What if the Texans decided not to draft Andre Johnson in 2003 with the third overall pick, instead going a different direction?
Coming into the 2003 NFL Draft, it seemed apparent to just about everyone that the Texans’ offense needed some serious help. The team was among the worst offenses in NFL history. They only mustered 13.3 points per game. They were 32nd in passing and 31st in rushing yards. The offensive line...was quite offensive. The receiving corps offered little in the way of consistency or big-play ability. The running backs did their part to contribute CO2 for local plant life to thrive and engage in photosynthesis, but did little outside of that. With the third pick in the draft, the Texans would likely make it a second straight offensive player.
In the draft run-up, the consensus held that Cincinnati, with the #1 pick, would take USC’s Carson Palmer. Wedged between the Bengals and the Texans sat the Lions, who somehow finished in worse draft position than the year before. They too needed help on offense. In most mock drafts, the pundits had both Detroit and Houston selecting franchise-impacting wide receivers. It was expected that Detroit would stay in-state, going with the uber-talented, but uber-flawed Charles Rogers out of Michigan State. That left Houston taking Andre Johnson.
When Houston did select Johnson, most felt it a solid pick. If there was a drawback, it was that Johnson sometimes had “lazy hands” and wasn’t always focused on making all the catches he should have. If he did have “lazy hands”, he rectified that deficiency pretty quick, as ‘Dre would quickly make an impact and become the unquestioned #1 offensive weapon for the Texans. Not much went right for years on offense with the Texans, but the one thing that did was Andre Johnson.
Yet what if the team defied the experts and went with someone not named Andre Johnson at #3? Who might that have been? Given that Palmer was NOT coming to Houston (especially just a year after the Texans took David Carr, there was a slim chance that Detroit might have selected Johnson over Rogers, but given Rogers’s measurables and the fact that he was already an established star in the state of Michigan, it does not seem likely that Detroit would pass on him. Would living in Houston perhaps remove Rogers from the demons that derailed his career and life? Possibly, but not likely.
What then for Houston? While the team might have entertained offers to trade down, there was not a surefire prospect available at No. 3 that teams would have paid a high price to obtain. Perhaps the Texans decide to go with the top offensive line prospect in that draft class: Utah offensive tackle Jordan Gross. No one would blame the Texans for that move after how 2002 went. When Gross got to Carolina, he secured the right tackle spot for a Panthers squad that rode a power run game and gutsy passing from Jake Delhomme to a Super Bowl bid. While Gross did log some time at left tackle, he did his best work at right tackle. Gross would go on to make three Pro Bowls (2008, 2010, 2013) and one All-Pro team (2008) in an eleven-year NFL career.
Even without Gross, the Texans did show offensive improvement...somewhat. Carr was only sacked 15 times in 12 games, and the squad saw its first 1,000 yard rusher in Domanick Davis (Williams). The LT was Chester Pitts and the RT was Greg Randall. If Houston took Gross at #3, he likely would have beaten one of them out for a starting offensive tackle slot. Gross’ strength was at RT, but the team likely would have tried him out at LT as well. Given that Randall only lasted one season in Houston, Gross likely would have claimed the RT position for the foreseeable future.
As for Johnson, where might he have ended up if not in Houston? A talent like him would not remain long on the draft board, so it is not likely that Houston would have another shot at him when their pick came around in the second round. Trading back into the first round to draft him would be a no-go given the price in picks and the uncertainty about Johnson’s availability. In looking at the 2003 NFL Draft, the next receiver taken after Johnson was Penn State’s Bryant Johnson by Arizona at Pick #17. Would Johnson fall that far?
Carolina could flip the script (again), but they had a more pressing need at cornerback and offensive tackle, so Johnson would have been a luxury pick, and with Steve Smith, Mushin Muhammed, and Ricky Proehl on the roster, Carolina might have passed. Would Dallas at #5, which went with Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman, still go with the corner if Johnson was out there? It wouldn’t be the first time that Dallas went for a University of Miami wide receiver that high in the draft (Michael Irvin, anyone?). Then again, new Dallas coach Bill Parcells might have preferred to stay with a cornerback, especially since he would have Terry Glenn and Joey Galloway to catch passes.
It is very possible that Andre Johnson could slip to Arizona at #17, but probably no further. Drafting Andre Johnson would have given Arizona a massive infusion of wide receiver talent. The rotating quarterback situation would at least have a reliable weapon to throw to in the desert heat. In this timeline, there is a sort of second order effect, where Arizona would see Johnson play well enough to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors as a Cardinals wide receiver (more on that later).
If Johnson was there, one would not think that Arizona would still draft Larry Fitzgerald in 2004. Still, the Cardinals did draft Fitzgerald a year later despite having Anquan Boldin on the roster. This hypothetical scenario gives Arizona perhaps the greatest pair of wide receivers since the Minnesota Vikings had peak Randy Moss/Cris Carter. In that reality, Johnson goes on to play his trade for Cardinals for the bulk of his career, becoming a coveted weapon for Kurt Warner during a late 2000s ride to the Super Bowl. Plus, Phoenix forever cherishes the “80 for 80 Hot Holiday Dash” that Johnson starts for underprivileged children.
Back to Houston...that still leaves them woefully deficient on offensive play-making weaponry. Jabar Gaffney was not showing he would evolve into a true WR1 and the rest of the hands on the staff offered even less. There would still be options for the team in the later rounds. If no wideout in Round 1, would the team still go with a tight end like Bennie Joppru, who did absolutely NOTHING in 2003? Or would the Texans look to add to their wide receiver core?
The second round saw the following WRs drafted: Taylor Jacobs, Bethel Johnson, Anquan Boldin, and Tyrone Calico. Of those, I think we know who would go on to the most success. Could Boldin evolve into the player that Andre Johnson did? He did start out in Arizona, with its less-than-stellar quarterback situation, managing to become the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Could he have done the same in Houston? Entirely possible. David Carr, with a somewhat improved offensive line (and Gross as the newest member) and an offense adapted to cut down on his sacks might have made Boldin his top arget. Maybe Boldin doesn’t win the AP award, but he would be a rookie worth watching.
Ultimately, the record does not change. The team is lauded for drafting Boldin and with the emergence of Davis/Williams. They show some signs of life. A second set of Texas NFL triplets? Well, not exactly, but if the Texans, forgoing Johnson, made up for it with Boldin, perhaps the optimism for the team coming into 2004 would still be warranted.
Does Boldin become as revered a figure as Johnson in Texans’ lore? That is not for certain. Boldin was more outgoing than Johnson, so any team struggles might have made him more inclined to leave sooner than Johnson. Still, in this timeline, the Texans, even with a talented second round wideout, deprive themselves of a true Hall of Fame talent and the greatest Texan of them all, at least for several more seasons.