8 NFL Draft Prospects Rising Up Houston Texans' Big Board

Ben Layman@@houtexmajorinCorrespondent IMarch 21, 2013

8 NFL Draft Prospects Rising Up Houston Texans' Big Board

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    There's no telling what the Houston Texans' big board looks like right now, but around this time of year, it's apparent when some prospects' stocks are trending upwards.

    Whether it's the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine or pro days, there are events throughout the draft process that can boost a player's stock. These events allow teams to see how truly fast, athletic, flexible or explosive a player may be. It can also quell concerns over a player's mental makeup or character.

    Who might those prospects on the move be? Keep reading to see some potential draft targets who are rising up the Houston Texans' big board as the draft nears.

Corey Lemonier

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    Corey Lemonier will end up being drafted in the first round, and most NFL fans will scoff when it happens.

    Like when Bruce Irvin went 15th overall to the Seattle Seahawks last year after being labeled a second- to third-round pick at best, Lemonier will be the day one shocker of draft weekend. The pass-rusher from Auburn could end up going as high as the early teens, where pass rush-needy teams like Miami at 12, Tampa Bay (13) or New Orleans (15) are picking.

    The former Auburn Tiger has natural gifts like arm length (34") and strength (27 reps) to go with plus quicks (1.57 10-yard split) that are on par with or better than some of the top rushers in the draft. As one of the most athletic edge-rushers in the draft (his combine numbers support that notion), Lemonier's crashing of the first round shouldn't come as that much of a surprise.

    His pro day seemed to only help his stock. Andrew Yawn of The Auburn Plainsman was there and had this to say:

    Lemonier decided to stand pat on his combine results and only participated in linebacker drills with former teammate Jonathan Evans. Lemonier said afterwards that his goal was to prove he can move like a linebacker, and he’s committed to being prepared for possibly playing outside linebacker in the NFL. Lemonier looked fluid in the footwork and reaction drills. Lemonier is also a high motor player, and he tried to show that by going all out in the drills.

    The Auburn Tigers fielded a terrible team and Lemonier was an overlooked man on the defense because of it. He was the only player capable of winning one-on-one on a weekly basis on the defense. His statistical production wasn't great in his final year (six sacks), but he's more disruptive than those numbers suggest.

    Most college defensive ends who play almost 70 snaps a game usually don't flash a great motor, but Lemonier is noticeably relentless and plays hard late into games when some would wear down.

    You might not be seeing Lemonier show up in most first-round mock drafts around the net.

    However, one of the more reliable, NFL-connected draft mockers, former NFL scout Russ Lande of the National Football Post, has placed Lemonier in the first round of his two latest mock drafts (version 8.0, 7.0). He's known for sticking true to his scout's eye and league connections, rather than the hype and "what most people are saying."

    Teams who run a 3-4 will look at Lemonier as more of an every-down player right away, and the Texans would be one of those teams. Houston has stayed true to maintaining outside linebacker depth since transitioning to a 3-4, drafting edge players in the early rounds of recent drafts.

    After losing Connor Barwin in free agency, a pick like this could make sense.

D.J. Swearinger

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    One of the hardest-hitting, nastiest players in the draft is the most common description given of D.J. Swearinger by evaluators.

    His name isn't floated around as a first-round possibility as often as Jonathan Cyprien, Matt Elam or Eric Reid, but he might end up being the superior player. Don't rule out him sneaking up and getting drafted higher than those prospects either.

    Swearinger has been rising up draft boards steadily ever since the draft season began. Playing in the SEC is no picnic for any safety, but the former Gamecock had no issue being an enforcer for South Carolina's defense. He was frequently seen filling run plays with jarring hits and flashed plus instincts when diagnosing plays in front of him.

