When it comes to the NFL draft, teams always preach a mantra of “best player available.” Every team has its board based on prospects’ ability, and theoretically it chooses whoever is rated highest, regardless of need.
Obviously, that is not absolutely true, because if it was, teams would have rosters overloaded with some positions and devoid of others.
Despite their rhetoric, NFL teams compile their draft boards with a mixture of ability and need. The idea though, is to have ability favored well above need in that equation.
The reasoning is simple. If a front office backs itself into a corner in which it has to draft a certain position because of glaring need, very often that team will reach for a player and pick him too early. The Houston Texans front office, unfortunately, has been prone to do just this with defensive draft picks.
Take the 2010 draft, for example. The Texans had decided to give Dunta Robinson a one-year audition, placing the franchise tag on him in 2009, to prove he could come back healthy from a horrific leg injury that almost ended his career in 2007. The result was Dunta was detrimental to the chemistry in the locker room and was substandard on the field, so he was allowed to walk in free agency.
The problem was that the front office had not adequately prepared for this result. No backup plan was made for Robinson’s departure, so approaching that 2010 draft there was a huge hole at cornerback. The Texans selected Kareem Jackson with the 20th overall pick, which was much higher than most had him rated, and he struggled mightily in his rookie season.
That’s not to say that Jackson played terribly because he was overrated by the Texans. Coaching very well may have been a huge factor for Kareem’s play, and I believe he could end up being a very solid No. 2 corner some day with the right tutelage. Hopefully, newly hired secondary coach Vance Joseph is the man to do just that.
My point was that Jackson was selected that high because he was rated by the Texans front office and defensive coaching staff as the most “pro-ready” of the corners available at their pick. The need of the Texans was glaring, but rather than fill that need through free agency or a trade, they relied on their draft to fill that need and not take the best player available.
This year, I believe, will be different. As I stated previously, I think that Wade Phillips is greatly influencing the defensive personnel management of the Texans, and this will include the drafting of defensive players. With the exception of maybe a couple of offensive picks, Wade will probably be calling the shots and simply telling general manager Rick Smith who he wants when it is time.
One decision Wade might have to make early is how to balance the best player available philosophy with the needs of his defense. After all, while Phillips knows he is solely in charge of the defense, he also knows that he has a short leash because Gary Kubiak and everyone else in the Texans organization do. Wade can do it however he chooses, but he needs to improve the defense to at least average in one year.
So what happens when the best player available on defense plays a position of the least need? Marcell Dareus will be long gone by No. 11. So will Von Miller and Patrick Peterson. If Robert Quinn and Prince Amukamara are gone, the next best defensive player available will likely be a defensive end.
There is some debate over who would be better to play five technique, or defensive end in a three-man front, between Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt and California’s Cameron Jordan. I personally waffle back and forth between the two. Watt is more of the prototypical five technique, while Jordan possesses more natural pass-rush ability.
What I am certain of, though, is that either player would be rated higher than any nose tackle, linebacker, cornerback or safety that would be available as long as the previously mentioned players were gone. You could even make a very compelling argument that they could be rated higher than Amukamara, as many people believe.
Defensive end though, is the one position on defense that the Texans are somewhat situated at with Mario Williams and Antonio Smith both being very competent starters. Smith came from a 3-4 defense in Arizona, so he has experience there, and Williams, despite concerns that his disposition is as a 4-3 end, has the ability to excel in any scheme. In fact, Williams has shown adeptness at playing the run very similarly to the way five techniques do.
My hope is that if faced with this exact situation, the Texans decide to truly follow the best player available philosophy. While there is nothing flashy about a five technique DE, they are essential to a good 3-4 defense because they allow the linebackers free reign to do their jobs. Players like the Steelers’ Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel don’t get a lot of attention nationally, but anyone with insight into that defense will tell you they’re a big reason why it is so good year in and year out.
What sets Watt and Cameron apart in this year’s draft class is not only their ability at five technique, which is head and shoulders above all other defensive end prospects, but also their versatility. Both can rush from the outside or be kicked inside to play defensive tackle in four-man fronts, which Wade Phillips commonly utilizes on obvious passing downs. It’s also been rumored that Jordan is so athletic that he could even stand up and rush the passer.
Taking either Watt or Jordan at No. 11 gives great depth at a key position in the short term, plus options in the long term. Both Williams and Antonio Smith are nearing the end of their contracts. If either does not produce in the new scheme as desired, the drafted defensive end from this year ensures that the position won’t be a drastic need in the future, the way that cornerback was in 2010.
There will be plenty of time to select a linebacker, something I’m sure the Texans will do in the first three rounds, if not two. There are a lot of qualified candidates in the second round as well, some of whom that would fit the role just as well as the prospects available at No. 11 if Quinn and Miller are gone.
What do you think though? Would you be okay with selecting Watt or Jordan at No. 11 rather than linebacker or corner, even though it is not as glaring of a need? If so, which one would you prefer? Weigh in with your answer in the comments.