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Did The Texans' Best 2009 Draft Decision Come In February?

These days I spend a lot of time contemplating the proceedings of April 25th and 26th, a/k/a the 2009 NFL Draft.  I find myself dissecting every piece of NFL news or rumor for the purpose of analyzing how it will affect the Texans’ draft.  In my opinion there are two distinct parts of the offseason, and the draft is the end of one offseason (where teams jockey with each other for players, whether they are free agents or draftees) and the beginning of another offseason (where teams evaluate and coach the players they have assembled).  Yet, the draft is appealing not only because it is the transition point of the NFL offseason, but also because it makes every NFL fan, casual and diehard alike, believe they can be general manager.  I am no different.

The mistake that most amateur draft prognosticators often make while predicting a specific team’s draft is that they speculate on each pick separately.  No general manager picks this way.  I’m sure most, if not all, G.M.s would tell you that while there is a little wiggle room, you have to go into the draft with a specific strategy.  That strategy is simply a result of identifying your team’s needs, prioritizing those needs and coming up with plan to adapt those priorities to the talent available when you pick.  Juggling needs, priorities and talent in just the right way in order to produce a good draft is extremely difficult.  The Texans, however, made that task considerably easier for themselves over the weekend. 

Note from the Author:  This post is about a day or two late and I apologize.  Things came up.

On Saturday, the Texans signed DE Antonio Smith to a 5 year, $35 million dollar contract that included $12.5 million guaranteed.  The majority of the reactions to the Smith acquisition among Texans fans seem to be generally lukewarm, with minorities on both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum.  This being said, if you have the same tendency that I do and immediately analyzed how this affected our draft, you were probably on the positive end of the spectrum.

It’s wasn’t that difficult to identify the Texans’ needs at the end of the 2008 season.  The Offense that ranked 3rd in the league, which, while not perfect, did not need nearly as much help as a defense that ranked 22nd.  Despite having Mario Williams, our pass rush was abysmal and we needed a bookend defensive end to play opposite of him.  Zac Diles and Xavier Adibi played well when on the field and proved to be great late round selections, but both showed some inability to stay healthy and therefore the Texans could have used more depth at linebacker.  As noted by Chris at HoustonDiehards, the Texans have never put much stock in drafting safeties, which has translated to less than stellar play historically.  In my opinion, these were the three biggest needs at the beginning of the offseason. 

Placing a priority on our needs is always much more difficult than identifying them.  There has been a long standing chicken-egg style debate as to whether immediate help at pass rush will help the coverage or vice versa.  While tempted to take the obvious, fence-straddling stance of “both”, I tend to stray more to the pass rush in order to help the coverage argument.  As such, DE was the number one priority at the beginning of the offseason.  In a 4-3 defense, one legitimate DE is simply not enough, which Texans fans learned the hard way last year.  As for deciding on the second spot, it was a tie between LB and S.  My thinking was it would be smart to transform a good LB corps to a great one for first year defensive coordinator Frank Bush, who was not only a former LB coach but also used to play the position as well, and the prospect of having a S that can make even half of the impact plays that Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu is tantalizing.

Since both positions need to be addressed, the talent depth at both positions would break the tie.  Our need for a competent DE was so great though that our draft strategy was in danger of changing from “best defensive player available” to “best defensive end available,” which might have caused us to reach.  Reaching isn’t necessarily bad because you never get a good player; it’s bad because by taking a good player too early you often miss out on other good players who might be able to help elsewhere.  The only way we could truly have a "best defensive player available" mentality and therefore avoid the possibility of reaching for a DE was to do something to address the need before the draft.  In other words, acquire a free agent.

Free agency acquisition is a difficult endeavor in which the Texans haven’t shown a great deal of prowess in the past.  High-priced free agents rarely play well enough to justify the small fortune you have to spend to outbid other teams.  On the other hand, as with anything in life, if you pay someone dirt you rarely get anything in return but dirt.  With this in mind and based on the DEs available in free agency, Antonio Smith was a brilliant middle-of-the-road choice. 