    He shouldn't be written off as a box safety either, as his coverage skills are adequate enough to play center field in the NFL. This aspect of his game was touched on in a scouting report via Draftnik Central:

    Swearinger is a talented and athletic safety in coverage. He is capable of matching up on wide receivers and tight ends in man to man coverage. In deep zones, DJ flashes great range and ball skills but he needs to improve his recognition skills and jump on the ball. He looks very comfortable in zone coverage in the box.

    With his versatility, athleticism and skill in coverage, Swearinger possesses the upside and talent that teams look for early in the draft at safety.

    He's one of the more ideal fits in the draft for filling the role vacated by Glover Quin, as he's capable of playing near the line of scrimmage and blitzing is one of his strengths.

    Swearinger brings more versatility as a defensive back than the other late first and early second-round safeties because of his ability to handle deep duties, while still being able to be a force near the line of scrimmage.

    Safety vaulted to the top of the list of needs for the Texans when Quin signed with the Detroit Lions, so Swearinger is a very real possibility. He'll be of much better value early in the second round, where the Texans could trade up if they don't address the position in the first.

Kyle Long

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    Where the Texans stand with current starting right tackle Derek Newton remains to be seen. If they target an early-round tackle in this draft, Kyle Long could be the guy.

    As the Oregon Ducks' left guard in 2012, Long was used in a number of ways that showcased his above-average athleticism. He was often used as the lead pulling guard on some of Oregon's big plays in the running game. The Ducks took full advantage of his ability to move in space and create rushing lanes down the field.

    When evaluating Pac-12 players, seeing how they fared against the Stanford Cardinal is one of the best measuring sticks because of the quality and physicality of that defense.

    Long flashed NFL-esque movement skills and ability to get to the second level against the Cardinal, and he did it with an exciting mean streak, routinely finishing plays on top of defensive linemen.

    Though still raw technique-wise, there's enough tools there to project him as an eventual starting NFL offensive lineman.

    At 6'6" and 313 pounds, that kind of size combined with his feet and speed will land him an early-round grade on most big boards. Though 33" arms aren't ideal for playing tackle in the NFL, he has the feet to recover against speed and proved it at the Senior Bowl. He held his own in one-on-one drills and carried it into the game.

    There's enough athleticism there for him to get by in pass protection, but the run game will be his true strength.

    His NFL bloodlines and lack of football experience will play in his favor, as his best football is likely ahead of him. Long is on the rise because of the great offseason he's enjoyed. He stood out as one of the better offensive linemen in Mobile and kept the buzz going at the combine.

    If he interests the Texans, they might have to target him as early as the second round. Though he'll need plenty of time to develop, Duane Brown took some time as well and now stands as one of the top tackles in the league.

Vance McDonald

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    The Texans lost former Rice Owl James Casey to the Eagles in free agency, but they could pluck another versatile offensive talent off of the local campus with a pick of Vance McDonald.

    It's hard to call him a true tight end given how often he was detached from the line of scrimmage at Rice, but that will be his NFL position. The former Owl was often asked to block in the running game split out wide, not in the trenches.

    Becoming more comfortable "working through the trash" in the NFL will be necessary, even if he's running routes most of the time.

    McDonald will win in the NFL by using his size (6'4", 267 pounds) and body control to post up on defensive backs. His speed is very good for his size, as he showcased with a 4.69 40-yard dash at the scouting combine.

    At Rice, the former Owl showed he could get open on all levels of the defense and got in and out of breaks very well for his size. He's a willing blocker and even lined up in the backfield at times in Rice's offense. He's drawn comparisons to Rob Gronkowski because of the complete package he brings to the table.

    Rightfully so, McDonald stood on his combine numbers and only did catching drills at his pro day. After finishing in Indy as the top tight end performer in the broad jump, three-cone drill, 60-yard shuttle and bench press, McDonald acquitted himself for scouts, showing he's as physically gifted as any tight end in the draft.

    He was a relatively unknown commodity at Rice, but since the season ended and the scouting scrutiny amped up, McDonald has done nothing but rise up big boards. After seeming like a mid-to-late-round pick just a few months ago, the former Owl could find himself picked as soon as the middle of the second round.

