Brown has been put on the active roster, meaning that while there has been no timetable set for return, it’s likely that Brown will return within the first 3-4 games since the front office didn’t find it necessary to put him on the PUP list (which would mean 6 weeks, at minimum). Other good news is the return of DE JJ Watt. While it’s unknown how limited Watt will be, he is slated to start in the season opener as well, after an offseason in which basically Watt’s entire lower half was reconstructed.

With the free agency signings, draft picks, current news with injury, along with the preseason performance of a newly-enhanced offense, the Vegas odds for the Texans to reach the Super Bowl have jumped from 40-1 in April to 16-1 in September.  This was the biggest offseason jump for any team considered to be a legitimate contender moving into the 2016-17 season. That’s promising. Looking at the season opener with a Chicago Bears squad that didn’t do much to bolster their roster in the offseason, analysts have pretty much unanimously given favor to the Texans.

My opinion is we should go with that, cast all doubt and worry aside, and let the team prove the hype. Osweiler has something to prove, and he showed us this in the preseason. Hopkins, Fuller, and Braxton Miller are ready to show the kind of versatile threat we want them to be. Lamar Miller is itching to have his breakout season.Special teams is streamlined and disciplined, and ready to be a productive side on the field, and the whole of the defense is ready to rank back up as a top 3 defense. I think they will. So, sit back, buckle up, and let’s all get ready for some football!

Houston Texans: Eight days away

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The 2016 NFL Draft is just 8 days out, and the FA moves before the draft are pretty much done, as far as the Texans are concerned. The latest move was to release QB Brian Hoyer, who was set to make $4 million in 2016. The move to remove Hoyer from the roster wasn’t a surprise, but the move to cut him instead of trading him had some people confused. Why not try to get something for the guy, even it if would be nothing more than another draft pick?  In short, because it wasn’t worth keeping him for a 6th or 7th round pick in 2017.

A lengthy discussion could point out the current situation in the QB free agency, with 2-3 QBs still waiting for signings, and the simple fact that these potential signings have stalemated any trades or deals for QBs in the current FA. The bottleneck is occurring between the San Francisco 49ers an the Denver Broncos, with not even free agent but likely to be traded Colin Kaepernick, and the reticence of either team to pick up the remaining value of Kaepernick’s contract.

Both teams hope to resolve this before the draft, but the whole situation is creating a real issue with other QBs left in limbo right now. What that means it the Texans holding onto Hoyer and tying up cap space that may be needed in the direct aftermath of the draft. Is all that worth the possibility of an additional 6th or 7th round pick in the coming years? Do the Texans really need to get caught up by the unneccessary stalemate that the 49ers and Broncos are willfully causing, over $4 million?

No. No they do not.

You have to look at the fact that every team knew Hoyer would be released, with the signing of Osweiler and the re-signing of FA Brandon Weeden, with Tom Savage still being on the roster at a much cheaper price than Hoyer. Potentially higher tier QBs like Kaepernick and even Fitzpatrick are still available and in limbo because of contract/trade negotiations, which means Hoyer would certainly take a back seat, possibly for months. And, knowing that Hoyer would eventually be released, there isn’t a team out there that would give a favorable trade to the Texans.

You can also look at the recent draft pick trades that have occurred with the top 2 picks. Last week, the Titans traded the #1 overall pick to the Rams for a quite ridiculous number of picks for this year’s draft alone. The Rams want a QB, and want the first pick. Today, the Browns and Eagles announced a trade of the #2 overall pick, with the Eagles coughing up a heavy number of picks, presumably for the 2nd choice of QB in the draft. The Eagles, who just spent $35 million over the next 2 years on 2 QBs. Head-scratching.

Instantly, you have 2 teams that are bowing out of the QB tussle in the FA, which leaves even fewer teams to negotiate and haggle with, when trying to dump a 2nd rate likely career back-up QB for any kind of return woth noting. That’s not to say that these trades shore up all the QB needs in the NFL, but it does lead to the notion that the little value that Hoyer may possess has diminished down to nothing. The money that was freed up in the salary cap is more valuable than a later draft pick in the next couple of years.

