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Battle Red Blog Interview with Wes Bunting

Wes Bunting is the head draft analyst for the National Football Post and one of the most respected draft guys in the business these days.  If you don’t already read his stuff at NFP, he puts out a ton of interesting articles about prospects, rumors that he hears directly from scouts, and what teams are looking at which players.  His Twitter account is a must-follow as well.

Wes sat down and answered a few questions in our interview as we prepare for the draft and the 2011 Scouting Combine, which starts this week.  Follow the jump for Wes’ insight into the Houston Texans draft issues.

Jake:  It is highly unlikely that a new collective bargaining agreement will be done by the time of the draft.  How different do you think this draft will be because of the unique labor situation and what will some of those differences be?

Wes:  Well the first thing is that teams won’t have free agency to fill out team needs, so the NFL draft will be the first place to fill those needs.  I think that teams will go about putting their board together a little differently than if they had free agency.

Another interesting note is that consistently following the draft you could sign rookie free agents.  Teams would bring in 5, 10, even 15 guys sometimes.  With no CBA intact, there are no rookie free agents, so teams are only going to be able to add however many picks they have, be it 6 guys, 7 guys, whatever number that may be.  Typically only about one undrafted free agent will make a roster, but it gives good depth and lets teams know how many players at each position they have going into camp.  With this, they have no idea.

Jake:  Wow, that’s a really good point, I had never thought about that.  Let’s get into Texans related stuff now. Due to comments by owner Bob McNair and General Manager Rick Smith, it is widely assumed that newly hired defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is going to have a great deal of say about what defensive players are selected.  What do you know about Wade’s role in Dallas’ drafts while he was there and how much influence, if any, he had during that process?

Wes:  I really don’t know how much influence he had.  I know that Jerry Jones is the guy who makes final decisions.  I’m sure Wade wanted defensive players and they drafted a couple during his time, but I can’t really comment on that too much because I really don’t know.

Jake:  The Texans are switching to a 3-4, and don’t have a natural nose tackle on the roster.  You recently stated that there is a chance Baylor DT Phil Taylor may end up being a top 15 pick.  How realistic do you think that is, and could the Texans make that surprise move?

Wes:  It wouldn’t surprise me at all to be honest.  How realistic?  We would have said that there was zero percent chance that Tyson Alualu went in the top ten last year and he did, so there’s always a chance.  What makes it even more intriguing is that Phil Taylor is one of the few tackles in this year’s draft that not only is a really gifted guy; physical, plays strong, has an anchor, good athlete for his size, he can potentially anchor a 3-4 defense as a nose, but he’s also athletic enough to play the five technique.  So when you have a guy that fits perfectly into a 3-4 defense and you’re a 3-4 team like the Texans that have a lot of missing pieces in the front seven, getting a guy that could anchor your defense would be key.

At the same time, he does have some character issues.  He was kicked off the Penn State team and then transferred to Baylor.  He has had some weight issues and really only had one year of production, so there’s definitely some risk that goes with the reward with a guy like that.  I think 11 is too high for him, but I’ve been shocked before and when you have a talent like him, a lot of times teams will overlook those character concerns.

Jake:  If the Texans don’t pick a NT in the first round, who do you think would be the best value for where he could be drafted; keeping in mind that Wade Phillips has made smaller, penetrating NTs like Jay Ratliff work in the past?

Wes:  They’re not going to get a "good value" on a nose tackle in this year’s draft, first and foremost.  There’s not a lot of good nose tackles in this year’s draft and they will go at a premium.  They’re going to have to take a guy earlier than they might want to.  Kenrick Ellis from Hampton is a former South Carolina standout who got the boot off their team for what sources say was failing too many drug tests there, but he’s a 6’5", 340 pound guy who is a good athlete and is strong enough to anchor inside.  Jerrell Powe from Ole Miss is another potential nose tackle.  He’s 6’2", 340 pounds with a squatty, wide body.  He has some character issues as well, and some limited mental capabilities.  He’s also 24, so he’ll be considered an older prospect.  All of these guys have some concerns, but they’re going to go higher than they typically would or they deserve because there’s a lot of demand for these guys but not a lot of supply.

Jake:  What’s your take on some of the smaller defensive tackles like Marvin Austin or Stephen Paea and their ability to play in the one gap 3-4 defense that Wade Phillips employs, where taking on double blockers is not placed at a premium, but penetrating and getting behind the line of scrimmage is?

Wes:  You know, I had a discussion yesterday about Marvin Austin in a 3-4.  It’s a fit, but I think he has so much more value in a 4-3, especially in a one gap system.  Same thing with Paea, that I can’t see a team with a 3-4 team taking either of them before a 4-3 team does.  I think Austin has value in the second/third round range as a 4-3 guy.  I think Paea, if he wasn’t hurt, would have value at the end of the first but now he’s a second rounder.  I have a tough time seeing a 3-4 team taking one of those guys in the second round because you’re projecting what they can do as opposed to teams that feel comfortable because they know what they can do in a 4-3. 

