At his pre-draft press conference on Wednesday, Texans general manager Rick Smith said that the one glaring need facing the Texans' defense this offseason was finding a defensive end to team with Mario Williams. Over the last two seasons, Williams has as many sacks – 26 – as the entire Texans defense collected last year.
The Texans addressed that issue by signing free agent Antonio Smith, who had 5.5 sacks for the Arizona Cardinals last season and should boost the Texans' pass rush. Smith also is capable of rushing from the inside on passing downs, which means that the Texans still could target a pass-rushing end in the draft.
That would give Frank Bush's defense a potential front four of Williams, Smith, tackle Amobi Okoye and another speedy end in passing situations.
"I think if you move (Antonio) inside and you've got another speed guy on the edge, that only enhances your chances of getting after the quarterback," Rick Smith said. "Those players are attractive, of course, because if you put those guys out there, you do afford yourself the opportunity to move Antonio inside."
The difficulty, Smith said, comes in placing a value on a specialty or situational pass rusher versus an every-down player who might start at another position.
"The earlier in the first round, you're looking for an impact player – a player that's going to be a starter and is going to contribute to your team as much as possible," Smith said. "So that's where you get into the debates and the discussions about, 'How valuable is that if he is just a pass rusher? If it's just a guy who's just a pass rusher and not an every down player, how valuable is that?'
"And that certainly has been a big part of the conversations and the discussions that we've had, because you've got to try to figure where the guy is valued relative to how important that is on your team."
A situational player's ability to help on special teams and the percentage of snaps he'd play in Bush's scheme will factor into the evaluation, according to Smith. The Texans also have defensive ends Tim Bulman, Jesse Nading and Stanley McClover on the roster heading into the draft.
In an exclusive for HoustonTexans.com, Michael Lombardi of *The National Football Post *offers his Top 5 defensive end prospects in the 2009 draft class. A 23-year veteran of NFL personnel departments, Lombardi is sizing up each position group with us in our "Path to the Draft" series.
Michael Lombardi's Top 5 Defensive Ends
1. Aaron Maybin: Penn State (6-4, 249)
Lombardi: An explosive quick-twitch athlete who coils up well into his stance and can really fire off the ball. Displays the closing speed to consistently reach the corner and force QBs to step up into the pocket. Demonstrates excellent awareness off the snap and improved all season. However, he lacks power at the point of attack and will have trouble controlling tackles on contact.
2. Robert Ayers: Tennessee (6-3, 272) Lombardi: A powerful lineman on the outside with a natural burst and very impressive pop on contact. Does a great job changing his pass rush between speed and power and uses his length and suddenness well to disengage from blocks. Has great closing speed on the outside and dips well to gain leverage off the edge. Plays strong at the point of attack vs. the run. Is a one-year starter who only saw production in 2008. He lacks great first-step explosion on the outside and won't consistently be able to reach the corner in the NFL.
3. Tyson Jackson: LSU (6-4, 295) Lombardi: A big, physically built defensive end with good power and stack-and-shed ability. Consistently holds the point of attack outside and can set the corner. Has long arms and good suddenness as a pass rusher. Likes to get into tackles and uses his base strength and lateral mobility to push the pocket and shed blocks. Offers a lot of versatility to a defense.
4. Everette Brown: Florida State (6-2, 256) Lombardi: An explosive, quick-twitch lineman who gets off the ball quickly and has the ability to consistently reach the corner. Has a longer frame with impressive base strength for his size. Displays good body control off the edge with a coordinated spin move and good lateral mobility inside. However, lacks the size to hold up as an every down defensive end at the next level.
5. Brian Orakpo: Texas (6-3, 263) Lombardi: A sturdy, muscular lineman with impressive power and strength for his size. Displays a decent first step out of his stance and does a nice job playing with natural leverage and flexibility around the corner. Not an elite athlete off the edge and doesn't have the burst to consistently hit the corner cleanly. Needs to be more physical with his hands.
Nick Scurfield's Top 5 Defensive Ends
1. Brian Orakpo: Texas Scurfield: The best of several "hybrid" players who could play undersized rush end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4. The 2008 Nagurski Award winner as the nation's best defensive player, Orakpo is the most accomplished defensive end in the draft. He's thick and chiseled and has an explosive burst off the edge. There is a durability concern with a couple of knee injuries in his past.
2. Aaron Maybin: Penn State Scurfield:A tweener with huge upside at only 21 years old. Maybin was around 230 pounds as a junior at Penn State, and teams question whether he can keep on the 250 pounds he now weighs. If he can't, he'll struggle against the run and could become strictly a speed rusher in the NFL.
3. Tyson Jackson: LSU Scurfield: His size and strength make him ideal as an end in a 3-4 scheme. Not flashy, but he was a big-time run-stuffer at LSU and showed ability - albeit incosistently - to rush the passer. Jackson was a 4-3 end in college and could also become a three-technique tackle in a 4-3 in the NFL.
4. Everette Brown: Florida State Scurfield: A hybrid player who was a sack machine at FSU, notching 23 sacks in 25 starts. Reminds some scouts of DeMarcus Ware, but could also excel as a rush end in a 4-3. He's quick off the snap, speedy off the edge and has a nice repertoire of pass-rushing moves. He's also a high-character guy did extensive community work while in college.
5. Robert Ayers: Tennessee Scurfield:A 4-3 end, Ayers was a highly-touted high school star but didn't bother to show up until a standout senior season at Tennessee. He followed that up with an impressive Senior Bowl, showing power and excellent burst off the line of scrimmage. He's either a player on the rise or a one-year wonder.
Michael Lombardi* spent 23 years as a high-level executive in NFL personnel departments, working with the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos. He has spent 26 years evaluating college and pro football talent. He currently serves as one of the main contributors of The National Football Post.*