The Falcons have only interviewed two candidates for their vacant general manager position thus far, and former Texans GM Rick Smith appears to be near the top of their list. Smith had a long and noteworthy tenure in Houston, as he traded for the legendary Matt Schaub, drafted stars like Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, and DeAndre Hopkins, and scooped up plenty of interesting contributors late in the draft and after the draft.
That experience makes him a strong and worthy candidate, in my humble opinion, but there are legitimate concerns about how closely his draft track record mirrors Thomas Dimitroff’s (first round hits with plenty of early-to-mid round misses), the Brock Osweiler disaster, and the team’s inability to get over the hump in his tenure, as they topped out as Divisional Game losers three times from 2007-2017.
With Smith still the only noteworthy external candidate to be interviewed—something that’s going to change when the rumored candidates on this list start getting calls after the season—I thought it was time to get the Texans fan perspective on him. I chatted briefly with Tim McHale, the longtime editor at SB Nation’s Battle Red Blog, to see whether he thought Smith was a worthy addition to the Falcons front office or someone the team ought to be wary of bringing aboard.
Dave Choate: Smith’s track record in the draft looks very solid from the outside, with quite a few above average starters and obviously some huge wattage (no pun intended) stars. How would you characterize his work in April?
Tim McHale: When it comes to the NFL Draft, Rick Smith absolutely crushed the first round. To wit:
2007: Amobi Okoye (yikes)
2008: Duane Brown (nailed it)
2009: Brian Cushing (nailed it)
2010: Kareem Jackson (nailed it)
2011: J.J. Watt (generational talent)
2012: Whitney Mercilus (an albatross now, but was a very good player for several seasons)
2013: DeAndre Hopkins (perhaps the best wide receiver in the league; he’s no David Johnson, but who among us truly is?)
2014: Jadeveon Clowney (will likely be viewed as a disappointment given the hype, but Clowney was excellent in Houston)
2015: Kevin Johnson (had a great rookie season but simply couldn’t stay healthy; has to be considered a bust)
2016: Will Fuller (nailed it, especially when compared to the other WRs taken in the first round of that draft)
2017: Deshaun Watson (the best thing that’s happened to Texans fans since Houston got a franchise back)
Outside the first round, however, Smith’s draft record is not stellar. His second and third round picks were consistently bad. He’d hit on the occasional late round pick—if we’re using “hit” to connote “finding a contributor”). His success in the first round was so, so impressive that it overshadows his shortcomings in the remainder of the draft.
Dave Choate: Free agency I’m less familiar with, but Thomas Dimitroff’s signings were often much shakier than his work in the draft, something I’m keen to see improve. Did the Texans fare well in free agency while he was there?
Tim McHale: Smith’s free agency track record was mixed; I certainly wouldn’t say he was a disaster in that regard. If not for the Brock Osweiler signing, I imagine the hits would outweigh the misses. He should get credit for signing Johnathan Joseph over the more heralded Nnamdi Asomugha in 2011, and guys like Kevin Walter, Chris Myers, Danieal Manning, Antonio Smith were excellent pickups. On the other side of the ledger are Osweiler, Ahman Green, Ed Reed, Jacques Reeves, and Rahim Moore. Feast or famine, which I think is fairly common in that arena.
Dave Choate: The Brock Osweiler trade: What happened there? Is that the biggest blunder of Smith’s tenure, or are there other big ones that serve as cautionary tales?
Tim McHale: No one wants to admit they were responsible for bringing Osweiler to town. Smith always implied Bob McNair or Bill O’Brien was the driving force, while O’Brien always did his best to point the finger at Smith. It was an unmitigated disaster to be sure, but I have no regrets. The Texans needed a QB. They took a swing and missed badly. To Smith’s credit, he extricated himself from the situation by shipping Osweiler to Cleveland (at the cost of a second round pick) a year after he signed him. He recognized the failure and tried to fix it. And fix it he did, in the form of Deshaun Watson, a month later.
Dave Choate: What are your overall impressions of Smith as a GM and is he a good hire for the Falcons, if they bring him aboard?
Tim McHale: My appreciation for Rick Smith has grown since he left the organization. There was a good case to be made that he should have been fired when Gary Kubiak was back in 2013, but Smith survived the purge (perhaps due to cleverly manipulating the situation, thanks to his cozy relationship with the McNair family). The Texans hired O’Brien to replace Kubiak and the team went from 2-14 to 9-7 in a single year, making the playoffs the year after that and routinely winning the division during the remainder of Smith’s tenure. Ultimately, Smith lost a power struggle with O’Brien, and that’s the primary reason he’s no longer with the organization. After living through the horror that was O’Brien’s stewardship of the franchise, Rick Smith looks like Ron Wolf now.
I’d say Smith’s time in Houston portends a second chance as a GM in the NFL, and the Falcons could do worse.
A big thanks to Tim for taking the time to give us some insight into the longtime Texans GM, whose solid track record in free agency in particular assuages some of my fears. Where is Smith on your personal GM hopeful rankings?