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Draft Strategy: Round Two

Now that both the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine and the Senior Bowl have come and gone, draft speculation season is in full swing.  Every day scores of people publish or update mock drafts in which opinions differ drastically.  The great thing about draft projection is that no matter how incorrect the draft speculation may be, no one can say with complete certainty that it is wrong until the draft, and even then mock drafts are rarely revisited in an effort to judge accuracy.  So, in the absence of indisputable facts, everyone believes steadfastly in their opinions, especially analysts employed by TV networks such as Todd McShay and Mel Kiper (Author’s Note:  The video is worth the watch if you have time).

Despite such an abundance of draft hypotheses, very little attention is paid to any of the picks that come after the 32nd.  The first round is usually as far as people think when it comes to the draft, and approval or disapproval of a team’s entire draft usually revolves around that pick.  First round picks are supposed to not only contribute immediately; they are designed to be the building blocks of the franchise for years to come.  Due to the notoriety of the first round, the significance of rounds 2-7 is often overlooked by analysts and the common fan, but not by NFL franchises.  Bill Belichick has been widely criticized for sending QB Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs for just a second round pick in this year’s draft, yet many believe that Belichick, who is known for his keen draft ability, prefers an extra second round pick to an expensive first rounder.  Whether you believe that or not, the fact that a second round draft choice was considered fair compensation for a QB who won 11 games a year ago is telling. 

History has shown us that NFL fans should pay nearly as much, if not equal, attention to the second round of the draft as the first.  Just last year several players who had immediate and sizable impacts were drafted in the second round, such as Donnie Avery, John Carlson, Eddie Royal, Matt Forte and DeSean Jackson.  If any team’s fan base had an excuse to overlook the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft though, it would be that of the Houston Texans.  The Texans dealt both their 2007 and 2008 second round selections in exchange for QB Matt Schaub.  Therefore, General Manager Rick Smith has never had the luxury of a second round choice, and Head Coach Gary Kubiak has only had one, but it’s safe to say he used it well.

This recent drought of second round picks has affected the Texan’s draft strategy significantly.  It put added pressure on an already difficult decision of who to draft in the first round.  Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak didn’t have the luxury of waiting 31 picks to see if a position of need could be addressed after a player with more upside, but not of a desperately needed position, was taken.  If a certain position such as DT or OT was essential for that year’s success, that needed to be addressed with the first round pick because there was no assurance that starting talent at that particular position would be available in the third round.  It was this realization that added to the trend of the Texans “reaching” for players before their time.

Even though Smith and Kubiak have made the best out of the situation, it is extremely beneficial to their overall draft strategy to have their second round pick this year.  As I stated previously, I believe that the first round selection will likely be an OLB, due to the Texans’ need and the available talent.  Although I feel comfortable with this assertion because of who I foresee will be available at the 15th pick, there is no guarantee that a DE, S, or DT doesn’t fall who has so much talent that Smithiak simply can’t resist.  That’s the purpose of the best-player-available strategy, which wouldn’t be possible without free agent signings like Antonio Smith and the presence of a second round pick.

See also - Draft Strategy:  Round One.

Assuming the Texans do select an OLB in the first round, I believe the choice in the second will be between S and DE.  Although DT play hasn’t been close to sufficient in recent years (especially that of Travis Johnson), I don’t believe the Texans will select a DT before the third round.  Johnson, along with young DTs Amobi Okoye (21) and Frank Okam (23), will probably be given a year under the tutelage of new Defensive Line Coach Bill Kollar to prove that they are quality players who were not able to succeed under former Defensive Coordinator Richard Smith’s questionable system.  Even if I’m off the mark in that assumption, there isn’t a DT I’ve seen worth selecting before the safeties and DEs who will still be on the board in the second.

Even with the acquisition of Antonio Smith and the retention of Eugene Wilson, both the DE and FS positions need depth at the very least, and possibly a starter of the future if one can be found.  Wilson wasn’t paid excessively enough to warrant surefire full time starting status, and Smith can be part of an effective rotation.  After CC Brown left to sign with the Giants, the Texans are left with Nick Ferguson and Dominique Barber at SS, and that's not sufficient.  None of the three positions are drastically needed more than the others, so whatever player Kubiak and Smith deem to have the most talent will likely be selected, no matter the position they play. 

