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by Warren DeLuca

It is no secret that the Texans want to use the 2004 draft to add some young talent to their defense. Miami free safety Sean Taylor appears to be their top target, but unless they trade up, he is not going to be an option. If the Texans stay in the tenth spot, there is a strong possibility that they will select a cornerback.

Cornerback is not a position of dire need, but it may be the Texans’ best option. A team can never have too many quality covermen, especially with co-MVPs Peyton Manning and Steve McNair and up-and-comer Byron Leftwich on the schedule twice each a year.

When training camp opens, starters Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman will be 32 and 30, respectively, and Glenn is coming off a season-ending injury. The Texans have also acknowledged that if they could obtain a suitable replacement, they would be willing to move Coleman to free safety. Only eight defenses finished the 2003 season with fewer interceptions than the 14 picked off by Houston and the Texans scored only one defensive touchdown all season, so another playmaker in the secondary would be a welcome addition.

The team could also stand an upgrade in the return game as its punt return average (6.9 yards) was near the bottom of the NFL rankings, and their kickoff return average (21.3) was middle-of-the-pack.

Three cornerbacks merit consideration for the tenth selection: Ohio State junior Chris Gamble, Virginia Tech junior DeAngelo Hall, and South Carolina senior Dunta Robinson.

Gamble is the biggest name of the three. No doubt the Houston brass took notice of him when he blanketed future Texan lottery pick Andre Johnson in the 2002 national championship game. The average size of the NFL receiver has been increasing each year, and it certainly will not drop off with supersized wideouts like Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Mike Williams, and Michael Clayton entering the League. At 6’1” with NBA-caliber leaping ability and long arms, Gamble should be able to match up with any of these guys and hold his own even in jump-ball situations. He is also athletic enough to have played both ways at college football’s highest level, starting at flanker on a national championship team. That ability gives him an advantage when the ball is in the air. Gamble can also contribute as a kickoff and punt returner and is a threat to score anytime he picks off a pass.

Gamble’s greatest flaw may be his propensity for living up to his own name by taking chances. A heady quarterback can make him pay for jumping routes and biting on pump fakes and play-actions. Because he spent so much time on offense, Gamble needs more refinement as a cornerback than most defensive backs at this stage in their careers. He usually gets the job done as a tackler and in run support, but is not a big hitter. In addition, his final year with the Buckeyes was not his best, as he had bouts of inconsistency.

Hall has come on strong after some jaw-dropping workouts. Not only does Hall have the extra gear to stay with or chase down practically anyone, he can also cut on a dime while running at full speed. While he lacks Gamble’s height, Hall is solidly built and can get up in the air. He handled himself well against Fitzgerald when the two matched up for a half last fall and shows the traits of a shutdown corner. Hall could also make a major impact as a return man. He is a versatile enough of an athlete to see spot duty in the Hokie offense.

Like Gamble, Hall tends to guess and relies on his recovery speed to get him out of trouble, depending more on raw skill than solid fundamentals. Even considering his other physical gifts, many scouts are uneasy about taking a 5’10” corner early in the draft. Coming up to stop the run is not his highest priority and he is not exactly a textbook tackler. Even by cornerback standards, Hall is very cocky and loves to talk. He was kicked out of Virginia Tech’s game against Miami last year for fighting and as a result suspended for half of the Pitt game.

Only recently has Robinson been mentioned as a possibility to be the first cornerback drafted. He may not have Hall’s pure speed and agility, but he is in the same class. Robinson is excellent in coverage and makes plays. As might be expected of a former safety, he is very physical and rarely misses a tackle. He plays with toughness and has been a leader for the Gamecocks.

Robinson is taller than Hall, but still lacks ideal size. He saw some action as a punt returner but is not a playmaker in that aspect of the game.

Which one is the best fit for the Texans? Gamble has the most upside, but also the most risk. He could develop into a Pro Bowl cornerback or just be a great athlete for whom the light never comes on. Hall could follow in the footsteps of Aaron Glenn, who uses his great speed, quickness, and technique to overcome his shortcomings, or he could be the next Terrell Buckley, an extreme risk-taker who often came up empty and was manhandled by bigger receivers.

Robinson is the safest pick, lacking both the top-end potential of Gamble or Hall and the possibility of a bust. Dom Capers has said on more than one occasion that he would rather have a hard-working, consistent player than a more talented but less reliable one. Capers would love Robinson’s hard-nosed approach and his willingness to play within the structure of the defensive scheme. Robinson is also no slouch as far as his physical tools, as his sub-4.4 40 shows.

If the Texans do not trade out of the tenth spot, the less-heralded Robinson could be their man. With three quality corners available, though, expect Charley Casserly to give serious consideration to any offers to trade down a few spots so that he can acquire some extra picks and still select one of the trio.

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