|Monday, February 18
Texans still need to add pass rush
By Len Pasquarelli
Close your eyes and conjure up visions of those pressurized defenses Dom Capers created in Pittsburgh, Carolina and Jacksonville during a decade as head coach or coordinator. Think of linebackers like Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Lamar Lathon and Kevin Hardy exploding off the edge, and of opposition quarterbacks terrorized by the outside pincer movement.
OK, now open your peepers and peruse the list of eight veteran defenders selected by the Houston Texans in the expansion draft Monday afternoon, and try to locate among this group the kind of pure outside pass rusher around whom Capers and coordinator Vic Fangio like to build.
Not a one to be found, no projected "edge" player with more than six sacks in a season, right? Make no mistake about it: The 19 veterans selected by the Texans represent the most talented group ever assembled by an expansion franchise. It would be naïve to suggest general manager Charley Casserly and Capers, who logged thousands of hours considering the talent pool and then designing a philosophy for the draft, didn't do a tremendous job in plucking key players at critical positions from the 155 veterans available to them.
But at the risk of appearing contrarian, even while some analysts suggested on Monday that Houston might actually contend for a division crown in its inaugural campaign, there were still a few holes in that hyperbolic rationale.
And, more important, on the Texans current roster.
If you are Casserly and Capers, even while reiterating that veteran free agency is just a placebo and that the unrestricted pool this spring is subpar, you are counting down the days until March 1. If the Pittsburgh Steelers haven't re-signed strongside linebacker Jason Gildon by the beginning of the free agent period, he could be the high-priced spackle used to patch Caper's biggest hole on defense.
Gildon had a dozen sacks in 2001, fits the age model the Texans have constructed, and played all eight of his NFL seasons in a 3-4 front. In fact, Capers was still the Pittsburgh coordinator when the Steelers selected Gildon in the third round of the '94 draft. Just as Boselli was the top target in the expansion draft, Gildon figures to be the Texans' biggest free agent priority if the Steelers can't re-up him in the period between now and the beginning of next month.
Houston executives have said they won't dabble too much in free agency, preferring to delay until the market stabilizes, but Gildon could be the team's one big-ticket item early on.
Dating back to 1960, there have been 11 expansion franchises and those teams averaged an anemic 2.2 victories in their maiden voyage seasons. Only the Carolina Panthers in 1995, which were coached by Capers, won more than four games. And even with the impressive bounty that was harvested Monday afternoon, Capers will be hard-pressed to match that total in Houston during the coming season, particularly without a linebacker capable of posting 8-12 sacks.
"There is still plenty of work to be done," acknowledged owner Bob McNair, who invested nearly $40 million in the expansion draft. "We've got free agency and the draft but, even with those, you can't address every single need. The good thing is, we're in this for the long haul, not for immediate gratification. It's a great group of players, on and off the field, we were able to get in the (expansion) draft. But you don't fill every hole in one year."
Primary among the Texans shortcomings, which will be addressed in the draft and also in free agency, is the quarterback position. The plan, of course, is to select David Carr of Fresno State with the initial choice in the 2002 draft, unless some team offers Houston a king's ransom for the top pick. Houston also figures to sign a veteran quarterback - perhaps Trent Dilfer, Jim Miller or Gus Frerotte - as an unrestricted free agent and its starter for a year or two.
Danny Wuerffel, one of the expansion choices on Monday, and veteran journeyman Mike Quinn, signed as a so-called "street' free agent, are the lone quarterbacks currently on the roster.
Additionally, the Texans so far lack big-play performers on offense, particularly at the tailback spot. No expansion club in the modern era, since 1970, has ever had a back rush for more than 750 yards in its first year. Capers and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, the first head coach of the expansion Cleveland Browns, learned a painful lesson in their respective initial seasons about the importance of a viable running game.
The most productive wide receiver chosen on Monday was Jermaine Lewis of Baltimore, who averaged 17.5 yards and totaled 12 touchdowns on 83 catches in 1997-98, but who has been used primarily as a return specialist ever since. The offensive line, led by the tackle tandem of Tony Boselli and Ryan Young, might be better than some incumbent units around the league. But the same assessment was made of the Cleveland blocking unit in 1999, featuring the tackle pair of Lomas Brown and Orlando Brown, but that quintet performed miserably, surrendering 60 sacks.
Houston should fare far better, but Palmer, who lacked playmakers in Cleveland and saw young quarterback Tim Couch hindered by a lack of weaponry, knows he must come up with players who can at least scare an opposition defense.
Perhaps the biggest need, though, for a team that should be quickly competitive on defense is the upfield rusher Capers characteristically features in his 3-4 alignment. And after Gildon, there are no other unrestricted free agents who so meticulously fit the Capers defensive blueprint. Julius Peppers of North Carolina certainly has the potential to be a consistent upfield sack threat, but he only figures into the Houston plans if the team trades the top overall choice on April 20.
Most defenses are constructed from the inside out. But the Capers paradigm realizes its greatest strength working from the outside to the interior, using upfield speed and athleticism to pressure opponents into mistakes. Its focus is on exotic blitzes from unusual angles, and those rushes are principally a factor of possessing the kind of "edge" players Capers' units had in the past.
The system does enhance the talents of some players, as witnessed by the seven sacks Carolina linebacker Darion Conner registered in 1995, but it works far better than the components are in place and Capers and Fangio can maneuver with the working parts.
"You're always looking for the great, athletic player who can compress the pocket and come hard from the outside," Capers said last week.
On Monday, he found no such players, and so the search continues.
The leading career sacker among the defenders selected Monday is Gary Walker, who has 38 ½ quarterback sacks and collected 10 in 1999 while playing under Capers, but who is a tackle. Seth Payne, a tackle at Jacksonville, might be used as an end in Houston, but he's never had more than five sacks in a season.
ESPN.com confirmed that former Baltimore weakside linebacker Jamie Sharper will be moved inside, because the Texans staff already has decided the five-year pro is better in a "stacked" look than playing in space.
You hate to rain on Houston fans' parade, but Capers-coached defenses have averaged 40-plus sacks per season, and the aggregate sack total for the veterans chosen Monday is 64. Sharper is the only outside defender who ever had more than five sacks in a season.
"You would think that with the kind of cover people we have, and some strong guys upfront, that will help generate a rush," said cornerback Aaron Glenn. "The longer we cover, the more time a rush has to get to the quarterback."
Maybe, but when Capers and Casserly review their needs in the next few days, bet the mortgage an outside pass rusher rates near the top of the wish list.
Even with that caveat, though, it is difficult not to laud the job performed by the Houston scouts over the past year in preparing for Monday's big event. There were 168 players left available to the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1995 draft and, three years after the lottery, just 62 of them were on league rosters. Of the 150 players exposed to Cleveland in 1999, about 80 percent are out of the league.
The talent pool on Monday was far deeper and better researched, and will produce a team that should be respectable in a year or two.
Even if the Texans didn't get an outside pass rusher among their impressive haul.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.