I wrote a 3-4 article in which I listed the top nose tackles.  I listed Marvin Austin as the number four nose in the entire draft.  Do I think he’s going to play nose tackle in a 3-4 in the NFL?  No, but there’s not too many guys out there that have that skill set.  So I definitely think they’ll get looks.  I think Marvin Austin more so than Paea; I think Paea is a one gap guy in a 4-3.  At the same time, teams are going to have to reach on some of these guys because there are not too many players that have that skill set out there.

Jake:  There seems to be a lot of depth this year for five technique defensive ends in the draft.  How much separation do you think there is between your highest rated guys like Cameron Jordan and Marcell Dareus and the other tiers?

Wes:  There’s a good bit of talent that is NFL-ready initially at that position.  You look at Muhammad Wilkerson from Temple, he’s a 6’5", 300 pound kid with a good frame.  Same thing with Christian Ballard who is 6’3" and 300 pounds.  I just don’t think they’re as technically sound as a guy like Cameron Jordan.  Those guys can hold the point of attack and run sideline to sideline.  Jordan can do that as well, but he also offers some unique pass rush ability that allows you to kick him inside.

The Steelers this year did a great job with Ziggy Hood.  He learned how to two-gap playing the five technique, but then they would kick him inside to the nose in nickel situations where he was a bear to block inside.  I think that’s what you can do with a guy like Cam Jordan as well, whereas some of these other guys like Wilkerson and Ballard are not as natural at pass rushing at this stage.

Jake:  The Texans desperately need help at safety. which is one of the weaker positions in this year’s class.  You claimed that some scouts are looking at Prince Amukamara as a safety at the next level rather than a corner.  Which position do you think he’s best suited for, and what does this do to his draft position?

Wes:  I think t depends on what he runs at the Combine.  It’s tough to take a corner in the top ten if he runs 4.55.  If Amukamara runs in the low 4.4 range, teams are going to look at him exclusively as a corner.  You need straight line and recovery speed to play corner in the NFL.

I think Amukamara’s best attribute, to be honest with you, is his versatility.  I think he can play in the slot, I think he can play on the outside in press, and I think he can play off in zone.  You could even use him as a safety at times in dime situations when he comes down and plays over the slot and that way you wouldn’t have to take one of your safeties off the field for a corner.  That’s versatility.  He’s a good football player, I just don’t know if he’s a dynamic, shutdown corner.  In my opinion, he’s not, which is why I have a tough time taking him the top ten or even top fifteen picks.

Jake:  Connor Barwin was pegged by many as a 3-4 OLB before the 2009 draft because of his size and athleticism, so he seems like the most logical fit currently on the roster to play WOLB.  Assuming he’ll be fully healthy for next season, do you think the Texans should draft a linebacker to start over Barwin as the primary rusher or rather play on the other side to occasionally rush but also cover more?  Who do you think they should target to fill that role?

Wes:  I think you let Barwin earn his keep.  The Texans took him high a couple of years ago.  He played tight end for three years at Cincinatti before making the move to defensive end so he doesn’t have a ton of experience there.  He’s a high motor guy and a hard worker so I think they should give him a chance to be successful.  I think they should start him initially and see how far he can take it.

There are some intriguing guys later.  A guy like Reed Brooks from Arizona, or Donte Moch from Nevada; they’re mid-round rush guys that I think you take a look at for depth, but I definitely think you let Barwin start and see what he can do with it.

Jake:  Do you think there’s any merit with drafting a guy like Von Miller if he’s there or Akeem Ayers and starting them opposite Barwin as the other outside linebacker?

Wes:  If Von Miller is there you absolutely have to consider him, he’s one of the top players in the draft.  Akeem Ayers has never played rush linebacker in college, so we’d be making a projection for him.  Physically, he’s rushed with his hand on the ground.  He’s a strong kid, he’s explosive, and he runs pretty well… actually he runs really well.  At the same time he’s not a natural pass rusher, so I would a have a tough time taking a guy who’s never played 3-4 linebacker and doesn’t have a ton of experience rushing the passer, and asking him to do it in a 3-4 scheme in the NFL. 

Jake:  Finally, everyone assumes that the Texans’ draft will be very heavy on defensive players, but they also need a deep threat wide receiver to take away double coverage of Andre Johnson.  What is a logical round they might look to fulfill that need, and who are some of the candidates for that role?

Wes:  You have to peg it on the value that you get.  You don’t say "we’re going to take our deep threat receiver in this round".  You have your board in place.  You have players that fill needs and if they’re the best player on the board at the time of your pick you fill it out that way.  Titus Young, if he was there in the second to third round range, he would fill a need.  Torrey Smith from Maryland would also be good in the second to third round range as well.  Those are the two premier deep threat receivers in the draft.  Darvin Adams from Auburn would be a good example of someone with vertical speed that you could get late.  Depending on when you want to fill the need is when you start looking at guys.  That’s pretty much how it comes down to it.

Again, I can’t thank Wes enough for his time and knowledge about the draft.  I thought it was specifically interesting to hear his thoughts on undrafted free agents, as the Texans are usually a team that signs a lot of undrafted players every year.  Wes will be at the Combine, so make sure you check his account often for any update from Indianapolis.