Well, this is it. The last regular season week of college football. The last chance you’ll get to see some of your favorite players on the gridiron until next August, when they will be fighting for their proverbial financial and professional lives in the NFL. Some of these young men are destined for first round glory; others are to be relegated to working their way up through practice squads and (relatively) meager pay checks. A lucky few will receive the honor of being a Houston Texan. The names that Roger Goodell will call in rounds one through seven in April are still up in the air, but what is known at this point is that there is a laundry list of players that you, as Texans fans, should be paying attention to.
Sheldon Richardson – DT, Mizzou
Game – Mizzou @ Texas A&M: 6:00 PM C.T.
You can never have enough pass rushers. The New York Giants have taught that lesson to the NFL twice in the last five seasons. Sheldon Richardson simply explodes off the tape as a backfield-disrupting, play-annihilating, offensive line-dominating freak of nature. Although projected as a top 25 pick at the moment, I firmly believe he should not escape the top 10. Star Lotulelei and Johnathan Hankins are getting most of the attention as the top two defensive tackles in this class, but Richardson should absolutely be put in their class. What separates these three prospects is size. Lotulelei and Hankins project as nose tackles and/or very, very large three-technique defensive tackles while Richardson, at 6’4" 295 lbs., is built (and plays like) more of a 3-4 defensive end. Considering that 3-4 DEs are not generally as high in demand as 4-3 DEs or a 4-3 DTs, Richardson has the potential to slip into the mid to late first round where Houston would be very, very tempted to trade up a few slots ahead of Pittsburgh and Baltimore to take him. In the video linked above, Richardson can be seen routinely getting into the backfield against an offensive line almost entirely made up of future NFL players, including three likely first round picks. While only recording just one sack on the stat line that day, the fact that he was able to be so disruptive against such a talented line speaks volumes about his potential.
Admittedly when J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith (with a side order of Jared Crick and Tim Jamison) are already your defensive ends, there doesn’t seem to be as big of a need for Sheldon Richardson as other positions. The obvious counter argument to that is that Houston has taken a defensive player in the first round every year since 2004 regardless of how great or terrible the offense is, and with Wade Phillips running the Bulls on Parade, that trend could very well continue. Antonio Smith is not getting any younger, and he is approaching the end of his contract. I love Jamison and Crick, but one of them will be coming off a pretty bad Achilles injury and the other, while solid, hasn’t quite put on the dominant display that Wade Phillips relies on from his one gap, pass-rushing defensive linemen. Jared Crick needs to be more than just an above-average rotational player who is good against the run if we are going to give him the keys to the starting lineup in a couple years. He needs to be explosive, instinctive, and relentless. He needs to be more like Sheldon Richardson.
Kevin Reddick – ILB, North Carolina
Game – Maryland @ North Carolina: 2:00 PM C.T.
Kevin Reddick is probably the best second day defensive prospect in this year’s class, and when things are said and done, I wouldn’t be completely shocked to see him go in the first half of the second round. His natural scheme fit, which can best be described as "some sort of hybrid linebacker that can play anywhere on the field", isn’t exactly one of the premium positions like 4-3 DE or offensive tackle that get snatched up in the first 25 picks. 2012 boasts a very strong linebacking class that promises to spit out many physical, versatile young defenders who can adapt to the changing NFL atmosphere and break traditional molds of what is and isn’t an inside linebacker, and Kevin Reddick is certainly one of those versatile young prospects.
Reddick has played literally every position in the front seven this season except for defensive tackle, and he has displayed remarkable adaptability that should make him a fun weapon for any defensive coordinator, particularly in flexible schemes like the Texans, Ravens, Patritos, and Seahawks. He can rush the passer very well on the edge or up the middle, and he has very good timing when it comes to sifting through the trash at the line of scrimmage. His hips are adequately fluid and he has more than enough "game" speed to be trusted in coverage (don’t always trust forty yard dashes). My only concern is that he does have a tendency to be overly aggressive at times and run himself out of the play against read-option and play-action oriented offenses, but in a one-gap scheme like Wade Phillips’ where linebackers are just asked to "pick a hole and go", this could translate into many spectacular backfield plays. I can live with a couple quarterback draws up the gut as long as Reddick comes back with a tackle for loss in the flat on the next play.