Now that he’s released, there may be some additional movement in unclogging that bottleneck of QB movement in the FA. He’s already visited with the Jets, and is set to visit with the Broncos. Whether either team is serious about the visit is debatable, but it could help both teams in their own negotiations with both Kaepernick and Fitzpatrick. All I can say is that I’m glad the cut’s been made ,so the Texans don’t have this hanging over their heads entering into the Draft. We should all be happy about that.

Another player waived by the Texans was BJ Daniels, the QB/WR picked up from the Seattle Seahawks practice squad last year when both Hoyer and Yates were out with injuries. Daniels would be an interesting prospect to try out at WR, as he was in transition to WR in the Seattle Seahawks practice squad camp. I’m surprised he wouldn’t at least make it through some work outs to see the potetial before being released. Certainly he wouldn’t be kept around as a back-up QB, but it would be worth it to test his wings at WR.

Since that’s out of the way, the Texans have the next 8 days to focus on the 2016 Draft. This means evaluating their needs, picks, and back up plans. This also means evaluating the trades that are happening with other teams, and lining up similar needs to make the optimal choices for the team in 2016. This means days of non-stop evaluations for every single player in the positions they are looking for, whether they have made visits or not. It also means evaluating draft day trading scenarios based on the trend of the draft.

The Texans have always placed the priority of talent available in each round rather than order of need. That has paid off in the first round, given the Texans are the only team in the NFL to still have every 1st round pick on the roster since 2008. The 3-4 round picks have been less-than-consistent, however, with more bombs than stars. Remarkably, however, the Texans have pulled off some decent later round and unsigned FA draft picks, which almost balances it out.

There’s no question that the surest talent resides in the top 2 and 1/2 rounds, however, and the Texans have 2 picks in this stretch. The Texans draft picks currently fall in the following order: 22nd, 52nd, 85th, 119th, 159th, 166th, and 195th. That’s one each in every round, and an additional pick in the 5th round. The downside of the Texans hesitancy to get into top pick trades means that the Texans will always have the minimum number of top picks in each draft.

That’s not really a bad thing, though. All in all, the draft is a gamble. If it pays, then you’re a genius. If it doesn’t, then you’re a moron. The Texans have always been rather conservative in the draft, with bold moves going toward amazing talent potential over need. I see this trend continuing, especially with the bold FA moves that have happened. I’d rather the bold moves happen in the FA, too, since those moves are based on proof. Some may argue that Osweiler’s deal isn’t, but there’s more proof he can make it than any of the QBs in the draft.

I’d still like to see a veteran DE picked up to plug the hole Crick left behind. I’d also like to see Owen Daniels come back to Houston one more year, as the team could definitely use an upgrade and shake-up in the TE corps. The talk of Andre Johnson retiring as a Texan is a nice pipe dream, but I don’t see a humbled Johnson agreeing to that for more than a ceremonial 1 day contract (if even that, considering his feels toward the team’s decsision on his playing time last year). I expect no more pre-Draft movement, though.

So, sit tight, y’all, because it’s a waiting game til the 28th.

 

Houston Texans: Free Agency

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The Texans had a hefty to-do list coming into the new season, including re-signing some free agents from the 2015 squad, as well as evaluating potential veteran talent to add to the roster. Earlier in the year, I discussed my hopes that the Texans would go big and bold in the free agency, something they’ve rarely done in the past. A lot of moves the team has made in the free agency have been to pick up older “mentor” veterans of the game. Most of the time, the Texans play it conservative and stick to retaining talent on the roster.

Before the free agency period, the Texans had some inevitable cuts to make. The first cut, and biggest loss, was RB Arian Foster. Foster’s given the Texans the best years of his career, and a healthy Foster could have possibly stayed on the roster. Unfortunately, even his successful years have been plagued with injury, and at the time of his release, he still wasn’t healthy. Cuts like Foster’s remind us all that above all else, the NFL is a business, and sometimes it’s not personal.

Also cut were TE Garrett Graham, and S Rahim Moore. Graham, drafted in the 4th round in 2010, showed some promise as a starter in 2012, and was one of the few shining players in the 2013 season. He was re-signed in 2014, but quickly dropped off the shelf. Moore was a S signed as a FA out of Denver, who did not pursue him. Moore’s was a questionable signing, but he could hit hard. However, he lasted just over half the season as a starter before being benched. One year was more than enough for him.

