For the first time in years, the first round of the NFL Draft may not be about defense for the Texans.
After spending exhaustive resources to rebuild the depleted unit, the consensus among pundits is that Gary Kubiak will use the 2012 draft to add youth to his offensive core -- namely, in the passing game.
The Texans might well take a receiver with the No. 26 pick Thursday night, but it won't be for the reason many think.
They also may not use the criteria most do in evaluating.
Upgrading Jacoby Jones, while satisfying after his playoff flub in Baltimore, isn't worth a first-round pick by itself. Even with Andre Johnson missing the majority of the 2011 season with pulled hamstrings, Jones didn't even crack the top two in most-targeted receivers among Texans.
That's because contrary to popular belief, the Texans do have a legit No. 2 receiver. His name is Owen Daniels, and he caught a team-high 54 passes for 677 yards, also on a club-best 84 targets.
They also have a No. 3 receiver named Arian Foster, who was second in catches (53), receiving yards (617) and targets (71). Both Daniels and Foster are quite capable in those roles going forward, too.
Mostly about scheme The Texans passing game isn't predicated around lining up and winging it, even with a healthy Matt Schaub at quarterback. It's built around play-action and bootlegs. It uses the threat of Foster, Ben Tate and the punishing zone-blocking scheme to draw defenders in before beating them over the top.
In other words, it's the scheme -- not the players -- that is the biggest factor.
Players are important, of course, but their importance largely comes within the context of the scheme. For a pass catcher, one- or two-tenths of a second in the 40-yard dash is less important to the Texan offense than sharp route-running and ability as a blocker, thereby not tipping the defense to the play.
That blocking ability is why Kevin Walter has made himself a fixture as a starting wideout for Gary Kubiak. His measurables don't look the part of a typical NFL No. 2 out wide, but his blocking and overall savvy have proven quite valuable in Houston. He's not the second receiving option but he doesn't have to be, considering the unique way this offense runs.
Likewise, that explains why the Texans put such a priority on versatile tight ends such as Daniels, especially if they have the size to become red-zone threats. In the draft, that means if Houston believes Stanford's Coby Fleener is the most dynamic playmaker available at its first-round slot, there's a good chance general manager Rick Smith could take him -- especially after the departure of Joel Dreessen.
Of course, they also could opt for another need like offensive line, outside linebacker or even defensive tackle. The bottom line is that the Texans won't take a receiver just to fit inside the typical box.
One notable exception As unusual as the Texan offense is by modern NFL spread standards, there is one conventional aspect in Johnson. Without his ability to stretch the field and expand opposing defenses, safeties can creep in and stifle the underneath game that often proves so deadly. That happened several times in 2011 amid Johnson's hamstring woes. The second injury, in December, might have cost the Texans a bye.
Those injuries aren't chronic. Moreover, when on the field, Johnson appeared as dominant as ever -- showing no signs of slowing down. There's a legitimate case that receiver isn't the team's top priority.
The flip side to that argument, of course, is that Andre will be 31 this fall and comes off back-to-back years of nagging injuries. If Smith and the Texans are worried, the priority in finding a receiver won't be drafting someone to complement Johnson. It would be drafting someone to potentially replace him.
What does that mean for the draft? It may show that quick slot types, such as Kendall Wright and Rueben Randle, don't make sense for the Texans. Rather, potential No. 1 types -- such as Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery -- are more likely candidates, should they go receiver.
The downside to the latter two is that while they have the high ceilings the Texans need, many also believe they have lower floors. The risk might be too great to invest a first-round pick, though it could make trading down a possibility.
What will the Texans do? The party line for the Texans, as always, is best player available (BPA). But in the first round, the number of quality options is such that need does play a role. The latter rounds -- 2 and 3 on Friday, 4 through 7 on Saturday -- are where the true shift to BPA often occurs, when overall depth shrinks.
A year ago, the Texans desperately needed an edge rusher at outside linebacker to lead Wade Phillips's 3-4 scheme. The choice of J.J. Watt directly addressed that by moving Mario Williams to that spot.
Two years ago, Dunta Robinson's departure necessitated help at cornerback. Smith chose Kareem Jackson in the first. While results have been mixed, the pick -- again -- directly correlated with need.
The last three Houston first-round picks -- Watt, Jackson and Brian Cushing -- have all gone to defense. The team's biggest impact offseason signing thus far -- linebacker Bradie James -- also went to that side.
The prediction here is that following the recent departures of tackle Eric Winston, guard Mike Brisiel and Dreessen, the offense gets its turn. A number of linemen or pass catchers could be in play, but one jumps out as a sizable boost for the Texans this year as they pursue the franchise's first Super Bowl.
Ben's guess for No. 26: Coby Fleener, Stanford TE
Be sure to follow Sean Pendergast's live-tweeting of the draft tonight on Hair Balls.
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