There are a total of two DEs, two FSs and two SSs who I believe would be good selections for the Texans in the second round.  As opposed to the first round, it is much more difficult to say with certainty who will be available with the 46th overall pick, but I believe that out of the six players I have selected as possibilities, at least 2-3 will still be on the board.  They are listed by position with no order given to personal preference.

Robert Ayers/DE/University of Tennessee (Video Highlights)

Pros – At 272 pounds, Ayers already has the size to play in the NFL.  He set career highs in tackles (49) and tackles for loss (15.5), which shows his impressive run stuffing ability.  Ayers played at LDE in college but he has the ability to play either side.  His amazing showing at the Senior Bowl week culminated in Defensive MVP honors.

Cons – Doesn’t have the elite burst possessed by most speed rushers.  Additionally, Ayers was arrested in 2005 for aggravated assault.  His obvious talent didn’t translate onto the field until his senior season, leading Ayers’ motivation to be questioned.

Analysis – Ayers answers questions of his character and motivation by admitting his mistake and pointing out that he was named as a team captain prior to his senior year because of his strong work ethic previous to the season, a sentiment that Tennessee coaches have echoed.  Ayers would be a great pick for the Texans because he could spend his rookie year filling in for Williams at RDE or Smith at LDE.  In my opinion, Ayers is the best all-around true 4-3 DE in the draft, but as such he will unfortunately not likely be available at 46.

Michael Johnson/DE/Georgia Tech (Video Highlights)

Pros – Johnson, one of the most physically talented prospects in the entire draft, looked amazing at the Combine as expected.  At 6’7”, Johnson seems like he was born to be a speed rushing DE.  Johnson finished his senior year with 17.5 tackles for a loss and 9 sacks.  He still has a lot of room to put more weight on his frame.

Cons – Johnson has been the model of inconsistency.  Scouts criticize his statistics because a lot of them came against weaker competition.  Some have accused Johnson of lacking motivation.  Mike Mayock went as far as to compare Johnson to physically talented Vernon Gholston, drafted 7th overall in 2008 after his amazing Combine performance but extremely ineffective as a rookie.

Analysis – A lot of people assume that Johnson’s talent will incite a team to take him in the first round; some had even speculated we would before our acquisition of Antonio Smith.  Even though his ceiling is high because of his talent, his motivational concerns cause his floor to be too low to warrant first round selection.  I doubt the Texans have a shot at him with the 46th, but if they did, they should snag him.  If he ever realized his full potential, he would be an amazing NFL player.  His ceiling is as high as any player in the draft, though his floor is much lower as well.

Louis Delmas/FS/Western Michigan (Video Highlights)

Pros – Delmas flies around the field with reckless abandon and doesn’t shy away from a hit.  Delmas had a good showing during Senior Bowl week, which helped his exposure after playing his college career at a small school. 

Cons – Scouts' main concern for Delmas is his coverage ability, specifically the fluidity of swinging his hips or lack thereof.  My biggest concern from the little I saw of him in game footage or during the Senior Bowl coverage was that he doesn’t wrap up very well.  His 12 bench reps suggest he’s not the strongest guy in the world, and he plays like that’s true.

Analysis – I’m not huge on Delmas personally.  He might be a great athlete, but if you can’t cover deep and you’re not a sure tackler, I don’t really care if you make a big hit every now and then.  Delmas might develop with coaching, but I personally don’t like what I saw.

Sean Smith/CB-FS/University of Utah (Video Highlights)

Pros – Smith is big (6’3”/215) and aggressive.  Smith’s amazing talent directly contributed to Utah’s undefeated season.  Scouts are worried that Smith is not fast enough to play CB in the NFL, but they do believe his style of play is tailor-made for FS.  Smith was known in college for not only the aggressive hits he laid but being a sure tackler.  Smith has 9 career interceptions in the two years he started.  He also showed that he is dangerous with the ball in his hands by averaging 30 yards per INT and scoring once.