Rumors swirled around in the past week  as the FA approached; about Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Brock Osweiler as possible signings at QB, Chris Ivory, Lamar Miller, Doug Martin as rumored RBs on the radar, the need to keep Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks, and little to no actual movement. Well, technically the free agency didn’t open up til Wednesday, March 9, at 3 pm Texans time, but the “legal tampering” period, as they call it, was producing some unofficial signings and commitments.

Throughout the week, the Texans secured contracts with a few of their own FAs and negotiated with others. Among the signings were T/G Jeff Adams, T Chris Clark, SS Eddie Pleasant, CB Charles James, P Shane Lechler, and K Nick Novak. Two restricted FAs LB Jon Simon and LB A.J. Bouye were tendered, and restricted FA RB Jonathan Grimes and the Texans could not reach a deal, thus Grimes would go into the free agency as an unrestricted FA.

As Tuesday drew to an end, C Ben Jones, one of the top priority signings, unofficially hammered a deal out with the Tennessee Titans, so he would be lost. As Wednesday rolled around, G Brandon Brooks, another top priority, reached an agreement with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he’d be lost in the FA. These were two starters on the offensive line, and two of the most consistent staples on the Texans offensive line. Both were rather unexpected departures, and fans began to worry.

However, just as soon as brows began to furrow the Texans struck, and they hit hard. QB Brock Osweiler was stolen from the Denver Broncos, and signed to a franchise QB-sized contract – 4 years, $72 million. Soon after, Miami Dolphins RB Lamar Miller followed suit, with a 4 year, $26 million contract. Losing Brooks still hurt a little, until a third big signing, Kansas City Chiefs G Jeff Allen inked a 4 year, $28 million offer. Also signed was Raiders G/C Tony Bergstrom, contract details still unknown.

In a matter of half an hour, the Texans plugged in 2 lost FA holes, and knocked out their two biggest priorities. Texans, for the first time in several years, went big in the FA, and strengthened their offense by unknown depths. There’s no argument that the offense improved on the first day of the 2016 NFL season, but how much is the big question. We’ll go over each signing in the next day or two, and add anything else that comes to fruition, although the monumental day will likely be the biggest show of the FA.

With that, we also said goodbye to some Texans FAs not offered a new contract. Those include QB Brandon Weeden, QB T.J. Yates, RB Chris Polk, RB Jonathan Grimes, WR Nate Washington, DE Jared Crick, and SS Quintin Demps. Also available without tender are restricted FA LB Justin Tuggle, and restricted FA CB Darryl Morris. Exclusive rights FAs are WR Josh Lenz, DE Brandon Dunn, and FS Corey Moore. A few more moves may be made, and a few more may be lost. Time will tell in the coming days.

One thing’s for sure: The Texans 2016 season is off to a great start.

Houston Texans, Quarterback hunt, part 2

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Part 1 of the quarterback hunt focused on the current roster, free agents, and possible moves the Texans can make with the QB position. That can be browsed right here if you need a refresher. In short, the Texans will keep at least 1, and likely 2 QBs from the current roster and/or free agents. My hope is Weeden/Savage, but likelihood points to Hoyer/Savage (and maybe Daniels for another role and/or practice squad). After working through the possibilities on the roster, the next big question will be who do we draft as QB in the 2016 Draft, and when do we do it?

Realistically, with the NFL Scouting Combine still being a few weeks away, any projections or rumors of the 2016 draft class are nothing more than mere speculation. Draft prospects typically don’t take a nose dive after the Combine, though, unless they turn in an absolutely horrific performance, or drop a bomb in the interview process. In that regard, we can look at the current projected draft order of our 45 QB prospects (realistically, though, top 6, as I don’t see the Texans drafting a QB past the 3rd round) and come up with a reasonable picture of which prospects are in the Texans radar.

We’ll be taking a look at the following list of QB prospects in the 2016 draft for this overview, and discuss the possibility/probability of each of the top 5, which are current designated prospects to go in rounds 1-3.

First on the list: Jared Goff. I disagree with his ranking as the top prospect for a few reasons, but given the Cleveland Browns have the top QB pick in this draft, I can understand the #1 overall rank, as far as the QB position (#2 out of the draft). Goff spent his college football career at University of California, Berkeley, under two primarily different, but similar, offensive coordinators. The “Bear Raid” spread-style offense was highly successful in the West-Coast style coordination of plays, but it doesn’t translate well to O’Brien’s pro-style offense that keeps threatening a stronger use for tight end play than a more versatile use of wide receivers. Goff is also a junior declaring, and has been primarily positioned in the pistol/shotgun formation. And he’s likely to be taken by the Browns. So, next.

