The Texans could use the NFL Draft to acquire needed talent on offense. They can look to plug holes and shore up their weaknesses. However, on the other side of the ball, they have the opportunity to develop an elite, championship-caliber unit around the best defensive player in football. Players like J.J. Watt don’t come around often, and they don’t remain dominant for very long while playing a physically demanding position in the trenches on the defensive line. The Texans need to strike now while they still can.
When a team is fortunate enough to attain a defensive player like J.J. Watt, they have two choices. They can allocate most of their resources elsewhere, assuming that his side of the ball will still get by because he can make up for the cheaper mediocre talent surrounding him. Or, they can surround that player with the best talent possible and maximize what he and the defense can be somewhat at the expense of the offense.
The latter is similar to what the Giants did with another transcendent player in the 1980’s, Lawrence Taylor. After adding defensive end Leonard Marshall in the 2nd round of the 1983 NFL Draft as well as linebacker Carl Banks 3rd overall in 1984, they used the ’86 Draft to put the finishing touches on an elite unit. The Giants drafted defensive players with their first 6 picks that year, including defensive end Eric Dorsey, cornerback Mark Collins, defensive tackle Erik Howard and linebacker Pepper Johnson. The result was a dominant defense that led to two Super Bowl wins in 1986 and 1990. Current Texans Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel was there to witness this first hand as a member of the Giants’ coaching staff.
The Texans had this sort of plan in mind when they drafted Jadeveon Clowney 1st overall a year ago. Pairing an explosive player like Clowney with Watt had the potential to be the most dynamic 1-2 pass-rushing punch in the league. Injuries derailed that plan, at least for a year. And there is no assurance that Clowney will be the same player physically after microfracture surgery. Still, the Texans should look to continue what they had in mind when they drafted Clowney. They should go beyond that actually, and select defensive talent early and often in this year’s Draft.
J.J. Watt is one of the rare players you can build an entire defense around. Like Lawrence Taylor, every player on the offense needs to know where he is at all times, and the result of this is that he commands an incredible amount of attention. Just take a look at the picture below if you don’t quite believe us.
Watt impacts every area of the defense. He eats up and beats blockers in the run game, whether it’s against single blocks or double-teams. His ability to get to the quarterback forces more quick throws, making linebackers, safeties, and corners not have to cover for as long. He opens up opportunities for other defenders to make plays.
The Texans led the NFL in takeaways in 2014 as a result. They were 7th in points allowed. They finished 10th against the run, and the addition of Vince Wilfork should help them continue to improve. They have good cornerbacks in Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph. They are a good overall defense with the chance to be great. They still need to add more depth and talent around Watt, though, because they aren’t quite there yet. This is especially true of their pass rush.
Watt finished 2014 with 20.5 sacks. The rest of the team combined for just 17.5. This is somewhat mindboggling considering how Watt impacts an offense.
Clowney’s absence certainly hurt Houston. The player with the 2nd-most sacks on the team last year was outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who had just 5. And they weren’t very impressive sacks either. Two came on a T-E stunt where he had a clear path to the quarterback inside after the opposing team’s guard failed to recognize the stunt. Another came when the quarterback backed up in the pocket because of inside pressure from (who else?) J.J. Watt. Mercilus happened to be waiting there. Another sack came when the quarterback was flushed from the pocket and Mercilus chased him down before he could get very far. His final sack came when he was being blocked by a tight end. The Texans need more out of their 2012 first-round pick.
When you include the uncertainty around Clowney, the lack of dynamic production from Mercilus, and the loss of outside linebacker Brooks Reed (who despite having good get-up, speed, and power off the line only had 3.0 sacks last season), the Texans need players who can get to the quarterback. They need players who can take advantage of the 1-on-1 matchups they’ll receive because of Watt. They need more pass-rushing talent in their front-3 rotation as well as off the edge.
If they can draft players who can complement Watt, and even make plays on their own, the Texans can have an elite unit. If they add those players and Clowney can stay healthy, Mercilus’ 5-7 sacks per year becomes a nice complement to a potentially elite unit rather than a disappointment.
No team is perfect. Even the best teams have weaknesses that must be compensated for in other areas of the roster. But what has a better chance to effectively compensate, a good and reliable unit or a dominant one? The question is whether or not the Texans feel the same way we do.
An elite defense can carry a team to the playoffs and beyond. The opportunity to create one doesn’t come along very often though. The Texans have a choice. They can look at their defense, say it’s good enough, and address the weaker side of the ball in the offense. Or, they can take a page out of the 1986 Giants’ draft book, and attempt to make their defense special.