The Texans, as expected, addressed a need with their first-round pick Thursday night. It just wasn't the sexy playmaker position that many expected.
Whitney Mercilus, a projected linebacker at the NFL level who led the NCAA with 16 sacks in his junior year at Illinois, proved too much value for the Texans to pass up at No. 26. The vast majority of scouts pegged Mercilus among the top 20 picks, and he fills the hole left by Mario Williams.
Brooks Reed remains at outside linebacker opposite Connor Barwin, but it's still unclear whether he's best suited as a true starter or a situational player. This gives the Texans insurance.
"I'm nasty," Mercilus said on a conference call following his selection. "I get after the passer. I'm not going to give up. I give 110 percent all day, every day."
According to scouting service New Era Scouting, the strengths of Mercilus are that he is "a very strong player with some pop in his game. Initially at the point of contact, he jars blockers and has the ability to easily run around them. He is a very hard worker and good kid in the locker room."
The negatives for Mercilus include defending the run, but the importance of that is minimized at the outside spot in Wade Phillips's 3-4 scheme. It's the fourth consecutive draft the Texans have opted for defense in the first round.
"We don't go offense or defense," said Phillips. "It's whoever is the best player on our board. He's a dynamic type of player. Mercilus is a lot like Connor Barwin. He fits in with our guys on defense."
The Texans could still use another receiving target, but General Manager Rick Smith seems to believe the gap from Mercilus to another pass rusher deeper in the draft is more significant than the line between late-first round receivers like Stephen Hill and later alternatives.
Value over position in later rounds While the first round typically combines value with need, the latter rounds on Friday and Saturday are almost all about value.
That's especially likely this year. As one would expect with a playoff roster, the Texans don't have any massive holes. But there are spots where depth is thin, especially with defections like Williams, offensive linemen Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, and tight end Joel Dreessen.
In 2011, the Texans (after trades) had two second-round picks, using them on Reed and nickel cornerback Brandon Harris. The former pick was especially astute, given the early-season injury to Williams and his eventual departure for Buffalo.
However, both picks were somewhat predictable based on glaring needs. That happens when coming off a year with one of the worst defenses in league history.
The 2012 draft, with a more complete roster, could be more volatile. Positions where depth could still be improved include offensive tackle, offensive guard, wide receiver, tight end, defensive tackle and possibly cornerback.
On the other hand, there's not a single one where the team would panic if they headed into camp with the depth already on the roster.
As such, the Texans are likely to have a true best player available (BPA) mind-set, which includes needs that might not even be there yet. For example, fans railed on the Houston braintrust for taking four tight ends in the 2009 and 2010 drafts, despite two legit tight ends already on the roster.
But when Dreessen became too expensive to keep and signed with Denver, Garrett Graham (2010 fourth-rounder) stepped into a very important role as TE2. Likewise, James Casey (2009 fifth-rounder) was drafted with the intent of converting to a fullback -- a role that became crucial when Vonta Leach became too pricey to retain.
So even if the need isn't there now, fans need to remember that it very well could be in a year or two. Trading for more picks a possibility The free-agent losses also mean that the Texans should receive a draft pick windfall in 2013. Losing Williams is almost certain to net the Texans a compensatory third-rounder, while the departures of Dreessen, Brisiel and Jason Allen could get additional picks in rounds 4 through 7.
What does that mean for this year? If, hypothetically, there's a value the Texans like in the fourth round, they can trade their 2013 third-rounder to get it, knowing they have another pick coming in.
In short, the compensatory choices give them added flexibility.
Excellent non-first round history Ultimately, the top priority late is to identify NFL talent, position be damned. If a GM finds a quality player in the fifth round, he'll gladly take it -- regardless of position -- and sort out the depth chart later.
In the case of Smith and the Texans, they've earned trust when it comes to finding non-first round talent.
Since 2009, the team has had 22 picks not in the first. Of those, 15 -- Barwin, Antoine Caldwell, Glover Quin, Casey, Brice McCain, Troy Nolan, Ben Tate, Earl Mitchell, Darryl Sharpton, Graham, Sherrick McManis, Reed, Harris, T.J. Yates and Derek Newton -- have played or will likely play significant roles for the Texans.
That's a massive success rate (almost 70 percent) that places Houston among the best in the NFL.
Kicker the exception The one need we can expect Kubiak and the Texans to address is placekicker, likely with Texas A&M's Randy Bullock.
The Texans take their kicking quite seriously. Even after Kris Brown's nightmare season in 2009, they were so concerned about the transfer of duties that they kept both Brown and Neil Rackers on the roster through the ensuing training camp and preseason.
It's unlikely for Kubiak to hand the job that could decide multiple games to whatever unknowns are left following the draft. The Texans have met with Bullock twice, and he reportedly put on a spectacular workout for the team. He's from the area (Klein High School) and made 50+ yard field goals for the Aggies in each of the past three seasons. There seems to be a trust there.
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After a season in which any kick beyond 40 yards was an adventure, the guess here is that Kubiak and Smith think a sixth-round pick is a low cost for long-term stability at the position.
The NFL Draft continues with rounds 2 and 3 on Friday night before concluding with rounds 4 through 7 during the day Saturday.