Smith is 6’4”/285 pounds, which allows him to play LDE.  He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2004 draft and was active for only 14 games in his first two seasons.  His coaches, however, claim that he is an incredibly hard worker, which has allowed him to get better every season.  His 14.5 career sacks shouldn’t blow you away, but he was utilized more for his run stuffing abilities, evident by his 84 tackles over the last two seasons.  He also increased his stock significantly by his excellent postseason play, includeing a forced fumble in the Super Bowl.  But none of this is new to you.  Those who like the move believe the stats and the notion that his full potential has not yet been reached.  Those who don’t like the move the similarities between Smith and Anthony Weaver abound and the late season improvement suggests he was playing for a contract.  No matter which category you fall under, you should be happy.  It’s a win/win situation.

It’s obvious to the point of insulting your intelligence to say that if Smith plays well it should be considered a win, but think about it for a second.  We’re paying him $7 million a year on average, which is pretty low by D-Line free agent standards.  Would you have given Anthony Weaver an extra $3.4 million for 5.5 sacks last year?  If Smith does not progress or regress at all, that’s what you’ll get.  He’s only 27 years old, so the notion that he can still get better isn’t a crazy one, especially considering the increased playing time he’ll see in Houston.

If he doesn’t do well, we have other options.  By not going after a higher priced DE like Chris Canty or Julius Peppers, the Texans aren’t putting all their eggs in one basket.  Peppers would have likely cost us something in the range of a first and second round picks just to have the privilege to turn around and sign him to a contract comparable to the one Haynesworth just received, and Canty just cost the Giants $42 million including $17.25 million in guarantees.  If we paid that amount, it would be hard to justify drafting another DE.  As it stands now it is still logical to draft a DE as early as the second round, and that might be perfect.

On first glance, the talent at the DE position looks deep in this year’s draft, but that might be deceiving.  Many of the “top DE prospects” will likely be converted to 3-4 pass rushing specialist LBs (or "Jack LBs," as they’re sometimes called).  Brian Orakpo, Aaron Maybin, Larry English, and Connor Barwin might all be playing LB this time next year.  This considerably thins out the crowd for us, considering we are looking for a true 4-3 DE.  Michael Johnson and Robert Ayers are two of the highest rated classic 4-3 DE’s.  Taking either one of them with the 15th overall pick would be way too early, but both would be considered a steal with the 46th overall pick.  By not having to reach for one in the first round, we can help our pass rush by drafting a SLB capable of rushing the passer, and hope we can pick up the DE of the future in the second or third round. 

Even if Smith doesn’t play well, he’ll be good for our unknown rookie DE’s development.  Say for conversation's sake we end up drafting Johnson.  Johnson is still undersized and would not defend against the run well, so even if our pass defense would benefit from the increased pressure on the quarterback, our rush defense would suffer.  Smith is big and athletic enough that he can move to the inside on passing downs, and has had success at getting to the QB from the interior, which would be ideal for Frank Bush’s “D lineman getting down the field” scheme.  This would allow Mario to play LDE and Johnson RDE on 3rd down.  That’s quite a combination.  If the Texans had not picked up Smith and reached for Johnson in the first, we would have been up in arms over selecting a player before his time who could only get on the field for third downs.

So we covered the obvious win-win situation if Smith plays well in our system.  If he doesn’t play well, it’s still an improvement over Weaver and hopefully we select the right rookie to eventually replace Smith once he learns the NFL and bulks up.  It’s not like we paid him a fortune, and his contract seems to be structured in a way that it won't put us in a bind to cut him if he turns out to be a flop (although with a possible uncapped year on the horizon, nothing is certain).  Furthermore, we still have the cap space to re-sign Dunta, DeMeco and Owen to long term deals if Rick Smith so chooses. 

The ultimate win is if both Smith and the rookie pan out.  One attribute that great defenses have in common is the element of unpredictability.  Imagine how different it would be if opposing left and right tackles suddenly had to prepare for Williams, Smith and Ayers during the week prior because they didn’t know who was going to line up across from them on Sunday, as opposed to preparing for just Williams as they undoubtedly did in 2008.

The Giants' defensive philosophy the last five years has been that you can’t have enough quality DEs.  Look where it has gotten them.  Consequently, New York was Smith's next stop for a team visit, but he never made it.  I usually don’t subscribe to the “other people like him so he must be good” line of thinking, but not many defenses put more of an emphasis or have more success with pressure than the G-men do, and that is what we crave.  Overall, I’m happy with the move because it gives the Texans' draft strategy wiggle room.  What do you think, BRB?