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Texans LB Draft Board

Posted May 5, 2014

Texans analyst John Harris continues his look at the team's draft board by analyzing the linebacker position.

2013 Linebackers recap

Rush defense (23rd) -  122.4 ypg
Pass defense (3rd) - 195.2 ypg
32 sacks
Leading tackler Darryl Sharpton had 87 tackles (56 solo, 31 assists)

Key offseason additions:  ILB Paul Hazel (claimed off waivers from the Cleveland Browns)

Key offseason losses:  ILB Darry Sharpton (signed with the Washington Redskins), ILB Joe Mays (signed with the Kansas City Chiefs), OLB Bryan Braman (signed with the Philadelphia Eagles), ILB Evan Frierson (released)

UFA:  None
RFA:  None

Draft picks
1st (1)
2nd (33)
3rd (65)
4th (101)
4th (135 - Compensatory - pick cannot be moved)
5th (141)
6th (177)
6th (181 - from Oakland, in the Schaub deal, CAN be moved)
6th (211 - Compensatory - pick cannot be moved)
7th (216)
7th (256 - Compensatory - pick cannot be moved)

Outside Linebacker depth chart
OLB - Whitney Mercilus, Trevardo Williams, Ricky Sapp
OLB - Brooks Reed, Jeff Tarpinian, Justin Tuggle

Inside Linebacker depth chart
ILB - Brian Cushing, Paul Hazel
ILB - Mike Mohamed

Outside of the quarterback situation, perhaps no unit was more under the microscope in 2013 than the linebackers. This was especially true after Pro Bowl star ILB Brian Cushing was lost for a second consecutive season with a knee injury. The outside duo didn’t consistently pressure the quarterback as they wanted and the inside linebackers were a MASH unit, trying to plug gaps, figuratively and literally. On the inside, the good news is that Cushing is slated to return at 100% by training camp. The bad news is that there is little to no depth next to and behind the former USC star.

On the outside, it’s the most important season in Whitney Mercilus’ young career. Much was expected from the former Illinois star in 2013 as a full-time starter. At times, he more than played the part. But, inconsistency plagued Mercilus throughout the season. He must improve playing the run, but the addition of former Patriot OLB Mike Vrabel as the team’s linebackers coach should give Mercilus new life, if you will. The question for Brooks Reed is whether he stays outside or moves inside. Given the dearth of players inside and Reed’s skill set, moving inside might be for the best, especially if an edge player is added in this draft at pick No. 1 and/or No. 33. Furthermore, the team must get production out of 2013 fourth round selection Trevardo Williams who spent the entire season on IR.

Outside Linebacker Draft Options
1st - DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney - South Carolina
2nd - DE/OLB Kony Ealy - Missouri, OLB Marcus Smith - Louisville, OLB Demarcus Lawrence - Boise State
3rd - OLB Carl Bradford - Arizona State, OLB Trent Murphy - Stanford, OLB Jeremiah Attaochu - Georgia Tech
4th - OLB Devon Kennard - USC
5th - OLB Ronald Powell - Florida
6th - OLB Kasim Edebali - Boston College, OLB Prince Shembo - Notre Dame, OLB Tyler Starr - South Dakota State
7th - OLB Derrell Johnson, East Carolina, OLB Nate Askew - Texas A&M, OLB Jonathan Newsome - Ball State

Inside Linebacker Draft Options
1st - None
2nd - ILB CJ Mosley - Alabama
3rd - None
4th - ILB Shayne Skov - Stanford
5th - ILB Preston Brown - Louisville, ILB Max Bullough - Michigan State
6th - ILB Avery Williamson - Kentucky
7th - ILB Jack Tyler - Virginia Tech, ILB Nikita Whitlock - Wake Forest, ILB Jeremiah George - Iowa State

Combination Linebacker Draft Options
1st - OLB/ILB Khalil Mack - Buffalo
2nd - OLB/ILB Kyle Van Noy, BYU
3rd - OLB/ILB Christian Jones, Florida State
4th - None
5th - None
6th - OLB/ILB Marquis Flowers, Arizona
7th - None

