The biggest jackpot a team can score in the NFL draft is finding an instant starter.
A rookie starter doesn't always come in the form of a first-round pick. Teams can find quality starting talent in any round. Even undrafted free agents, in rare cases, can find their way into the lineup.
The Senior Bowl gave fans more insight on possible draft targets. It's clear from the performances of a few players in the game that the 2013 NFL Draft will provide some instant starters, if teams are smart enough to pounce on the opportunity to draft them.
The Houston Texans have their fair share of needs. Here's a look at some prospects from the upcoming draft who could fill those needs and become instant starters.
The defensive linemen dominated the headlines of the Senior Bowl game. Kawann Short was one of the key reasons why.
The former Purdue Boilermaker was unblockable for most of the week in practice and the game. His first step is deadly quick, and he uses his hands well to keep himself free.
Short lined up against some of the best interior offensive line talent and proved he's an elite prospect. No player had more of a positive consensus on his play coming out of the game than Short.
Rob Staton of Seahawksdraftblog.com offered this succinct and accurate assessment of the former Boilermakers' performance:
Everything that is good about Short was on display in Mobile. He consistently knifed through gaps, penetrated into the backfield and caused constant problems for the offensive line. He was the only player to beat Kentucky guard Larry Warford (who was also very impressive overall) and it just seemed like you were noticing him every snap. Short had two near sacks to end the first half, combined with Sylvester Williams to blow up the interior on another play and started the third quarter by sweeping past Warford to drop the running back for a loss.
The Texans have a clear need at nose tackle, and Kawann could step in as a one-gapping 1-technique right away in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense. It's the same position Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell have played in Houston's base 3-4 defense under Phillips.
The organization places a high value on quick, penetrating defensive linemen like Short. They would be lucky to have a shot at him at the end of the first round. It isn't out of the question, however, this early in the draft process.
He won't be available at 27, but the Texans shouldn't rule out trading up for the Texas Longhorn.
Kenny Vaccaro is widely regarded as the best safety in this draft class. He'll likely be picked in the teens to early twenties at the latest. If Houston sees the top safety slip on draft day, trading up should be heavily considered.
The Texans will have more picks on their hands than they do now after they're awarded their compensatory picks. The organization shouldn't rule out packaging some of those picks to move up for a home run like this.
For a secondary that gave up 29 touchdowns through the air in 2012, adding a significant talent to the back end could help fix some of the leaks. The feisty defensive back from Texas could be moved all over the defense.
The versatile safety can cover in the slot too, a position where Houston struggled to find consistency down the stretch in 2012. Fans know Wade Phillips loves to blitz his defensive backs, which is something Vaccaro would be excellent at.
It's probably wishful thinking for Texans fans, but that's what this time of year is for.
Coming from a great defense at Florida State loaded with NFL prospects, Vince Williams seemed to be lost in the shuffle heading into the draft.
Thanks to the platform of the Senior Bowl, the former Seminole was able to showcase his abilities for the NFL on a grand stage.
The middle linebacker jumped off the screen with huge hits on ball-carriers when he was inserted into the lineup. He showed impressive range and finished plays with outstanding form-tackling.
The performance Williams put together in the Senior Bowl likely has NFL evaluators going back to reassess their grades. In an underwhelming group of linebackers in Mobile, the inside 'backer stood out as much as any.
As Mark Inabinett wrote for AL.com, the former Seminole also made plays in practice.
He intercepted a pass during the 11-on-11 work. Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson tried to drill a short throw to Tennessee tight end Mychal Rivera, but the collision of Rivera and a defender popped the ball into the air, where Williams grabbed it and took off.
Earlier in an 11-on-11 situation, Williams stopped a draw by Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor cold in the backfield.
His head coach during the week, Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, spoke about the 'backer:
"You're starting to see his personality a little bit," said Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who's leading the South this week. "Anytime you're a linebacker and you're wearing No. 1, there's probably a little bit of swagger associated with that.
"But he backed it up today. Guys have rallied around him a little bit, and he showed not just his athletic ability on the field, but also some leadership."
Houston's need at middle linebacker has to be addressed through the draft. Williams could be a cheaper solution in the middle rounds compared to some of the bigger names who'll go in the top two rounds.
If Williams goes into an NFL camp and competes at the same level he did at the Senior Bowl, he could easily find himself an instant starter in the NFL.
The small school defensive lineman announced his presence with his play during Senior Bowl week in a big way. He followed it up with more disruptive play in the game.
However, Brandon Williams' week of wowing the NFL actually began during the weigh-ins.
At 6'2" and 341 pounds, he showed he has the size to play nose tackle in the NFL. Draftcountdown.com summed up his weigh-in well with this note:
STOUT! Barrel-chested with some definition
The defensive lineman flashed his brute strength in one-on-one pass-rushing drills in practice all week. Pitted up against some of the top offensive linemen in Mobile, the Missouri Southern nose tackle showed an outstanding combination of power and movement skills.
Williams has a good strong base that he uses very well at this early stage of his development. His ceiling is as high as most defensive tackles in this draft, and it's scary to think how good he could be with NFL coaching.
