Texans upgrade offense, special teams

There are 32 NFL teams around the country who feel great about the new players that dot their respective rosters. There are also 32 NFL teams who have no idea what the future holds with those players.

Texans head coach Dom Capers knows the feeling all too well.

"With the draft, probably everybody feels good at this point," Capers said Sunday afternoon after his club had wrapped up its 2003 draft. "You never know until you're two or three years down the road and you're able to see the production you get out of these people.

"But we've been able to meet many of our goals heading into the draft."

Indeed they have. Here's why.

The Texans entered the draft knowing that they would have to upgrade an offense that ranked 32nd in the league last year. Houston also needed a kick returner after former Pro Bowler Jermaine Lewis was released. Those were immediate impact needs. And even though they appear solid on defense, the Texans knew they also needed to add some young defensive players to the mix. Those were development needs.

And finally, this draft was critical for the Texans in that it was the second and final draft in which Houston would enjoy an allotment of extra picks. Thus, the Texans was hoping to snag a few extra draft selections for 2004.

Houston appears to have met all of those goals, along with throwing the biggest curve ball of the second day of the draft. What does this all mean? We'll have to wait and see. But for now the armchair draftniks can speak their peace. And we'll play along.

Round 1: WR Andre Johnson (Miami)

The old adage in sports is that sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make.

The Texans had offers to trade down from the No. 3 overall pick but in the end decided to stick with the playmaker they wanted all along -- Andre Johnson, the top-rated offensive player on their board. Johnson is big (6-2, 230) and fast (Big East 100m champion) and immediately upgrades Houston's receiving corps.

"We felt we got the best big-play receiver," Capers said of Johnson, who averaged 19.9 yards per catch over three seasons. "I can see him coming in and having a significant impact on our offense and our ability to make big plays."

Sixth-year pro Corey Bradford exploded out of the gates last season, finding an instant rhythm with rookie quarterback David Carr. But Bradford saw his production slip once opposing defenses keyed on him. With Johnson joining Bradford and second-year wideout Jabar Gaffney, the Texans now have a rather imposing trio to trot out in three-wide sets.

"When you're building a team, you want to become strong in certain areas," Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "We can now create matchup problems with our receivers."

Round 2: TE Bennie Joppru (Michigan)

The Texans felt they needed another tight end and Houston's coaching staff got an up-close look at Joppru during their week at the Senior Bowl. What they saw was a stellar blocker who also possessed good hands. But what impressed Capers most of all was Joppru's lunch-pail work ethic.

"The first two days of the Senior Bowl, he was the only tight end we had," Capers said. "I watched him run down the field, catch the ball, turn around and run back up the field again. He did this for two practices. I think it stood out in my mind, the work ethic that he had and his attitude."

Joppru also has some stats to back up that approach. He caught 53 passes for 579 yards and five touchdowns as a senior. Tight end Billy Miller was Houston's leading receiver last season but he and Joppru could work well as a tandem for Carr. Counting Jabari Holloway, the Texans now have three young tight ends with varying skills that can only make each other better.

"Almost every team plays with three tight ends," Casserly said. "Last year we had to play with two."

The Texans traded down with New England in the second round, figuring they could still get Joppru. They did, and snagged an extra third-round selection out of the trade.

Round 3: LB Antwan Peek (Cincinnati); OT Seth Wand (NW Missouri State); QB Dave Ragone (Louisville)

It was a fast and furious third round for the Texans, who picked up three players and made a trade with Oakland for a future draft selection.

Peek is a very intriguing prospect at outside linebacker. He played end for the Bearcats and set a school record with 27 1/2 career sacks. But perhaps most impressive was Peek's uncanny nose for the football. He had 14 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries and six blocked kicks in four seasons.

"We felt Peek was an excellent athlete," Capers said. "We needed to add speed to our defense. He can give us help rushing the passer on third down."

Peek will have the expected learning curve as he adjusts to the 3-4 but watch for him to make an immediate impact on special teams.

Wand was another prospect the Texans worked with at the Senior Bowl. In fact, the Texans asked him to participate in the all-star game after seeing him on film.

Wand is 6-7 and light on his feet. After excelling at the Division II level, he proved he could face stiff competition in Mobile.

"We really liked his competitiveness at the Senior Bowl," Capers said.

The Texans surprised many pundits by scooping up Louisville quarterback Dave Ragone. But don't be too surprised. One, Ragone was the top-rated player on Houston's draft board when the pick came around. After all, this was a guy that most had pegged for the first round heading into last season. Ragone had to play behind a young offensive line in 2002 and his numbers were down, even though he won Conference USA Player of the Year honors for the third consecutive year.

Two, although David Carr is firmly entrenched as Houston's starter, Casserly relied on some words from his old Redskins head coach, Joe Gibbs.

