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Texans Secondary: The Great Unknowns

DENVER - DEC 26, 2010:  Jason Allen making a play.
DENVER - DEC 26, 2010: Jason Allen making a play.

In our never-ending quest to solve the riddles of last season's defense, let's take a look at the secondary. I know it's painful and there are still questions in the much sexier front seven, but at least we have the personnel for the front seven on the roster (true NT notwithstanding). The secondary, on the other hand (actually it's on Hanson's shriveled, little hand from Scary Movie 2), has more question marks than the Battle Red Bag.

We do know a lot of the names that are currently on the roster and the names of those we would like to see on the roster (even if we can't spell all of them). But we don't know who will be in the eventual lineup and who will play which positions. To quote former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know." Who knew he was such a Texans fan and so in tune with our defensive needs? Take the jump and wander (or should I say wonder?) with me and the real Donald through the knowns and unknowns of the Texans secondary.

So what are the "known knowns"? We know Houston's pass defense ranked dead last in the NFL last season, giving up 267.5 yards per game. We also know they made less-than-average to average QBs look stellar: Mark Sanchez, David Garrard, Tim Tebow, Bruce Gradkowski, Kerry Collins, and Matt Cassel all posted 100+ QB ratings against the Texans last season. (Sorry to the other QBs for lumping them in with Sanchez.)

Last season the Texans had Glover Quin as the #1 CB and Kareem Jackson as the #2 CB, while Jason Allen, Brice McCain, Sherrick McManis, Antwuan Molden, and Karl Paymah provided depth. In the draft, we added cornerbacks Brandon Harris and Roc Carmichael in the 2nd and 4th rounds, respectively. Last season, the starting free safety was Eugene Wilson (he fooled someone into believing it), and Bernard Pollard started at strong safety. Wilson was cut after Wade was hired, and Pollard is a free agent who hasn't been tendered an offer. While Pollard was good at stopping the run, Wade needs safeties that can cover, so he had to go and he'll be missed. Eugene Wilson was good at blowing coverages and missing tackles, so he should have never been here and he will only be missed by opposing quarterbacks. Last year's depth at safety included: Troy Nolan, Dominique Barber, Torri Williams, Quintin Demps, and Antonio Baker. Shiloh Keo was added in the 5th round of this year's draft.

This brings us to the first of our "known unknowns": Which positions will these guys play next season? Let's start at the corners and work our way in. We know that Glover Quin was our best CB last season because Kubiak was quoted saying so in March. Granted, this happened while he was explaining that it might not be in the team's best interest to move him to free safety, even though scouts, coaches, media-types and fans have been suggesting that move since he was drafted in 2009. In all fairness to Kubiak, he was pointing out that Quin was the only competent corner on the roster and barring the addition of new talent, he fills a bigger hole by staying at corner.

What a difference a few months and another perspective make. Earlier this month, when Wade Phillips was asked about Quin, he said, "His best abilities would be at safety, and we're going to look at that." Fans (and Wade) hope Quin can move to free safety to plug the huge hole that was never filled by Eugene Wilson. (Damn, by typing his name a third time I just enabled someone to catch a pass and evade a tackle somewhere in the universe.) However, as Kubiak pointed out before, the Texans must secure both CB spots before making that move.

Some could rightfully argue that Wade's statement is just a subtle shift in language from what has been said before. But like others, I think this means Wade has already penciled Quin in at free safety. Sure, he won't make final position and roster choices until he's had a chance to evaluate everyone in training camp, but to go forward he must have some kind of roadmap for where his new defense is headed...especially where it pertains to obtaining new personnel. I think Wade has recognized a few immutable facts in his new employment situation that are guiding how he maps out the future of the Texans' D:

Wade's Axioms of Texans Truth

  1. Smith and McNair are hard to squeeze free agents from.
  2. Smith and Kubiak cannot evaluate defensive talent.
  3. Although Quin was the best CB on the roster, he isn't a great CB.
  4. Since Wade's systems tend to require at least one great man-to-man corner, you better get one out of free agency.
  5. Whatever free agent help a coach is lucky enough to get out of Smith/McNair will inversely impact his ability to extract anything else from Smith/McNair.
  6. Quin will make a better free safety. Not only better than he was as a CB, but also better than any free agent free safety you will likely get from Smith/McNair after getting that great CB (see Axiom #5).
  7. If you are lucky enough to get that great free agent CB and insist on a SS as well, then you better prepare for a mediocre SS like Gerald Sensabaugh. (Just tell everyone he already knows the playbook you haven't written yet.)
  8. After landing that great CB and mediocre SS, you better not even think about asking for a 2-gap NT in free agency! (Just tell everyone you love Earl Mitchell's motor and respect Shaun Cody's experience.)