Next up: Carson Wentz. Wentz spent his years with North Dakota State, starting his final 2 years and leading the team to 2 consecutive FCS championships under his lead. If the Texans had a top-10 draft pick, I believe the Texans would heavily be eyeballing Carson Wentz as the potential 1st round pick. Wentz has the prototypical QB size that O’Brien likes, has a strong arm, good pocket presence, and is highly mobile. His main danger is throwing a floater that can make for some costly turnovers in the NFL. If the Texans could manage to trade up high enough to snag Wentz, it would costly, and would count on the Browns overlooking him, and a possible trade up deal with the San Diego Chargers. With the other pressing needs for the Texans this year in the free agency and draft, it’s not likely. Again, he’ll be gone before the Texans get a real chance.

Third on the list: Paxton Lynch. Lynch honestly hasn’t impressed me enough to be #3 QB overall. He played at Memphis, declared as a red shirt Junior (meaning he has another year of college football eligibility), and looks more like a potential project to develop. He has the protoypical QB build and height, has the arm strength, is pretty mobile, and played a pro-style offense. However, his accuracy and footwork need some real conditioning, has some work to do as a pocket passer, and would probably benefit from another year at the college level. Realistically, he could be picked up in the late 1st or early 2nd round, but he would need to be developed to the Texans system for the first year, at the very least, and that’s not a player you want to pick up in the 1st round. Realistically, I wouldn’t want the Texans picking him up til the 3rd, and he’ll likely go before that.

Fourth on the list: Connor Cook. Cook is a 4 year starter for Michigan State, and earned his place in the the history books for that football program. He’s got the size and arm strength to throw in the pros, and has consistently improved his game in a pro-style offense in his years as a starter. He will also realistically be available in the 2nd round, and possibly even the 3rd. His biggest problem is consistency in the passing game, and overall. For a 4 year starter, I’d signal this as a red flag. Quite possibly the most experienced, but most likely more of a game manager QB that could end up having a journeyman career in the NFL. It may be worthwhile to mention that his draft profile QB comparison is Brian Hoyer. Give that some thought. If the Texans want a game manager QB with questionable enough leadership skills to not be named as team captain of his college team, then Cook is it. However, there’s some proven vets in the NFL that can already do this, and by all appearances the Texans want more.

Fifth on the list: Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg was the first QB recruit of O’Brien’s head coaching career. His most prolific season came under the mentorship of O’Brien in Penn State in 2013. Hackenberg’s performance fell off after O’Brien joined the Texans, but in his first year as a starter he proved to excel under the O’Brien pro-style offense that O’Brien graduated to the pro level. Add me to the list of people getting a feeling of Hackenberg as the Texans QB pick, but not in the first round. Hackenberg’s draft stock isn’t necessarily impressive enough to rank him as the 6th highest QB overall in the draft, but he’s certainly the underdog candidate that could go higher than expected, primarily due to the lack of offensive weapons and coaching development in the Nittany Lions program. Hackenberg will need a good year or two of development, but with O’Brien’s tendency to go with what he knows, it’s highly possible to see Hackenberg join the Texans squad in 2016.

My wish list: Carson Wentz. Is that realistic? Probably not. Would I urge the Texans to use a 1st round pick on any of the top 5, outside of Wentz? Nope. Most likely prospect, pre-Scouting Combine, with a 2nd round pick? Christian Hackenberg, because he and Bill had a sweet thing going once.

Houston Texans: Quarterback hunt, part 1

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Since the dreaded wheels-off 2013 season, the Houston Texans have gone through a slew of quarterbacks leading the team on the field – leading, of course, being used very lightly. That season, we benched our so-called franchise QB, Matt Schaub, shortly after his feat of shattering the consecutive games with a pick 6 record in the league. After Schaub was benched as the starter in 2013, the carousel began,and hasn’t stopped. Starting in that season, the Texans utilized T.J. Yates, Case Keenum, Matt Schaub again, Case Keenum again, Matt Schaub again, Case Keenum again, Matt Schaub again, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Ryan Fizpatrick again, Tom Savage, Case Keenum again, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett again, Brian Hoyer Again T.J. Yates again, Brandon Weeden,  B.J. Daniels, and again, Brian Hoyer.  Did I miss anyone?

