The Texans enter the 2012 offseason in a strange position: owning a lot of depth. One of the reasons that Houston made it as far as they did last season is because they had players in place to step up in the face of injuries. Ben Tate. T.J. Yates. Brooks Reed. I would even go as far as to include players like Brice McCain and Tim Jamison in that mix.
I'm not quite into my draftnik costume yet this year, but one thing I think sets up for an interesting debate this year is what position the Texans should be targeting with their first-round pick. From the FanPosts (and subsequent Kendall Wright stumping by John McClain), I expect a lot of you to say that wide receiver is the position. I'm not entirely sold that this is true, and I'll get into why after the jump.
Sure-fire returning players: Andre Johnson ... uh ... let's roll with that.
Youngsters: Jeff Maehl, Lestar Jean, Juaquin Iglesias.
Free Agents: Bryant Johnson.
Release/Restructure candidates: Jacoby Jones, Kevin Walter.
Pros: As great as Andre Johnson is, he has not exactly been the model of health the last few years, and he is getting up there in years as well. It would be nice to have a reassuring bounceback season from him in 2012, but there is a chance that we've seen the end of his prime. Kevin Walter has been a fine No. 2 for many years, but he'll be 31 when the 2012 season starts and saw a decline in both effectiveness and targets this season -- that makes me think he's slowing down. I don't think I even need to give a Jacoby Jones dissertation. Nothing can be taken for granted here.
Cons: The other side to the coin is that as long as you believe Andre Johnson will be an elite receiver that can go deep, there isn't really a whole lot of added value in chasing a top receiver. Gary Kubiak has tapered back on the play-action deep ball since the 2009 season, and adding Walter-quality receivers actually isn't that hard. Not only is this a deep free agent class for wideouts, where someone like Robert Meachem or Stevie Johnson could easily be an answer, but it really isn't that hard to find quality receivers late in the draft. Mike Williams, Mike Wallace, Mike Thomas, Johnny Knox, Austin Collie. These are all examples of receivers from just the last couple of years that have been taken in the third round or later and contributed instantly. It makes all sorts of sense then, if you're not targeting a "replacement" for Johnson, to not jump for one in the first.
Because of those circumstances, if the Texans are picking a wide receiver in the first round, it better be someone they feel has a chance to be an elite receiver. This would steer me more towards "risky" picks like Alshon Jeffery or Michael Floyd.
Sure-fire returning players: I guess it's not set in stone, but I'd be surprised if Shaun Cody weren't at least around as a backup next year.
Youngsters: Earl Mitchell, Ra'Shon Harris.
Free Agents: N/A.
Release/restructure candidates: N/A.
Pros: We've had the great tackle debate before. All I'm going to say is that as damningly adequate as Cody was this year, I would in no way be sold on him as a long-term guy. Earl Mitchell has not given me any reason to believe in him either. Thus, I think it's a spot where it would be possible to upgrade the front seven, especially considering teams ran up the middle against the Texans more than any other team in the NFL.
Cons: Well, none in theory. These are the Texans though, so if they actually select a nose tackle in the first round, I will probably have eight simultaneous heart attacks. Nose tackle has always been an expendable position to Rick Smith's FO, and I would be astonished if that changed after a year where the run defense was actually fairly successful.
Sure-fire returning players: Johnathan Joseph, Brice McCain, Kareem Jackson.
Youngsters: Brandon Harris, Roc Carmichael, Sherrick McManis.
Free Agents: Jason Allen.
Release/restructure candidates: N/A.
Pros: The Kareem Jackson experience is well-documented at this point: it always ends with deep balls, an inability to turn ones head, and crying. Some would say that Jason Allen was not that much better -- I am not one of those people, but Allen definitely is not a starting cornerback in an ideal world. Targeting a cornerback in the first round would be admitting that Kareem was a total mistake, while also adding another youngster to a stable of cornerbacks coming of age -- the only line of defense against the newfangled spread attacks of the Patriots, Saints, and Packers is to have a lot of above-average corners.
Cons: But the thing is, with Harris and Carmichael already in tow from last draft, and the possibility of Allen re-signing until one of them or Jackson is actually ready to take the No. 2 slot, it doesn't make a lot of sense from a value standpoint to take a cornerback this high. The Texans could completely bypass corner in this draft simply because they've accumulated so many over the past couple of years that they need to let things shake out before deciding who stays and who goes.
Pros: Matt Schaub has undoubtedly become the greatest quarterback in Texans history, but he'll be 31 next year and it's anybody's guess a) how well his body holds up as he gets older, b) how many more good years he has in his arm, and c) what kind of contract he's willing to sign to stay here. Yates showed decent poise and was definitely more competent than a fifth-round pick should have been, but you can see that he has a ways to go in his development as well. With things a bit unsettled in the long-term, I could see the Texans snagging someone that they consider to have franchise QB potential at this spot.
Cons: The problem with that is that the depth of this class has really been cut down. I think most of the part of me that likes this idea was enamored with the idea that Robert Griffin III's slight frame would drive him down to late in the first round, and that is just not going to happen. I can't say I'd be thrilled with a Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Kellen Moore, or Nick Foles in the first round, but if #KubiakBelievesInThem, I guess I could find a way to rationalize it.
Pros: As sad as it is to admit, it is probably true that DeMeco Ryans played his best football before the Texans became a good defense. While there were certain games in which he was phenomenal last season, he was not an impact player, nor was he consistently good. Nobody actually knows what kind of restructuring he did last offseason, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see that occur again this offseason. Darryl Sharpton is coming off a devastating quad tendon tear -- it is anyone's guess as to how he rebounds from that.
Cons: With Cushing in place, the second middle linebacker isn't really an impact player in the Wade Phillips scheme -- it would be pretty stunning to see a first-round pick used here, although I guess I can see it if I squint my eyes.
We're at a real crossroads here, Texans fans. There are two positions on the roster that I'd say make the most sense for a first-round pick: wideout and nose tackle. It would not be hard at all to replace Walter or Jones without using a first-rounder, and I don't know if my brain is mentally ready to accept a first-round Texans nose tackle. Because of that, the Texans are truly free to embrace Best Player Available. I would not be surprised by anything that happens with this pick. Trading up to get the last prospect on the board that they like makes sense. Trading down makes sense. Trading for future picks makes sense. This is a team that, due to the depth it has built and depending on what it does in free agency, has a wide range of options this offseason.
While I would be surprised if the Texans don't leave the draft with a couple of wide receivers, that doesn't necessarily mean they need to spend a first-round pick on one.