Given these conditions, who can blame Wade for penciling in Quin at FS? Or for convincing Smith to trade up for Brandon Harris and grabbing Roc Carmichael and Shiloh Keo in the draft? Assuming Wade squeezes his great, man-to-man cornerback out of Smith (whomever that happens to be has already been discussed ad nauseum); who mans the other corner? We know that last year's first round answer to Dunta Robinson is quick and competitive, but lacks "deep" speed (according to Wade). That might explain why KJax was targeted 94 times, gave up 50 completions, and surrendered the second most yards of any defensive back in the NFL last season. In KJax's defense, he did give up only four touchdowns, while five of his teammates gave up more. See? He is competitive. We also know that new defensive backs coach Vance Joseph thinks that KJax "needs a lot of work on his man-to-man technique" and makes a better zone corner. Considering Wade's penchant for using man-to-man coverage schemes, this is a troubling revelation about a potential starting CB. On the bright side, Wade and Vance think KJax has a lot of "coachable" problems. Whew!

We also know Joseph likes him some Jason Allen at corner. He told Nick Scurfield in a May 26th interview on the Texans' official website, "He made some plays. That guy does some things that make you really, really excited. I'm looking forward to him playing corner for an entire training camp. Because his entire career, he's been in between safety and corner. I want to see him play corner and see how good he can be. He was a first-round pick out of college, so somebody saw something in the guy. He can play. He just needs more corner reps. He's got long arms, he's tall, he can run. So we'll see." Somebody sounds like they got a man crush while watching all that video. Maybe Allen will be Miami's Travis Johnson...

Vance also seems high on Brice McCain and Sherrick McManis. "I like Brice," Joseph said. "I watched every practice from last year, camp and the fall, and watching the one-on-one stuff, Brice was one of our better one-on-one players from playing press and playing off-man. He's got a unique skill which is speed that we can always use. And McManis is a tough guy. That's his unique quality, and toughness wins games. Speed wins games. So those qualities are definitely going to be used. I like both of those guys."

Besides the "unique skill which is speed" line, that sounded like good stuff. (I'm still not sure what the speed line means about the secondary as a whole.) Maybe the secondary depth is not as bad as we thought? Maybe Frank Bush was the whole problem. Or maybe Joseph is just putting on a good face for the official team website. Then again, I wouldn't want to be Antwaun Molden's agent after Joseph summed him up by saying, "He's a gifted enough guy, and I'm hoping the light comes on." I'm guessing that's one guy not likely to grab that CB2 spot. Assuming the CB2 is someone from the current roster, I would bet on Allen winning out over KJax at this point. But I would still consider this a known unknown.

Speaking of known uknowns, it sounds like Vance is well aware of Rick Smith's reluctance to sign top-end talent for the secondary and is sifting through the ashes desperate to find something to be positive about. He said this about safety, Troy Nolan: "He's a guy who's capable of doing it right. That's important." Sounds like somebody is really hoping for Wade's 7th Axiom to come true, or maybe he's hoping the 5th round pick, Shiloh Keo, can take the job. Joseph told Scurfield, "Keo, I'm assuming after we get him here, you're going to want two or three more like him." That sounds to me like code for, "He's going to be a great special teamer!" I'm going with Wade's 7th Axiom here: Sensabaugh as starting SS and Nolan backs him up. Yeah, still a known unknown.

That takes care of the starters in the base set: Free Agent X at CB1; KJax/Allen/? at CB2; Quin at FS and Sensabaugh at SS. However, the nickel and dime corners will be pretty damn important as well. Listen to what Vance Joseph said about the two corners Wade selected in the draft: "Brandon Harris is going to be a pro from day one. And I think Roc's going to be fine. He's a competitive little guy. He wants to be great." Combine those assessments (yes, that is déjà vu) with Wade's 2nd Axiom, and I doubt Antwuan Molden or Karl Paymah make the roster. I'm guessing Brandon Harris for the nickel spot and Roc Carmichael for the dime.

But this is definitely an "unknown unknown" area. What if Allen, Harris or Carmichael take the CB2 job? I could see that happening and KJax would probably end up as the nickel. Or maybe Wade sees all those zone skills and lack of deep speed as reasons to have him backup Quin at FS. That might save one of the CBs on the bubble, but would increase the number of safeties that have to be cut. Either way, I'm guessing Torri Williams, Quintin Demps and Antonio Baker are the safeties on the outs. Then again, we're definitely getting into some serious unknown unknowns here... so, what do I know?