That timeline, since Schaub’s benching, has resulted in a 18-23 record. Ironically, when the Texans QB carousel was in full swing, the Texans produced two consecutive winning seasons, one including a post-season appearance (albeit short). Without a consistent, franchise-level QB, the Texans have shown their scrappiness. Players can adjust, and coaches can create wins with a patchwork process. But enough’s enough. A QB drafted in the higher rounds in the 2016 draft is not only anticipated, but it’s straight-up mandatory. With 45 college QB prospects who have declared for the 2016 NFL draft, and several other teams in position 1-21 in the draft (well, maybe 2-21), O’Brien and Smith have some serious thinking to do. The question of “is there a franchise QB in this draft” happens every year, so let’s ditch that thought.

Before looking into draft prospects, let’s look at the current roster, and what changes should be made.

Currently, the Texans have three QBs on the roster: Brian Hoyer, Tom Savage, and B.J. Daniels. Hoyer will be in his final year, with a $4,000,000 salary plus a $1,250,000 roster bonus. Tom Savage will be in his 3rd year of his 4 year contract, with a salary of $600,000 and a prorated bonus of $75,146. B.J. Daniels is also in his final year of his contract, with a salary of $600,000. There are also two QBs headed into free agency: T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden. Yates previous salary with the Texans was $745,000. Weeden’s salary for 2015 was $615,000, with the Texans picking up his remaining salary from the Dallas contract late in 2015. Both, if signed to another contract, would be looking for a pay raise. So, what should be done with the current QBs on the roster?

Brian Hoyer has shown that he can hang, and his best season has been as a Texan. I don’t know if that speaks more toward the QB conditioning for the Texans or for the lack of any organization with the Browns, but the success of recent ex-Texan QBs, namely Fitzpatrick and Keenum, leans more toward the former. However, Hoyer has shown a tendency to completely buckle under pressure, throw inconsistently, and he lacks the arm strength needed to continue to be the journeyman we need. While Hoyer doesn’t have a painfully high cap hit, his 2016 salary and cap hit is simply too high to justify keeping him, with the other options on the roster. Texans should trade or release. A few more compensatory picks would be nice to pick up.

Tom Savage is the QB drafted in 2014; O’Brien’s first QB decision as head coach for the Texans. Savage isn’t likely to go anywhere. He had a shaky start when thrown in as a back-up in the 2014 season (remember that snap fumble?), but has shown major improvement going into the 2015 pre-season. An unfortunate injury in the last minutes of the last pre-season game cost him the season where he would have likely seen his first career start as an NFL QB. In the 2014 draft, he was a talked about newcomer, with arguably the best arm strength and consistency, as well as other intangibles that made him an interesting draft prospect. His limited play meant he’d be sitting a year or two in development. Well, 2016 is going to make or break his future with the Texans. Keep him, start him by week 3.

B.J. Daniels is a versatile player, with both QB and wide receiver experience. In 2015, the Seattle Seahawks made the move to switch Daniels from QB to wide receiver, but he’s been kept on a practice squad for most of his NFL career. The Texans utilized him as a QB, mainly in the wildcat formation, which does not spell out for a lasting gig. He may be looked at to develop in his last year as a complementary WR to DeAndre Hopkins, while being tagged to utilize trick plays with the wildcat. I don’t see him as a legitimate contender for even a journeyman QB spot on the roster, however. He has a final year of practice squad eligibility, as well. The Texans should hold onto Daniels in his final contract year and see how he can develop as a WR in training camp and the pre-season. If he doesn’t make the final cut, he can still make it on the practice squad.

T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden have similar stock on this team as a can-do journeyman who can get the job done while (Tom Savage/future draft pick) ready themselves as a starter, and as a quality back-up when needed. I don’t feel the need to break either down individually, as they both have similar upsides and downsides. Bottom line for these two is that they’re cheap and reliable, and know the system. Weeden has the slight advantage for consistency, and Yates has our hearts. If looking for a bargain back-up, the Texans should consider a 1 year extension for Weeden. However, with a few veteran free agent QBs hitting the market this year, one could play devil’s advocate and bargain for releasing Hoyer, Yates, and Weeden to make room for the likes of Kaepernick, RGIII (gulp), or even start a bidding war with the Jets to bring Fitzpatrick back in for another round.

