Texans’ C.J. Stroud is making the NFL Draft’s cognition test warnings look foolish

Four games into the NFL season, C.J. Stroud’s draft assessment of himself has been the only thing more accurate than his completion percentage, more unblemished than his touchdown-to-interception ratio, and more impressive than the Houston Texans’ sudden resurrection in the AFC South.

“I’m not a test-taker. I play football.”

Those were Stroud’s own words in the week leading up to last April’s NFL Draft, just days after his allegedly poor results in an S2 cognition test ran rampant through front offices across the league. Meant to speak as a measure of a player’s reactivity in different learning landscapes — as well as their ability to process and improvise — Stroud reportedly scored a distant third among the draft’s “big three” quarterbacks who were expected to be top-five picks, which also included Alabama’s Bryce Young and Florida’s Anthony Richardson.

Their alleged percentile scores from highest to lowest, according to sources who spoke to Bob McGinn of GoLongTD.com: Young at 98 percent; Richardson at 79 percent and Stroud at 18 percent. Not a single evaluator with knowledge of the S2 scores denied those numbers to Yahoo Sports — and a handful confirmed that was the order of the stack, with Young scoring highest, Richardson second and Stroud trailing in a manner that raised eyebrows.

In hindsight, that’s quite the remarkable stack. And if you turn it upside down, you could very easily argue that’s the current performance ranking of the trio of rookie quarterbacks through four games of the NFL season — with Stroud leading the pack, Richardson running a strong second and Young in a distant third. In the NFL, the test-taking is what you produce on the field, and the guy in the 98th percentile is playing in Houston.

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) runs the ball in the during first quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct 1, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/Maria Lysaker)

Houston’s C.J. Stroud led a surprising rout of Pittsburgh on Sunday. (AP Photo/Maria Lysaker) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Through a four-game measurement, Stroud’s 1,212 passing yards are the second-most in NFL history for a rookie, coming second to only Cam Newton’s 1,386 during his epic debut with the Carolina Panthers in 2016. Arguably more impressive, he has thrown six touchdowns against zero interceptions despite playing behind a banged-up offensive line — not to mention a set of receiving options that most would rank in the lower third of the league. It all pales in comparison to what he has helped the Texans become the last two weeks: A viable threat to compete for the AFC South, after toppling the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road in Week 3, and then returning to Houston to thump the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-6 on Sunday.

While it all amounts to a modest 2-2 start, the Texans have been elated internally to see Stroud take command this quickly, especially with their offensive line in some disarray and having to start a rookie on the road against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. Yet, through four games, what Houston’s coaches and executives have seen is precisely what they believed they were drafting. Namely, an experienced and refined passer who could make all the necessary throws with accuracy, navigate the pocket, read defenses and play poised football in the middle of an offense that’s still under construction.

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Basically, play like a football player and not a test-taker.

“I think it started all the way back from my [top] 30 visit when I came and sat right in this area, and I poured my heart out to the coaches,” Stroud said Sunday. “They poured their hearts out to me, let me know what they wanted from a quarterback … and I gave them what I felt I was. Every day I feel like God has given me the ability to show up with that mentality and attitude every day. So it’s been a blessing. I think it’s really cool when you see your work pay off a little bit, but for me it’s just the beginning.”

As much as these four games have been a beginning for Stroud, it’s worth wondering if it’s the beginning of the end of the S2 cognition test as a piercing beacon that illuminates which quarterbacks can be successful and which can’t. Multiple executives and coaches spoke highly of the S2 during the draft process — but most were clear that it was just a portion of a larger picture, and not meant to act as a be-all, end-all tool to predict success. Some of those quoted in McGinn’s piece appeared to be giving far less latitude for the scores.

Said one of the executives quoted by McGinn: “The S2 people will say, ‘Hey, guys that graded high on this test don’t always play well.’ But, we’ve never had somebody grade low and play well.’”

Added another in the same piece: “Stroud scored 18. That is like red alert, red alert, you can’t take a guy like that. That is why I have Stroud as a bust. That in conjunction with the fact, name one Ohio State quarterback that’s ever done it in the league.”

While four games is hardly a career measure of success or failure, Stroud’s start is at least a compelling first-round retort to his critics. It also dovetails with what many executives said about the S2 to Yahoo Sports in late April — when most downplayed it as a clearinghouse for bad quarterbacks. That was some of the same sentiment shared Sunday night, on the heels of another strong Stroud performance.

“It’s just a chunk of information — the same as the Wonderlic, the [scouting] combine performance, pro day meetings, private meetings, film and a bunch of other things that go into a quarterback assessment,” one AFC executive said. “It’s never going to tell you the story of who makes it and who doesn’t, and if someone says it is, I would discount that person’s skill set when it comes to drafting good players. Especially good quarterbacks.”

So what does Stroud’s start say about his reportedly low S2 score?

“That there wasn’t enough of a sample size for them to be crowned as the kings of quarterback evaluations,” said one scout — pointing out that the S2 is a relatively new measuring stick in the draft process.

Said another scout, “It’s a puzzle piece.”

Four games into Stroud’s career, it’s already beginning to look like a piece that isn’t fitting. All while the rest of the puzzle is coming together quite nicely.

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