The Houston Texans hired Wade Phillips to be their new defensive coordinator and subsequently adopted his version of the 3-4 defense that has made him so successful as a defensive signal caller over the years.
While the hiring process that brought Phillips to Houston left a little to be desired, I believe it is a case of a broken clock being right twice a day. Phillips is creative with his defense, a quality that, arguably, the Texans have never had on that side of the ball.
The impending switch to the 3-4 requires a little bit of personnel overhaul. That is fine in the Texans’ case, because a defense that performed as bad as it did in 2010 required a certain measure of rebuilding anyway. Luckily, the switch to Phillips’s brand of the 3-4 defense will require much less personnel change than a switch to the traditional 3-4 run by teams historically known for the scheme like the Steelers.
Phillips’s defense is described as a “one-gap” 3-4, whereas the typical 3-4 is a “two-gap”. In a traditional two-gap system, the three defensive linemen are responsible for taking on as many blockers as possible, and holding the point of attack so that the linebackers can remain unblocked and attack ball carriers or quarterbacks.
In Phillips’ one-gap system, defensive linemen are required to perform some of the same tasks as in a two-gap system, but more often they are charge with penetrating into the backfield through gaps between blockers in order to cause disruption.
The best way to view Phillips’s defense is as a hybrid between a 3-4 and a 4-3. Oftentimes, he will switch to a four-man front in obvious passing situations like third down. In order to effectively do this, he requires an athletic player who can rush the passer standing up as a weak side linebacker or put his hand in the dirt like a right defensive end.
This is the position that Shawn Merriman and DeMarcus Ware thrived in under Phillips.
So given that this WOLB is of such importance, it is natural to assume that a player for this position will be selected in the first round by the Texans in the upcoming NFL draft. Many people have in fact done just that. The more you look at various mock drafts around the Internet, the more you will see smaller collegiate defensive ends, known as “tweeners”, slotted for the Texans with the eleventh pick.
While outside linebacker may end up being the first pick of the Texans, it’s not as cut and dry as picking the top-rated tweener available at 11. There are other factors to consider when selecting an outside linebacker for the Texans.
The first thing to think about is that there is someone on the roster that fits the weak side role ideally in Connor Barwin. Barwin was widely regarded as an ideal developmental OLB for a 3-4 when coming out of the University of Cincinnati.
Barwin’s athleticism and traits as a player were such a great fit for that role that when he was drafted in the second round by the Texans, many wondered whether or not the team was switching back to a 3-4 defense.
The team did not switch back to its original scheme, but Barwin played much like a hybrid end/linebacker position that Phillips uses. Barwin’s four-and-a-half sacks, which led all rookie defensive ends in 2009, came primarily on speed rushes around the edge or stunts in order to blitz through the middle.
While it may be risky to assume that Barwin will come back completely healthy from the dislocated ankle that cost him all of 2010, I would say that the WOLB is Barwin’s to lose, and judging by Wade Phillips’s comments, he agrees.
That’s not to say that an outside linebacker won’t be drafted by the Texans, or even drafted early. That linebacker, however, needs to be able to play opposite of Barwin on the strong side of the defense. That means that this draftee must be able to do more than just rush the passer. He needs to be able to effectively defend against the run, as well as cover tight ends and running backs.
The WOLB in Phillips’s defense rushes the quarterback roughly 75 percent of the time. Phillips’s defense is predicated on pressure, so the SOLB will have his fair share of blitzing as well, but he must also account for the screens and hot routes designed by offenses to beat that pressure.
Additionally, teams will test Phillips’s defense with run plays intended to take advantage of defensive lineman getting too far in the backfield and taking themselves out of the play. The SOLB must be able to do these things well, along with rushing the passer well.
Based on all of this, I think it is a mistake to consider larger, stiffer OLB conversion players at 11. Aldon Smith, Justin Houston and Ryan Kerrigan have all been discussed as options for the Texans in the first round, but none of them have shown enough pass-rushing ability to supplant Barwin for the WOLB role, given that he has already shown an ability to be productive in the NFL, something that can’t be taken for granted.
Also, the three previously mentioned players all have too many shortcomings covering and playing against the run. While all three have amazing athletic ability, most notably straight line speed, it is this inability to play in space that is why they have been categorized more as 4-3 defensive ends by many draft analysts.
So what’s the alternative then? I favor an OLB with the kid of athleticism required to fulfill all linebacker responsibilities, and I’m willing to sacrifice a little size or pass-rushing ability in return. Obviously, if there was a linebacker prospect that you didn’t have to sacrifice any traits for, that would be ideal, but the only two I see that fit that description are Texas A&M’s Von Miller and North Carolina’s Robert Quinn.
If both of these players are off the board by eleven, which I assume will be true, I don’t think there is an OLB prospect worth the pick. Instead, I would bolster either the secondary or the defensive line, and draft an outside linebacker in the second round or the third at the latest. It is exactly this strategy that I used for my seven-round mock draft that I recently published.
That’s my opinion, though. What is yours? Do you think players like Aldon Smith, Ryan Kerrigan or Justin Houston are worth the eleventh pick in the draft, or would you prefer someone like Martez Wilson, Dontay Moch or Bruce Carter that could be had at a cheaper price? Weigh in with your opinions in the comments below.