Houston Texans Mock Draft: 7-Round Predictions, Post-Combine
The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, jokingly referred to as “The Underwear Olympics,” finished up on Feb. 25. Cornerbacks and safeties, the last line of defense, comprised the final group of players who showcased their talents.
Prior to the festivities, Mike Mayock felt this was the “the deepest and best draft class I’ve seen in probably ten years.” The depth of this talent pool generated more “likes” during the course of the NFL Network’s coverage than Rihanna’s Facebook page.
Kurt Warner really “liked (Alabama quarterback) A.J. McCarron’s understanding of the game.” Shaun O’Hara said he “liked (Florida State nose tackle) Timmy Jernigan. I thought he helped himself out a lot.” When it came to the talent waiting outside the locker room, some scouts must have really liked (Central Florida quarterback) Blake Bortle’s girlfriend Lindsey Duke enough to ask him “If we come to town, will she be there for dinner?”
What took place at Lucas Oil Stadium lifted some boats and sunk some others. The unofficial 4.47 time in the 40-yard dash by Jadeveon Clowney was treated like a tsunami, even though he was just backing up his own prediction to run that fast. Michael Sam followed his groundbreaking announcement as the sport's first openly gay athlete with a disappointing combine showing.
The draft analysts at the headquarters of the Houston Texans could not have been surprised that Clowney turned his brag into fact. It was certainly not enough to divert their attention from the Johnny Manziel-Teddy Bridgewater-Bortles evaluation.
They should be spending most of the time figuring out what to do throughout the rest of the draft. Outside linebacker, inside linebacker, nose tackle, right tackle, safety and running back are all positions requiring attention.
With hundreds of players to consider, the order in which this situation will be addressed offers an abundance of possible outcomes. This is just one scenario on how it might turn out.
1st Round: QB Johnny Manziel
Manziel was on top coming into the combine, and nothing happened in Indianapolis to knock him off his perch. He participated in every drill except the bench press and 60-yard shuttle and placed in the top five for each one.
Befitting of his individualistic ways, he will not throw at Texas A&M’s pro day on March 5 but in an on-campus session March 27, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:
Johnny Manziel won't throw at Ags pro day march 5. He will throw on March 27 at A&M.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) February 10, 2014
The press conference held during the combine showed Johnny Football was just as nimble handling questions as he is avoiding pursuit on the field. Insisting he was “still a small-town kid,” his image as a “Hollywood guy” was depicted as part of learning how to adapt to his new life as a sports celebrity.
When asked to “comment on his measurements,” he responded by saying he “feels like he plays like he’s 10 feet tall.” It would have been better if he had measured out at something taller than 5’11.75”. Height is always an issue for any prospective NFL quarterback under the preferred minimum of 6’2”.
Blake Bortles took part in in the same five drills as Manziel, while Teddy Bridgewater did just four, choosing not to run the 40. Bortles went a step further by throwing the ball, with the results falling in line with previous expectations.
In all, nothing happened that changed the conversation about who is most deserving of being the first quarterback taken. Manziel is still the front-runner for reasons that go beyond football, and that has as much to do with the proximity of Texas A&M to Houston as anything else.
2nd Round: OLB Marcus Smith
The Texans pass rush over the last two seasons has been J.J. Watt and “what else have you got?” This is not meant to discredit Antonio Smith and his vital contributions. It is intended to point out the lack of anything meaningful coming from the linebackers.
Seven sacks made for a nice sophomore season from Whitney Mercilus, but is far from what this defense needs to return to prominence. Even double digits on his part would not fill the gap.
The 31 sacks in 2013 were a big drop from 44 in 2012, but sacks alone don’t really tell the story. While the defense of the Seattle Seahawks may now be the standard for the league, their 43 sacks ranked just 10th overall. The most telling statistic is opponent passer rating, where Seattle led the league at 64.7.
The Seahawks pass rush was aided by the team's insanely proficient defensive backfield. The defensive line was good, but no member of the unit has ever been to a single Pro Bowl. The Texans may not be able to upgrade their defensive backs to Seattle’s level overnight, but they can bolster their pass rush more rapidly.
The return of Brian Cushing will be a step in the right direction. Mercilus can make the big jump many players make from their second to third season. Brooks Reed should move to the inside permanently, which opens up the strong side for someone new.
Marcus Smith was the AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and he led the nation in average sacks per game as a stand-up defensive end for Louisville. He has the body (6’3”, 261 lbs) to sort through all the traffic on the strong side and still get penetration. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel likes big outside linebackers, and Smith is just his type.
He will need time to pick up the finer points of policing the run and providing pass coverage. His role may be situational in his rookie year, coming in mostly on passing downs.
Smith, who just missed out making Rob Rang’s big board at CBSSports.com, is the best combination of size, skill and quickness available in the second round at outside linebacker. Check out the video for a tipped pass at 0:50 and a strip-sack at 2:43 for a taste of what he can do.
3rd Round: DT DaQuan Jones
The key to success for the 3-4 defense run by Romeo Crennel is having his linemen command as many double-teams as possible. J.J. Watt will always get his share based on the fear he puts in the mind of every quarterback and offensive coordinator.
The whole concept works even better when the nose tackle can get two-timed on a regular basis. The problem is finding a guy who can carry up to 320 pounds or more with the agility of a player 40 pounds lighter.
