Now, Where Was I?

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July 2, 2004
Now, Where Was I?

by Bob Hulsey

A joke I’d heard once went like this. Men will spend twice as much as something is really worth if it’s something he really wants. Women will spend half as much as something is really worth, even if she doesn’t want it, just because she thinks some other woman might want it.

At least Jason Babin must feel really wanted because the Texans gutted the heart of their 2004 draft for the rights to sign him. The five-year plan is now officially over. Apparently, they didn’t need a second, third or fourth-round draft pick more than they needed one defensive end who will be asked to start at a new position this summer. That’s being wanted.

Babin, from Western Michigan, is too small to be an every down lineman, particularly in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense. So the 6-2, 260-lb sack specialist will be tried at LOLB in hopes he’ll give the defense the edge rush it desperately needs. And rather than loading up on mid-round choices and hoping to strike gold, the Texans put their draft in one body and are crossing their fingers it will work.

It’s a risky move but it is one with a high ceiling if it pans out. They were pleased with Babin’s progress in mini-camps, enough to start finding other places for veteran Kailee Wong to fill in. Wong is being tried at ROLB as well as inside as a replacement for Jay Foreman.

The Texans have already cleared the next hurdle by getting Babin signed to a contract, the first first-rounder to be inked this year. That’s important because he can’t miss time from training camp if he’s going to be expected to start right away.

Looking back at the draft grades, it was telling to see how two teams were graded by the various publications. One was the Dallas Cowboys. Some thought the Cowboys pulled a mental hamstring when they passed on RB Steven Jackson who had miraculously fallen to them. Others praised the Cowboys for trading their pick for choices that included Buffalo’s first-rounder in 2005. Put me in the latter category. Good running backs really aren’t that hard to find (good blocking often being a key factor to their success), but extra first-rounders can be. And Buffalo’s likely to be a mediocre team this year just like last year and the Pokes will have a pick next spring likely around the 15th overall. Dallas made a great deal and anyone who busts their chops over not taking Jackson is not a guy you want hanging around your war room.

The other team I read with interest was Tennessee. They traded away their top pick to Houston and came away with a bushel of defensive players as well as the man some graded as the second best tight end of the 2004 class. The Titans were given high marks by just about everyone and it will be interesting to see if any of these tackles and ends turns out to be better than Jason Babin – because the Texans could have had any of them if they hadn’t really wanted Babin.

If Tennessee turns out to have drafted wisely, the Texans may have unintentionally handed a division crown in 2005 or 2006 to their rivals from Budville. Given that the Texans worked so hard just to get an extra third-rounder for Drew Henson, the thought of tossing in 3-1/2 picks for one first-rounder seems, still, a very high price to pay. Only time will tell if it was too steep a price.

As a rule of thumb, I think young teams that are in building mode should be looking to get more picks, not trade them away. That’s why I like what Dallas and Tennessee did rather than what Buffalo and Houston did. That doesn’t mean Buffalo and Houston might not get the last laugh if J.P. Losman and Jason Babin turn into the next Tom Brady and Kevin Greene. But, in general, falling back to get more draft choices is the move that usually succeeds because you increase the odds of getting a solid player when you have more choices. But if I were to say that it’s a blanket mistake to trade up, I would be condemning the 49ers, as an example, from trading up to get Jerry Rice. It’s just been my observation that usually trade ups turn out not to be worth it.

The trade that brought in Babin and made the rival Titans look like the titans of draft day overshadowed, in many ways, the other key selection of Houston’s draft, CB Dunta Robinson who was the 10th overall selection.

Robinson, too, is expected to oust a veteran from his spot and start right away. In Dunta’s case, the veteran is Marcus Coleman who set a club record with seven picks last year and will now be tried at free safety. That experiment will also be watched closely this summer. What it really boils down to is whether the defense will be better with Robinson on the corner and Coleman at safety or with Coleman at the corner, Marlon McCree back at free safety and Robinson brought in for nickel packages.

The other players brought in from the draft won’t be expected to start this year and will need to excel on special teams to win a roster spot. I wouldn’t be shocked to see some of them on the new expanded practice squad, particularly converted S Jamaal Lord. Others, like QB B.J. Symons, could spend the year on I.R. while they heal from knee surgery.

A third experiment is getting less attention but deserves watching. That is the promotion of second-year player Seth Wand to starting LT, with Chester Pitts moving over to guard. I’ll admit, I feel like the kid in the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes when discussing Wand. I hear others gush about what a great blocker he’s going to be and, so far, I’ve yet to see it. When he got into Texans games last year, I’d tried to watch him and what I saw was a big bear who looked lost in the trenches and wasn’t particularly aggressive or technically sound. Now he’s going to be asked to protect David Carr’s blind side. Gulp! I’m going to be as nervous as a cat in a dog pound watching this happen all year.

Of course, the alternative is another year of the slightly undersized Pitts at LT with either Todd Washington or Milford Brown at LG. Washington was a liability in pass blocking last season though great in run blocking. Brown has had trouble staying healthy.

The key to Houston’s improvement this year will center around Wand, Babin and Robinson. While the squad has better depth to get through times of injury and disappointment, the Texans are counting on all three to play big roles from the start this season.

If the keys come through, the Texans could finish the season 8-8 or even 9-7. Many forget that Houston, with a few breaks, could have been 9-7 last year. Add close losses to the New York Jets, New England, Tennessee and Indianapolis to the five wins they did notch and you have a team that would have been in the playoff hunt.

Further, the Texans defense, in spite of all their injuries, kept the scoring down in their last seven games (19.4 ppg to 27.1 through the first nine games). While an improved running game helped to keep the scoring down, emerging contributors like DeMarcus Faggins and Shante Orr also stepped up when they had the chance.

Throw in the hoped-for improved health of Seth Payne, Gary Walker and Aaron Glenn on defense, as well as the additions of free agents Robaire Smith and Todd Wade, and the Texans could be poised for a dramatic surge this year, one that might make the five-year plan moot after all.

If it doesn’t, you may see the end of the honeymoon the Texans’ coaches and management have enjoyed from the fans up until now. You knew that day would come eventually. It might as well start today. Houston, you’re go for lift-off.

Bob Hulsey is tanned, rested and ready for another season. Now if he can just get back into playing shape…

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