    If the Texans are looking to replace some of Casey's snaps at fullback, McDonald could fill that role right away. He could also develop into a No. 1 tight end down the line, eventually replacing Owen Daniels.

Terron Armstead

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    No prospect in the entire 2013 NFL draft has enjoyed a greater, steadier rise than Arkansas Pine-Bluff's Terron Armstead.

    Hailing from a small school most probably haven't heard of, Armstead made great use of the college All-Star games, putting himself on the map in a big way. It started in the East-West Shrine game, where he showcased himself as one of the top players participating in the game.

    His feet and recovery skills immediately stood out, as he showed he could handle all sorts of speed rushes well.

    The small school tackle went to Mobile during Senior Bowl week and continued to make his case as one of the draft's risers. Up against Datone Jones, one of the top-20 defensive prospects in the draft, Armstead held his own and proved he could anchor against that kind of power.

    Though strength/bull-rushes will likely be his biggest adjustment in the NFL, he appeared to absorb the initial punch into his body and allowed his athleticism to take over to finish the play when power moves were thrown at him.

    A strong showing throughout the draft process can be the difference between being a sixth-rounder or a second-rounder for small-school prospects like this. Armstead has been acing the process and should be in line to come off the board in the second round.

    Needless to say, the small-school tackle has all of the athletic tools required to be an offensive tackle in a zone-blocking scheme. An offensive scheme that moves its tackles as often as Houston is an ideal fit for a prospect like Armstead.

    With four picks in the top 100 of the draft, the Texans could stand to use one of those on a tackle with potential like this.

Jamie Collins

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    A particularly impressive showing at the scouting combine in Indy has generated considerable buzz for Southern Miss outside linebacker Jamie Collins. That buzz carried over into his pro day.

    The league continues to be intrigued by Collins, who went to Indy and posted the best results out of all the linebackers in the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, 60-yard shuttle, vert and broad jump. After choosing to stand on those combine numbers at his pro day, he's left evaluators scrambling to adjust their grades.

    One of Collins' traits that sticks out is his explosive lower body, which is one of the more important qualities in a linebacker. His vert and broad jump helped support the explosiveness seen from the linebacker on the field.

    The former Golden Eagle has experience playing with his hand in the ground at defensive end, but he was most effective when standing up. He's been pegged as a 3-4 strong-side linebacker, where he would have more coverage duties than the primary rusher on the weak side.

    Collins possesses a very quick first step, takes good angles and wraps up well. He should be more of a tackles-for-loss player than sack specialist in the NFL.

    Bleeding Green Nation offered a quality assessment of the good and bad with Collins after a film review.

    The good:

    He's better attacking downhill than he is in space, where his hips were stiffer than I anticipated. Uses natural length to his advantage in multiple ways: Is able to corral and wrap up ball carriers in the backfield, also shows propensity for jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupting their routes immediately.

    The bad:

    I see/understand the potential, and it flashes on tape, but I would have liked to see more. In addition to questions I have about key-reading discipline and a tendency to overpursue, I felt that with his physical gifts, Collins should have been an unstoppable force. That was not the case, at least not enough.

    Not to pile on, but he also has a tendency to wear down in the run game too much and gets killed by double teams. Without any real refined pass-rush moves, the combine warrior won't be a major sack artist in the NFL, which is why he's best-suited for the strong side where he'll be matched up with tight ends and running backs more often.

    He should be solid in coverage, if he isn't given too much too soon.

    When talking about outside linebackers on the rise, Collins should be one of the names to come up. The third round is probably the most likely spot for him to come off the board. The Texans should be in that market and could consider Collins.

Quanterus Smith

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    One of the easier players to sleep on in this draft, Quanterus Smith could end up developing into a double-digit sack artist in the NFL down the line.

