The battle for division supremacy will be an uphill battle anytime Peyton Manning plays in it.
However, the Houston Texans were within about six to eight feet of forcing overtimes—and probably a playoff berth—with their division-rivals. Although they still finished 9-7 overall, Texans Kicker Kris Brown saw field goals sail wide of the post, not once, but twice in consecutive weeks against the Colts and Titans. Even with those wasted opportunities, stellar play from Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson coupled with a young, budding defense guided the Texans to a 9-7 finish.
It’s easy to review their performance and predict plenty of playoff appearances for a team on the up-swing. However, a closer look reveals a few definite deficiencies. Most notably at cornerback, defensive tackle, free safety, running back and offensive tackle—not to mention a possible replacement at Kicker.
General Manager Rick Smith has stuck to his philosophy of building through the draft. Smith has done a fine job since assuming the job in 2006. He’s respected as having a keen eye for talent, a skill he honed during his time running the Denver Broncos pro personnel group.
With eight picks in the 2010 draft (extra sixth round pick from San Diego), Smith and his staff will likely pay extra close attention to a handful of prospects at the combine from February 24 to March 2.
Before we look at which players may be in that list, here’s a quick review of the talent level of Texans incumbents on both sides of the ball revealing where their attention should be directed.
On defense the team has a stable of undeniably talented—and fairly young—playmakers.
Starting up front with Mario Williams on one end and at the other end spot is the steady Antonio Smith. The former Arizona Cardinals fifth-round pick, Antonio Smith signed a five-year $35 million deal. He was decent this year with 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
The Texans have the luxury of rotating in last year’s draft pick and former Cincinnati Bearcat, Connor Barwin. Fans may not have initially gushed over the pick but Barwin is a special talent. In fact, he didn’t even begin learning the defensive end position until 2008 when he recorded 11 sacks and 16 tackles-for-loss. The former Bearcat basketball player was a tight end prior to Coach Brian Kelly’s decision to switch his position.
Whenever a Matt Millen draft pick is in a starting lineup—there’s likely to be holes. Shaun Cody is the Texans starting defensive tackle which means an upgrade is in order at one of the inside positions.
Lining up next to him is the highly regarded Amobi Okoye. After a strong debut (5.5 sacks) in his rookie season, Okoye has noticeably regressed every year since. However, it’s still too early to pull the plug on him. Cody is nothing more than a backup.
Despite production from the defensive end position, their lack of a disruptive run-stuffing presence is a handicap.
Texans fans will enjoy one of the best linebacker tandems for years to come with 2007 and 2009 NFL Defensive Rookies of the Year, Demeco Ryans and Brian Cushing.
While Cushing often hid in the shadows of the spotlight often shined on teammate Rey Maualuga. The intense, relentless play of Cushing (134 tackles, 5 sacks & 2 forced fumbles) was the next logical step—after finding a playmaking pass rusher—for longtime assistant, and now current, defensive coordinator Frank Bush’s lineup.
Failing to generate consistent pressure had a direct impact on receivers being able to run their full routes at will. Combine this with an average secondary except for strong safety Bernard Pollard and you have a vulnerable defense allowing teams to strike quickly through the air. All this led to a below average defense—17th and 18th overall against the pass and points allowed, respectively.
Speaking of Pollard, when he’s not giving Patriots fans panic attacks or causing ACL and MCL tears to their star players (i.e., Tom Brady AND Wes Welker), he’s a rugged force manning the secondary. The 2006 second round pick from Purdue led the team with four interceptions and tallied 104 tackles last year.
Dunta Robinson hasn’t lived up to expectations at one of the cornerback spots and Quinn Glover is only a placeholder until better talent arrives but could be a steady nickel cover and first option as a reserve.
John Busing is not the answer at Free Safety.
On offense it’s pretty clear where the team needs a talent upgrade. Besides Schaub and Johnson and to a lesser extent, tackle Duane Brown, the Texans desperately need to concentrate on establishing a respectable running game.
Eric Winston, Antoine Caldwell, Kasey Stoddard and Chris Myers fill out the rest of the line. It’s a bit early to make major adjustments because it’s still a very young group with the potential to gel as a unit in due time. However, Chris Myers is in the lower tier of starting Centers and may need to be replaced.
An abysmal rushing attack (30th overall in YPG) can be contributed to a finesse offensive line not suited to maul defenders or salt away games. A quick check reveals a line that is sized more like an ACC—not AFC—team. Besides Brown, they all weigh in around 300 pounds at the most.
Caldwell, a third-round pick last year from Alabama looks like he could be a fixture but there’s still enough need to warrant a day one or two pick on at least one lineman.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
Despite constant double and triple-teams, Andre Johnson is a Top Three talent at his position with the production to boot. However, the offensive would be that much more reminiscent of an efficient, well-oiled machine if their number two option was more of a threat than current poor-man’s version of Wes Welker with Kevin Walter.
As it stands now, the team relies on quick strikes and not a balanced, time of possession-eating unit.
It’s not that he’s a liability since he generally grabs most passes thrown his way but he’s not enough of a threat to alleviate some of the pressure off Johnson. He’s better suited to line up in the slot. A physical receiver who can stretch the field and fearlessly go over the middle is something Texans scouts will be on the lookout for at the combine.
The Texans surprised everyone by drafting two tight ends in the latter parts of the ’09 draft with Anthony Hill and James Casey. Of the two, Casey has the potential to an upper-tier player in two or three years. Almost every elite quarterback has an upper echelon safety valve to rely on and if Casey never materializes, Smith may make it a priority in future drafts.
The consensus is the Texans are in dire need of a physical, chain-moving addition to their current group of small and quick backs.
Bigger things were expected out of Steve Slaton after he wowed coaches and fantasy owners alike with nine touchdowns and almost 5.0 yards per carry his rookie season. His average dropped almost a full two yards and a recurring case of fumble-itis drove Coach Gary Kubiak crazy enough to bench him.
However, he improved as a receiver and I can’t help but wonder if the Chris Brown and Ryan Moats experiments are really necessary.
Brown is not the same runner who occasionally flashed ability but was very brittle. Moats is a nice change-of-pace back and deserves a backup role to Slaton. He fell into Kubiak’s doghouse, but the former Mountaineer should bounce back in 2010 so long as Smith commits to finding a thunder to Slaton’s lightning somewhat early in the draft.
Here's a list of 10 players the Texans should pay special attention to at the NFL Combine based on their five highest-need areas.