They finally did it. In 2011, the Houston Texans got over the hump. They won the division, won a playoff game and came very close to making it to the AFC Championship Game. All this while starting a rookie third-string quarterback in the playoffs.
Their defense became dominant, due in big part to a defense-heavy 2011 draft class led by defensive end JJ Watt and outside linebacker Brooks Reed, both of whom made huge contributions to the 2011 team. What can we learn from the encore: general manager Rick Smith's 2012 class?
Smith used the leeway that comes with success in the first round
The Texans were always drafting to catch up. Now they were the team the rest of the division was trying to catch. So what did Smith do? He took advantage of the opportunity by swinging for the fences in the first round.
Whitney Mercilus might be a one-year wonder, but he might also be the most talented pass-rusher in the draft. He hasn't played in a 3-4 defense and will need time to develop, but that's OK because the Texans have two very good starting outside linebackers. Smith avoided the urge to use the pick to fill an immediate hole like inside linebacker or wide receiver, and instead drafted a player that could keep this defense among the elite for years to come.
The Texans piled up enough mid-round picks to have their cake and eat it
Between the Demeco Ryans trade that garnered an extra fourth-round pick, and a trade out of the second round that turned a seventh-round pick into another fourth-round pick, the Texans ended up with five picks between the 68th and 126th selection. This allowed Smith to address needs while also procuring some high-floor players.
Third-rounder Devier Posey and fourth-rounder Keshawn Martin bolster the Texans' thin receiving corps. Third-round center Ben Jones was a value pick that many projected as a second-rounder. Fourth-round defensive end Jared Crick was a first-round talent who fell because of a torn pectoral muscle. Third-round guard Brandon Brooks wasn't even invited to the combine, but he was arguably as big a freak of nature as No. 11 overall pick Dontari Poe.
Smith deftly pulled off the task of creating a draft board that allowed him to take chances and play it safe at the same time. He built depth and filled holes, which is how good teams stay competitive for a long time.