If the Texans want to bring a new journeyman in for the 2016 season, I’d champion for Fitzpatrick – but that’s gonna be tough. Otherwise, I’d go with Weeden to continue to be the journeyman, Savage to develop and get a shot as the starter, and a draft pick. Do we really want to bring yet another veteran QB into the system? I’d think not. Look for the Texans to keep 2, maybe Daniels as a practice squad/WR plug-in (he could help out the special teams unit, too). Realistically, I see the Texans keeping Hoyer one more year, but I hope they surprise me and go for Weeden instead. In Part 2, we’ll discuss the draft prospects.

Does the NFL really care about players? Let’s find out

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The infamous Manziel “money” sign.

Earlier today Sashi Brown, EVP of the Cleveland Browns organization, released the following statement regarding QB Johnny Manziel’s future with the team:

We’ve been clear about expectations for our players on and off the field. Johnny’s continual involvement in incidents that run counter to those expectations undermines the hard work of his teammates and the reputation of our organization. His status with our team will be addressed when permitted by league rules. We will have no further comment at this time.

This statement follows yet another disturbing incident involving alleged assault against a woman, the second such incident in less than a calendar year. This particular weekend comes on the heels of yet another party weekend, this time in Dallas. His lengthy visit in Dallas has lit up social media over the past two weeks, strengthening rumors of a mutual interest to add Manziel to the Dallas Cowboys roster in 2016, but the latest incident could put that rumor on ice, as well as Manziel’s brief career in the NFL. And it should.

I’m not going to go on record for being an official Manziel hater. While I did feel that his talent was a bit exaggerated coming off his freshman season at Texas A&M University, and I was grateful the Texans overlooked him in the draft and instead drafted Tom Savage, I do feel he had some potential to be a QB in the NFL. That potential hinged (and still does) on his maturity, and his ability to let go of his past behavior. Thus far, he’s proven nothing more than to be the guy he said he would be shortly after the 2014 draft; a guy who wouldn’t change for anyone.

It appears he’s kept his word.

One question is, will the NFL and the other 31 teams in the NFL pay attention to what word Manziel has kept? We’ll likely know the answer sometime in March, but they should. The question I have is should the NFL and the other 31 teams do right by one of the players they brought into their fold in 2014? The answer to that is an emphatic YES. How do they do right by their player? Do everything within their power to get this player help, and to commit to keeping that player off the field until he does. The how, though, is the tricky matter.

The NFL has its hands tied by the Personal Conduct Policy and the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA). Without official charges on any of Manziel’s incidents, there could be little that the NFL can do to keep Manziel off the field. The NFLPA will see to that. Now, this is where I think the NFLPA should step up to bat for Manziel’s true well-being, but it’s not gonna play out that way. Without charges, the responsibility to do the right thing by Manziel essentially comes down to the individual teams. Even with individual contracts, individual teams may be limited in their actions.

Luckily, individual team conduct policy can be slightly more vague and can include distractive off-field behavior as a violation of team rules. Again, this eventually falls into the lap of the NFLPA, in which the true well-being of their representative player should be the top priority. Unfortunately, with the way the rules are currently written, any individual team would have to take a moral stance, and likely a monetary hit. Some teams have been willing to do this – as we are likely to see within the Browns organization in March.

However, the teams willing to take this stance are not likely to be the teams wiling to take a chance on Manziel.

A case like Manziel’s should open up the discussion on how to better treat players with substance abuse problems, with or without an official charge or arrest. The incidents that have led to the impending release of Manziel show some clear problems with anger management and alcohol abuse, as previously foreshadowed by his parents prior to the 2014 draft. With our without official charges or arrests, it seems pretty clear where Manziel is headed, and it’s not pretty. But will this single player create that change within the NFL? He’s certainly not the first player to succumb to addiction.

