Houston Texans: An Early Look at the Defensive Depth Chart

Jake LangenkampCorrespondent IIIMay 16, 2011

Houston Texans: An Early Look at the Defensive Depth Chart

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    A couple of weeks ago, I took a look at the Offensive Depth Chart as it stood today before free agency for the Houston Texans.  Now it’s the turn of the all important Defensive Depth Chart.

    It’s not entirely new for most of the offseason attention of the Texans to center on the defense.  After all, Houston has been a completely lopsided team in favor of the offense since Gary Kubiak took the reins in 2006. 

    This offseason, the attention by the team and the media has been at an all time high though and understandably.  If Wade Phillips is successful in implementing even an average defense, the Texans are likely in the playoffs.  Not successful, and there could be a completely new staff in 2013.

    To his credit, Wade Phillips has been a writer’s dream.  Before the draft, he stepped in and made valuable decisions on defense before the end of the league year such as letting both starting safeties from 2011 go.  He also gave lots of great quotes as to what the defense would look like.

    Then the draft came and he assembled what looks like to me is the best defensive draft class in Texans history, although granted they haven’t played a down in the NFL.  Still, it was easy to see that Wade has been a positive influence on the defense to say the least.

    Since the draft, Wade has made considerable waves with the announcement that Mario Williams will play outside linebacker.  Then came the talk that the Texans will employ a 5-2 system at times.  He is nothing if not entertaining.

    What you need to know about the scheme is this; while there are certainly wrinkles and complexities in Wade’s defense, it is all simply predicated around creating mismatches for the purpose of rushing the passer. 

    With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Wade has on the roster in order to accomplish that goal of rushing quarterbacks.  As always, if you have thoughts or questions feel free to leave them in the comments or let me know on twitter (@JakeBRB).  Enjoy.

Wild Card

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    Starter:  Mario Williams

    Backup:  None

    Analysis:  OK, not naming an official position for Mario is admittedly a little bit of a cop out, but as nice as it's been to have some Texans attention reaching the national focus, people are getting way too worked up about Williams playing OLB.  I also think that Texans fans have taken this a wee bit too seriously.

    Don’t think that Williams can play in space and consistently drop in coverage?  No one does, especially Wade Phillips.  In Dallas, DeMarcus Ware was essentially a 4-3 defensive end who rushed from the two point stance (standing).  Mario has done this and effectively I might add.

    To say that he will be exclusively a rush linebacker is selling Mario short however, as one of his greatest and unheralded strengths has always been defending the run.  For this reason, he will still play as a five-technique at times with more rushing responsibilities than your average 3-4 defensive end.

    What should be noted here is that Mario will be the center of gravity of the defense, which dare I say, is genius since he’s the best player on that side of the ball.  Teams will scheme to stop him which will free up other rushers, and if they don’t Mario will wreak havoc.  I am excited.

    For the previously mentioned position groups of DE and OLB, I will leave Williams off in order to avoid redundancy, but just know that he will be all over the field in 2012.  Again, this guy is a fan.

Defensive End

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    Starters:  J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith

    Backups:  Amobi Okoye

    Analysis:  The primary reason for the measured unpopularity of the selection of Watt in the first is that he plays a position of relative strength (five-technique) on a defense of weak position groups, albeit that was before the Mario to OLB talk.

    After looking at the depth, or lack thereof, at defensive end though, it is obvious that some bolstering was necessary.  Tim Bulman, Jarvis Green and Damione Lewis are all free agents, and Tim Jamison is too light at 270 pounds.  So even counting Mario, there are currently four defensive ends on the roster.

    Smith was a good five-technique in Arizona but has voiced displeasure at playing the position, and I could do without his lapses of concentration on Sundays.  Okoye has said that he can play five-technique, and despite wide-spread rumors that he’ll be released, I’d be willing to give him $2.95 million for a one-year audition considering the lack of depth.

    From this perspective, the Watt pick looks even better.  He will not be outworked by anyone, and likely could be the best defensive lineman next year if you consider Williams as part of the line backing corps.

Nose Tackle

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    Starter:  Earl Mitchell

    Backup:  Shaun Cody

    Analysis:  The nose tackle position is just bare in terms of depth as defensive end, which is one reason that many believed that Wade’s confidence in Mitchell and Cody at nose tackle was a pre-draft ruse.  After no DT’s were added in the draft, however, it seems more likely that Phillips’ words were true.