Will Reddick go to the Texans in the late first round? Probably not. If a good offensive tackle falls to Houston at pick number 32, I don’t see any conceivable way that they don’t replace Derek Newton. The interesting question is what happens if Reddick makes it to the middle to late second round. Does Rick Smith trade up a few spots to grab him? Bradie James wWho isn’t exactly top shelf) is only on contract for one year, Tim Dobbins (who also isn't top shelf and can pretty much only play the run) has a contract that expires after this season, and Brian Cushing is coming off an ACL tear. Darryl Sharpton is a good guy to have for insurance, but there is potential for the Texans' interior linebacking corps to be dangerously thin in 2013, particularly if some other teams with terrible run defenses (I’m looking at you, Buffalo and New Orleans) try to woo Dobbins away with a semi-bloated short term contract that Houston can’t afford to match. It’s a potentially nerve-wracking predicament to think about, but selecting Kevin Reddick at pick number 64 would definitely help me sleep at night.
Alex Okafor – DE/OLB, Texas
Game: It already happened, and most of you probably watched it…and cried a little.
Alex Okafor gets held a lot. As a pass rushing monster at UT, Okafor leads the team in both tackles for loss and sacks. His ankle was unfortunately rolled up on in UT’s Turkey Day showdown against TCU, and his inability to return could very well have been a decisive factor in the 20-13 loss. Possessing an almost overwhelming combination of raw power and tenacity, Okafor is regularly able to outmuscle offensive lineman at the point of attack. I’m not sure how or why there aren’t yellow flags on the majority of snaps that he plays, considering how much he is grabbed by panicking right tackles, but it is safe to say that in the NFL his opposition won’t be able to get away with such tomfoolery nearly as often. To put it plainly, this is a big, fast physical specimen who can and will excel in many schemes across the league. At nearly 6’5" 260 lbs., he would be on the larger end of the spectrum of 3-4 OLBs, but such size and power will help him when singled up against the many talented left tackles in the pros.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "But Brett, we just drafted Whitney Mercilus and Connor Barwin has been ineffective enough that he might be affordable in March!" To that I say yes, Connor Barwin has been ineffective, and that’s why I want Alex Okafor. At the beginning of the year, I suspected that Houston would have to take another pass rushing OLB in the 2013 draft because Connor Barwin would be lost in free agency. Now I’m suspecting that Houston will have to take another pass rushing OLB in the 2013 draft because Connor Barwin can’t get a sack to save his life. In 11 games, he has produced only two sacks, both of which were completely unblocked as a result of blown protection. When J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith are getting double and triple teamed on every single snap and you are matched up with tight ends, you have to get to the quarterback, Connor. Wade Phillips’ system does not work without a pass rush, and other than the weekly J.J. Watt variety show in the trenches, the Texans haven’t really done much in that department. As much as it pains me to say this, Rick Smith has to hedge his bet against the possibility that Barwin’s 2011 season was the exception, not the rule.
So, if Alex Okafor is so talented, how will the Texans get him? Well, luckily for Houston (and every other NFL team, really), the 2013 draft class is disgustingly rich with pass rushers in all sorts of positions. Defensive ends and rush linebackers of every shape and size litter the first round, and it is very likely that everyone who needs a pass rusher will get their slice of the pie by the end of the first day. Jarvis Jones, Damontre Moore, Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery, Bjoern Werner, and Dion Jordan are all possible first round prospects that could get scooped up in between the equally gluttonous offensive tackle and wide receiver classes. By the time the end of the first round rolls around, through no fault of his own, Alex Okafor could very well be just sitting there for the taking. A 6’5" 260 lbs. outside linebacker - even as a Sooner fan, my mouth waters at the thought. Be still my fluttering heart.
Terrance Williams – WR, Baylor
Game: Texas Tech @ Baylor: 1:30 PM C.T.
Terrance Williams is one of my 2013 receiving crushes. In 2012, I bounced around between Mohamed Sanu, Nick Toon, Alshon Jeffery, and Rueben Randle; this year my wants and wishes are even more conflicted. Do I want the potentially game-breaking, but likely unaffordable Keenan Allen? How about the physically imposing Justin Hunter? The ridiculously dangerous Tavon Austin? Nope, give me the sure handed chain mover who can read zones better than anyone else in his class.
