March 28, 2003
by Keith Weiland
Spring is in full bloom around Houston proper. The perennial hope that follows is, of course, the NFL Draft in April. Last season’s showers bring next season’s flowers, and the Texans are picking their blooms from perhaps the most plentiful field in three years of plucking.
With a first day of college drafting stocked with quality talent, the Texans would be wise to gather thy rosebuds while they may. But which of the available flowers has the potential for the biggest bloom?
An unfortunate byproduct of nature’s spring beauty is that much of it serves to dirty the air quality. Smoke screens are aplenty, and without the proper corrective and preventive measures, they could cloud our vision and lead us astray.
The Texans find themselves amidst this vast meadow with countless buds to choose from, each capable of providing a positive impact to the future direction of this team. As a squad coming off a 5-11 campaign, lacking depth at nearly every position, the Texans should truly be in a spot to take the best available player next month.
The contract statuses of three current players, however, could be like a prescription sinus pill, fuzzying their judgement as they try to follow this theory on draft day. Each of the three, CB Marcus Coleman, DT Seth Payne, and WR Corey Bradford, has an agreement expiring after the 2004 season, and each of them plays a significant role on the team today.
Coleman might be the most noticeable of these three players. An expansion pick in 2002, Coleman’s performance over the past two seasons has seen more ups and downs than Paris Hilton home video. Last year alone, Coleman accepted a Defensive Player of the Month award when later he watched the Titans’ Drew Bennett spin him right ’round baby, right ’round out of his cleats for a game-winning touchdown.
Defensive tackle Seth Payne is also on the contract hot seat this fall. His tragic torn knee ligament on the Superdome’s super-crappy turf left us all heartbroken. His play before the injury, however, was under-appreciated if not stellar. Payne’s absence following the injury was easily noticeable as opposing rushers blew through the line like a Dallas Cowboy at a coke party. If Payne can’t prove to be fully recovered this fall though, then he might be looking for work somewhere else in 2005.
Finally, wide receiver Corey Bradford is in the final year of a three-year deal he signed as a free agent. Following the selections of Jabar Gaffney and Andre Johnson in the last two drafts, Bradford has slowly slipped down the Texans’ depth chart, and since suffering bone spurs midway through his first season in Houston, his on-field production hasn’t helped his case. Still, Bradford is a veritable deep threat, and even as the third member of the team’s wideout trio, he provides an explosive element to the Texans’ offensive gameplan.
So, three big question marks exist, none of which will be answered in time for April’s draft. Fortunately, the potential replacements at corner, nose, and wideout are there for the picking at the tenth overall selection.
The class at wide receiver is perhaps as deep as it has ever been. With names like Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Mike Williams, and several others, it’s hard to argue that a selection of any of them with the tenth overall pick would be thumbing your nose at the “best player available” theory.
Problem, though, is that because the draft is so deep at the receiver position, if the Texans wanted to find someone to eventually replace Bradford, they could find a potential candidate well beyond the first round of this draft. There’s something to be said of drafting to a team’s strength, and having someone like Roy Williams alongside Gaffney and Johnson is instantly appealing, but it is a tad gluttonous when bigger problems exist.
Especially on defense.
The Texans addressed some of their depth problems on the defensive line earlier this month when they signed Robaire Smith away from the Titans. Smith becomes an immediate starter, and with the healthy returns of Payne and end Gary Walker, the starters on the D-line appear ready to go for 2004.
Despite having backups in Jerry DeLoach, Corey Sears, and Terrance Martin, the talent depth drops after the big three. These guys saw significant playing time a year ago, so the experience they gained will be to their advantage, but none of them are suitable starters should someone get hurt again. The loss of free agent nose tackle Steve Martin to the Vikes means that finding another nose in the draft is a priority.
Enter Miami’s Vince Wilfork. Big guys who move as quick as Wilfork are as rare as finding an ugly woman standing next to Donald Trump. Interior linemen like Wilfork go high in the draft not because of the stats they rack up, but because of the stats they allow their teammates to rack up. Wilfork wouldn’t start if Payne was full recovered, but he would be in the rotation from the onset of camp to keep everyone fresh all season long.
