Many sports fans around the country have started various traditions to observe NFL Draft Day. Some meet up at the local sports bar and hoot and howl the day long as the picks are revealed. Others plan a day-long cookout at the house, inviting their buds over to check out the new big-screen TV. And then there are those who tell their wives they’re going to the stadium to join the other fans, then sneak out to the gentleman’s club.
Houstonians have developed their own tradition: the head-scratching party. Earl Campbell spoiled us, to be sure, because despite an overwhelming number of high draft picks since that fabled 1979 draft, Houston—neither the Oilers nor the Texans—has ever managed to snag the big prize on Draft Day since Earl graced the Astrodome.
This year’s draft by the Texans certainly didn’t force any of us to change our dandruff shampoo, because we’re still scratching our heads. By all rights and appearances, the Texans needed at least one top-of-the-line defensive back, preferably a corner.
Instead, they went with a linebacker and defensive lineman in the first two rounds before grabbing New Mexico’s Glover Quin in the third. Houston added Utah corner Brice McCain in the sixth round and safety Troy Nolan of Arizona State in the seventh—but none of the three were rated in the Top 10 prospects lists put out by anyone save possibly for head coach Gary Kubiak and GM Rick Smith.
That’s not disparaging the picks: the Texans have actually had a fair amount of luck with down-in-the-order picks like Steve Slaton, Owen Daniel and others. For the got-to-have-it-today fans, however, a Texans draft is something like shopping at Wal-Mart—you never know if that bargain-priced item is gonna work ‘til you get it home and plug it in.
The emergence of Slaton last season came as an extremely pleasant surprise, and he’s certainly won over a lot of Texans fans—but as we saw in the season finale, Slaton is not the second coming of Earl. He’s extremely good at what he does, but he’s not the bullish back that can squeeze out that one yard on fourth and inches. “Overall, it would probably have been a more sexy draft for everybody had we corralled a running back, which was a priority for us,” Texans Director of College Scouting Dale Strahm noted on the Texans’ official website.
By all reports, first-round pick LB Brian Cushing of USC and second-round pick DE Connor Barwin of Cinncinnati are solid prospects. The Texans could certainly use some extra punch at linebacker to complement Demeco Ryans and I hate to make this kind of prediction, but the Texans defensive line could be—in this fourth year of the Mario Williams era—one of the best in the game.
Cushing, of course, was an All-American, a finalist for the Butkus Award and a semifinalist for the Lombardi Trophy. He has the kind of blue-collar attitude the Texans staff—and their fans—like, and could have an immediate impact. Barwin is a converted tight end/H-back who in his first season as a defender registered 12 sacks.
Quin is known as a lock-down cover man who is a big hitter—something Houston has been sadly lacking from the defensive backfield for some time. McCain doesn’t have the size (he’s just 5-9) but does have some versatility as a kick returner.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Texans made one pick I like and two that put nail-marks on my bald pate. Center Antoine Caldwell of Alabama is a tank, the kind no Houston team has had since Carl Mauck. And all the early reports we’re seeing on the youngster indicates that he has that same kind of spirit. The Texans have been quietly building a half-decent offensive line—a couple of years too late for David Carr, sadly, but no doubt Matt Schaub will be happy with him, especially if new line coach and certain Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews can help develop him quickly.
Now, the Texans have the league’s best receiving tight end in Daniel, and with Andre Johnson, Andre Davis, Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones, they have possibly the most explosive aerial corps in the league. So why, we head-scratchers wonder, did they expend two draft picks on tight ends?
Kubiak and Smith have both indicated they were drafted for versatility and athleticism. Both NC State’s Anthony Hill, taken in the fourth round, and James Casey of Rice, taken in the fifth, have Houston connections. Both also have NFL-caliber credentials: Hill is a strapping 6'6" and 265 pounds and was widely recognized as the most versatile tight end in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Casey was an All-America as a tight end, but started in all three receiver spots in Rice’s wacky offense.
So what might at first seem puzzling to some observers could well end up making Kubiak and Smith look like geniuses, if either or both have the same kind of impact that a Daniels or Slaton have had.
The Texans’ best choices, however, weren’t on Draft Day. The team signed a couple of pedigreed players as non-drafted free agents who could have as much or more impact than any of those drafted.
Matt Turk has been consistently solid as the Texans’ punter since signing as a free agent—but he’s also entering his 13th year. So Houston picked up Texas A&M’s Justin Brantly—whose 44.3 yards per punt in his Aggie career bested that of future Hall of Famer Shane Lechler. Just in case you might think that coincidence—Shane used to babysit for Brantly’s family when both lived in East Bernard, southwest of Houston.
(This is sad for me, noting that Shane is headed to the Hall of Fame—I covered him when he was a 17-year-old high schooler, which means I’m now officially “old!”)
The other free-agent signing I think that could fit the bill could be that of RB Arian Foster of Tennessee. Foster was a thousand-yard rusher as a junior and looked to be among the nation’s best last year, but knee surgery and a lackluster supporting cast halved his production in 2008. At 6'1" and 215 pounds, he has a reputation as that straight-ahead, between-the-tackles runner the Texans need to complement Slaton.
It’s unfair of all these youngsters to expect any of them to have the same kind of immediate impact that Ryans or some of the other gems the Texans have had; in all truth, it’s usually their third year before a player comes into his own in the NFL, if he’s going to be a star. The Texans staff appears confident it will have the time to accomplish that development.