Well-respected draft analyst Rob Rang of CBS Sports pointed to Williams as a prospect who raised his stock during Senior Bowl week:
While Williams won't be able to rush the passer with the consistency that he did in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Conference (school-record 27 career sacks), he showed surprising quickness for his 6-2, 341-pound frame and impressive upper-body strength. Overshadowed by more recognizable names like Kawann Short and Sylvester Williams, this Williams is the defensive tackle whose stock is ascending the quickest following an impressive week of practice.
It's possible the Texans could land the former Missouri Southern Lion in the second round. Add him to the list of possible nose tackle draftees for the Texans.
A team's starting slot receiver should be counted as a starter in today's passing NFL.
With an offense that could stand to add explosive playmakers, Houston should be one of the teams circling the speedster Marquise Goodwin.
Calling his speed track-like isn't an exaggeration. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller offered this assessment of Goodwin after watching him in Senior Bowl practices:
Combine the speed of an Olympic sprinter with high-level quickness and hands, and you get Marquise Goodwin. While he's not a finished product at receiver, Goodwin showed enough burst, lateral quickness and catching ability to be viewed as a solid second-round pick.
Getting the former Longhorn in space will be necessary, which is why he's perfect for the slot, where he'll always have a two-way go (inside or outside).
Despite lacking size at 5'9" and 180 pounds, Goodwin showed more ability in the Senior Bowl to play outside than most probably thought. It's possible he could play on the edge with the big boys down the line, but his immediate impact will come inside.
Goodwin would be a tremendous infusion of speed for Houston's receiving corps. Giving Matt Schaub more weapons should be a priority this offseason.
In a solid class of nose tackles, John Jenkins is one of the most physically imposing.
At 6'3" and 358 pounds, he has the mammoth frame 3-4 teams look for. Players at Jenkins' size aren't available in every draft.
If the former Georgia Bulldog is sitting on the board when the Texans pick, he should be heavily considered.
He's been criticized for a questionable motor, something the bigger defensive linemen commonly get tagged with.
Conditioning can also be an issue with the bigger guys like Jenkins, limiting the number of snaps they can play. An NFL strength and conditioning program can easily fix some of these issues, however.
Jenkins' Senior Bowl performance was forgettable, for the most part. His skill set is scheme-specific, so it's not surprising he failed to flash in the All-Star game.
His play in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama (via Draftbreakdown.com) should be tantalizing to NFL teams. In a game where his effort and intensity needed to be evident more than any game in his career, it stood out in spades.
The nose guard would only be asked to play on first and second downs right away. Unfortunately, it's likely that that's all he'll be able to do in the NFL, which is why he could be available in the second round.
Regardless, he could step in as a starter for the Texans because of his value on early run downs.
Coming into the game as under-the-radar as anyone, the fullback from Wake Forest put himself on the map with his run-blocking in the Senior Bowl.
Tommy Bohanon put on display all the ability to get to the second level of the defense and take a linebacker out of the play.
Advanced fullbacks are difficult to find in the draft, but Bohanon appears to be capable of starting from day one.
His run-blocking is clearly ahead of his receiving out of the backfield, but he's no slouch catching the ball either. He showed soft hands in the receiving game and ran quality routes.
The Texans aren't opposed to utilizing a road-grading, run-blocking-first fullback (see Vonta Leach). The team also uses multiple fullbacks on game days. Some teams don't even have a fullback active on game day, which goes to show how much Houston values the position.
It's hard to say where Bohanon's draft stock is given how NFL teams all value fullbacks differently. It's safe to say Houston wouldn't have to spend an early round pick to get him.
The Senior Bowl is made for players like Robert Alford.
Coming from Southeastern Louisiana, the defensive back didn't have the hype of other Senior Bowl cornerbacks.
But after returning the opening kickoff of the Senior Bowl back for 88 yards, evaluators turned their attention to the small-school corner.
When playing on the defense, Alford made plays in the slot and outside. He never let a receiver get behind him. The speedy corner had a pass break-up and ended his day with an interception. The offense was attempting a two-point conversion and Alford stepped in front of the throw for a pick.
The interception didn't happen by luck. Alford knew exactly what was going on and later spoke about the play to PNJ.com's Jason Blakeney:
“They tried to rub me. I knew they were going to try an out-route, and I just ran underneath him as he threw it to him.”
Some of the NFL's best young cornerbacks came from small schools. With his performance in Mobile, Alford could launch his stock even more with a big showing in Indianapolis at the Combine.
The corner from Southeastern Louisiana leaves Mobile answering the big question surrounding him entering the draft. He spoke about it to Mike Jones via the Washington Post:
“The big knock that I had at the beginning of this year was that I couldn’t compete against the top players on this level,” Alford said. “But that’s what I’m out here for: to prove to coaches and GMs that I do belong out here. It’s a big deal."
The Texans should be in the market for an explosive returner and a slot corner. Alford could start right away on all special teams units and challenge for nickel and dime snaps down the line.