Wilfork’s position, however, is an enabling one, and not a playmaking one. Though I have him rated very high, if the Texans feel very confident about Payne’s progress, they may prefer to use their first round pick on a true playmaker, a guy capable of changing the game all by himself.
A few of those stand out this year. Wilfork’s teammate, safety Sean Taylor, tops that list, but he will likely be gone by the time the Texans are on the clock. Ohio State’s defensive end, Will Smith, is another. The Texans could plug him in at outside linebacker and turn him loose on opposing quarterbacks. Both Taylor and Smith could be immediate starters and provide playmaking abilities to upgrade the defense right away.
The contract status of Coleman, however, is the bogey here. With the tenth pick, the Texans may not have as good of an opportunity to select the first corner on the board in future years as they will next month. And there are two options at corner worth the pick.
Chris Gamble, another Buckeye, is one of them. He’s the guy who locked down Johnson in the National Championship game a year and a half ago, so why not draft Superman’s kryptonite? Gamble has a sixth sense for the game, but since he’s only been playing corner for little more than two seasons, he’s a classic high-risk high-reward type that could take more than a season to comfortably place out on an NFL island. Are the Texans willing to wait and swallow their lumps as he develops?
And why should they when Virginia Tech’s DeAngelo Hall is there as well? Hall is faster and more fluid than Gamble, and he’s played the position far longer. Hall might be the second coming of Deion Sanders, even capable of being an explosive returner.
Hall’s got the mentho-lypus to provide powerful relief of Coleman. His 4.3 forty and 3.68 short shuttle speed is just the vapor action the Texan war room needs on draft day to fight the coughs, soothe the sore throats, and cool the nasal passages caused by such a vast meadow of college prospect possibilities.
Top Ten List
Heading down the home stretch, the list has been refined to put a premium on those capable of providing the playmaking presence the Texan defense needs to succeed this year and beyond.
(* indicates underclassman)
1. Robert Gallery, LT, Iowa. 6’7″ 323. Gallery is the real deal as a left tackle prospect. If he’s somehow available when the Texans pick, they should waste no time getting this card up to Tags.
2. Sean Taylor*, FS, Miami. 6’3″ 228. Arguably the best athlete in the entire draft, Taylor is perhaps the crown jewel of all defensive prospects, a sentiment even more noteworthy given his position at safety.
3. Vince Wilfork*, DT, Miami. 6’2″ 323. A double-team waiting to happen in the NFL. Nice quickness for a big man. Maybe too big? Nah, just wait until he gets into an NFL weight training program.
4. DeAngelo Hall*, CB, Virginia Tech. 5’11” 201. Speed kills, and Hall has plenty of it. If allowed, he could be a back-breaker on returns as well. Hall’s athleticism overshadows his great cover skills.
5. Will Smith, DE (OLB), Ohio State. 6’3″ 270. A great pass rusher who should be able to make the switch to OLB in the 3-4. Can take the best angles, stand up the runner, and drop into coverage.
6. Chris Gamble*, CB, Ohio State. 6’2″ 180. An instinctive player who could just as easily be a big-time star as he could be a big-time bust. Raw and easily fooled, Gamble’s still worth the, um, gamble.
7. Randy Starks*, DT (DE), Maryland. 6’3″ 314. Plays smaller than he’s listed, but that’s a back-handed compliment to his pass rush ability. Another athletic freak, he can stuff the run and tackle too.
8. Tommie Harris*, DT (DE), Oklahoma. 6’3″ 296. Harris would make for a fearsome end in a 3-4 system. Plenty strong to take multiple blockers, he has the necessary quickness to rush the passer.
9. Kenechi Udeze, DE, USC. 6’4″ 280. Udeze has parlayed a strong senior season on a co-champ team into a skyrocket up the charts. A big guy with pass rush abilities, not sure I’m sold on him though.
10. Jonathan Vilma, ILB, Miami. 6’1″ 225. Vilma noses out teammate D.J. Williams in my book, as he is a complete, though undersized, linebacker capable of thriving next to Jamie Sharper in the Texans’ 3-4.
Keith Weiland is a man of all seasons.