There hasn't been any question that Clowney is the greatest physical marvel in this draft -- even Texans owner Bob McNair gushed, in comments on his team's website, about the defensive end with the outlandish combination of size and speed. But the Texans don't have the luxury of taking a freak for the sake of taking a freak. They need a can't-miss pick, and a quarterback, too -- which are not the same thing this year -- and that puts them in a familiar bind.
When the Texans last had the first overall draft spot, in 2006, they were confronted with a class that looks strikingly like this one: lacking a consensus top overall pick -- the league-wide longing for the security of an Andrew Luck-type prospect goes on -- rife with questions about future projections for the quarterbacks and with a standout defensive lineman available, complicating a bet-the-franchise decision. In 2006, Charley Casserly, then the Texans' general manager, signed defensive end Mario Williams on the night before the draft began -- he first had to convince Williams' agent that the Texans were serious about signing his client -- sending the rest of the league, and his own fan base, into tumult. Reggie Bush, the USC running back and Heisman Trophy winner, was the star of that draft, while Texas quarterback Vince Young was the hometown favorite.
The Texans had toyed, until just days before the draft, with selecting Bush, but ultimately decided that they could not pay $9 million to a part-time running back instead of a 60-play-per-game defensive end. Casserly made the pick and was excoriated by fans, but it turned out to be the correct call. Young's career flamed out -- Casserly said the Texans never envisioned him developing into a pro quarterback -- and Bush has been a part-time player for much of his NFL tenure.
That pick also might prove instructive as to how the Texans will operate now, even with a different general manager (Rick Smith) and a new head coach (Bill O'Brien) steering the ship.
"What's the same is there is a defensive end to make a decision about," Casserly said in an interview from Indianapolis, where he was watching combine drills for NFL Network. "What's different is, we had a quarterback who was going to be a starter the next year. What complicates it is Clowney. If there is no Clowney, then they're taking a quarterback, right or wrong. When we took David Carr (No. 1 overall in 2002), when San Francisco took Alex Smith (No. 1 overall in 2005), were those guys true No. 1 picks? Not necessarily. Teams need a quarterback. But you also know he may not be an elite guy."
Such is the Texans' quandary -- they need a quarterback, but there are significant questions about each of the three projected top prospects at the position: Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles.
The Texans are in a unique situation. Like many other teams picking near the top of the draft, their need for a starting quarterback is glaring. But unlike those other squads -- including the Jaguars, Browns, Raiders and Vikings -- the Texans are not completely rebuilding, even coming off a crash-and-burn 2013 season. They do not struggle to maintain fan interest -- Houston sold out games with Sage Rosenfels at quarterback, after all -- so the hometown factor (i.e., Texas A&M's Manziel) isn't the end-all, be-all. And McNair is known as a non-meddler. Eight years ago, Casserly said, the owner asked his football people who they wanted to draft. When they said Williams, McNair told them to go ahead. Then he gave Casserly considerable cover as the criticism poured in. Those factors should ease an already-difficult decision, one that Casserly expects will be made by O'Brien.
What the Texans have come away with from this combine, said a person familiar with their thinking, is the knowledge that they have options. They do not want to be put in a box where they'd have just four players -- Clowney and the trio of quarterbacks -- to choose from, because they have not completed their evaluations yet. Among the myriad possibilities: The Texans trade out of the No. 1 spot entirely, an option that has become more realistic since the new collective bargaining agreement put limits on rookie compensation, making the first pick less onerous. But, Casserly said, the Texans will trade out only if they think they could get a quarterback they like elsewhere. If they trade out, Casserly believes, Clowney won't be an option. What the Texans have to consider: If they don't take a quarterback with the first pick, is there one they would like at the top of the second round? If not, they face the distinct possibility of going into training camp without a quarterback solution for the future.
Perhaps O'Brien, who has a reputation for developing quarterbacks, will ultimately decide he can make do with a signal-caller who is not the first overall pick. Or with one who is something short of ideal -- a notable consideration with this group. Bortles is the most intriguing, with the big arm and the bigger upside, which he showed off as the only one of the "Big Three" quarterbacks to throw in Indianapolis. Bridgewater is the most consistent and polished in the pocket. Manziel is the playmaker -- he performed well in the 40-yard dash and in the other athletic tests at the combine -- dazzling when using his legs outside the pocket but needing work inside it. And Clowney, meanwhile, is better than Williams, Casserly said. Although defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who runs a 3-4, might have to scheme to get Clowney and J.J. Watt on the field at the same time and create a terrifying pass rush.
Casserly knows, as well as anyone, how alluring a defensive lineman can be, especially when the quarterbacks come with questions.
"You don't have to take one," Casserly said. "If you're convinced Clowney is the best player in the draft and you're not convinced there is a quarterback you are dead-set on, then take Clowney. At least you'll have a 10-year player. There will be another Andrew Luck in 30 years, maybe. So you say, is this guy RGIII? Are these quarterbacks Matt Ryan? That's probably a better discussion. Would you take Matt Ryan or Clowney? That's what the discussion ends up being. If (O'Brien) takes a quarterback, I wouldn't second-guess, and if he takes Clowney, I wouldn't second-guess. It's not a slam dunk."
And that is something the Texans are all too familiar with.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.