I, for one, feel it is due time for the NFL and the NFLPA to step up and start treating its players like players, and not the current cash cows that they are viewed as. I feel it’s time for this billion-dollar organization to invest in their money into the very people that make this organization what it is – the players. Many businesses and organizations around the world do this, and their employees lead better lives because of it. The NFL certainly has the money to do this, so why don’t they? Instead of feel-good commercials and arbitrary rules, why don’t they actually get involved at the ground level?

This can start with a player like Manziel. Even without official charges levied against him, Manziel’s on-field performance and status as a teammate has been negatively affected by his off-field behavior. He’s been late to team meetings, and has skipped treatment for injury. Individual teams should have the authority to require treatment and rehabilitation for such behavior, or be allowed to cut ties without monetary damages. Currently, the Browns organization is likely to wait until the start of the 2016 season to cut ties with Manziel, due to salary cap issues, but they shouldn’t have to.

Manziel’s behavior as a player when he’s counted on being a team member should be cause enough to release him without a cap hit. Even if there are people that still don’t believe that Manziel has a problem, it is clear that his performance as a team member has been affected by his personal life. It’s also clear that the Browns organization stepped in and gave him opportunities to improve himself and improve his behavior, while still being a member of the organization. When that intervention failed, though, the Browns should have the option to break ties without a hit.

Without this option, few teams can be counted on to do the right thing by their players.

Houston Texans: What about Tom Savage?

Tom Savage 2014 Draft Profile Courtesy of nfl.com

As the Houston Texans settle into a week of practice with quarterback Brian Hoyer and new/old back-up TJ Yates, and hopefully the final roster changes to the QB position for the 2015 (barring, of course, any injury that has been seen in 3 of the last 4 seasons), the everpresent buzz of ‘will we get a franchise quarterback’ has turned into a roar from both fanbase and local sports media.  Texans beat writers all but have slotted out the first Texans draft pick to go to a quarterback in the 2016 NFL Draft.  Most fans agree.  No word from the organization.

Granted, the total disaster in QB shuffling was rather hard to ignore.  One would ask if O’Brien was perhaps having some college coaching flashbacks when creating this QB competition, and then switching starters in this season a total of 3 times in 6 games.  That was becoming tantamount to a circus act, and frustrated the fan base that wants a franchise QB. What we all forget, though, in getting all mixed up in the unfolding drama of the QB controversy in Houston that, frankly, garnered too much attention and took entirely too much attention away from some of the real problems of this team, is that we drafted a QB in 2014.

Quick note: difference in average points per game scored from last year is 1.3 points.  2015 average points per game: 22.  2014 average points per game: 23.3.  This year’s average is the same with or without the Atlanta/Miami games.  

It’s easy to forget that we drafted QB Tom Savage in 2014, as a 4th round pick, 7th QB picked overall.  Tom Savage is the 1st drafted QB in the Bill O’Brien era, picked at a time where the Texans needed an upgrade at the position.  However, if a QB was one of the top concerns going into the 2014 draft, why did we allow 6 QBs to pass us, and pick in the 4th round?  Obviously, we knew our #1 pick was going to be Jadeveon Clowney (top prospect, once in a lifetime talent, versus no QB that was ranked as a #1 overall pick), but why did we wait until our 5th pick to get the most obvious need for the team?

Hindsight (which should never be used in evaluating draft picks, because draft stock hinges purely on potential) would tell us that all of our picks before Savage have not played up to their potential, as of yet.  But remember, draft stock evaluates potential, and drafts are always a gamble.  The Texans chose the safer bet in each pick that a QB was not chosen.  There is a far higher risk when drafting a QB as a higher draft pick (contract, cap considerations, etc.,) than virtually any other player on the team, period.  Then the Texans chose Savage.  But why?

There was virtually no discussion of Savage and what he would bring to the NFL during the 2014 draft.  That’s mainly because Savage did not have much of a college football career.  He was named starting QB at Rutgers University 2 games into his freshman season, and led the team to 9 wins and 4 losses.  His freshman stats were more impressive; he threw for 2211 yards, with a 52.3 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns, only 7 interceptions, and a 128.7 rating.   His second year at Rutgers started off similarly, but was sidelined with a hand injury after going 2-2, and subsequently replaced as starter.

In that season he was credited with 2 of the 4 total wins that season.  Perhaps Rutgers made a mistake benching him after injury?