    Cody might be listed officially as the starter on the depth chart when it is published before the season (it still shows a 4-3 alignment as of right now) but I don’t think there’s any way that Cody is the player that gave Wade enough confidence to avoid drafting a nose tackle.  He is OK as a veteran backup but nothing more.

    Mitchell is likely the player that has Phillips scheming.  My feeling on this issue are mixed; on one hand if anyone can make Mitchell into a disruptive nose tackle in his system, it is the same coordinator who turned Jay Ratliff from a seventh-round draft pick into an All Pro.

    The flip side to that thinking is that I’m slightly worried that Phillips might be too confident in his ability to make Mitchell into a dominant nose tackle.  I tend to be more positive about the move as Mitchell was impressive last season in limited work, but it seems like putting some very important eggs all in one basket.

Inside Linebacker

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    Starters:  DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing

    Backups:  Darryl Sharpton, Xavier Adibi, Stanford Keglar

    Analysis:  Starting to see that whole “lack of depth” theme playing out?  Despite a very good draft, there are still a ton of question marks throughout this defense.  Inside linebacker is just the next position group to prove that point.

    It is uncertain whether Ryans will even be fully recovered for Week 1 from his torn Achilles tendon.  His potential replacement would either be Sharpton who also ended 2010 on the IR, Adibi who has proven an inability to stay healthy himself or Keglar who saw very little action in Ryans absence last season.

    Ryans’ health is a big concern, but his ability or effort if he does recovery is not.  Cushing could be very interesting in Wade’s defense.  If his marching orders are to attack in a similar fashion that made him so successful in 2009, this season could see him return to his Pro Bowl level of play.

    In short, if Ryans and Cushing are both the starters for the majority of the year, this position group will be fine.  If not, this position takes a serious step back.

Outside Linebacker

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    Starters:  Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed

    Backup:  Jesse Nading, Cheta Ozougwu

    Analysis:  After yet another position group short on depth, it is obvious that the Texans are going to have to sign a lot of role players and backups in free agency, possibly the undrafted type.  It is also becoming more and more apparent why it is so valuable to have someone in Mario that can play either DE or OLB.  Versatility with a lack of depth is extremely valuable.

    I am bullish on Connor Barwin as an OLB.  He was going to be used extensively from a two-point stance last year, and I truly believe that if he is fully recovered from his ankle dislocation he can have double-digit sacks this year.  I don’t think most people are aware of just how athletic the former tight end is.

    Brooks Reed is a little more raw than Barwin in my opinion, but an athletically gifted guy as well.  Given that his best attribute his get-off speed and not necessarily his bend around the edge, I could see Wade sending up the middle on A-gap blitzes a lot while he learns to rush on the outside.

    Overall, with Mario, Barwin and Reed all rotating through this position, this could be a sneakily good and productive group of players next year.

Cornerback

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    Starters:  Kareem Jackson, Brandon Harris

    Backups:  Rashad Carmichael, Antwaun Molden, Sherrick McMannis, Brice McCain

    Analysis:  Obviously there is some fat to be cut here, but that hopefully won’t add a desperately needed starter through free agency.  In truth, McCain and Molden have no business being on this roster, and adding a starting caliber CB would make that possible.

    Harris will be a starter at the nickel position immediately, and Carmichael can be groomed into a very good corner in time.  It will be interesting to see what McMannis can be with better coaching as well.

    Speaking of better coaching, I think I am one of the few Texans writers who is still excited about Kareem Jackson.  When you go back and read scouting reports on the 2010 rookie leading into that draft, I think there is still more to be seen from KJ.  He won’t ever be dominant, but I also don’t think last season’s version is what he is.

Safety

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    Starters:  Troy Nolan, Glover Quin

    Backups:  Shiloh Keo, Domanique Barber, Torri Williams, Quintin Demps

    Analysis:  Gone are both Bernard Pollard and Eugene Wilson who comprised the worst safety tandem in all the NFL in 2010 in my opinion.  Nolan was OK in a limited starting capacity last season, but Phillips is apparently very excited about the third-year player.

    The true test at this position group next year will be Glover Quin and his much anticipated move to safety from corner back.  Secondary coach Vance Joseph all but said that the move was a done deal in his post-draft presser, and I think that GQ is well suited for FS.

    Both Kubiak and Rick Smith gushed about Keo, but it’s hard to see him starting soon.  The rest of the players are just depth or special teams guys, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see the Texans add a free agent starter to this group, although I think there are more pressing needs elsewhere.