Cons – Smith’s height could be a disadvantage, according to NFL scouts.  Several DB’s his size have failed in the NFL because of lack of agility.  Smith’s mental discipline has been questioned in the past, but apparently he impressed NFL personnel during interviews at the Combine. 

Analysis – I like Smith a lot.  Toward the end of the season, I watched a couple of Utah games and I really liked what I saw.  Smith is extremely physical and supported the run amazingly well for a CB.  If he worked as a CB, the Texans could use him, but if they drafted him and Frank Bush decided to switch him to FS, I think he would be an upgrade.

Patrick Chung/SS/University of Oregon (Video Highlights)

Pros – Chung is an impressive player.  Chung has been called the most versatile safety in the draft because he does everything well.  He’s no corner, but he covers extremely well for a SS.  He not only hits ball carriers but runs through them--the way you’re supposed to tackle.  At 5’11”, he’s a solid 212 pounds but still ran a 4.49 40.  Chung started an impressive 51 games at Oregon where he was known as both an on and off the field leader.  He’s also a special teams stud.

Cons – Chung’s biggest negative is his height, but there’s not much else to pick apart.  He doesn’t have elite speed, and his passion can sometimes cause him to over-pursue.  Even though his talents are good across the board, none of them would probably be considered great.

Analysis – Chung is the kind of player who would be great for the Texans’ locker room.  Even though he didn’t start playing football until right before high school, he became a top draft prospect in 6 years through hard work.  Chung seems like the kind of player who would play with a chip on his shoulder when confronted with criticisms of size and talent.

William Moore/SS/University of Missouri (Video Highlights)

Pros – Moore is by far the best run supporting safety in the draft.  He hits like a LB, which is why Mizzou played him up in the box so much last year.  Even though Moore has had injuries, he hasn’t let them keep him off the field.  He plays with a great deal of passion.

Cons – Moore’s coverage deficiency was exploited last year.  Even though he started his college career as a CB, his biggest deficiency toward the end was what got him recruited in the first place.  Also, Moore has had several injuries including foot, ankle, rib and shoulder ailments.

Analysis – Moore, as many of you remember, was the sexy pick for the Texans at 15 just a couple of months ago.  Then his bowl game and Senior Bowl week performances caused his stock to plummet.  Moore is a team player, which might have caused him to fall out of the first round of the draft; he spent the season as a SS/OLB hybrid because that’s what the Tigers’ defense needed him to do.  To play this run stuffing role, he played at 235 pounds, and took even more of a pounding than he would normally.  By the time he performed at the Combine and his pro day, his injuries had healed and he weighed a more comfortable 221 pounds.  All of the sudden he looked great, not only in the timed drills but also in positional drills which included coverage.  As long as an NFL team recognizes that he’s not a LB, he could be a steal in the second round.  We’re talking about a player who recorded 8 interceptions in 2007.  Moore could be elite if he was used in the right capacity.

In a perfect world, we would have our pick of the six players, but this likely won’t be the case.  Since the Texans are hopefully drafting in a best-player-available mentality, however, it is necessary to rank the players in order of desire.  For me it is this:

1.  Michael Johnson – I can’t resist his upside despite the risk.

2.  William Moore – His injuries scare me, but he is a tough player that could be elite if used correctly.

3.  Robert Ayers – He is a step below Moore because when Moore is healthy, his upside is higher.

4.  Patrick Chung – He is likely at #2 instead if the Texans deem they cannot live without a SS capable of starting 16 games in 2009.

5.  Sean Smith – I like him a lot, and he would be higher if he had more experience playing FS.

6.  Louis Delmas – I’m having second thoughts putting him in the top 6, but we need help at S and he might get better.

These are my thoughts on the second round.  Feel free to tell me if you agree or disagree with any of the players I listed or the order in which I arranged them.  Remember, silence is just as good as agreement, so let me know what you think is incorrect.