To evaluate mocks in a critical fashion, do mocks of my own, or talk Houston Texans drafts in general, we need to understand a few things. First, we tackled the franchise's drafting history in an effort to understand some underlying trends. Now, there has to be an understanding of the team's needs...and they are many.
Normally, I'd save this discussion until after free agency, but this Collective Bargaining Agreement issue will make that a tricky situation in 2011. If that gets settled out before the draft then I'll re-address this, but, until then, these needs will stand until the draft. Let's get to it.
Quarterback: Matt Schaub is the unquestioned starter while Dan Orlovsky is under contract in 2011. Matt Leinart is hoping to go somewhere for a chance to start (Tennessee? Seattle? Miami?). Orlovsky's not great and has his contract up in 2012. Now may be a good time to take a guy in the 6th or 7th and groom him behind Schaub. Ideally, they'd cut Orlovsky and grab a veteran, but that's another post for another time.
Running Back: Arian Foster's the man, Ben Tate's the back-up with Steve Slaton on the bench while Derrick Ward looks for more playing time somewhere else. There's no real need here if Slaton sits on the bench (or if the coaching staff decides to use him in the screen pass game). Perhaps an undrafted guy to bring in for camp, but there's no need unless the value is overwhelming.
Fullback: Re-sign Pro Bowler Vonta Leach and do it ASAP. That's all I have to say about fullback.
Wide Receiver: Andre Johnson is the go-to man with Kevin Walter probably better suited for slot duties given his skill set. David Anderson is a nice option when on the field while Dorin Dickerson is full of untapped potential. If Jacoby Jones leaves (to Washington perhaps?) then Houston needs to pick someone up - preferably someone who can stretch the defense. Will it be a free agent or draft pick? Could it even be Alabama's Julio Jones?
Tight End: Owen Daniels' down year may make for an easier return which means the position is set. Otherwise, it could be Joel Dreessen holding down the fort while James Casey and Garrett Graham grow into their proper pass-catching roles. Either way, Houston shouldn't be drafting any more tight ends this season. Oh, and Anthony Hill is still here. I almost forgot about him.
Offensive Tackle: Duane Brown and Eric Winston are starters while Rashad Butler's a free agent. Should Butler not re-sign, and maybe even if he is, it's imperative that Houston grabs a young swing tackle and begins to develop him.
Offensive Guard: Between Wade Smith, Mike Brisiel, Shelley Smith, and Antoine Caldwell, the Texans are set at guard if they don't switch anyone's position.
Center: Chris Myers is coming off a pretty good year. Smith and Caldwell can back-up at center, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to get a back-up dedicated to being a center - whether that's moving Caldwell back to his natural position or picking up someone else. If one of the reserve guards are moved to center then picking up a guard in the late rounds or after the draft may not be a bad idea.
Defensive End: Antonio Smith and Mario Williams make for starters while there's enough guys to throw in behind them as depth - especially since Houston will employ a one-gap 3-4 scheme. If the value presents itself then take a defensive end, but it's not a pressing need.
Nose Tackle: New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has mentioned Earl Mitchell, Amobi Okoye, and (free agent to be) Shaun Cody as nose tackles in his system, but I don't know if I buy it. I think Mitchell makes for good depth, but the Texans need a guy to anchor the front seven.
Outside Linebacker: Yes, the Texans need some outside linebackers outside of Connor Barwin. If Darryl Sharpton or Brian Cushing start on the strong-side then it's simply depth needed, but Houston should be picking up outside guys in the draft and/or free agency.
Inside Linebacker: DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing, and Darryl Sharpton should hold the fort down inside, but another one guy couldn't hurt. Of course, if one of those latter two names moves to the outside then Houston could use another inside backer. In either case, Houston has four guys for four spots so three or four more bodies are needed this off-season to round out this woefully-thin corps.
Cornerback: The problem with Houston's secondary was its youth. Until Jason Allen was signed, the top four cornerbacks had about two years total experience between them. A top veteran must be signed. If Houston plans to move Glover Quin to free safety, which is a possibility, then retaining Allen may be a priority since Kareem Jackson hasn't shown enough to be entrusted as the #2 guy. Sherrick McManis should get more snaps over Brice McCain in a dime role, but Houston's biggest need is to get that proven veteran to stablize the top of the depth chart.
Free Safety: Eugene Wilson shouldn't be on an NFL roster, Troy Nolan may be better suited for strong safety, and Glover Quin's currently a cornerback. Free safety is, arguably with NT, Houston's biggest position of need. Someway, somehow this position needs an improvement.
Strong Safety: If Bernard Pollard doesn't return and Troy Nolan isn't moved to strong safety, Houston will need a starting strong safety. Dominique Barber provides adequate depth.
Kicker: Neil Rackers had a Pro Bowl-quality season. No need at the kicker position.
Punter: Matt Turk's age was showing with short punts that lacked hang time and inaccurate coffin corner attempts, so it may be time to pick up a punter since Houston lost the field position battle often in 2010.
Now that those position-by-position briefs are done, let's put these needs in order:
1. Nose Tackle
2. Free Safety
3. Outside & Inside Linebacker
5. Strong Safety
6. Wide Receiver
7. Offensive Tackle
10. Defensive End
12. Running Back
13. Tight End
Call me conventional, but I believe good play starts in the trenches. One-gap or two, nose tackle is where the 3-4 defense begins. Houston couldn't get consistent, impactful play from their 4-3 defensive tackles, so improving the middle of the defense is still on the list after the move from Frank Bush to Wade Phillips. Free safety, a linebacker, cornerback, strong safety, and (possibly) wide receiver need starters, but nose tackle, for the reasons mentioned, is where I see the biggest hole.
The needs stop becoming critical once you hit punter on the list. From punter on down, improving those positions would be nice, but those improvements wouldn't make or break playoff chances, in my humble blogger opinion. Yes, Turk is becoming Chad Stanley bad, but he could be neutralized if the offense became more consistent.
In the end, I don't think anyone's walking away surprised by these rankings. Aside from possibly defensive end, Houston needs all the help it can get on defense. While they won't solve every need in the draft, there are three-to-five legitimate holes on the defensive starting roster after all, the Texans are still going to need a pretty good weekend in April if they plan on being relevant next January.