"The one thing I learned from Joe you can never have enough good quarterbacks," Casserly said.

For proof, just look at the expansion Browns in their second season. Cleveland was 2-1 with two division wins in 2000 before second-year quarterback Tim Couch went down with an injury. The Browns trotted out the likes of Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn and spiraled to a 3-13 record.

Now the Texans have Carr, Tony Banks, Mike Quinn and Ragone in their stable.

"You don't want to have an injury, but if somebody goes down we're still moving the ball down the field," Casserly said.

Houston did some dealing with its other third-round selection, picking up an enticing second-round selection for 2004. Oakland yielded that second-round pick to move up and select Fresno State linebacker Sam Williams. The Raiders also got the Texans' final seventh-round pick, the infamous "Mr. Irrelevant" selection.

"I've said all along that getting picks for next year was important," Casserly said.

Depending on where the Raiders finish this coming season, that second-round selection could generate some movement for the Texans in next year's draft.

Round 4: RB Domanick Davis (LSU)

Special teams coordinator Joe Marciano is one of the more energetic people in this building. Sunday he was downright ecstatic.

Davis fills Houston's need for a third-down back but he really fills a need at returner. Davis averaged 23.3 yards on kickoff returns and 13.9 yards on punt returns last season for the Tigers. He also rushed for 931 yards and seven touchdowns.

"He adds real value to our football team," Capers said. "He's one of the all-time leading returners in SEC history and can also play from the line of scrimmage. We'll have three active backs on gameday."

As noted before, special teams was a priority heading into this weekend.

"We have a good kicker and a good punter," Casserly said. "But there are other areas we want to improve on through competition and kick returning is one of them."

Davis, who will battle wide receiver Avion Black, doesn't plan to disappoint. He claims returning is second nature to him.

"I've been doing it since I was a kid," Davis said, "My brother used to kick the ball high in the sky and make me catch it. If I didn't catch it, he'd rough me up."

Round 5: OT Greg Randall (trade with Patriots)

Oops, you forgot about Randall, didn't you? The Texans traded one of their fifth-round picks to New England awhile back for Randall, who started for the Patriots at right tackle during their Super Bowl run.

Houston had one more fifth-round pick but traded it to Indianapolis for the Colts' fourth-round selection next year.

Another offensive lineman -- guard Milford Brown -- was a supplemental selection in 2002. Brown got the chance to practice throughout last season and has positioned himself to be at the very least a solid backup. Brown cost the Texans one of their sixth-round picks today but provides another example of looking ahead and seeking value for the pick.

"Randall and Brown are far better offensive linemen than you would get with those picks," Casserly said.

Round 6: QB Drew Henson (Michigan); DT Keith Wright (Missouri)

Just when everybody was about to doze off across ESPN's vast cable reach, the Texans woke up the gridiron nation with their first sixth-round selection.

"Does anybody have any other questions besides Drew Henson?" Casserly joked as he opened his press conference Sunday night.

Ah, the Henson pick. What the heck were the Texans thinking? Henson is playing third base for the Columbus Clippers, the New York Yankees' Triple A affiliate.

But it's been a perilous path to pinstripes for Henson. Through 17 games this season, the third baseman is hitting .177 with three home runs, six runs batted in and 17 strikeouts. And not so long ago, he was the quarterback at Michigan and a sure-fire NFL first-round pick. His contract with the Yankees is guaranteed, but if Henson continues to struggle, he might realize his window of opportunity in football is shrinking, much like current Cowboys quarterback Chad Hutchinson did last year. If Henson does decide on football in 2004, he has two choices.

One, go back in the draft and take his chances. Any team could pick up. Or he could stick with the Texans, choosing to either stay in Houston or help broker a trade to a contending team, i.e. have a say in his NFL destination.

When you consider that 10 percent of sixth-round picks end up contributing, it's not a bad gamble. In fact, it has the potential to be a real value pick, whether Henson sticks in Houston or not.

The Texans also took defensive tackle Keith Wright out of Missouri, adding another youngster to the interior defensive line.

"Wright is athletic and watching tape, he has a little different style than the rest of our defensive linemen," Capers said. "He might have the ability to rush the passer from the inside on third down."

Round 7: SS Curry Burns (Louisville); C Chance Pearce (Texas A&M)

Burns is a decent-sized safety who relishes hitting and thus has a solid chance to make this club on special teams.

"I was impressed with his hitting ability and some of the plays he was able to make on tape," Capers said.

Pearce will compete with incumbent Sean McDermott for the long-snapping duties.

So what to make of the Texans' second draft? Again, it's too early to tell. But after a exhausting weekend, Capers and Casserly can sleep a little better knowing they met their goals.

         "We
         drafted some immediate impact players, got some guys we can develop
         and secured some picks for the future," Casserly said.
         "I'm very pleased and excited."
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