Ranking the Houston Texans' Biggest Needs to Address in the 2014 NFL Draft
The Houston Texans lost more players than they gained in free agency, releasing tight end Owen Daniels and cornerback Brice McCain, trading quarterback Matt Schaub to the Oakland Raiders and electing not to re-sign free-agent running back Ben Tate, defensive end Antonio Smith and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell.
Houston did re-sign tight end Garrett Graham and cornerback Elbert Mack and acquired nose tackle Jerrell Powe in free agency. But the team still has multiple holes to fill through the draft—some more glaring than others.
The following five positions are ranked in order from the Texans' lowest needs to their highest, but keep in mind that their draft strategy may not correspond to their needs.
With the No. 1 pick and a glaring need at quarterback, the Texans may nonetheless decide to address another position of need—via defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or outside linebacker Khalil Mack—or trade down to stockpile picks if they think they can select the quarterback they want later in the first round.
It's possible that general manager Rick Smith wants to acquire as many new players to fit new head coach Bill O'Brien's system as possible. The Texans own 11 picks in the 2014 draft, including compensatory picks in Round 4, Round 6 and Round 7 and a sixth-round pick from Oakland.
However they maneuver it on draft day, the Texans are likely to address these five positions in the 2014 NFL draft.
After releasing veteran tight end Owen Daniels in early March, the Texans made a move to re-sign Garrett Graham to a three-year deal. The former fourth-round pick received interest from multiple teams in free agency after he started 11 games in place of the injured Daniels and amassed 49 receptions for 545 yards and five touchdowns.
He played 784 snaps to Daniels' 362, but Graham had a statistically promising year. He averaged more yards per catch (11.1) than Daniels and more yards after catch per reception (4.4), per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Houston may plan to give Graham the starting nod in training camp—it seems like O'Brien likes him. But with only Ryan Griffin behind him on the depth chart, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Texans take a tight end in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft to either compete with Graham or provide additional depth behind him.
Graham is a complete tight end—a skilled pass-catcher and blocker both—and the Texans may not find a prospect as complete in this draft. Graham could work on his drops (he had three in 2013), but for the most part, he has soft hands and can line up tight or be flexed out.
Potential prospects for Houston include Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz, who could still be on the board for the Texans' fourth-round pick (101st overall). He, like Graham, can line up in-line or be flexed out. But Fiedorowicz isn't as skilled as a receiver.
Houston could also consider someone like Blake Annen with its compensatory seventh-round pick (256th overall). He had an exceptional pro day with a lightning-fast 40-yard dash of 4.41, per NFL.com, and has high upside. He could benefit from time spent developing in Houston's system.
If the Texans didn't have 11 selections in this year's draft, they might not take a tight end at all, but as things stand, it could be a wise move to add depth to the position.
A once-in-a-lifetime prospect with rare speed and explosive power, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is available to the Texans with the No. 1 overall pick—if they want him.
Selecting him first overall seems like less of a risk than selecting any of the top quarterback prospects in this year's draft class. Houston could use a playmaker to pair opposite J.J. Watt, who was a rare ray of light in the Texans' otherwise bleak 2-14 season.
Antonio Smith played opposite Watt in 2013 and registered 22 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble to complement Watt's 65 tackles, 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles (and also, of course, seven batted passes.)
After losing Smith in free agency, the Texans have the option of putting Jared Crick, who might be too small to be effective in defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's two-gap scheme, opposite Watt. Or they could establish what might be the most feared front seven in the league by drafting Clowney.
Unlike many other 3-4 teams, Houston's defensive ends are asked to be disruptive rather than simply eat blocks. The system could be a good fit for someone with Clowney's exceptional talents. Of course, on the flip side, his size may make him better-suited to be a 4-3 defensive end—which could push the Texans to focus on pass-rusher Khalil Mack instead.
If the Texans choose to either trade the No. 1 pick or target a position other than defensive end, they still have options into Round 3 for starting-caliber players. Missouri's Kony Ealy is a wide body who can be similarly disruptive—like Watt, he excels in batting passes, with six in 2013—and he would be a good fit in Crennel's scheme.
