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Draft Strategy: Round One

While discussing Antonio Smith’s positive influence on the Texans’ draft, I alluded to the concept of a draft strategy and how important it is.  I described a draft strategy as the result of identifying your team’s needs, prioritizing those needs and coming up with a plan to adapt those priorities to the talent available when you pick.  That strategy is akin to a team’s path through the draft proceedings.  Like any path though, you can’t see the rest of the path until you see the beginning.  The entire strategy hinges on who you select with your first pick.  The Texans’ supposed intention is to take whoever is the best defensive player available with at least this pick, which is now possible because of the acquisition of Antonio Smith.  Now comes the multi-million dollar question--who’s it going to be?

Unfortunately, not even Miss Cleo's psychic hotline can tell us who is going to be selected before the 15th pick or whether any teams will be willing to trade up with us for a particular player they can’t live without.  Opinions differ, but it’s best for our purpose to assume a worst case scenario that is still realistic.  In this scenario, Aaron Curry, Everette Brown, Brian Orakpo, BJ Raji, Malcolm Jenkins and Rey Maualuga are all off the board by the time we are on the clock.  Vontae Davis has a chance of sneaking in there as well, but I wouldn’t cry over this and I doubt any other Texans fans would either. I assume that if somehow Brown, Orakpo, Raji or Jenkins fell to us, it would be a quick decision, but I would rather be pleasantly surprised in that event than devastated that a guy we were unrealistically counting on didn’t make it to us.

As for the trade situation, one of the crazy transactions since the beginning of free agency has cause to give us hope; well, a near transaction to be more precise.  Josh McDaniels, the newly minted Denver Broncos coach, fell flat on his face over the weekend after it became public that he tried to trade franchise quarterback Jay Cutler.  What’s more interesting from our perspective is who the potential recipients were: Detroit and Tampa Bay.  We’ve covered the possibility of Detroit wanting to trade up from 20 to get Sanchez, but Tampa is somewhat of a new case.  They convinced almost everyone, including me, that Luke McCown was going to be under center for them during the 2009 season.  It could be that they couldn’t pass up the prospect of getting a talent like Cutler, or more likely that they’re not comfortable with McCown & Co. but were telling everyone that for the purpose of a little misdirection.  Either way, if I was Rick Smith I would at least start a dialogue with Tampa about a trade for our pick.  Also, Detroit will probably be even more interested in trading up with us after the revelation that Tampa might be targeting a QB in the first round.

Even though we speak about trading down as if it is a no-brainer, it may not be.  While the Jets, Bears and Bucs (in case we trade with Detroit) are all likely to take offensive players exclusively, the Chargers may not.  If San Diego manages to keep Tomlinson, their desire to draft a RB in the first round will replaced by their need for an OLB.  By trading down, we have to assume that at least one more OLB prospect will be gone than if we picked at 15.  This possibility could be considerably significant.

DT, DE, and S are all pressing areas the Texans should address in the draft, but the need for an OLB surpasses them in my opinion.  The interior of the defensive line was abysmal last year, but with two former first round picks currently at the DT position, the Texans will likely draft for this position in the later rounds and see if Frank Bush and Bill Kollar can get better performances out of Amobi Okoye and Travis Johnson in their linemen-get-up-the-field style of defense.  Although S is a glaring need, there probably isn’t one good enough to take in the first round (unless my man-crush slips).  DE was probably the biggest need at the outset of free agency, but the Texans helped themselves immensely by signing Antonio Smith.  Due to this help, it’s probably too much of a reach to select either Robert Ayers or Michael Johnson, who will likely be the best 4-3 DE prospects available at 15.

That leaves OLB, the position that I and others assume the Texans will concentrate on in the first round.  We need someone that can step in and start in 2009, preferably by Week 1.  Also, it would be beneficial to select a LB can play from either the strong side or weak side.  In 2008, Xavier Adibi and Zac Diles both showed huge potential for the future, but unfortunately both were victims of injuries.  Adibi’s lack of size limits him almost exclusively to the WLB position, while Diles excelled at WLB with 66 tackles in eight games; his 240 pounds would probably allow him to play SLB as well.  Ideally, whoever we select has the ability to play either side, allowing Bush to develop some kind of rotation, which would add to the attractive unpredictability factor I've spoken of before.

It takes a talented linebacker to be able to play from either the weak or strong side.  SLBs commonly have to shed blocks from fullbacks, tight ends and tackles, which requires size and strength.  WLBs commonly have to cover RBs in both zone and man coverage on passing plays and also chase down running plays from behind, all of which requires speed.  The ability to play both WLB and SLB requires a great deal of intelligence in order to fully understand the nuances of both positions.  Hopefully Bush will implement blitz packages for this unknown rookie from both outside positions in an effort to fool opposing offenses.

