Starting today, Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise, and proposing solutions for each. Our series kicks off with the Houston Texans.
By Russ Lande
The Texans pulled the plug on the Gary Kubiak regime and went in a drastically different direction by bringing in Bill O'Brien. O'Brien brings fresh blood and ideas to a team that had become stale and predictable. While many point to injuries as the reason for the Texans drop-off, the reality is that every team suffers injuries: If Matt Schaub had continued playing good football and they had a better pass rush, then Kubiak would still be the coach. Although many talk of the Texans being a quarterback away from being a playoff team again, they are much further away than that.
Problem: Finding a pass rusher other than J.J. Watt.
Solution: J.J. Watt was the Texans' only dominant pass rusher in 2013, which made him less effective because offenses were able to scheme completely around him. No doubt Jadeveon Clowney is viewed as a potential easy solution, but O'Brien has spoken often about his respect and admiration for Tom Brady's incredible work ethic and insatiable desire to get better; it would be a surprise to see him cast his lot with a player whose motor does not go full speed every snap and is rumored to have not-so-great practice habits.
The Texans may bypass Clowney in the first round and draft Alabama outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard or Arkansas' Chris Smith at the top of the second round. Although Hubbard is not a dynamic pass rusher, he has the height, long arms and athleticism to be a perfect fit as an outside linebacker in Romeo Crennel's big 3-4 defense. Smith does not have the height that Crennel prefers, but he has the bulk/strength to be a rock solid run defender and is an explosive edge pass rusher.
Problem: Finding a quarterback for the future.
Solution: While the Texans have only $6,100,000 in cap space, cutting Matt Schaub is no done deal: they will wait until they feel 100-percent confident in one of the quarterbacks available with the first overall pick. According to trusted sources, the Texans are initially leaning towards taking either Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel with the top pick. Although Manziel would obviously be the choice of owner Bob McNair, O'Brien is not sold that Manziel possesses the work ethic and intangibles necessary to be the face of a franchise.
As mentioned above, it has been suggested that the Texans may take a pass rusher with the first selection and try to select their quarterback in the second or third rounds. While this is definitely a possibility, it makes more sense to take a quarterback first overall if they believe one has frontline starter traits/tools, as waiting is a huge risk. Selecting Bortles with the first pick makes the most sense if they are not completely comfortable with Manziel's maturity and mental makeup.
If the Texans aren't high on Bortles, look for them to trade down with a team that has Manziel fever or prefers Teddy Bridgewater or Clowney. An extra early-round pick or two could help O'Brien put his stamp on the team without breaking a very tight budget.
Problem: Transitioning their 34 defense.
Solution: To outsiders, the switch from Wade Phillips to Crennel should not be a huge adjustment because the Texans already play as 3-4 defense. But to those on the inside the difference is readily apparent. The Texans played what many scouts call the "small 3-4" under Phillips, which is similar to what the Chargers and Steelers have run in recent seasons.
The small 3-4 usually relies upon smaller, more athletic defensive linemen and linebackers to defeat blocks and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. On the other side of the spectrum is the "big 3-4" which the Patriots played for many years with Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren and the Browns and Chiefs played under Coach Crennel. This defense is based on having large defensive linemen who can play two-gap defense and big linebackers who can play strong at the point of attack against blockers.
While the small 3-4 scheme is more of a one gap, penetrating defense, the larger one is based on building a seven-man (three defensive linemen and four linebackers) wall across the field that can shut down the run completely and punish receivers who catch short passes. J.J. Watt is talented enough to be a premier player in this scheme, but the Texans need to find a big, 330-plus pound nose tackle and another large defensive end to give them the powerful defensive line that this defense would require (especially as they are not likely to re-sign 30-year old, big-budget defensive end Antonio Smith).
The Texans do not have the salary cap space needed to go get a nose tackle like Paul Soliai, so they could choose to target the unproven Al Woods or under-achieving Terrance Cody in free agency. Woods has slowly developed and improved in two seasons with the Steelers. Cody has the massive size and strength that Crennel loves in the middle of his defense. They also may attempt to lure free agent defensive end Tyson Jackson from the Chiefs; Jackson played for Crennel, and since he has not been a top performer, his price will be right.
The Texans will also need to add a big, physical inside linebacker to play next to Brian Cushing. They could look at Redskins free agent Perry Riley to fill that role if the Redskins do no re-sign him before free agency begins
Problem: Improve the offensive line; especially at right tackle and left guard.
Solution: If the Texans do not feel comfortable with any of the quarterback or pass rushers at the top of the draft, they could select Jake Matthews, who would sure up their right tackle spot immediately and would provide great insurance against an injury to elite left tackle Duane Brown. More likely, they will try to select Notre Dame tackle Zach Martin in the second round or Ohio State tackle Jack Mewhort in the third or fourth round. Both are tough, hard-nosed offensive linemen who play with the nasty attitude that O'Brien seems to love. If the Texans are really sold on Bortles as their first pick, a trade down could put them into position to draft Martin later in the first round.
At guard, the Texans will look for veteran free agents that will not cost them a ton of money. Jon Asamoh who played under Crennel in Kansas City has struggled with consistency, but he is a top athlete available at reasonable prices. A bigger name who might come into play is Richie Incognito. Despite all the bad press, he is still regarded as a high end guard who plays with the nasty, aggressive style that NFL teams love. Few teams will likely be willing to take the public relations hit, the cost might not be high for Incognito and he would bring a blocking attitude that the Texans offensive line could definitely use.
Let's not forget tackle/guard David Quessenberry, who shined in preseason but spent the season on injured reserve. He has the size, long arms and athleticism to challenge to start at right tackle or left guard, so he will likely be in the competition to start with whomever they bring in through free agency or the draft.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.