Right tackle is another position the Texans could choose to address early in the draft. But it doesn't seem worth spending the No. 1 pick on Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews or Michigan's Taylor Lewan, all of whom are starting-caliber left tackles, when Houston has Duane Brown starting on the left side.
It's worth noting, however, that both Robinson and Matthews have visited or will visit Houston, so perhaps if the Texans trade down within the top 10, they will seriously consider selecting a tackle in the first round.
Either way, if they take a quarterback in Round 1 or 2, they will want to ensure that he has the best possible protection around him, and their current offensive line doesn't get them there.
With two selections in the fourth round, it could be an opportune time to look for a right tackle to replace Derek Newton, who was ranked as the fifth-worst offensive tackle in the league in 2013 by Pro Football Focus. He had the most penalties of any tackle with 13 and struggled in pass-blocking and run-blocking both.
Stanford's Cameron Fleming could be on the board by the 101st overall pick early in Round 4. He started at right tackle in every game from 2012 to 2013 and could be a Week 1 contributor for Houston.
Tennessee's Antonio Richardson—nicknamed "Tiny" at 6'6" and 336 pounds—was a leading performer in the bench press at the NFL combine. Having played left tackle at Tennessee, he has the size and skill set that could translate to a starting right tackle job in the NFL.
Peter King reported on MMQB.com Monday that a source close to Rick Smith told him that the general manager likes outside linebacker Khalil Mack over Jadeveon Clowney. If Houston retains the No. 1 pick, that could be the direction the Texans go with it—even though Mack isn't considered the consensus best player available.
Whitney Mercilus didn't have as poor a 2013 season as his Pro Football Focus ranking—No. 42 out of 42 players who played snaps at outside linebacker—would suggest. He did have nine sacks, nine quarterback hits and 33 quarterback hurries.
However, Mercilus and fellow outside linebacker Brooks Reed were ranked as the two least effective pass-rushers among all 3-4 outside linebackers by Pro Football Focus. Reed only contributed three sacks in 2013.
Taking Mack would allow the Texans to move Reed inside and instantly upgrade the pass-rush.
Even with a scheme that so successfully utilizes a defensive-end edge-rusher in J.J. Watt, a 3-4 scheme relies on the strength of its outside linebackers—not only to rush the passer but to zone drop and contain against the run.
Even if the Texans pass on Mack in the first round, their outside linebacking group could use some help. Ryan Shazier, a quick, disruptive linebacker with coverage and tackling skills, may still be available at No. 33 overall. At 6'1", 237 pounds, he is smaller than a typical 3-4 outside 'backer, but he could be well-suited behind Houston's dominant defensive line.
It's their biggest need, and yet quarterback is the position the Texans seem least likely to target in the first round. Between the reports of interest in trading down or in selecting Khalil Mack, the Texans are either participating in a elaborate smokescreen or genuinely concerned that none of the quarterback prospects in this class is a lock with the No. 1 overall pick.
Still, unless they plan to start Case Keenum in Week 1, the Texans have the unenviable position of either orchestrating to trade down and hoping the quarterbacks they've targeted are still available later in the first round, clenching their teeth and pulling the trigger on one at No. 1 overall or waiting until their No. 33 pick in the second round to find their franchise signal-caller.
Blake Bortles has recently become the favorite at his position, topping the prospect rankings at both NFL.com and CBSSports.com. Notably, Mel Kiper Jr. still has Teddy Bridgewater as his top quarterback in his prospect rankings (ESPN Insider subscription required) but at 16th overall among all prospects.
It all comes down to what the Texans perceive as the bigger risk: hedging a No. 1 pick on Bortles, Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel or trading down and waiting to select one of them later in the first round.
Jacksonville (No. 3), Cleveland (No. 4) and Minnesota (No. 8) could all take quarterbacks with their first selections, so if Houston were to find a team that is willing to engage in a trade, it would risk Bortles, Bridgewater and/or Manziel being off the board.
If the Texans opt not to select a quarterback with the first pick or trade down, they could likely land A.J. McCarron—and possibly Derek Carr—at No. 33. With such a lack of a clear-cut leader in this year's quarterback class, who's to say McCarron and Carr would be riskier picks than Bortles, Bridgewater or Manziel? The second-round price tag would be easier to swallow.