2011 will be one of the most important drafts in the short history of the Houston Texans. After a disastrous step back in 2010 from the moderate success in the three prior seasons, head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith can see the writing on the wall: Make the playoffs or lose your jobs.
With no free agency period likely before the draft in late April, the Texans will likely have more of a tendency to draft to fill the holes on their defensive roster and use free-agent signings to augment those draft selections, which is backwards from the normal talent acquisition process.
The wild card for the Texans’ draft is newly hired defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Kubiak has failed twice at picking an effective defensive coordinator because he chose two previous colleagues who had never held the title before.
To remedy that, Kubiak or owner Bob McNair decided it best to go with an established coordinator who had a proven track record of success calling defenses. Phillips, while not extremely successful as a head coach, fulfils that role as a reputable coordinator.
Due to a new-found desperation to keep their jobs, it appears that Kubiak and Smith learned from past mistakes and have given Phillips carte blanche to pick his defensive players.
This autonomy that Wade seems to possess along with a huge emphasis on fixing the defense are two factors that are very important to remember when trying to predict how the Texans might draft in April.
That being said, I will try my hand at doing just that with a seven-round mock draft for Houston.
1. Prince Amukamara—CB/Nebraska
The more I think about it, the more I believe that Prince will be there for the Texans at 11. I also believe that if Von Miller or Robert Quinn fell to the Texans they would pull the trigger, but unfortunately I foresee both being gone by 11.
The only other team that I see taking the second corner off the board after Patrick Peterson is the Dallas Cowboys, and I believe that Jerry Jones would rather make a splash than take a quietly good defensive back.
The Cowboys' loss will be the Texans' gain, though. Amukamara’s versatility is, in my opinion, his greatest asset and why he deserves to be a fringe top-10 selection. He can play any style, be it press-man or off-zone.
He is a willing run defender, as his 36 solo tackles out of 58 total stops last season suggest. Prince is also a high-character guy who played a full college career, both of which are traits that the Texans love in a draft prospect.
Some do not share in my high regard for Amukamara.
After a poor showing against Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon, many draft analysts questioned Prince’s speed and suggested that he might be a safety at the next level, but Amukamara answered his critics by running a 4.38 40 at the scouting combine.
Furthermore, people worry about his lack of ball skills, as he had no interceptions in his senior season. Upon a closer look, though, Prince was targeted 52 times by opposing quarterbacks for only 18 receptions.
The low amount of targets does not completely excuse his complete lack of interceptions, but it does suggest that teams were actively throwing away from him, which decreased his chances to create turnovers.
I believe no matter what happens in the draft, the Texans will attempt to sign a free-agent corner to become number one on the depth chart. That, plus the addition of Amukamara and last year’s first-round pick Kareem Jackson—who will likely benefit from experience and a coaching change—could quickly turn a weak position group to a serviceable one this year.
The confidence of knowing the secondary can hold coverage will give Phillips the confidence to dial up the pressure that has made him successful as a defensive coordinator.
2. Stephen Paea—DT/Oregon St.
Many Texans fans were befuddled by the re-signing of Shaun Cody to seemingly play nose tackle in the newly established 3-4 scheme.
I believe that Cody was retained, however, for the sheer purpose of veteran depth behind Earl Mitchell and a player to be added through the draft. While Paea does not fit the traditional, huge-bodied nose tackle 3-4 teams usually employ, he is ideal for Wade’s version of the scheme.
Phillips’ brand of the 3-4 is a one-gap system rather than the traditional two-gap concept. What this means is that he uses quicker, smaller-by-comparison defensive linemen in order to penetrate the backfield as opposed to the conventional, bigger lineman who are charged with holding the point of attack and taking on double-teams.
A good example of this is the difference between Wade’s former NT with the Cowboys, Jay Ratliff, in comparison to the Steelers’ Casey Hampton.
As stated previously, Paea is perfect for what Phillips might be looking for. He possesses the ability to be disruptive in the backfield, as proven by 14 sacks in three seasons at Oregon State, but he also has shown stoutness against the run that usually led coaches to plan two blockers just for him.
Paea became a media darling at the combine with his record-setting 49 bench press reps of 225 pounds. As opposed to past workout warriors, however, his strength translates well to the football field, and his upper- and lower-body power is evident in his play.
Paea would be a first-round pick most years, but an unusual depth at defensive line combined with a non-serious knee injury that prevented him from running drills at the combine could likely drop him to the Texans' second-round pick at 42.
The Tongan grew up playing rugby has only played football since he was 16, which could mean his skills could continue to greatly improve well into his professional career. He is already a great football player, evidenced by the fact the he is a two-time Morris Trophy recipient, an award given to the best defensive lineman in the Pac-10 and voted on by offensive linemen in the conference.
A rotation of Paea and Mitchell, who is a nose tackle of the same mold, would give Wade a deadly rotation at nose tackle for putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
3. Bruce Carter—OLB/North Carolina
Most mock drafts have the Texans selecting an outside linebacker in the first round.
People see it as such a need now that the team is running a new scheme predicated on linebackers that they have Houston reaching for the likes of Aldon Smith, Justin Houston and even Ryan Kerrigan in the first round.
