As we hustle along the road to the 2011 NFL Draft, I have written many a time here and on Battle Red Blog that I wasn’t too excited about drafting a defensive end and converting him to a linebacker in round one. That sentiment has only grown to an out and out dismissal of the idea in favor of trading back, nabbing an extra pick, and selecting Illinois LB Martez Wilson. As someone said to me, "Why take a square and make him into a circle when you can take a more polished circle?"
That’s not to say that the DE/LB conversion can’t be done. Many point to Dallas OLB, and Wade Phillips project, DeMarcus Ware as what the Texans could do with their 1st round pick. Many salivate at the thought of a Ware-like ‘backer in Houston, but he’ll be quick to remind people that it was a learning process and transition. In fact, he says it took two years for him to feel comfortable as a 3-4 LB. The raw statistics will support that as Ware went from 19.5 sacks in his first two seasons to 34 in his next two. Houston fans would be thrilled with 19.5 over two seasons, but I digress from the point that Ware had a transition period where his game had to develop beyond using a speed rush.
Those two years of development may raise a flag in some people’s heads as the Texans are more in win now mode – especially general manager Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak. A lot has been said about those two feeling that pressure and making sure that whoever is drafted is able to make an immediate impact. Do those two have time to wait on a more raw project to develop? Are defensive ends Aldon Smith and Robert Quinn really the best picks for this defense?
I don’t believe they are nor do I believe the team can wait on someone who'll need more time to develop. I’ve mentioned his name before (and he is someone they've met with as well), but Illinois LB Martez Wilson does get my full endorsement for being Houston’s 1st round pick (after a trade down of course). Wilson’s athletically gifted enough to play any of the four LB positions and is far more polished as a LB than any DE. He has a better understanding of reading offenses, standing up as opposed to putting his hand down, and dropping into coverage because he's done that already. Did I mention that taking him means trading back and nabbing an extra pick or two as well?
While Wilson’s ceiling may not be as high as a Smith or Quinn, he’s more of a sure thing – however sure anyone can be about any of these prospects. He’s coming off a season where he finally put everything together and had a monstrous year earning first-team All-Big Ten honors at inside linebacker with 112 tackles (11.5 for a loss), four sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception, four passes defensed, and a blocked kick. Not to mention that he was a co-captain, which the Texans value greatly, for the Illini in nine of their 2010 games.
By touting Wilson I’m putting stock in the full recovery of Connor Barwin, someone who was scouted as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker when he came out of Cincinnati, to take up the weak-side pass rusher with Wilson on the strong-side. Even still, I’d rather have the guy with proven success as a linebacker than taking a chance on a developing, transitioning defensive end. Perhaps it’s not as risk-taking as some want the Texans to be, but they can’t afford to miss on this draft – they need an immediate impact…at least in this writer’s mind.