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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Texans draft needs: It's mostly about the D


The Houston Texans are switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense in 2011.

Here's the switch they need to make: From awful to average.

The Texans were explosive on offense last season, but a woeful defense, a unit that finished 29th in points allowed, kept them from having a chance to make their first playoff appearance.

If they can just upgrade that unit say 10-15 spots under first-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Texans might have a chance to sneak into the playoffs. That's how good the offense was last season.

With Matt Schaub once again putting up big numbers in the passing game and Arian Foster surprisingly leading the NFL in rushing, the offense did its part. Too bad it wasn't good enough.

Five possibilities: Texans
Aldon Smith, OLB, Missouri: He can rush the passer from a 3-4 spot. He will transition from down end at Missouri.
Robert Quinn, OLB, North Carolina: He didn't play last season, and he was an end in college, but scouts think he's a perfect 3-4 rush player.
Cameron Jordan, DE, California: If they opt for a down end, he would make sense.
Prince Amukumara, CB, Nebraska: The Texans took a corner in the first round last year, but they need more help. He likely won't fall to them, but he could.
Randall Cobb, WR, Kentucky: It's time they get Andre Johnson some help. Cobb might be that guy.
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The defense was horrible. The Texans were 30th in yards per game, 32nd in yards passing per game and 31st in yards per play.

Offenses did as they wanted to the Texans defense. It didn't help that star end Mario Williams fought through a sports hernia most of the season before being put on injured reserve late.

That meant little pass rush and big plays given up in the back end. Opposing offenses played pitch-and-catch against the Houston defense.

That has to change or all that offense they roll up won't matter.

Look for a heavy dose of defense in this draft, including in the first round. They have to improve or coach Gary Kubiak might be looking for a job next year.

Phillips has to change the defensive culture. The question is whether he has the players to do so.

QB: Schaub had a second consecutive big season. The key was he stayed on the field, starting all 16 games. He threw for 4,370 yards and 24 touchdowns. But his yards-per-attempt number was under 8.0 for the first time since 2007. He did enough to get the Texans to the playoffs. The backups are Dan Orlovsky and Matt Leinart. Neither player threw a pass last season. Both are decent backups. This is not a position of concern.

RB: When the season opened, the Texans weren't sure who their top back would be. Foster answered that question quickly. He was perfect for their system, a cutback runner who led the NFL in rushing yards. Foster has to show he wasn't a one-hit wonder. It's hard to imagine that he will be after the season he had in 2010. Steve Slaton, a former starter, and Ben Tate, who is coming off a broken ankle, should be the backups. Derrick Ward filled that role last season and signed a one-year deal to return. Fullback Vonta Leach is one of the best in the NFL. He is a dominant blocker.

WR: Andre Johnson is the best receiver in football. He missed three games and still caught 86 passes. Johnson is big and fast, a bad combination for defensive backs. He does all of his work while drawing a lot of double teams. Kevin Walter is a solid No. 3, but he doesn't have the speed to threaten down the field. Jacoby Jones has the speed, but he doesn't play to it all the time. David Anderson is a decent backup. It's time they get Johnson some help. Too much of the coverage rolls his way, and yet he's still effective. Imagine what he could do with a better group around him?

TE: Owen Daniels missed time last season with injuries but finished strong and the Texans signed him to a new deal this spring. When he's on the field, he's a good pass-catching tight end in an offense that features that position. He is helped by all the attention Johnson gets. Joel Dreessen stepped in when Daniels was down. He isn't in that same class, but he did a decent job. James Casey is a pass-catching tight end who has ability, while Anthony Hill is the blocker of the group. If Daniels is back healthy, this is a solid group.

OL: The line is a coming off a good season. Right tackle Eric Winston is close to being a Pro Bowl player. He was the team's best lineman. Duane Brown struggles at times at left tackle, but he has ability and he's young. Wade Smith played well at left guard and Chris Myers is decent at center. The right guard spot is up for grabs. Mike Brisiel opened the season as the starter, but he went down and Antoine Caldwell, a former college center, played well in his place. Kasey Studdard and Rashad Butler offer good backup potential. If Brown can improve some -- especially in pass protection -- this will be a really good unit.

DL: The biggest issue here is how Williams transitions from a 4-3 end to a down 3-4 end. Phillips has compared him favorably to Bruce Smith, who excelled as a pass-rusher in the 3-4. Williams ended last season on IR, playing through a sports hernia to get 8½ sacks before the injury ended his season. Antonio Smith, who played well last season, should be the other starting end. He played in a 3-4 before in Arizona. Amobi Okoye should be in the mix at end as well. Earl Mitchell would seem to be perfect as a 3-4 nose in Phillips' scheme if he can add some bulk. Veterans Shaun Cody and Damione Lewis also will get consideration on the nose. Both could also play end.

LB: Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, one of the best defenders on the roster, suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in the seventh week and was lost for the season. Without him, the defense really struggled. Brian Cushing, who was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009, was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's drug policy and he didn't play as well when he returned. But in Ryans and Cushing, the Texans have two good players on this unit. Both will have to adjust some in the 3-4. Ryans will have to be more physical as a 3-4 inside backer, while Cushing would seem the perfect fit for a 3-4 outside rusher. But the Texans' first plan is to play him inside. Darryl Sharpton was the other starter and he impressed as well last season. He will be in the mix inside. Zac Diles and Xavier Adibi are two good backups. Connor Barwin is expected to be a starting outside 'backer, moving from down end. He seems to have the tool set for the job, but he is coming off a season missed because of injury. Jesse Nading and Mark Anderson, a former end, will also be in the mix.

DB: The secondary was a disaster. Opposing quarterbacks picked this unit to shreds. They struggled to cover on the corner and the safeties weren't good enough to help them. That spelled big problems. First-round pick Kareem Jackson struggled as a rookie, but he has the talent to be a solid starter. Glover Quin played OK on the other corner, but there is talk he could be moved to safety. Jason Allen, picked up from the Dolphins during the season, was their best secondary player by the end of the season. Safety Bernard Pollard is a good tackler but he lacks range. He is also a free agent. Eugene Wilson was released. That leaves Troy Nolan as the starter at free safety for now. He flashed at times when he played last season. They need help back here in the worst way. Look for picks at both spots throughout the draft.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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