I don’t think that will happen because linebackers like those three give very little besides pass rush. While Wade’s defense usually has a weak side outside linebacker that rushes about as often as a 4-3 defensive end, I believe Phillips when he says he likes Connor Barwin for that role.
All that being said, the Texans are still in need for an outside linebacker to play on the strong side opposite of Barwin. While it would definitely be nice for this linebacker to have some edge rushing ability to allow Phillips to get creative with his blitzes, it is just as important for this linebacker to be able to cover and support the run.
Bruce Carter fills all three of those requirements.
Carter came into the 2010 season as a fringe first-round pick, but the loss of his supporting cast to the agent scandal at North Carolina and a late-season ACL tear has pushed him down as far as the third round in some people’s estimations.
If the Texans were able to snag Carter that low, it would be my favorite pick of their draft. There was no way for NFL scouts to officially measure his athletic ability due to knee surgery in December, but all you have to do is watch tape and his athleticism is apparent.
The thing that I find so encouraging about Carter is that he did everything in college that he would be asked to do for the Texans. This experience of playing the run, covering tight ends and linebackers, and occasionally rushing the passer, combined with his incredible athletic ability, help make up for average instincts.
He was also a special teams demon, with six career blocked kicks.
The major concern with drafting Carter would be the question of how his knee will recover.
4. Denarius Moore—WR/Tennessee
The one glaring need on offense that needs to be filled is at wide receiver opposite of Andre Johnson.
Johnson played through an ankle injury all of last season and constantly saw a safety rolled to his side of the field because teams didn’t respect Kevin Walter as a number two receiver.
While John McClain reported recently that the Texans would like to re-sign Jacoby Jones, who will likely be an unrestricted free agent with a new collective bargaining agreement, I think that Jones’ inconsistency has finally proven too much for Kubiak.
The Texans need someone opposite of Johnson that has deep speed to keep opposing defenses honest. Moore showed he could make tough catches deep in college and at the Texans vs. the Nation Game, where he was a MVP candidate.
Speed that registered a 4.43 40 at the combine won’t set records, but Moore plays to that speed in pads, which is much more important than being able to run fast on a track.
Moore would likely be more respected as a prospect if he had a better offense to shine in than he had at Tennessee. Despite the offensive struggles, Moore averaged an impressive 21 yards per reception and nine touchdowns, all of which demonstrates he has the ability to be the deep threat the Texans would need him to be.
He has a thin build and struggles with press-man coverage sometimes, but when you line up opposite the league’s best wide receiver you often draw more favorable assignments.
5. Mark LeGree—FS/Appalachian St
Every once in a while, it’s hard for me to believe projections of when a prospect will be drafted. That is the case with LeGree. The Texans taking him in the fifth round is higher than I have seen him projected anywhere else, but I think that LeGree is one of those players that is probably more respected by NFL teams than he is draft analysts, as the private workout that the Chargers have set up with the free safety would suggest.
LeGree had amazing production on the field in college, albeit against FCS competition. Still, 22 career interceptions against anyone shows that he is a natural ball hawk.
Teams would likely wish to see LeGree bigger as a safety than his current 200 pounds, but he is still a willing tackle in run support despite his smaller stature. LeGree also had arguably the best combine of all the safeties in what is a down year for the position.
LeGree may not have the prestige of a prospect from a major college program, but the Texans have shown in the past that they are not scared to invest in small school players with physical talent.
With Glover Quin likely moving to free safety next year, Legree would provide depth at the position and a be great athlete for special teams.
6. Brandon Bair—DE/Oregon
Bair represents a project for the taking. In college he primarily played defensive tackle despite his long, 6’6” frame. In the NFL he will likely be drafted to play the five technique, or defensive end in a 3-4.
Bair’s height would be ideal for the position because it makes it easier to seal the edge of the offensive line in order to funnel run plays towards the middle. He would need to get stronger for this responsibility, though.
Bair has limited athletic ability, but that is acceptable for the role he would play. End is probably the one position on the defense that the Texans have their starters well established with Mario Williams and Antonio Smith, but the addition of Bair is for the purpose of development.
The downside to that, however, is that Bair will be entering his rookie season at 26 because of a two-year church mission he conducted right out of high school.
7. Deron Mayo—LB/Old Dominion
Seventh-round picks often do not make a final roster, so it makes sense to pick someone with an intriguing amount of upside. Mayo, who is the brother of Patriots Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo, started his career at Hofstra but was forced to transfer after the football program was dropped.
While Mayo played defensive end in college, he will likely play linebacker or maybe even safety because of his 225-pound, 5’10” frame. Mayo, however, has been clocked in the mid-4.3 range previously and impressed scouts at Virginia’s pro day when he benched 225 pounds 28 times and jumped 38 inches vertically.
While Mayo likely will never start unless he shows remarkable ability to convert from a defensive lineman to a safety, his ability on special teams makes him worth the draft selection. ODU did not start using him in that capacity until halfway through the season when a game was on the line, but after he stepped up in that situation to block a punt which sealed a victory, he became a mainstay and blocked two more punts that year.
His athleticism and willingness to do whatever it takes gives this undersized player a chance to make a final roster.