Hold on, ease up. I'm not saying that starting Earl Mitchell as the NT in Wade Phillips' 3-4 is the best idea in the world. It's not. I am absolutely of the stubborn opinion that the Texans should have gone after a potential starting NT in the draft.
But let's talk about the groceries we have, not the ones that aren't available in our city (come on Trader Joe's, come to Houston already!)
Even with his new contract, I can't see Shaun Cody sticking as the starting NT in Houston in 2011. His contract isn't so insane that it demands he starts, but it would certainly appear it's headed that way. The guy I'm excited about, and think may be poised to do some real damage in his career - is Earl Mitchell.
This isn't just based on blind hope. I've seen Mitchell work in person. Before last season began, myself and several other Texans' bloggers spent time at multiple open practice sessions. I stood five feet from Earl Mitchell and the rest of the defensive line on most of these days. One of the highlights of all of these practices, was a drill where an offensive lineman lines up against a defensive lineman - and they just hit each other.
I'm not sure if the purpose of the drill is just to get some contact going, or if the coaches are really looking for something - but when Kasey Studdard came out of his stance to make contact with Mitchell, Studdard clearly had no idea what was coming. What came was a LOUD CRASH as Mitchell knocked the ever-living hell out of Studdard, staggering the O-lineman and clearly catching him off-guard.
In these drills, Mitchell was the relentless, high-motor player that he was advertised to be. He was explosive, mean, and treated every rep I watched him go through as if it was of the utmost importance. It was impressive to see the rookie assert himself over some of the veteran guys. He didn't have great success on every snap, but you could see exactly what the coaches gushed about.
Much has been made of the Texans' situation at NT. Wade Phillips' brand of the 3-4 is said to be closer to a traditional 4-3. Phillips took the conversation to Candyland recently when he further confused the issue, stating that the Texans actually will run something like a 5-2. Okay, Wade. Now you're just being a jerk. (Which is not a bad thing in the Era of Aw Shucks.)
One of the differences in Wade's 3-4 scheme compared to the more traditional approach, is that his doesn't necessarily require a big, fat space-eating NT. Instead of a big guy to eat up two gaps, this brand calls for a lighter, quicker NT who can get some penetration and cause disruption. Of course, the direction he has gone with in the past with his NT has depended on the players he had at the time. He's employed the big NT in previous incarnations of his 3-4, but most recently, the obvious example is Dallas' Jay Ratliff. Could Shaun Cody HAHAHAH HELL NO!!! I WILL EAT A SWEAT-SOAKED HAT IF SHAUN CODY CAN BE EFFECTIVE AS A 3-4 NT. ARE YOU INSANE?? Earl Mitchell step in and be "the next" Jay Ratliff? Let's compare.
Jay Ratliff stands 6' 4" and weighs 304 pounds, according to the Cowboys' official roster. Mitchell is listed at 6' 3", 291 on Houston's roster. That hardly seems to compare to Ratliff, right? Well, it's fair to say Mitchell has been asked to put on some weight, and I can also assure you this is going on based on how he painstakingly chronicles his offseason eating habits on Twitter.
Like Ratliff, Mitchell is the type of defensive lineman who relies on his blend of speed and power. Whether or not Mitchell can actually put that into practice to the high level that Ratliff has, remains to be seen.
If draft position means anything to you, then you might actually be excited about what Mitchell can do under the tutelage of Wade Phillips. After all, Mitchell was taken in the third round out of Arizona, while Ratliff was a seventh-round draft choice out of Auburn. Certainly, Ratliff is Ratliff - and just because Wade was able to coach him up from barely-drafted to a three-time Pro Bowler and one-time first-team All Pro, doesn't mean he can do the same with Mitchell.
But, Mitchell is said to be very coachable, and he has the building-block relentless style, high-motor, and nasty attitude that could give him a good chance to follow in Ratliff's considerable footsteps. It would also help if the Texans could cover anyone or get any pressure on the QB as Dallas was able to do for stretches under Phillips. That sentence should probably be treated as more than a footnote in the context of this discussion, but you see where I'm going.
I like Earl Mitchell. A lot. I think he's going to be a good NFL player. How good, I don't know - but with Ratliff as the template and Phillips pulling the strings, I'm going to allow myself to get a little bit excited about the possibilities. Earl refers to himself on his twitter page as "EMFM". Use your imagination as to what the middle "MF" stands for. All I know, is that I don't give a person the middle nickname of "MF" unless they're likely to lay a whoopin' on someone. Ndamukong MF Suh. In his prime, Mike MF Tyson. Deacon MF Jones. Lawrence MF Taylor. John MF Wayne.
Chris MF Watkins? No?
Come on, Earl. Prove the critics and the doubters (of which I'm a guilty party) wrong. You know, if you're actually allowed to practice anytime soon.