Coinciding with our Texans TV 2009 season preview series with "Voice of the Texans" Marc Vandermeer, HoustonTexans.com takes a position-by-position look at the Texans in the days leading up to training camp. Our first defensive position preview looks at the Texans' revamped defensive line.
Key players: DE Mario Williams (2008: 53 tackles, 12 sacks), DT Amobi Okoye (2008: 24 tackles, 1 sack), DE Antonio Smith (2008: 49 tackles, 5.5 sacks – includes postseason)
Additions: Smith (free agent, Arizona Cardinals), DE Connor Barwin (second-round draft pick, Cincinnati), DT Shaun Cody (free agent, Detroit Lions)
Subtractions: DE Anthony Weaver (released), DE Earl Cochran (not re-signed), DT Jeff Zgonina (not re-signed)
2008 breakdown: Williams led all AFC defensive ends with 12 sacks and earned a trip to his first-career Pro Bowl, but the Texans struggled to find another consistent pass rusher. Defensive end Tim Bulman, a former undrafted free agent and practice squad player, was second on the team with four sacks.
Okoye was slowed by a high-ankle sprain and had only one sack. The Texans' other two regular starters, Travis Johnson and Weaver, combined for one sack. End Earl Cochran had a career-high two sacks but landed on the injured reserve list midseason.
Johnson was solid in the middle against the run, and the Texans got an unexpected boost from defensive tackle DelJuan Robinson, another former practice squad player with a relentless motor. Tackle Frank Okam struggled to find consistency as a rookie, while undrafted rookie end Jesse Nading played in six games late in the season.
The Texans finished 27th in the NFL with 25 sacks. They were 23rd against the run, allowing 122.6 yards per game. That prompted a series of changes to the defensive line, starting with a new position coach in 20-year veteran Bill Kollar.
The big question: Can the Texans find a pass rush outside of Mario Williams?
Aside from hiring Kollar, the Texans made significant moves to bolster their pass rush this offseason. The first was signing Smith from the Cardinals in free agency. Smith had 5.5 sacks last season including the playoffs, when he was most effective as a pass rusher from the tackle position.
The Texans hope that Barwin can provide them with a speedy rusher off the edge when Smith moves inside on passing downs. A former tight end who also played basketball at Cincinnati, Barwin recorded 12.0 sacks last year in his first season at defensive end.
Bulman also could be a factor as he builds on a solid 2008 season. And Okoye could provide a potent threat from the tackle position if Kollar can help him to rediscover his rookie form, when Okoye set a team rookie record with 5.5 sacks.
Camp battle to watch: Nose tackle position
Robinson took the majority of snaps as the starting nose tackle during OTAs with Johnson sidelined by injuries. Johnson reportedly had surgery for a sports hernia a few weeks ago, and his health will be one of the biggest questions facing the Texans as the team enters camp.
If healthy, Johnson will likely battle Robinson for the starting position. Cody, a 2005 second-round draft pick from USC, also figures into the rotation along with Okam, who has a rare combination of size and athleticism. Okam has shed about 30 pounds this offseason, and the Texans hope he can find another gear under Kollar.
"Defensive tackle is a position group really worth watching, because they need to stop the run on first down," Vandermeer said. "In particular, you look at Travis Johnson, who got kind of nicked up in OTAs. So let's see what kind of Travis we're going to get in training camp. Frank Okam is going to be interesting to watch as well… And then you look at Shaun Cody, who they signed away from the Detroit Lions. He got a lot of tackles for defensive tackle, and that's a good thing.
"DelJuan Robinson is someone who has been attracting a lot of attention, turning a lot of heads on the coaching staff. He's an exciting defensive tackle. I think there's a lot of potential here."
Roster size (2009 vs. 2008): Heading into Week 1 of the 2008 season, the Texans had 11 defensive linemen on the active roster: Williams, Okoye, Johnson, Weaver, Bulman, Robinson, Zgonina, Cochran, Okam, N.D. Kalu and Stanley McClover. Gabe Long and Jesse Nading were on the practice squad.
Given the question marks and new faces along the line, it would be surprising to see the Texans take less than 10 d-linemen into the 2009 season opener. It will be interesting to see if a player like Okam, Nading or McClover can step up during camp and move up in the defensive line rotation.
Final thought: Williams has 26 sacks since 2007 and is coming off of his first Pro Bowl. Texans coach Gary Kubiak has said this offseason that he thinks Williams is talented enough to contend for the league's defensive player of the year award.
"There's no question that Mario has the capability of doing that," Vandermeer said. "Mario is going to get even more opportunities this year as the Texans have really beefed up the front seven. They'll be better on first and second down, they'll be a better pass rushing team collectively. That means more opportunities for Mario, and you know how dangerous he is. He's going to get a lot of attention, a lot of focus… If he plays well, and he should, he's going to be in the running for that honor."