2011 Path to the Draft: Outside linebacker

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This article is part of our 2011 Path to the Draft coverage presented by Warehouse Pool Supply.

The Texans approach the 2011 draft with a paper-thin depth chart at outside linebacker, one of the most important positions in new coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense.

Connor Barwin and Jesse Nading, former 4-3 defensive ends, have been moved to outside linebacker. The Texans have high hopes for Barwin, who's expected to be a starter after missing most of last season with an ankle injury.

Not much is clear other than that. One option could be Mark Anderson, who had 4.0 sacks last season as a defensive end, but he's scheduled to become a free agent.

Linebackers coach Reggie Herring said in February that the Texans have a "solid anchor point" to build off in inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing.

"Now we've got to work to the outside and find some guys that can rush the passer," Herring said. "As far as this package goes, the outside 'backer is the premier position where we're going to rely on a lot of sacks and a lot of pressure on the quarterback.

"So, pass rush is a priority… Between the draft and free agency, we hope to fill out some pieces here of the puzzle that are real important to this defense, and that's the pass rush on the outside."

With eight days to go until the draft, Wes Bunting and Joe Fortenbaugh of the National Football Post examine potential outside linebacker options for the Texans in an exclusive feature for HoustonTexans.com:

National Football Post analysisFrom 2007-10, Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips selected three linebackers within the first three rounds of the draft as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Don't be surprised if Houston makes this position a priority next week as they look to overhaul a unit that gave up 26.7 points per game last season (29th in NFL).

DAY 1 OUTSIDE LINEBACKER OPTIONS AT 1.11

1. Robert Quinn, North Carolina (6-4, 265, 4.67): After earning first team All-ACC honors as a sophomore in 2009, Quinn was suspended for the entire 2010 season due to a rules infraction involving an NFL agent. Despite the fact that he hasn't played football in well over a year, the NFP feels that Quinn was the best pass-rushing defensive end in the country in 2009. All the tools are there for him to mature into one the top pass rushers to come out of this class. Quinn does a great job working a jab step inside and instantly exploding toward the outside edge, maintaining his balance and accelerating toward the quarterback. The only issue here is whether or not he will still be on the board when the Texans hit the clock at pick No. 11.

2. Aldon Smith, Missouri (6-4, 263, 4.75): After racking up six sacks during an injury-shortened 2010 campaign that resulted in first team All-Big 12 honors, Smith vaulted himself onto the national stage as one of the country's top pass-rushing specialists. A tall, long-armed defender with an athletic-looking frame and impressive explosion, Smith possesses natural bend when asked to sit into his stance, coils up well and consistently takes a positive first step off the line. The 263-pounder fights hard in order to disengage, uses his length and violent hands well to shed and possesses impressive closing range in pursuit. Expect to hear this guy's name called before the first half of the first round is completed. 

3. Akeem Ayers, UCLA (6-2, 254, 4.81): The 21-year-old Ayers racked up 68 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions last season en route to earning first team All-Pac-10 honors with the Bruins. A big, well-strapped together OLB with long arms and a thick base, Ayers possesses a good initial burst out of his breaks and closes quickly on the football in pursuit. He has the length and power to be a consistent tackler in the run game in the NFL, but Ayers needs to do a better job of wrapping up at the point of impact. Possesses natural fluidity for a guy his size in space vs. the pass game and can cleanly open up his hips and run. Should definitely be on the board at No. 11. 

DAY 2 OUTSIDE LINEBACKER OPTIONS AT 2.10 AND 3.9

1. Dontay Moch, Nevada (6-1, 248, 4.44): One of the fastest linebackers at February's Combine, Moch led the WolfPack defense in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (22) on his way to earning first team All-WAC honors in 2010. An undersized rush defender who looks better suited to make the move to OLB in the NFL, Moch possesses natural bend in his stance, keeps his base down and head up and generates an above-average first step off the football. He doesn't have the type of girth to consistently win vs. the run game as a down defensive end, but Moch displays some power for his size and will take on blocks well. The downside here is that he could be over-drafted due to his 40-yard dash time.

2. Martez Wilson, Illinois (6-3, 250, 4.46): This guy defines resilience. Wilson lost his entire 2009 season after injuring his neck in the first game of the year, which led to surgery for a herniated disk. Rather than throw in the towel, the Illinois linebacker battled back and finished his final collegiate campaign with 111 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles and a spot on the 2010 All-Big Ten second team. Wilson possesses a solid feel keying off blocks, reading his run indicators and finding the football inside. He exhibits some unique talents when asked to blitz from the inside and has some natural pass-rush ability, but doesn't seem to have the lower body girth to hold up inside for an entire NFL season. Would be a nice value pick for Houston in the third round as a rush outside linebacker.

DAY 3 OUTSIDE LINEBACKER OPTIONS AT 4.8, 5.7, 6.13, 7.11 AND 7.51

1. Ricky Elmore, Arizona (6-4, 255, 4.91): The 23-year-old from Simi Valley, Calif., recorded an impressive 21 sacks over the last two seasons with the Wildcats en route to earning second team All-PAC-10 honors in 2010. A tall, well-put-together defensive end who exhibits decent flexibility out of his stance and can keep his base down when coiling up off the line, Elmore does a nice job maintaining leverage through the play and never stays blocked for too long. However, he lacks a great first step and isn't a guy who can consistently threaten the edge or turn the corner. 

2. Thomas Keiser, Stanford (6-3, 261, 4.80): A two-time All-Pac-10 honorable mention (2009, 2010), Keiser made the move to outside linebacker after finishing tied for fourth in sacks (9.0) as a defensive end in 2009. Some questioned his decision to enter this year's draft, as he had one year of eligibility remaining and ended up with no invite to February's Combine. Keiser plays with good leverage and uses his hands well, but lacks elite athleticism and has substandard closing speed when in pursuit. Shouldn't be drafted prior to the sixth round.  

Follow Bunting and Fortenbaugh on Twitter @WesBunting* and @JoeFortenbaugh. Click here to check out more from the National Football Post at their scouting department page.*

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