What if the Texans did not select David Carr and instead chose Julius Peppers with the first pick in franchise history?
Admittedly, this is not the first time this site has considered this question, but this article takes it in a slightly different direction.
With such a pick, most franchises would look towards that most important of positions—quarterback. In the expansion draft held earlier in 2002, the Texans selected 19 players, one of who was Danny Wuerffel, previously of the Chicago Bears. While a Heisman Trophy winner in college, Wuerffel never came anywhere near that level of success in the pros. He was hardly a quarterback a new team would want to build around. With the April draft approaching, most figured that the NFL’s 32nd team would likely draft a franchise quarterback.
Coming into the 2002 NFL Draft, there appeared to be two top quarterback prospects: Joey Harrington from Oregon and David Carr from Fresno State. Carr was seen as having the more accurate arm and better measurables. Harrington, having led Oregon to the Pac-10 title and a dominant Fiesta Bowl crushing of Colorado, had the better resume. Yet as the draft came closer to fruition, the Texans seemed more inclined to go with Carr. By the time the draft arrived on April 20, 2002, Carr had a pre-draft contract agreement when the expansion Texans selected him #1.
While few argued with the Texans picking Carr then, what if the team decided to go in a different direction? The next pick, slated for the worst team of 2001, the Carolina Panthers, was defensive lineman Julius Peppers. Arguably the best pass rusher to come out of North Carolina since Lawrence Taylor, Peppers seemed primed for success, much like his predecessor. He found success early on, winning Rookie of the Year with a twelve-sack opening campaign. He would play a significant role in helping the Panthers leave behind the wreckage of a 1-15 season and getting them to the Super Bowl in 2003. He became a premier pass rusher over an eighteen-year career that saw him named to nine Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams, accumulating 159 career sacks. While only Ed Reed is currently the only player from the 2002 draft class in the Hall of Fame, Peppers will likely join him when he becomes eligible (2024).
Given that the other times the Texans held the top pick in the draft (2006, 2014), they drafted defensive linemen (Mario Williams and Jadevon Clowney), it is possible that the Texans could have gone with a defensive cornerstone. Head Coach Dom Capers, a defensive coach, surely would not have objected to a prospect like Peppers. Having Peppers join veteran defensive stalwarts like Aaron Glenn and Gary Walker might have given Houston possibly the strongest defense for an expansion team in NFL history. While Peppers played his college ball in a 4-3 defense and got his start as a 4-3 DE with the Panthers, it is likely that he could have been a devastating OLB in the Texans’ 3-4 scheme. His athleticism was off the charts; he would have likely made his share of highlight reel plays.
However, even with Peppers becoming the face of the franchise, the team would still be faced with a rather significant shortfall of a starting quarterback. Wuerffel did not stay long with the team, as he moved on to Washington on his way to NFL oblivion. The team did sign Tony Banks to be the bridge/back-up QB, but he didn’t see the field all that much. However, in a scenario that saw Carr begin his career with a different franchise (perhaps Carolina), the Texans would need to at least draft a QB; relying on Banks for a full season was not the path to long-term success (as seen in Banks’ previous stints in St. Louis and Baltimore).
Harrington would not be an option in this scenario. History saw him go at #3 to Detroit. In this alternate reality, it is likely that Harrington would still go to Detroit. It is also likely that his career would still end up the way it did, as another Detroit bust. So who would have been a QB option for the Texans?
In the 2002 draft, after Carr and Harrington went first and third overall, there would not be a QB taken until the third round. Houston would draft three players before that QB was selected at 81: WR Jabar Gaffney and OG Chester Pitts in the second round and OG Fred Weary in the third. The QB in question? The one who went at Pick No. 81? The pride of Sam Houston State, one Mr. Josh McCown…yes, THAT Josh McCown.
Could McCown have entered Texans history before 2020? After an outstanding NFL Combine performance, McCown rated anywhere between the third and eighth best QB prospect in the draft. Eventually, Arizona drafted him, but McCown never evolved into a long-term starter. However, what if he started in Houston and not Arizona? The Texans looked at the draft to try to build the foundation of the team, but if they hadn’t taken a QB by the time they got to the third round, it is hard to imagine them not addressing that position by then. Probably not with the first pick in the second round, but McCown could have been an option for the third. While McCown would not likely have altered the Texans’ fortunes that season, he would have been a future option to develop or a placeholder until the 2003 NFL Draft.
This could have had significant ramifications for the team’s draft history. While 2003 would bring the greatest Texans player to date (Andre Johnson), would the team have passed on spending a high draft pick on a QB in 2003 if they had in 2002? Assuming that the team would still have the third overall pick in the draft, Carson Palmer would have been off the board. Could the team ignore a prospect like Byron Leftwich (#7) or possibly Kyle Boller (#19)? A Texans offense led by a combination of Banks/McCown does not score a lot of points, especially given the offensive line. That team would not likely have reeled in a big name free agent to offset the QB deficiency.
Does Andre Johnson end up plying his trade with a different franchise? In this reality, most likely not. The defense would still be the strength of the Texans, regardless of who was under center. The team is also still in the bottom tier of the league, but there would be steady improvement, at least enough to warrant some hope for 2004.
As for Peppers, he would stay in Carolina until 2010, when he went on to Chicago for a three-year stint, followed by a three-year stint in Green Bay, where he played on a defense coordinated by...Dom Capers. For reference, Peppers, even as a veteran pass rusher, still logged 25 sacks over his three seasons with Capers. Now imagine a younger, more athletic Peppers in a Capers-style defense. If Peppers stayed until 2010 or so, imagine how many sacks he would have had. Perhaps we at Battle Red Blog would sing the praises of Peppers as the Texans’ GOAT?
As for Carr, even if he went on to Carolina, it is not assured that he would live up to the hype. Carolina still possessed a woeful offense, and while their offensive line may not have surrendered as many sacks as Houston, Carr would take many, many hits in Carolina. Without Peppers to help turn their defense into a nightmare, does Carolina make a run at the Super Bowl in 2003 with Carr under center? Probably not. Carr might have been a better QB option than Jake Delhomme, but in this timeline, Carr’s starting career doesn’t necessarily turn out any better in Carolina than Houston (and recall he actually did log time in Carolina during the 2007 season).
So it goes. Maybe picking Peppers over Carr might yield a better draft result for Houston, but the fortunes of the franchise do not change all that much. It is likely that the team would still have been searching for some semblance of an offense, and it is likely that Capers would not be the coach to get Peppers and that defense to a winning season and/or the playoffs.
Still, it is an interesting thought experiment and perhaps the most intriguing “what if” from 2002 for the Texans.