Lockout limbo: Texans report

Posted May 21, 2011 @ 10:08 a.m.
Posted By Arthur Arkush

With NFL teams stuck in a state of limbo thanks to the lingering lockout, we are taking a tour around the league and looking at where teams stand as they await the opening of the 2011 league year. Today, we offer our take on where the Texans stand.

Top three story lines

1. Can Wade Phillips reach into his bag of tricks again? In his last four stops as a defensive coordinator, Phillips has helped take each team to the playoffs in Year One after the team missed out on the postseason the year prior to his arrival. The Texans had one of the worst defenses in the league last season, but the unit's four best players — DE-OLB Mario Williams, ILB DeMeco Ryans, ILB Brian Cushing and DE-OLB Connor Barwin — appeared in less than two games together. Houston also spent six of its eight draft picks upgrading the unit, with three or four rookies expected to compete for starting jobs right away. The question is, how quickly can the players transition to Phillips' 3-4 scheme without the benefit of a full offseason of learning?

2. Can Mario Williams play outside linebacker? Shortly after Phillips was hired, he said he envisioned Williams in a similar role to the one Bruce Smith had when the Hall of Famer played under him in Buffalo. But a few weeks ago, Phillips changed his tune, saying Williams can thrive as an outside linebacker in the same vein as DeMarcus Ware, who was a sack machine under Phillips in Big D. Williams weighed in at 292 pounds at the conclusion of the 2010 season. That would make him the biggest outside linebacker in NFL history. Although Phillips said Williams will drop weight to make the transition, is asking one of the league's best pass-rushing defensive ends to learn a new position the right move?

3. Will Gary Kubiak be the Texans' head coach in 2012? Owner Bob McNair is extremely loyal, as evidenced by the contract extension he gave Kubiak following the franchise's first winning season in 2009. But the Texans regressed in '10, and anything short of a winning season will force McNair to make a change.

2011 free agency — whenever that happens

Unsigned players: Unsigned players: DE Mark Anderson (5), LB Kevin Bentley (9), OG Mike Brisiel (3), DT Tim Bulman (4), OT Rashad Butler (5), OLB Zach Diles (4), RB Arian Foster (2), DE Jarvis Green (9), WR Jacoby Jones (4), FB Vonta Leach (7), QB Matt Leinart (5), DT Damione Lewis (10), CB Karl Paymah (6), S Bernard Pollard (5), OG Kasey Studdard (4), P Matt Turk (15). [Editor's note: The number after a players' name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules as used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after three years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.]

Analysis: The Texans' biggest goal in free agency will be adding a pair of veteran starters at safety and cornerback to shore up the league's worst pass defense from a season ago. CB Kareem Jackson and cornerback-turned-safety Glover Quin are penciled in as starters, but Houston is looking for guys with experience to step right in and bolster a young secondary. Of the potential restricted free agents listed, Pollard, Diles, Studdard and Bulman were not tendered before the lockout and are not expected back. The Texans will attempt to re-sign Leach, but his asking price — the All-Pro wants to be the highest-paid fullback in the league — likely will be too high for a club that throws the ball as frequently as Houston does.

2011 rookie class

First-round DE J.J. Watt (No. 11 overall) — Watt was considered by many to be the safest pick in the draft because of his excellent work ethic and intangibles. With Mario Williams moving to outside linebacker, Watt will start immediately at left defensive end with veteran Antonio Smith at the DRE spot.

Second-round OLB Brooks Reed (No. 42 overall) — The relentless Reed, another safe and solid pick, will compete with Connor Barwin for a starting job. Reed does not possess the pass-rushing prowess of Barwin, but he will do a nice job setting the edge in Wade Phillips' new scheme.

Second-round CB Brandon Harris (No. 60 overall) — The Texans moved back into the second round to select Harris, an undersized but instinctive corner who will become the club's nickel back from Day One.

Fourth-round CB Rashad "Roc" Carmichael (No. 127 overall) — The Texans love drafting cornerbacks — Carmichael is the seventh corner the club has drafted in the past three seasons. He is solid in zone coverage and should bolster a weak special-teams unit immediately.

Fifth-round SS Shiloh Keo (No. 144 overall) — GM Rick Smith called Keo "a diamond in the rough." Although he looks the part of a box safety similar to Bernard Pollard, who did not play well last season, the club loves Keo's instincts and ball skills. He is a special-teams warrior who, at the least, will be given the opportunity to compete for a starting job.

Fifth-round QB T.J. Yates (No. 152 overall) — Head coach Gary Kubiak is a great handler of quarterbacks and Yates fits the West Coast-type gunslinger Kubiak loves. With Matt Leinart looking for a chance to start elsewhere, Yates could earn a roster spot.

Seventh-round OG Derek Newton (No. 214 overall) — Newton fits the club's zone-blocking scheme well and could develop into a starter down the road.

Seventh-round OLB Cheta Ozougwu (No. 254 overall) — This year's "Mr. Irrelevant" is a high-motor pass rusher. He's heading to a defense that can never have too many guys who get after the quarterback.

Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Texans be by the work stoppage?

On scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most significantly impacted), the Texans rate a seven. This is a club that is installing a new defense — a change that does not happen overnight. While Houston upgraded its personnel with the addition of Wade Phillips and a strong draft class, the whole unit is being hurt with each day it is prevented from getting started learning. With an offense that is ready to compete for a Super Bowl right now, the pressure is squarely on the defense to get up to speed and do its part to help Houston reach its first postseason.