When Charley Casserly decides what areas of the Texans’ roster to address after this season, the defensive line will be at or near the top of his list. The defense has given up 4.8 yards per rush this season, which ranks in the bottom quarter of the NFL. The line averages less than a single tackle for loss against the run per game. The pass rush from the down linemen has been inconsistent, with only 1.5 sacks credited to the unit so far. At that pace, the linemen will finish the season with only five sacks. In 2002, when the defense was the strength of the team, the line made 9.5 sacks.
The Texans currently carry six defensive linemen on the roster: Gary Walker, Robaire Smith, Jerry Deloach, Corey Sears, and Junior Ioane. Of that group, only Walker and Smith are under contract beyond this season. Walker is 31 years old, missed a dozen games last year with shoulder and toe injuries, and has missed time with groin problems this season, so the Texans cannot realistically expect him to contribute at a high level on an every-down basis. Smith has been their best d-lineman so far in 2004, but he can’t do it alone.
None of the free-agent-to-be defensive linemen on the team should expect a monster contract offer to re-sign at this point. If Payne were healthy, extending his contract would be Casserly’s top priority. After tearing his ACL last year, Payne has been a part-time player at nose tackle. If he can regain his 2002 form, he’s a no-brainer to lock up under a multi-year deal.
The Texans would also like to retain Deloach. Workmanlike but unspectacular, Deloach should be entering his prime production years, can play any position on the line, and has been very durable, having started every game in team history but one. He has proved well worth the price that the Texans paid to acquire him from Washington (journeyman quarterback Danny Wuerffel).
The coaches like what they’ve seen of Ioane, but he injury problems have limited him. Sears provides quality depth at both end positions but is on the wrong side of 30 and has done little to distinguish himself.
Walker and Smith can be used as models for determining what the Texans want at the end positions. After all, the team gave the pair nearly $20 million in signing bonuses this offseason. The Texans clearly want big linemen, as their lightest end, Sears, tips the scales at 314 lbs. Walker is 6’2”, 324 lbs. and Smith is 6’4”, 335 lbs. They have the size and strength to take on and defeat double-team blocks. Both have shown the ability to control the line of scrimmage and stuff the run. As pass rushers, they rely more on power and tenacity than quickness and moves. Smith also has a knack for batting down passes when he is not able to get to the quarterback.
At nose tackle, the pre-injury Payne is the Texans’ ideal. He is similar in stature (6’4”, 315) to the ends, although many shorter, squattier players have also excelled as nose tackles through the years. Strength and leverage are key attributes for anchoring the middle of the defense in the face of constant double teams from centers and guards. Since the nose tackle is usually pulled on passing downs in favor of a speed rusher or an extra defensive back, pass rushing ability is not as crucial. In 2002, though, Payne created pressure up the middle and forced the quarterback out of the comfort of the pocket.
2005 should be the first draft for the Texans in which Casserly addresses the defensive line with both quality and quantity. Of their 31 picks in the last three drafts, the Texans have used only four on defensive linemen and none of those players is still with the team. Charles Hill from Maryland, a third-round pick in 2002, was the Texans’ sole first-day d-line selection. Hill played sparingly as a rookie and is now out of the league after being cut by the Texans and 49ers in 2003 and the Bears earlier this year. Texan draftees Howard Green and Keith Wright are currently with the Saints and Colts, respectively.
The upcoming draft does not look like it will be loaded with great defensive linemen, but Rodrique Wright of the University of Texas is one who may fit the Texans’ profile. The native Houstonian entered this season as one of the top defensive tackle prospects in the country. Last weekend’s game against Oklahoma gave Wright the opportunity to show what he could do against a top-quality opponent. As the left tackle in Texas’ 4-3 defense, he lined up opposite OU’s promising junior right guard Davin Joseph as well as two likely high picks in the 2005 draft, right tackle Jammal Brown and center Vince Carter.
At 6’4”, 315 lbs., Wright has the requisite size for an end in the Texans’ defense and should get even bigger as he continues to mature and works in an NFL strength program. Last season Wright established himself as a tackle who could penetrate and make plays in the backfield; he led the 2003 Longhorns in sacks and quarterback hurries and was second on the team in tackles for loss. In the three games in which he played before the Red River Shootout (he missed Texas’ game against Baylor with an ankle injury), though, he had been held without a sack or tackle for loss and had been credited with only two hurries and a pass deflection.
Wright generally held his ground against Oklahoma but was not able to get upfield. When the Sooners ran directly at him, which was not that often, most of the time he shed his blocker and tackled the ballcarrier for a short gain. Wright did not make any plays away from his gap and did not generate much push as a pass rusher. He did not look explosive off the snap and tended to play too high when engaging blockers, losing leverage. Oklahoma had an extra blocker “chip” Wright and then move on to another defender more often than they double-teamed him outright. Wright did not force his way into the backfield and disrupt any plays, so the Sooners did not have to commit more blockers to stopping him. He did a fair job of keeping lineman off of linebacker Derrick Johnson, which freed up Johnson to make some key plays.
Wright had a decent game; he fulfilled his basic responsibilities for the most part and the Sooner line did not manhandle him. But he also did not dominate or make any game-changing plays, as a top prospect should. His injured ankle may have limited him in this game and he should not be written off as a possible early draft pick, but Wright did not look like a future NFL impact player against Oklahoma. He is only a junior, so he should have several more opportunities to raise his draft stock. Mack Brown has had even more success persuading his top players to stay at Texas than he has in persuading top high school prospects to come to his program, so Wright may very well not enter the draft until 2006 anyway. Rodrique Wright Home