The problem is finding this contradiction of a player. Most NFL fans could easily come up with a list of their top 10 quarterbacks or receivers but probably couldn’t name five nose tackles that play in a 3-4. Consult the DT/NT position at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and you will notice that only two of the top 10 tackles play in a 3-4 alignment.
They are in such high demand that the top prospects will be long gone by the third round. DaQuan Jones is described by B/R's Matt Miller in the video above as “big-bodied,” but he has little experience playing in a 0-technique directly over the center. He spent most of his career at Penn State lining up over guard or tackle in a defensive end posture, playing with a high pad level much of the time.
Due to his size (6’3”, 318 lbs), Jones required two blockers in college just to slow him down. Will he be able to slide over to the middle and learn to play with his backside down to get better leverage?
Bill O’Brien was his coach with the Nittany Lions and is more familiar with what Jones is capable of than anyone else in the NFL. If he is still available at the top of the third, the two could be reunited in Houston.
4th Round: OT Billy Turner
Billy Turner attended North Dakota State, an FCS school that had five alumni active in the NFL in 2013. Houston Texans free agent linebacker Joe Mays was drafted out of NDSU.
A four-year starter who made back-to-back FCS All-American teams, this left tackle packs a punch at the moment of impact and can dance with slashers coming round the edge. His talent level exceeded that of his opponents, yet he always stuck with his man till the end of the play.
With a high center of gravity, Turner is similar to right tackle Sebastian Vollmer of the New England Patriots. A shift to right tackle would take him out of his comfort zone on the weak side, where he could focus primarily on pass blocking.
The New England offense prefers traveling through the air, and this new and improved version of the Texans is expected to take the same approach. Turner’s lighter lower body should fit right in with the shift in strategy, where blocking techniques for the ground game do not differ much from those for pass blocking.
Turner has some nice highlights in the game against Kansas State at 0:40, 1:52 and 3:15. The first is just a standard pass play. In the second one, he does his job in a three-yard loss on a quarterback keeper while the rest of the O-line blows it. The last is an awesome pancake block on the defensive end.
5th Round: RB Marion Grice
Texans fans will recall, to their regret, how the receiving skills of running back Shane Vereen led to two killer scores in their divisional round playoff game against the New England Patriots. Marion Grice may be an even better pass-catcher than Vereen.
Although he played just two seasons at Arizona State, he scored 39 touchdowns. Fourteen of those touchdowns were through the air, making him the kind of third-down back that is a rarity in today’s NFL. He also has a knack for finding the end zone, scoring 25 rushing touchdowns despite never gaining more than 1,000 yards in a season.
Bigger than most change-of-pace backs at 6’0”, 207 pounds, he suffered a leg injury that kept him out of ASU’s final three games of 2013. Running backs don’t get much respect in the draft these days, particularly those coming off an injury. This former Houstonian could be in just the right position to be selected by his hometown team.
6th Round : TE A.C. Leonard
Houston signed tight end Zach Potter on Feb. 26, as reported by Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com. This gives the Texans five tight ends on the roster, though Garrett Graham is an unrestricted free agent.
The team certainly will not carry that many into the regular season. Owen Daniels will likely be a cap casualty, and the money that is freed up will be used to re-sign Graham. Phillip Supernaw was a late-season injury replacement and will probably not make it out of training camp.
Potter caught just 11 passes in four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. At 6’7” and 269 pounds, he is strictly one-dimensional as a short-yardage blocker. He could either end up as training-camp fodder or practice-squad material.
That would leave Ryan Griffin and Graham as the only two tight ends on the active roster. No team gets by with less than three, and most would rather have a player with hands that can chip block when necessary.
A.C. Leonard was clocked at 4.50 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, making him the fastest in his position group. On the small side at 6’2” and 252 pounds, he has a lot to prove after flaming out at the University of Florida before settling in at Tennessee State.
His size would limit his effectiveness as a straight-ahead blocker, but the video against Bethune-Cookman shows he is willing to throw his body at someone on every play. He is used as more than just a tight end, playing in the slot and at H-back.
This is how Aaron Hernandez and Michael Hoomanawanui were utilized with the Patriots, often to great effect. Leonard is not as shifty as Wes Welker or Julian Edelman, but imagine what a slot cornerback would be thinking if he had to cover a 250-pounder with wide receiver speed.
Leonard is no choirboy, having had several brushes with the law. Provided his background is properly vetted, the new regime should be willing to take a shot at a freakish athlete with something to prove at the next level.
7th Round: CB Antone Exum
If the Texans secondary had to go big or go home, it might as well just take the bus.
Jawanza Starling is the Goliath of this group at 6’1” and 206 pounds, according to the Houston Texans website. Starling is the only defensive back over 6'0", and he played in just two games last season. Needless to say, his future with the team is uncertain.
Houston has needed some size in the back of the defense since Bernard Pollard was run out of town. Waiting until the seventh round makes the 6'1", 220-pound Antone Exum a reach, but converting him to safety is a worthwhile gamble. Matt Miller’s breakdown describes him as having flexible hips but lacking in makeup speed.
Maybe he is just a taller version of D.J. Swearinger, but he could be a good choice to pair up with Shilolh Keo in dime packages.