Whenever NFL play resumes, the Texans' defense will employ a 3-4 alignment, and Earl Mitchell very well could be their starting nose tackle.
For now, Mitchell, a second-year pro, works out in Stafford, Texas (15 miles southwest of Houston) and takes online classes toward a degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Arizona. He's also studying Dallas Cowboys DVDs trying to get a better feel for Wade Phillips' defense. Phillips, formerly the Cowboys' head coach, was hired as the Texans' defensive coordinator in January, and he has made it clear he believes Mitchell, who was a backup as a rookie, should be a key part of his defense. Mitchell and Shaun Cody look like they will be the Texans' primary nose tackles in 2011.
The 6-2, 291-pound Mitchell played nose tackle in the Texans' 4-3 scheme in 2010, so he's familiar with the position. He was a three-technique tackle at Arizona, a position that lends itself to getting more one-on-one matchups than nose tackle, he said. Nose tackles frequently have to contend with the center and a guard. Mitchell won't be "necessarily (lined) head up" against a center as much in Phillips' scheme as he would be in a traditional 3-4, he explained.
We're told Phillips, who made it a point in his introductory press conference to note that nose guards come in different shapes and sizes, is high on Mitchell.
"I like him a lot," Phillips told The Houston Chronicle recently. "His strength is in his legs. Guards don't move him. I know the center won't move him. He's got the quickness and speed that make him a good player wherever he is. I think we'll be versatile enough to put him in a position where he can help us."
Mitchell, voted the Texans' Rookie of the Year in 2010 after notching 28 tackles and one sack in 15 games, has watched Pro Bowl Cowboys NT Jay Ratliff on film, looking for things he can incorporate into his own game.
"He plays with really good leverage," Mitchell said of Ratliff, citing Ratliff's ability to pressure the pocket as another skill he admires.
Mitchell began his career at Arizona as a tight end and H-back before moving to defensive tackle in 2008. At 23, and with all of three seasons on defense to his credit, he believes his relative lack of experience means he has room to improve.
"I'm still learning," he said.