It seems every time the NFL Draft rolls around, questions arise about the ability of the Texans offensive line. But with their performance last season, reducing their sacks allowed from 68 to 41, offensive line may not be the priority it once was.
This offseason has seen general manager Rick Smith solidify the offensive line through the signing of free-agent tackle Jordan Black, a starter for the Kansas City Chiefs, and the re-signing of veteran Ephraim Salaam. However, with a number of solid line prospects available in 2007, the Texans may look to build upon their current group with some of their selections on Saturday.
Last year, the Texans found two instant impact performers at the beginning of the third round in tackles Charles Spencer and Eric Winston. Spencer stepped in immediately to start at left tackle during the first two games of the season before breaking his leg at Indianapolis and Winston came on at the end of 2006 to start the final seven games at right tackle. With good depth at each line position during this year's draft, the Texans shouldn't have trouble finding a few more gems.
The Crème of the Crop
Joe Thomas (T, 6-6, 311)
Thomas has emerged as the consensus top line prospect in this year's draft. Starting the last 38 games for an offense in Madison predicated on the running game, Thomas used his intriguing blend of size and athleticism to pave the way for Badger backs during his career.
Another in a long legacy of lineman produced by former Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez, Thomas's best asset is his athleticism, moving more like a tight end than a cornerstone left tackle. Equally adept at getting to the next level, pulling on a running play or stopping the oncoming rush from opposing defensive ends, Thomas has fended off worries about his short wingspan by letting his play do the talking against Big Ten competition.
Despite an ACL injury during the 2006 Outback Bowl while playing defense, Thomas has fully recovered and showed teams that he can battle back from injury, improve every year in college, and become a leader on BCS contender.
Thomas would be an outstanding addition for any team in the top-5 of the draft meaning he won't slip past the Cardinals, a team desperate for offensive line help.
First Round Worthy
Levi Brown (T, 6-5, 323), Joe Staley (T, 6-5, 306)
Brown is another Big Ten performer with extensive starting experience and while he may not be the blocking technician that Thomas is, he does possess all the attributes necessary to be a big time player in the NFL.
Brown has tremendous size and long arms that allow him to be an asset in pass protection, while still possessing the short area quickness necessary to be effective on the ground. If Brown can shed his laid back nature and start to improve upon his somewhat raw technique, he could be a starter for years to come.
His sheer strength and power and ability to finish off blocks should attract teams like Atlanta, Miami or Houston at the top of the first round.
Staley, a converted tight end from Central Michigan, has been a late riser up the draft boards.
Playing in the lesser known Mid American Conference, Staley has wowed scouts with his athleticism and raw ability, but questions remain as to whether his success will translate to the next level.
From an intangibles standpoint, Staley is one of the best, sacrificing his first position, gaining 80 pounds, working hard in the weight room and becoming an All-MAC performer. This dedication shows how seriously Staley takes the game and what he is willing to do to be a key contributor at the next level.
Look for Staley to be plucked off the board late in the first round.
The Best of the Rest
Ryan Kalil (C, 6-2, 299), Justin Blalock (G, 6-3, 320), Ben Grubbs (G, 6-2, 311), Tony Ugoh (T, 6-5, 301), Aaron Sears (G, 6-3, 319)
The top center prospect in the draft is Kalil, the only center likely to get drafted on the first day this weekend.
Kalil does not possess the ideal size for an NFL center, but his quickness, instincts, smarts and experience against high level competition should push him as high as the end of round one. It certainly doesn't hurt being the anchor on a national championship team.
Another player with championship experience is versatile former Texas lineman Justin Blalock.
Despite playing right tackle most of his career, his ability as a devastating blocker in the running game should lend him well in making the transition, due to his shorter stature, to the guard position. Like Kalil, Blalock should be selected sometime by the end of round two.
Ben Grubbs from Auburn doesn't have the experience of Blalock, but an outstanding senior year has pushed him into a possible first-round selection.
The athletic former defensive tackle paved the way for backs like Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Kenny Irons, but will need to improve his technique to truly succeed at the next level. His reputation as a hard worker should help him in this area.
Ugoh has a terrific blend of quickness and size, but like others mentioned before, is a bit raw. He was able to lead the way for a deadly Arkansas offensive attack with future pro prospect Darren McFadden and should get selected high because of his limitless ceiling.
A player with a smaller upside, but who will prove to be a safer choice is Tennessee's Aaron Sears.
Sears had a great senior season in the tough Southeastern Conference, but does not have a true position at the next level. A team could find him valuable in that he can rotate between tackle and guard, but Sears will need to focus on just one to reach his potentional.