I mentioned both Clowney and Ealy in the defensive end section, so I’ll focus on the former MAC Defensive Player of the Year Mack.  The former Bull was a late bloomer which explains a bit as to why the Floridian ended up in Buffalo. Don’t let the non-BCS pedigree fool you; this guy is all man. He flies to the football, can rush the quarterback, bump to inside linebacker, hit like a, well, you know, Mack truck (sorry, that was too easy) and most importantly generate turnovers and impact plays. He set an NCAA record with 16 forced fumbles. Now, I don’t care where you’re playing ball, that’s impressive and this Texans team was last in the NFL with only eleven takeaways in 2013. Creating game changing turnovers is imperative for this, and any, squad.

Is Mack a complete plug and play, ready-to-be-Von Miller-on-day-one star? No, not quite yet but he’s close. His complete game rounded into shape as a senior as he improved mightily from his junior year to his senior campaign. If he continues to flourish under NFL coaching, there’s no question where he can be in two to three years.  Here’s the rub, so to speak, the Texans more than likely aren’t taking Mack at No. 1, but if there’s a trade down deal in the works, the Texans could put themselves in prime position to take Mack within the top seven.

On my first run through the board, I erroneously omitted Mosley. During Rick Smith’s press conference, he made a comment as to how much he liked guys that made plays, impactful plays. For some reason, that triggered a thought on Mosley. To be clear, I think Mosley is a top 15 football PLAYER and I don’t expect him to be sitting there at pick No. 33. But, if he is, it’s going to be difficult to pass on him, given his all-around skills, leadership and football IQ, not to mention his penchant for being around the ball at all times. He’s the best tackler at the linebacker position in quite some time and would fit wonderfully next to Brian Cushing. Well, that is, if he’s there at No. 33.

Smith made a significant impression on me at the Senior Bowl. He had a strong senior season but each and every day in Mobile, I found myself making more and more notes as to the plays Smith made, whether he played with his hand on the ground or standing up. Lawrence is still a bit raw but when he’s motivated, his pass rush skills match up to the best in this class. He did have some off the field issues at Boise State, but last year, there were no issues. Bradford is a whirling dervish that I like more than most. Some have suggested he should move to inside linebacker, but I believe that his burst off the ball from the edge has few equals.

Kennard missed all of 2012 with an injury but in 2013, he came back even better than he was prior to the injury. He was brilliant rushing the quarterback and making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Powell was the No. 1 recruit in the country when he came out of high school in 2010 but injuries, a coaching change and a position change slowed him a bit in his career at Florida.

Skov has been, is and will be one of my favorite players in this draft class. He struggled to break a 5.0 in the forty yard dash during his personal Pro Day and some teams presumably wrote him off on the spot. But, when you watch him on tape, if he’s so slow, why is he always making plays?  Why does he always make the form tackle in space? Sometimes speed doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s not just tackles either, Skov specializes in impact tackles, those for a loss or less than two yards, more so than any linebacker, inside or out, in this draft class.

Van Noy is another of my favorites and when I was at the Senior Bowl, I was speaking with an AFC West executive about the former BYU product. He had played outside linebacker throughout his whole career at BYU and when I asked said executive whether he liked Van Noy, he said “yeah…on the inside”. I hadn’t given that much thought but knowing his skill set and his demeanor, it made sense. Van Noy then spent half of the Senior Bowl practice playing inside and half of it playing outside. He’s not a physical hammer but he’s smart, knifes gaps to get into the backfield, will not stay blocked, has a solid array of pass rush moves and can be a factor by dropping into coverage.

Although he was one of the most highly recruited edge players coming out of high school in Orlando, Jones played inside linebacker in a 4-3 for his first three years at Florida State. Midway through the 2013 campaign, former FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt moved him to outside linebacker and Jones shined. Even more so than Van Noy, he showed that he could truly play either position, occasionally in the same game, same drive even. That move to outside rush linebacker, coupled with Lamarcus Joyner moving to the slot corner position, changed the season for the Seminole defense.

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