The Houston Texans don’t have a ton of holes leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, which is surprising considering they won all of two games last year. Everyone knows they need a QB and everyone knows they need a pass rusher off the edge to take some pressure off J.J. Watt. Many, however, are overlooking the major need at inside linebacker next to Brian Cushing.
If the season started today, Mike Mohamed would be lined up next to Cushing inside, with Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus on the outsides. Depth behind Cushing and Mohamed is Justin Tuggle and Paul Hazel. Cushing is a stud (when healthy, which is a rarity), we know that. But after him the unit digresses quickly in both talent and experience.
Mohamed will be a fourth year player who’s on his third team having played a total of 11 games while collecting 3 total tackles. Tuggle was an undrafted rookie last year who was predominantly a special teams demon while Hazel is an edge rusher who has no business playing inside. If the Texans were running an even front this wouldn’t be an issue, but they don’t, so it is.
There’s three ways through two avenues the Texans can solve this. They could draft an ILB, draft an edge rusher to play OLB and push Reed inside or they could sign a free agent ILB off the market.
The free agent route will be the last resort if they don’t answer the question via the draft. Stewart Bradley, Desmond Bishop, Larry Foote and Nick Barnett all have a plethora of experience playing inside an odd front and all are still available on the market.
The draft is where they’ll want to solve this, however. Get a young player with a high ceiling and cheap price tag over an overpaid vet with a limited shelf life.
The Texans won’t take an ILB with the number one overall pick, I promise, but who they do take with that pick will dictate how they settle on a solution.
Many expect they’ll take South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick, an understandable choice as a transcendent talent. DC Romeo Crennel will probably play him at OLB for the most part, but will also play him at DE and potentially DT in some nickel and dime packages. If Clowney is at OLB, Reed will slide over to ILB where he’s best suited. Even still, another ILB will need to be brought in, whether a FA or a mid to late round pick, but a starter opposite Cushing will likely have been found.
If the Texans take Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack, whether at number one overall or by trading down a few slots, same situation as above with Reed sliding inside. If the team takes an OLB in round two or three with the intention of starting outside, same course of action with Reed.
But say the Texans take a QB in round one, say Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M). If they do that, I think they should look long and hard at Chris Borland at pick no. 33. Borland (ILB, Wisconsin) doesn’t have great size or a tremendous physical skill set but is an instinctive tackling machine who’s rarely caught out of position. He reminds many people of former 7x Pro Bowler Zach Thomas, another heady and tough linebacker who’s slightly undersized. Borland would be a tremendous fit starting inside next to Cushing from day one.
Whether the Texans draft someone like Borland, sign a free agent or slide Reed inside to fill the starting gap, quality depth will need to be brought via the draft regardless.
Some players for the Texans to keep an eye on in rounds 2 though 7: Borland, Shayne Skov (Stanford), Yawin Smallwood (UCONN), Max Bullough (Michigan State), Preston Brown (Louisville) and Andrew Jackson (Western Kentucky). All are big, physical linebackers who have the strength to shed blockers inside and fly to the ball.