HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 12: Defensive end Antonio Smith #94 of the Houston Texans is introduced to the crowd at Reliant Stadium before the Indianapolis Colts played the Houston Texans on September 12 2010 in Houston Texas. Houston won 34-24. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Last season, the Texans were among the best teams in the NFL at one thing: teasing their fans. Not just with the scores of games, as we all are trying not to remember with our bleach and vodka cocktails, but also on a play-to-play basis. I can remember having quite a few arguments over the course of the year about hurries and what they mean for the Texans going forward; whether they made the defense a better unit or just showed that they were getting there too late to matter.
Despite buzz word quotes from the Texans' front office about how free agent signing Antonio Smith is their most consistent lineman, he has managed just 8.5 sacks in the last two years. For reference, noted bust Amobi Okoye had three of his own last year, not far off from Smith's average. Smith did wear a ninja mask, which makes him conclusively cooler than Okoye, but that's neither here nor there.
However, per the actual hurry numbers, Smith has been one of the league's best pass rushing defensive ends over the past couple of seasons. Steph Stradley ran an interview with Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders a couple of weeks back where Smith was acknowledged as one of the bright spots on the team. Smith finished with 36.5 hurries last season, good for fifth in FO's rankings, and also led the league in QB hits (plays where a quarterback is knocked down) with 19.
Barnwell says, as is conventional FO wisdom, that those numbers should mean that "more sacks will be coming from Smith in 2011." Of course, the same thing was posited about Smith last year, when he had 24 hurries and 14 hits to go along with 4.5 sacks. I'm not saying that Smith is an exceptionally bad finisher, though I can remember a few highlight reel plays where someone escaped from his grasp. Is it possible that Smith just isn't all that good at accumulating sacks?
This is one area where Football Outsiders' statistical comparisons probably won't help us. Just for reference, Antonio Smith's last three seasons are most similar to...Antonio Smith's last three seasons as of a year ago. And it's not particularly close. The other names on the list include four Renaldo Wynn three-year intervals, and one each of Eric Hicks, Aaron Smith, Brady Smith, Greg Spires, and John Thierry. What makes this list particularly infuriating is that none of these players were really around for the charting project era, so we can't get a good look at the hurries numbers that we'd like to draw a comparison from.
What does immediately pop out at you is that none of these players were particularly good for sacks in the future. Brady Smith notched six sacks in 2004, and that's the most that any of these players were able to put up after their comparable seasons with Smith.
It's clear that Antonio Smith has a rather unique defensive profile in today's age, but it's not clear what that means for his future. Is it possible that Smith will say, double his sacks next year? I wouldn't bet on it, considering that he'll be moving to a 3-4 end, but I also wouldn't put it past him. He's a terrific one-gap penetrator, and that is a hallmark of the Wade Phillips scheme. Did Smith just have a pair of bad years at finishing the deed when he gets in the backfield, or is this an established thing that we should look for going forward?
Unfortunately, it's very hard to answer this question with the data we have. There does appear to be enough anecdotal evidence to think that Smith will never live up to his hurries, but there's also hardly a player that is conclusively similar to Smith going forward.
Like Smith's last two seasons, the indication that he will suddenly come out and start posting sacks left-and-right appear to be more of a tease than anything right now. Could it happen? Sure. Will it happen? Don't count on it.