With nose tackle Shaun Cody set to become a free agent, the same Cody who had back issues this season and just turned 30, there appears to be a hole in the middle of the defense for the Houston Texans. J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith, and Brian Cushing would all benefit from having a nose tackle who commanded some attention, unlike Cody. Enter the University of Utah's Star Lotulelei.
Yes, Lotulelei is a top-five prospect.
Yes, I realize this would involve Houston general manager Rick Smith moving up.
Yes, I realize you would probably have to move the heavens to go from 27 to three or four.
No, I will not stop there.
I will start off by acknowledging that this is an article on an unlikely topic. The great thing about draft season is that it allows for a lot of thought and hypothetical situations, like this one. I call this hypothetical because the Houston Texans (a) generally shy away from nose tackles north of 300 pounds (b) do not generally move up in the NFL Draft, and (c) certainly not in the first round. Nothing in this suggestion is in their modus operandi. However, the Texans have never really been in this situation before.
Coming off a 12-4 season, the Texans' roster is, more or less, set. There are few holes in their starting line-ups and the roster could easily be patched up by a combination of free agency and the NFL Draft. Last season, we even saw the first time that a draft pick, Nick Mondek, did not make the 53-man roster. In my eye, Houston is in a similar spot to what Atlanta was in before the 2011 NFL Draft.
Atlanta, at the time, was coming off a 13-3 season that ended in a disappointing loss in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Realizing they were closer to success than not and would be drafting late once again, the Falcons broke away from their safe tendency of building through the draft. Atlanta gave up five draft picks, over two years, to Cleveland to land difference-making wide receiver Julio Jones. Jones immediately stepped into the starting line-up and has contributed heavily in his two seasons, including last week's breakout performance in the NFC Championship Game.
Although Atlanta has yet to win a championship, Jones has helped make a good team significantly better and more difficult to compete with. I'm not implying that anyone in this draft is as good a prospect as Jones was, but I am implying that Houston's in a position to make a similar move. Even though this draft lacks the usual number of impact players, the Texans could move up if the stars, no pun intended, aligned.
To start, in this specific scenario, the Texans would need Kansas City and Jacksonville to take, in no real order, Geno Smith and Luke Joeckle. The target spot for the Texans would be Oakland or Philadelphia, both teams in need of many draft picks to overhaul talent-deficient rosters and/or to find players for a new coach's schemes. Like Atlanta, Houston would likely need to offer multiple picks over two years. Maybe not exactly what Atlanta paid, but something in that ballpark. It would be a steep price to pay, but the Texans could legitimately find a game-changing piece for their defense.
The six-foot-four, 320-pound Lotulelei was a force in the Pac-12. The conference's 2011 defensive Morris Trophy Winner (best defensive lineman, voted on by Pac-12 offensive linemen) has been a nightmare to slow. Not a 320-pound lump, Lotulelei makes plays in the backfield with his quickness off the snap. Over the past two seasons, the Tonga product has a combined 19 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He also can hold the point of attack with his incredible strength. In the video below, you can see Lotulelei's athletic abilities for yourself.
Lotulelei's not perfect by any means. He's still developing pass-rushing moves, beyond relying on his speed and power, and can still add some muscle his frame, but he's exactly that kind of nose tackle Wade likes in his system. Lotulelei is athletic enough to intercept and swat passes, possesses a quick, low first step, and has a ton of strength while not being one of those guys whose weight you have to monitor. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of slightly heavier version of Jay Ratliff, a noted Wade guy.
Like Jones made life easier for Roddy White, Matt Ryan, and Tony Gonzalez, Lotulelei could make life easier for Smith, Watt, Cushing, the second inside linebacker, and the outside rushers. Lotulelei appears to be the kind of pocket-collapsing, center-abusing nose tackle that could take advantage of one-on-one match-ups (as seen in that highlight video where he uses his strength to abuse a center) and maybe even command an extra man in his own right. Beyond the immediate, Watt and Lotulelei as linemates for the next decade could send shivers down opponents' offensive lines. It's not Smithiak's MO to give up picks for a player, but considering the state of the roster and the impact of Lotulelei, this is the kind of move that could take Houston's defense to the next level.
If nothing else and given the status of the roster, Rick Smith should strongly consider pulling an Atlanta and moving up to grab an impact player to fill one of the roster's few holes - whether it be Mr. Lotulelei (again, admittedly unlikely) or the more likely special kind of safety, brickhouse of a guard, or quarterback who has earned a few fans among Texans draftniks.