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The Everlasting Rebuild Towards The Playoffs

Your Houston Texans have a philosophy. That philosophy is to build through the draft. A piece that Jake linked earlier yesterday earned the title of the entire links section "business as usual." While I applaud Mr. Bob McNair for not handing out paycuts or furloughs to his staff--which is the classy thing to do--the Texans' message continues to be one of patience and building:

 "We're prepared for the draft and free agency,"he said. "If free agency happens tomorrow, we know who we have an interest in. We've zeroed in on what we think our needs are, and we know who the people are who can help. We're ready to move. We haven't slacked off one bit.

"If there's a veteran player out there who can really help our team, we'll go after them, but we're not going to pay more than we think they're worth. We're not going to do something we think is crazy.

"It's more important to us to keep that core group of players together, so a lot of that money is used to re-sign our players. We also want to pick up additional players as we can, but most of our dollars go to keeping our players as they come up."

It's easy to look at a team like the Steelers, as it is with a lot of championship teams, and conclude that you need to model themselves after them. This team was built through the draft first and foremost, with a bit of patience sprinkled in. That's the approach the Texans continue to try to emulate. But what does that really mean? After all, many teams build through the draft, and only a few of them are successful at it. 

The first problem the Texans face in emulating this strategy is that they don't have an established talent base to begin with. Draft-and-develop works out a lot better for all parties involved when there's actually a team on the field that can play in the meantime. Pittsburgh is routinely able to give its guys developmental years because they actually have a good team on the ground. When the Texans started out in 2002, their plan was to have an established set of stars on defense, some developing players who they hoped became stars on offense, and some mud to cover the other positions. However, after the offense failed to develop, the older pieces on defense became injury-prone, ineffective, or both. 

Now, part of the reason that team failed is that the Texans drafted David Carr first overall, rather than, you know, a quarterback who was actually good. But a larger problem was simply poor scouting. Outside of Andre Johnson, Dunta Robinson, Jabar Gaffney, and Chester Pitts, the Texans walked away from their first four drafts with nobody who would start in the NFL for more than five seasons. While Robinson's injury probably robbed him of a chance to be a star, I think you can conclusively argue that only Johnson is actually in that echelon. 

Looking at the Steelers' drafts in the same four years that Casserly and Capers roamed Houston, the difference is immediately noticeable. Despite drafting lower, the Steelers picked up five players in 2002 alone that lasted more than five years as NFL starters. In one year, they beat the Texans' yield. In the next three, they added Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Max Starks, Heath Miller, Bryant McFadden, and Chris Kemoeatu, making the score completely lopsided. 

I've been fairly critical of the Texans for not going out and finding free agents to fill their holes. But the reason they have these gaps in the first place is that they don't draft well enough to cover their tracks. Have they been a little unlucky with injuries? Perhaps. But in a world where you need just about three starters per draft to stay competitive with other teams, the Texans have only had one draft since the Kubiak era started--2006--where they've actually managed to do that. Another thing you can't do is flub your first round picks--hello, Amobi Okoye and (so far) Kareem Jackson. What have the Steelers done since 06? Santonio Holmes, Willie Colon, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Rashard Mendenhall. These guys have all been killing it. Not to mention that Maurkice Pouncey (while overrated a bit this year) looks like he has all the tools to continue the tradition. 

So when I say that the Texans need to attack free agency aggressively to have a team that competes for more than the sixth seed in any given year, what I really mean is that if you flub "building through the draft," you need to be ready to infuse your team with reinforcements rather than question marks. Maybe the Texans have great scouts, maybe they don't---I don't know. I've only read a few stray comments from Director of Scouting Dale Strahm here or there. But if they aren't going to focus resources (i.e., "something crazy") on difference-making players, they better get their front office in tip-top shape so they start actually getting good at their self-proclaimed strategy. 

Otherwise, all we're building up to is another 2005, with the offense playing the role of the aging unit that needs to be re-tooled and the defense playing the role of the unit with a few decent young players surrounded by flops.