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2015 NFL DRAFT

Finding the Fits: Texans find perfect match in 4th round DL Crick

By Rob Rang | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
Over the next several weeks, NFLDraftScout.com will be reviewing some of the more intriguing picks made during the 2012 NFL draft through a series called "Finding the Fits." The goal of the series is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and therefore more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.

Considering the presence of one of the NFL's premier running backs in Arian Foster as well as the No. 2-rated defense in the league, the Houston Texans might have broken through to win the AFC South even if Peyton Manning not missed the 2011 season. That, in itself, would be a major accomplishment considering that with Manning at the helm, the Indianapolis Colts had taken the divisional crown six of the past seven years (Tennessee, 2008).

Of course, the Texans had their own injuries they fought through, including losing quarterback Matt Schaub, All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson and former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams for a combined 26 regular season games. Considering that some would have ranked these three as the Texans' best players entering the season, general manager Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak's club winning the division without their stars' help made Houston's success in 2011 all the more impressive.

The biggest improvement for the Texans, of course, came on the defensive side of the ball. Wade Phillips may not have been the answer as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but his talent as a defensive coach has never been questioned. He proved as much yet again by guiding the Texans to a No. 2 overall ranking in total defense in his first year in the building. Phillips replaced Frank Bush, under whom the Texans finished 30th in total defense in 2010. Phillips accomplished this incredible turnaround despite losing Williams after just five games and switching the Texans from the 4-3 alignment they'd used under Bush to Phillips' beloved 3-4 scheme.

For his success, Phillips was named the 2011 Assistant Coach of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association (of which I am a voting member). As is almost always the case with an award-winning coach, he was helped by some extraordinary efforts by players -- including strong efforts from free agent addition Johnathan Joseph at cornerback, a resurgent season from linebacker Brian Cushing and breakthrough performances from pass rusher Connor Barwin (team-leading 11.5 sacks) and 2011 first round pick J.J. Watt, among others.

Despite the Texans' success on the defensive side of the ball in 2011, the team couldn't pass up the opportunity to select another incredibly productive pass rusher in the first round this past April, nabbing Illinois' Whitney Mercilus at No. 26 overall. Mercilus, who entered his junior season with just two starts and two sacks over his career, exploded for 57 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles, winning the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end as a junior.

Mercilus' production speaks for itself and at 6-4, 261 pounds, he has the size to make the transition to outside linebacker in Phillips' scheme. At least some of his staggering numbers at Illinois, however, were a function of a highly aggressive defense used by then-defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, so there were concerns from some scouts that he was a one year wonder and possible product of the system. Koenning, by the way, who took over as interim head coach after Ron Zook was fired, has subsequently left Illinois and is now serving as the associate head coach for defense under Larry Fedora at the University of North Carolina.

While there are concerns about how well Mercilus will be able to transition in the NFL, I do not have the same reservations about former Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick, despite the fact the he, like his new teammate, will be asked to switch positions as a rookie.

At 6-4, 279 pounds and possessing good strength, instincts and hustle, Crick is actually a better fit as a 3-4 defensive end than he would have been remaining at his customary defensive tackle position for a 4-3 team in the NFL. While he isn't likely to supplant either Watt or veteran Antonio Smith as a starter as a rookie, he'll provide excellent depth at the position and could see significant rotational time. He has the strength to set the edge against the run, as well as excellent hustle to pursue laterally and downfield. He's also a better pass rusher than most 3-4 defensive ends, giving the team extra value.

Crick emerged as the second of a two-headed monster on the Nebraska defensive line while playing with Ndamukong Suh. Starting for the first time in 2009, Crick registered 73 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, garnering First Team all-conference honors from Big 12 coaches. A year later, while Suh was earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors as a member of the Detroit Lions, Crick proved more than capable of starring on his own, posting eerily similar numbers (70 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks) to earn All-America accolades.

Considering his size, effort both on and off the field and consistency, Crick entered the 2011 season as a possible first round prospect. An injury-plagued season, however, contributed to his surprising fall to the fourth round, where the Texans nabbed him exactly 100 selections after Mercilus, the only other defensive prospect Houston drafted in 2012.

A torn pectoral muscle ended Crick's 2011 season after just six games, but some scouts were also worried about a knee injury that kept him out of spring practice prior to the season's start. With "just" 22 tackles, three tackles for loss and a single sack in his six games, Crick clearly was not the same player in 2011 that he'd been the past two seasons... that doesn't mean he should have slipped to the draft's third day, however.

By falling to the fourth round, Crick joins a list of former collegiate standouts who suffered an injury as a senior and as a result saw their stock plummet despite having already proven legitimate NFL starting talent. In recent years, we've seen several such players wind up "surprising" as middle or late round picks -- not the least of which includes defensive end Arthur Jones (Baltimore Ravens, 2010), outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield (Arizona Cardinals, 2010) and running back Michael Bush (Oakland Raiders, 2007). Bush, has since signed with the Chicago Bears as an unrestricted free agent.

Should Crick return to health like Jones, Schofield and Bush, don't be surprised when he also proves to be a mid-round "surprise" who develops into a legitimate NFL starter. In this light, the Texans' sixth pick of the 2012 NFL draft could actually be considered an even safer selection than their first choice.

The rest of the Texans' picks:

1st Round - No. 26 overall - Whitney Mercilus, DE/OLB, Illinois
3rd Round - No. 68 overall - DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State
3rd Round - No. 76 overall - Brandon Brooks, OG, Miami (Ohio)
4th Round - No. 99 overall - Ben Jones, C, Georgia
4th Round - No. 121 overall - Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State
4th Round - No. 126 overall - Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska
5th Round - No. 137 overall - Randy Bullock, K, Texas A&M
6th Round - No. 188 overall - Nick Mondek, OT, Purdue

Read more about all of the Texans' draft picks here.
 
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