January 28, 2003
by Keith Weiland
If the Houston Texans learned one thing from their inaugural season, it’s this: the offensive line needs help. Serious help. And I don’t mean the simple type of help where you walk an old lady across the street. I’m talking about the type of burning desperation those gold-digging chicks feel deep down inside when rubbing up against Joe Millionaire.
Yes, sadly, it was that kind of season for the offensive line. It’s a miracle Dom Capers didn’t need to prop up David Carr with popsicle sticks and chewing gum by midseason.
So the simple answer is for the Texans to address the team’s biggest need at the top of the draft, right?
Wrong. Sacrificing a quality selection of the best available player to purely fill a perceived need is ripe with potential disaster. Even if the Texans were to trade down from the third overall pick in order better justify a first round selection on an offensive tackle, it would be an error in judgment.
General manager Charley Casserly should know. He made a similar mistake in 1996 as general manager of the Redskins.
Looking back, the Skins’ line of the mid- to late-90s was one in significant decline. Long gone were the glory days of the Hogs. After trading away their first round pick in the ’96 draft to obtain defensive lineman Sean Gilbert (another story altogether), Casserly sat patiently with the seventh pick of the second round waiting to rebuild his man-wall.
Patience expired when six offensive linemen flew off the board with seven more picks still to go until the Skins’ turn.
"I think everyone in the NFL knew we wanted to take an offensive tackle with our second (round) pick," Casserly said at the time. "And yet we felt we could be sitting there and get jumped for it pretty easily."
So Casserly did what he thought best to fill a team need. He gave up a third round pick to move up seven spots and into the first round to select Penn State’s 6’5" 305-pound tackle, Andre Johnson.
"The decision was let’s make the deal, get the player, and then we have it done, instead of sitting there hoping and praying the guy’s available."
Problem was, Johnson was a complete and utter bust. It didn’t take Washington’s staff long to figure it out, either. Johnson never played a single regular-season down for the Redskins.
In retrospect, as part of the Houston Chronicle’s 2002 draft coverage, Casserly told the paper, "We forced this guy (Johnson) up on the draft board. We fell victim to that. That’s my fault. I should have been smarter."
"One thing I learned is that you’ve got to take the best player on the board and ignore your depth chart. You can’t force something that’s not there."
Fast forward to present day. Casserly and the Texans have critical needs on the line. All-Pro Tony Boselli is still a significant question mark because of multiple injuries, and Ryan Young is an unrestricted free agent that could require an uncomfortable amount of cash to retain. Steve McKinney was consistent, if out of position, as a center, but rookies Chester Pitts and Fred Weary still lack a veteran’s savvy at guard.
"Draft lineman early" is definitely part of Casserly’s idiom. He has used several first and second round picks to bolster his offensive lines in the previous drafts. In addition to Johnson and Pitts, Casserly also selected Tre’ Johnson, Corey Raymer, and Jon Jansen with second round picks.
In 2003, a few names have already surfaced as Texans’ draft possibilities, including Stanford’s Kwame Harris and Iowa’s Eric Steinbach. One name sitting at the top of that list is Utah’s Jordan Gross.
Gross has drawn rave reviews this season. An All-American offensive lineman and runner-up for the Outland Trophy this season, he is the top tackle prospect in most scouts’ eyes. Gross appears adept at both pass blocking and run blocking, and he possesses ample strength. A black belt in tae kwon do, Gross has translated his improved footwork and balance from the dojo to the field.
Gross is also married to a childhood sweetheart he’s known since he was twelve. He is a mature, baggage-free prospect, certain to make the Texans and their fans proud.
Comparisons to Johnson are unfair to Gross, but coincidentally, both of them have nearly identical height-weight measurements. Gross is much quicker than Johnson though.
Gross hails from the Mountain West Conference, which isn’t exactly the pinnacle of college football. You can count the number of first round picks Utah has produced over the years on one hand. So is Gross underrated, or is he over-matching weaker foes?
Heading into this year, Gross was usually recognized as a first day talent, but rarely as a first rounder and never as a top ten pick. In fact, the 2002 season was his first to be named All-Conference, though he had netted an honorable mention previously. He does not grade as highly as other recent top linemen like Orlando Pace, Johnathan Ogden, or even Bryant McKinnie.
The Texans would be wise to look elsewhere to solve their O-line problems in 2003. There are several big name free agents possibly available that the Texans could pursue. Of course, it does remain to be seen if any of them will get tagged by their current team, but with a list headed by Pace that includes Luke Petitgout, Wayne Gandy, Flozell Adams, Walter Jones, and others, the Texans should have a few quality options from which to choose.
Long-term, building the line through the draft is a proven, smart thing to do, but Carr and his teammates need help now. Casserly cannot afford to wait another year to develop his young line and hope his prized quarterback can still walk back to the huddle after each and every sack.
Throwing another rookie into the mix and expecting him to be the immediate answer is too much to expect of even a good prospect like Gross. Without a quality veteran or two added, Carr may need help drinking through a straw at some point.
Keith Weiland is known by friends as "Joe Five-Bucks-aire". Jordan Gross Home