The Houston Texans' offense revolves around getting first downs. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5 yards or 50 yards, but those sticks have to move one way or another. What Terrance Williams brings to the NFL is his uncanny ability to just be open. His threatening speed grants him a ten yard cushion on almost every play, which he happily abuses with an endless stream of hitches and slants. He doesn’t care if he gets the long ball. He just wants to find a hole in the zones and catch any pass thrown his way – and boy can he catch the ball. It’s rare for Terrance Williams to drop a pass, especially a pass over the middle. As Texans fans who have had to sit through Jacoby Jones, and now Keshawn Martin, for the past four seasons can attest, we would like to have at least one receiver besides Andre Johnson who can be relied upon to actually catch a pass and burn the angle of a descending safety for a huge gain rather than drop a wide open slant and set up yet another third and long draw play.
Speaking of burning safeties, when college defenses get tired of Williams taking his short dinks and dunks and actually play him tight, things get really entertaining. He is listed at around a 4.50 forty yard dash, but watching Williams play, you would swear he runs a 4.30. He can flat out fly, which is what makes him so beautifully efficient. In addition to being a willing blocker and coverage diagnostician, he can actually make you regret doing the one thing that counters his play style – playing man-to-man coverage. It will be interesting to see how Williams progresses at the NFL level, where beating press corners off the line of scrimmage is about the most valuable skill a receiver can have. Not a lot of college defenses in the Big 12 play a lot of press coverage (or any press coverage, for that matter), so he will most certainly require a crash course in how to shake off punches at the snap. If there is one thing that would drop Williams down to the bottom of the first round, it's that he has faced few, if any, NFL-caliber defensive backs this season. It’s tough to gauge a player’s true talent if he’s the biggest fish in a lackluster pond, but there is no doubt a lot of potential there. I’m okay with taking that risk.
Barrett Jones – C/G/T, Alabama
Game – Auburn @ Alabama: 2:30 PM C.T.
I’ll fully admit that I love Barrett Jones way too much. Heck, I’d take him in the top 10 if I could, and he’s arguably not even the best lineman on his own team. With three near-lock first rounders in the trenches, Alabama has physically abused almost every defense they faced in 2012. Helping to lead the charge is jack of all trades lineman Barrett Jones. A smart, versatile blocker, Jones has played every position on the line, including spending last year’s championship season at left tackle (after playing guard the year before that). In two games against LSU in 2011, including the championship game (linked above), Jones was matched up against both the freakishly athletic Barkevious Mingo and very talented Sam Montgomery. In neither game did either one of them record a sack against Jones. That’s two first round pass rushers held to a total of 0 sacks in two games – that’s pretty darn good. Now, Jones did have his flaws in 2011. Although very good with his hands and quick to improvise on the tail end of an edge rush if he needed to, Jones was far too susceptible to bull rushes and power moves to the inside. He caught quite a few lucky breaks against the myriad of top 15 pick-worthy pass rushers he faced in the SEC
2012, however, was a different story. This year Jones moved to center and took over as the heart and soul of Alabama’s line. With standout guard Chance Warmack and mauling tackle D.J. Fluker by his side, Jones has called the protections and anchored the middle of the best front five in college football. In his new position, he’s learned the angles and techniques necessary for run blocking at the next level and the intricacies of pass blocking against giant SEC defensive tackles. Combining his experiences of slide stepping down the pocket against NFL-caliber pass rushers and physically abusing interior defenders in the run game, Jones has displayed a trait that is all too often overlooked in the evaluation of NFL prospects these days – he can learn. Barrett Jones went from being a pretty good tackle that had some flaws to a slam-dunk pick at any offensive line position. He is big enough to down block on Vince Wilfork and quick enough to go step for step with Cameron Wake. He’s shown me he can play in a zone scheme. He can play in a wham scheme. He can play in a trap scheme. He can do crack-toss. He can do power. At 6’5" 310 lbs., he can still run a 5.10 forty and is more than capable of lead blocking down the field against linebackers and safeties. Barrett Jones is just a straight up versatile guy who can do whatever you need him to do, and I want him in Battle Red more than almost any other player in this draft class. Don’t let me down, Rick. Trade whatever you need to trade, because I can’t take another year of Derek Newton.
These are just a small sampling of the NFL talents I will be keeping my eye on today, and you can rest assured that come the offseason, there will be superfluous amounts of 3:00 AM posts detailing the pros and cons of all of them. Until then just sit back, relax, and enjoy what little college football we have left.