Team overview: A spectacular 11-1 start had Houstonians talking Super Bowl, but the Texans wilted down the stretch with losses in four of their last six games. Houston’s late-season swan contained two lopsided defeats to the Patriots, including a season-ending 41-28 loss in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. After holding opponents under 100 rushing yards in seven of their first eight games, the Texans allowed more than 113 yards on the ground per game in the second half of the regular season. Despite the late-season struggles, the Texans haven’t made any major changes to their coaching staff in the offseason.
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What the depth chart tells you: Houston’s inability to stop the run down the stretch could be attributed to a rash of injuries at middle linebacker over the final weeks of the season. Injuries to Brian Cushing, Darryl Sharpton and Tim Dobbins forced the Texans to start reserve linebacker Barrett Ruud in the playoff loss to the Patriots.
At last month’s NFL Scouting Combine, Texans coach Gary Kubiak hinted that outside linebacker Brooks Reed could be moved inside. Although Reed’s presence could help Cushing up the middle it would provide Houston with one less rusher on the edge. If Reed is no longer used on the outside, it will be incumbent for the Texans to re-sign linebacker Connor Barwin in free agency.
At nose tackle, Houston has two capable veterans in Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell. Cody, a free agent, underwent spinal surgery in February for a lumbar disc herniation. Glover Quin, a fourth-year safety, is likely the Texans’ top priority in free agency. Quin tied for second among all safeties in pass defenses with seven and ranked in the top 10 in fewest missed tackles (seven), according to Pro Football Focus.
The Texans could also look to solidify the right side of their line, where they are young and inexperienced. Houston ranked 19th in the league on runs behind their right guard (3.87 yards per carry) in 2012. At wideout, the Texans have a tough, dependable intermediate receiver in Kevin Walter to complement Andre Johnson. Still, Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Schaub could use another vertical threat to stretch the defense. Wide receiver DeVier Posey, a third-round pick in 2012, has enamored Kubiak with his potential but is recovering from surgery on a torn Achilles. Houston is among the deepest teams in the league at quarterback and running back.
Ideal free agency and draft strategy: With about $6 million dollars in cap space, the Texans could make a splash in free agency by targeting Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace or Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings. The Texans avoid prolonged negotiations by re-signing Quin and fullback James Casey quickly, then shift their focus on the NFL Draft. Sensing that few tackling machines are available at middle linebacker in free agency, Houston opts to pursue one in the early rounds. The Texans then address needs at right guard, right tackle and interior defensive line with their mid- to late-round picks.
What will happen: Wallace and Jennings prove to be too pricey for Texans general manager Rick Smith. Instead, Smith selects a burner from the University of Tennessee in Cordarrelle Patterson or Justin Hunter if either former Vols’ receiver is on the board at No. 27. If not, Keenan Allen of Cal, Tavon Austin of West Virginia or DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson are viable alternatives late in the first.
In Round 2, the Texans move up when Manti Te’o falls out of the first round. Assured that Te’o provides little character concerns after meeting with him extensively in the draft process, the Texans decide the roll the dice. They determine Te’o’s penchant for jumping routes in coverage and avoiding blockers on the second-level outweighs his subpar performance against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Te’o quickly fits in with Cushing, who is motivated to return to the field after his demoralizing season-ending injury. Quin and Casey are both re-signed, but Barwin goes elsewhere. Reed remains at outside linebacker.
-- By Matt Rybaltowski