It will take an extremely talented player to fulfill all of these requirements.  Luckily, this year’s draft class features an exceptionally deep pool of LBs.  Once you weed out linebackers that are unable to do everything we need them to do, however, the field gets pretty small.  In my estimation, there are three LBs that may be able step in and fill our void: Clint Sintim, Clay Matthews Jr. and Brian Cushing.

Clint Sintim, University of Virginia (Video Highlights)

Pros – Sintim shows non-stop drive when he is on the attack.  Sintim started all four years as one of the OLBs in Virginia’s 3-4 defensive scheme, which is unique at the college level.  While playing in the 3-4, Sintim’s ability to rush the passer was displayed by his 26 career sacks, 10 of them coming in his senior year.  Once he gets a head of steam he often simply runs over would-be blockers instead of running around them.

Cons – Sintim’s lack of speed will not translate well to rushing the passer on the professional level.  He performs exceptionally at the point of attack on run plays, but has shown an inability to track down and tackle ball carriers in the open field; a trait that was identified during the Senior Bowl week.  Due to this shortcoming, some coaches and scouts are speculating that Sintim would be most successful after a switch to ILB.

Analysis – Sintim is a talented player, but he would probably not be good for our system.  In fact, even though he has the skills to play either in a 4-3 or 3-4, it would almost be a waste to not utilize him in the latter since he already has a four year head start.  I believe one of the teams drafting toward the end of the first round who utilize the 3-4 will end up swiping him, but the 15-20 range where we’ll likely be picking is too early to take a player that doesn’t fully fit.

Clay Matthews Jr., University of Southern California (Video Highlights – sorry they're cheesy)

Pros – Matthews never quits both on and off the field.  The rare mixture of premier football genetics and snubs due to late development has led to Matthews having an extremely good talent to work ethic ratio.  Matthews was utilized as a DE/OLB hybrid in college, and showed talent at both rushing the quarterback and in pass coverage.  Incredibly quick for his size, Matthews would probably improve drastically as a pass rusher after obtaining more experience.  There is also very little injury concern with Matthews.

Cons – Only started his senior year, so there’s very little on-the-field play to evaluate.  While no one questions Matthews' drive, some scouts have whispered concerns that he simply doesn’t have the physical ability to be an elite NFL LB.  Has shown some problems shedding blocks, which would hinder his ability to play SLB, which is where the Texans' need is greatest for next year.

Analysis – He definitely has the character to fit in instantly in our locker room, and if it is possible for him to continue to develop physically, there is no question he would put in the effort to do so.  At the Combine, he actually stated that he would love to play in Houston as he has fond memories of the city from visiting his uncle, who consequently now coaches for the Texans. Quite the coincidence.  If he could continue to get stronger and learn from Bush, who’s forte is LBs, he could be a perfect fit.

Brian Cushing, University of Southern California (Video Highlights)

Pros – Some of us BRB regulars often badmouth Cushing for various reasons, but there’s a reason why he’ll be drafted in the first round.  Cushing is a blue chipper who started all four years for one of the best college programs in the country.  Out of the three listed, Cushing has the best overall run stopping ability, both near the line and in open space.  Cushing has also shown some ability to rush the passer.

Cons – Injuries are a huge concern, especially since most of them deal with his legs.  Even though he was a starter from the beginning of his career, 2008 was the only year in which he had decent stats because it was his first full season.  Steroid allegations are still on the periphery of discussion, which cause some scouts to speculate that he won’t be able to maintain his physical state in the NFL due to stricter testing procedures.  Additionally, Cushing rarely finished pressure on the quarterback with sacks.

Analysis – I am an admitted naysayer when it comes to Cushing.  One of my biggest complaints is that while he makes a decent amount of tackles, he doesn’t seem to HIT people that often.  And why roll the dice on someone who already has had persistent knee and ankle injuries?  Many people thought he would perform much better at the Combine, specifically in the 40, because they had seen him run much faster before.  Well, the kid knew he was going to be tested, and all of the sudden he’s running a full .15 seconds slower and everyone is shocked.  Something smells.

While I feel that my reasoning for the Texans to select an OLB with their first pick is sound, I have to admit that bias likely influenced not only my selection of potential prospects for our first pick, but also the analysis of those players chosen.  People could make very convincing cases for Brian Cushing, Clint Sintim, and others I didn’t even list, but in the end I think Matthews has the best potential to fill our need.  If we do pick Matthews, people will undoubtedly use the usual description of "reach" to describe him.  That, in all actuality, would probably be the best thing we could hope for, because Matthews has made it his business to prove personal doubters wrong. 

Now I’d like to hear from you, BRB faithful.  Which of these three, or any of the other LBs in the draft, do you think would fit best for the Houston Texans?