    On his way to finishing up a dominant 12.5 sack season with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in 2012, Smith tore his ACL and his draft stock went in the tank.

    Since then, Smith has been unable to participate in any of the major draft events as he rehabs the injury. His surgery was in late November, so NFL teams can't expect him to be available right away.

    Despite his inactivity since the injury, his tape has made its way around the circles of the NFL, scouts and evaluators alike. His 2012 season has racked up considerable buzz for him, especially given some of the high-level competition he had success against.

    His biggest impression was made against Alabama. On one particularly dominant snap, Quanterus whipped one of the higher-graded offensive linemen in the draft in D.J. Fluker. Fluker couldn't even get out of his stance by the time Smith had burst off the line, dipped and turned the corner on him.

    It was a splash play that showed a high level of upside against an elite college offensive lineman. Smith went on to register three sacks in the game against the Crimson Tide.

    At 6'5" and 249 pounds, he brings ideal size to the 3-4 outside linebacker position, which is where he'd play with the Texans. To be as quick-twitched as he is at that height and weight is impressive and puts him in the same company as some of the top pass-rushers in the draft. The type of natural tools Smith brings usually gets players drafted high.

    There doesn't seem to be a solid consensus on where he'll end up in the draft. DetroitLionsDraft.com scouted Smith and offers an educated guess:

    His natural ability paired with his understanding of the game are enough to ensure a middle round pick despite injury question marks.  If he can make a full recovery from the ACL injury there will be little to worry about.  In his previous three seasons at Western Kentucky, Smith had not missed a game due to injury.

    It seems like after the initial stock hit from the injury, his play during the season has trumped the injury concerns enough to get him back into mid- to early-round draft discussion. Optimum Scouting has him ranked higher than defensive line prospects Margus Hunt and Cornelius Washington, who both could be off the board by the third round.

    With starters in place at outside linebacker, the Texans could afford to be patient and reap the rewards down the line with a player like Quanterus Smith.

Cooper Taylor

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    Defensive backs at Cooper Taylor's size (6'5" and 235 pounds) don't come along very often. When you combine his speed with his size, it's almost hard to believe he's flying under the radar so much in this draft.

    Taylor's college football career was full of ups and downs from the beginning, including a scary heart condition he suffered at Georgia Tech:

    But in the third game against Miami he began experiencing an increased heart rate. He didn’t return to the game. He was later diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a condition in which the electrical charges between the heart’s chambers can become out of sync. A corrective procedure was performed and he was given a clean bill of health. He sat out the remainder of the season.

    After quitting the Georgia Tech football team in 2010 because he couldn't make his way up the team's depth chart, Taylor joined the Richmond Spiders and fell off draft radars. 

    Since the Seattle Seahawks introduced one of the tallest secondaries in NFL history to the league and found great levels of success with it, everyone else has been trying to find the longer, taller defensive backs.

    Cooper Taylor is entering the draft at the right time, as teams will see him as a solution to covering the bigger downfield targets. The buzz around him has been picking up ever since he stood out in practices leading up to the East-West Shrine game.

    Dane Brugler of NFLdraftscout.com offered these notes on Taylor:

    Taylor stood out as the most impressive defender on the East squad during practice. With his size and strength, he is an enforcer against the run but he also showed the range and athleticism to be effective in coverage as well as the football intelligence to digest a lot of coaching all at once. Taylor routinely drew praise from the coaching staff during drills and often made the calls to get his teammates in proper position. His NFL draft arrow is pointing up after this week, creating some buzz among scouts.

    Taylor wasn't invited to the Senior Bowl or combine, but every year there are prospects that go as high as the third round who aren't invited to these events. At his pro day, Taylor proved he should've been invited to Mobile and Indy, where he posted speed times on par with some of the top defensive backs in the draft.

    The loss of Glover Quin created a significant void at safety for the Houston Texans. Taylor is another one of many intriguing options at the position.