With his being replaced as starter, Savage announced he’d be transferring to Arizona State for the 2011 season, but wouldn’t be eligible to play until 2012, due to NCAA transfer rules.  After a Head Coach change (and an offensive scheme change that he would not fit in), Savage announced a transfer to Pittsburgh for 2012.  He was redshirted in 2012, and was awarded the starting position for the Pittsburgh Panthers 2013 season.  That season, Savage had another impressive year, throwing for almost 3000 yards, with a 61.2 completion percentage, 21 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, and a 138.2 rating.

In 2013, Savage also started getting glances from scouts around the country.

In his 2013 and before the 2014 draft, Savage went from unknown QB to a definite draft pick (albeit in the 6th or 7th round, officially).  However, many scouts felt his potential just in that single year could take him up to a 2nd or 3rd round pick.  His arm was arguably the strongest of the 2014 draft class, and had an accuracy, intelligence, and build comparable to Troy Aikmen.  In fact, up to 24 NFL teams met with Savage individually (New England had a very unofficial interest in him as Brady’s back-up and eventual replacement), and worked him out.

Savage’s lack of playtime in college (relegated to barely over 2 years) combined with his throwing strength, size, accuracty, and mobility put him in a risky pick category.  He could eventually be one of the greatest picks coming out of the draft, and he has all the potential in the world, but he’s got a lot to learn.  The Texans decided to take this risk in the 4th round and develop that potential.  A 4th round QB isn’t going to start in his rookie year – nor should he be expected to.  He spends that year in development.  In conjunction with that move, the Texans opted for a journeyman QB that’s smart enough to manage a game, and brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Additionally, Ryan Mallett, whose story has already been overtold, was brought in as a back-up and eventually a potential starter for the time necessary to develop Savage.  That would likely be a role in 2014, and possibly 2015.  When 2015 came around and it was apparent that Savage needed a little more time to develop (or maybe he didn’t, as O’Brien is beginning to show that he’s quite conservative with his younger players – maybe too conservative), it was apparent that the “interim” role of starting QB needed to be expanded.

So, O’Brien brought in Hoyer and cut Fitzpatrick for some reason that has yet to make any sense in the world, let Mallett and Hoyer compete for the starting job, and likely was poised to introduce Savage as the eventual starter for the 2015 season.  Savage performed better in the preseason than both Mallett and Hoyer, with a higher completion percentage and overall rating.  Why he was not included in the competion for starter has me baffled but, again, O’Brien seems to take a very conservative approach when introducing newer players to the field.

Whether Savage should have been in the fight or not, it all became moot when he was inured with a shoulder sprain, expected to miss 4-6 weeks, and inexplicably placed on season-ending IR.  Honestly, if a QB controversy case can be made, this one is it.  With Savage arguably performing better than the 2 battling it out for starting position (albeit with mainly 2nd and 3rd string players), the question to end his season, given the 2013 and 2014 season of utilizing every QB on the roster and then some, this will be the one that comes back to haunt O’Brien.

Not only did that same fate come to pass this year, with neither Hoyer or Mallett performing up to snuff, but O’Brien foolishly put off his first QB draft pick’s starter debut another year.  Which means we have to wait another year to see if this potentially good-to-great QB can actually cut it in the pros as a starter.  We’ve also got a fan base that has completely forgotten that we even drafted a QB, and is demanding a top QB draft in 2016.  O’Brien placed himself in a rather sticky situation with these moves, and it will be interesting to see how he plays it out.

My hope would be that, since Savage did show some potential in the preseason, the Houston Texans PR machine will start kicking out reports on Savage’s progress in injury, as well as reminding fans of why he was drafted in the first place.  I’d like to see the Houston sporting press begin to do the same.  This would simply be a foolish, foolish mistake to ignore Savage’s potential and look to a QB as the top pick in the 2016 draft.  Foolish would not be to draft another QB in the 2016 draft overall, but that should not be the top focus.

We already have one that is chomping at the bit, and this year has made it obvious that we’re going to need to plug in A LOT of holes in the upcoming season.  So, let’s start hyping up Tom Savage, and give him the shot he deserves.  That means starting him straight out of the gate in 2016.  No more conservative action for new players, O’Brien.  That sends the message that you don’t have confidence in them.  Experience on the field is what makes or breaks a player, and it’s better to learn if they’ve got what it takes sooner, rather than later.