Growing or Grasping?

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June 1, 2005
Growing or Grasping?

by Bob Hulsey

For the first three seasons, the Houston Texans have been doing a lot of addition without much subtraction. Easily identifiable holes were filled through the draft and free agency without much question that the newcomers were an upgrade over the people who were in those jobs.

That all changed in the spring of 2005 and, with it, perhaps the last allowance for the "expansion" label as an excuse for the team’s shortcomings. Linebacker Jamie Sharper and cornerback Aaron Glenn, two of the leaders on defense since the franchise began, were dumped for players who may not be adequate replacements. True, Sharper and Glenn carried high salaries and were beginning to show signs of age but it remains to be seen if the Texans have guys in their place who can perform as well.

Part of the goal is to get faster on defense. Kailee Wong, an outside linebacker since he signed with Houston in 2002, has been moved inside to replace Sharper. I think it is a more natural position for Wong who has always lacked the big-play ability you want from outside backers in the 3-4. Wong is a smart and steady player but not a highlight reel. Jay Foreman, last year’s other starting inside linebacker, was also let go in favor of free agent Morlon Greenwood from Miami. Granted, Zach Thomas and Junior Seau get all the ink in the Dolphins’ linebacking corps, but Greenwood was below the radar there – a man with a lot of tackles but not many big plays. As insurance, the Texans have also signed free agents Zeke Moreno, Frank Chamberlin and Tim Cheatwood in the offseason.

That means the pass-rush pressure will mostly fall upon outside linebackers Antwan Peek and Jason Babin. If either is ineffective or lost to injury, there aren’t good solutions available.

Glenn was dropped after the Texans acquired Phillip Buchanon from Oakland for two first-day draft choices. A former first-round pick, Buchanon showcased big-play ability but also a knack for getting burned. It’s possible he can step up his game and team with Dunta Robinson to make a lethal duo of shutdown corners. Or Buchanon could continue to be the malcontent the Raiders (of all people) found expendable. Nickel back Demarcus Faggins and free agent signee Lewis Sanders provide depth.

How both Sharper and Glenn were released is as puzzling to me as why they were released. The Texans told the agents for both players that they could "seek a trade" but once news of this leaked out, neither had any trade value. Why give Houston even a seventh-rounder when the player is soon to be cut if no trade materializes? Had the team stayed quiet and negotiated with other teams, my guess is that at least one of them could have fetched a draft choice in return. Sharper landed in Seattle after being courted by other teams while Glenn was quickly signed by Dallas. The Texans received nothing in return for either.

Along the defensive line, the story was just the opposite as declining linemen Seth Payne and Gary Walker remain with the team while Houston used their first-round choice on defensive tackle Travis Johnson. How well Johnson adapts to the 3-4 is still a question to me, but the front office thinks he can play either nose tackle or defensive end, part of the upside that allowed them to overlook his injury and off-field past while he was at Florida State. The rest of the cast presently looks the same with starter Robaire Smith and backups Jerry DeLoach and Corey Sears. After Johnson, the defensive side was not addressed in the draft until two small-school projects were taken in the sixth and seventh rounds.

Remember that guy in "Li’l Abner" with the thunderstorm constantly over his head? In real life, his name is Bennie Joppru. He tore knee ligaments in mini-camp which will make the 2003 second-round tight end MIA for the third straight season. The Texans rushed out and inked Marcellus Rivers to replace him but the offense will, again, lack a tight end capable of both throwing a block and catching a pass with satisfactory skill.

The proclaimed "top priority" of the offseason – protecting David Carr – went unaddressed until the fifth round with the choice of an unheralded center. Later, the Texans added depth with the signing of tackle Victor Riley. News of another realignment on the offensive line has come out too, made up largely of the same personnel that had Carr running for his life way too often last season. Thoughts of the deck chairs on the H.M.S. Titanic leap to mind.

If protecting Carr and revamping the pass rush were the main goals of the offseason, I’m underwhelmed by what the front office has done so far. The Texans are still flirting with OT L.J. Shelton and OLB Peter Boulware as I write and the June cuts await so perhaps there will be a late infusion of veteran talent that will tip the scales, but what I’ve seen thus far doesn’t give me much confidence that either problem has been adequately addressed.

It contributes to an off-season where words and deeds don’t seem to match. The Texans talk of making a push for the playoffs but that’s normally accomplished by adding skilled veterans who may be a little past their prime. Then the Texans jettisoned two key veterans a little past their prime. They pooh-poohed the third-rounder they used to help acquire Buchanon yet accepted merely a third-rounder in 2006 to trade down in the first round. They talked about putting more pressure on the quarterback then passed up such a player in LB Derrick Johnson for a defensive lineman who never had more than four sacks in a season in college. And the concept of a team with "good character" players has also taken a beating this offseason as more than a few acquisitions have carried less than sterling reputations.

It’s possible that the changes will turn to gold and, with a helpful schedule, land Houston into the post-season, something the past three expansion teams have done by their fourth season. But I’m not convinced what has happened so far will get them to 8-8, much less get them into mid-January.

Bob Hulsey would like to remind readers that Jamie Sharper and Aaron Glenn jersies are now available at many Houston-area stores at deep discounts. It might not make you look cool now but in 20 years you’ll be the star of "Throwback Week".

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