Breaking Down the Offseason, Part 2

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July 11, 2007
Breaking Down the Offseason, Part 2

by Bob Hulsey

As with the offense (reviewed last month), three new starters may join the Texans defense that were not with the ballclub last year, however none is assured of being a starter when the season begins. Other than Seth Payne, no key members of last year’s defense are gone, though some may see challenges to their starting jobs from the draft or free agent acquisitions.

"Starter" is not even an important term with the defensive line. The new trend is to find eight linemen who can rotate in and out based on situations. The thinking is that rotated defensive linemen can be fresher at the end of the game than their offensive counterparts when a key stop could become critical. In addition, it allows for specialists who can either clog the running lanes or rush the passer but are not well-suited for every down.

Which may help to explain why the Texans now have four first-round choices plus a high-dollar free agent on the defensive line. Unless the Texans return to the old college 5-2 alignment, all five will never be on the field at the same time which seems a bit wasteful, particularly when you realize that the five players are only capable of filling three jobs.

I unwittingly foreshadowed my point in the "Pastabelly" thread, but the Texans have a D-line set to create as many mismatches on their own side of the ball as they will for their opponents.

Mario Williams is an overall #1 draft choice who has to be the player the defense should be built around. He combines the size and bulk of a strongside end with the cat-like quickness of a weakside end. After experimenting all over the line in camp, Williams settled into the strongside end position where he would face the other team’s right tacke, occasionally double-teamed by their tight end. If he were switched to the weakside end, he would have more one-on-one matchups with the left tackle and could probably register more sacks to justify his selection above Reggie Bush and Vince Young.

But, if he moves to the weakside end, Mario takes playing time away from fellow first-rounder Jason Babin and free agent veteran N. D. Kalu who are the team’s best pass-rushers but are not good choices for strongside end because of their lack of bulk.

Big-dollar free agent Anthony Weaver makes a great choice for strongside end, but pass rushing is not his strong suit. Putting him at weakside end where he’d be expected to sack the quarterback makes as much sense as putting Yao Ming at point guard. Weaver’s best role would be end in a 3-4 defense, but since we signed him and converted to a 4-3, he fits best as strongside end or weakside tackle.

However, with former first-rounder Travis Johnson best suited for weakside tackle and new first-rounder Amobi Okoye best suited for weakside tackle, we can’t put him there without benching other players drawing sizeable contracts.

So, depending on how you arrange the Rubik’s cube, you could put Williams or Weaver at strongside end, Williams, Babin or Kalu at weakside end and Weaver, Okoye or Johnson at weakside tackle. No matter how you configure it, somebody is stuck on the bench wasting money.

I think, optimally, Williams and Weaver should be the ends on first downs and obvious running downs with Williams shifting to strongside end on obvious passing downs to get Babin or Kalu on the field.

Before I leave the Millionaires Club, let me make one more point. When Mario Williams was selected, there were comparisons to Hall of Fame defensive ends Bruce Smith and Reggie White. But when Okoye was drafted, one of the reasons given for his selection was that he was expected to help Williams get to the quarterback by drawing attention from Mario. You know, I don’t recall Smith or White needing a defensive tackle to help make them great. Yes, White benefitted from the late Jerome Brown’s presence in Philadelphia, but White was just as great after moving to Green Bay as he was with the Eagles. I don’t want to dump on Williams because he struggled with foot problems last year and obviously needed better coaching than he received in college about how to play the line, but I hope drafting Okoye wasn’t the first clue that Williams is not the player sold to the fan base when he was drafted.

With so much money and draft position spent on 3/4ths of the defensive line, the strongside defensive tackle position will be anchored by former practice squader Anthony Maddox who came on late in the year to provides some impact in the interior defensive. Free agent signee Jeff Zgonina is expected to be his backup. Additional depth may come from Alfred Malone, Cedric Killings, Thomas Johnson or Earl Cochran, but they likely will need some injuries up front to survive the final cutdown.

The linebacking corps, on the surface, is the same as last year with standout Demeco Ryans in the middle flanked by weakside LB Morlon Greenwood and strongside LB Shantee Orr, however the Texans inked veterans Danny Green and Shawn Barber who may take over at outside linebacker. Greenwood was steady but not a playmaker last season while Orr was making the transition from playing inside in a 3-4 scheme to outside in a 4-3. Former sixth-rounder Charlie Anderson may get into the mix, and the Texans just signed Zac Woodfin for additional depth. The only certainty here is that Ryans will start in the middle and will probably sit only if injured.

The secondary is set at one cornerback spot with former first-rounder Dunta Robinson, and it appears the coaches are happy to keep Glenn Earl and C. C. Brown at their safety spots although both play like the second-day selections that they are. The cornerback spot opposite Robinson received most of the off-season attention. The incumbent, DeMarcus Faggins, is an uneven player who makes some great plays yet was burnt often in coverage. Veteran free agent Jamar Fletcher, a former first-rounder in 2001 who is now with his fourth NFL team, was signed to compete with Faggins. Holdover Dexter McCleon and fourth-rounder Fred Bennett will also get a shot. Backing up the safeties will be holdovers Jason Simmons and Roc Alexander as well as draft choice Brandon Harrison and practice squader John Walker.

The most significant addition to the defense may actually be Coach Frank Bush, a former Oiler signed this spring as a "Senior Defensive Assistant" but, in reality, will be teamed with Defensive Coordinator Richard Smith the way Gary Kubiak originally envisioned when he tried to lure both into the organization a year ago as co-coordinators.

The Houston defense appears to have gone "all in" on building up the front four while accepting two stars and a bunch of spare parts for the back seven. The young Okoye should have an impact once he adapts to the speed of the pro game while Barber and Fletcher figure to have the best chance of upgrading an often-unsteady back seven although neither is a lock to start.

On special teams, it appears as if the staus quo will largely prevail. Kris Brown and Chad Stanley will handle the kicking chores and Bryan Pittman will be the long snapper. Jerome Mathis should be returning kickoffs if healthy while Dexter Wynn and several others will get a shot at returning punts.

The primary hope is that the young players will grow into their roles, the injuries are kept to a minimum and the team gains some of the confidence it has lacked for most of their existence. The 2007 group of newcomers do not appear, at first glance, to merit excessive optimism, but there does appear to be the seeds of improvement and the Texans will have a new face simply by removing the old one. Whether the new face is able to bring Houston back into the NFL playoff circle for the first time since 1993 is an open question that may take years to answer.

Bob Hulsey hopes to remind readers that the depth chart on the official site is frequently inaccurate, particularly in the offseason, and not to read too much into how the players are listed.

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