There was a dramatic shift in football acumen when Charley Casserly stepped down from the Houston Texans front office. Gary Kubiak and Rick Smith came in, worked their magic, and re-sodded the old wasteland of a roster that was playing next to Andre Johnson, Dunta Robinson, and Kris Brown. It took time, and there were missteps, but the team has hit the point where it is brimming with young talent. Football Outsiders recently ranked the Texans No. 1 in their organizational rankings that account for everyone under the age of 26. The team has embraced competition. Amobi Okoye is battling Earl Mitchell, Brown is battling Neil Rackers. Three solid running backs are on the roster and I wouldn't be totally surprised if any one of them was named the starter after training camp.
But there is one position that the Texans continue to ignore at their own peril, and it's only growing in importance as the league becomes more pass-oriented.
It seems rather counter-intuitive to say this coming on the heels of the Texans getting probably the best season they've ever had from a safety in Bernard Pollard, but you have to consider how the team acquired Pollard. He'd shown signs of solid play, absolutely, but he was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs before the season, was picked up for nothing, and wasn't even allowed to start until the options in front of him bungled their chances.
When I covered the NFL Draft Combine back in March, NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock predicted the rise of the safety's importance:
"If you wanna be a little bit ahead of the curve as an evaluator of talent, I think you've gotta be looking at the point that it's a pass-first league. It's not stop the run and run the football anymore. You can just look around the league and see what's happening. So, if I'm a defensive coordinator, and I'm an evaluator of talent, from the safety position, I think that position is becoming more important, okay? When you start talking about 3, 4, 5 wide receivers, detached tight ends like Dallas Clark, what I wanna do is I wanna bring a safety up that's just as athletic, that will tackle. And I'll give up a little bit in the run game to get a guy with better range and man-to-man capabilities."
The Texans came into the NFL Draft this year with Pollard, a thumping strong safety who had a great season interception-wise, but wasn't demonstrably good in coverage. Eugene Wilson, a safety with good instincts but lacking range and the ability to stay healthy. And Dominique Barber, who might grow up to be Wilson if he can stop leaving Chris Johnson completely uncovered when he goes into motion towards the sideline. It was routinely pegged as a spot that could use an upgrade, along with cornerback and running back. Many projected Texas safety Earl Thomas to land with the Texans. I'm glad he wasn't there when they picked, not because I don't think he'll be great, but because I really doubt the Texans would've selected him. Mayock's warning, I thought, would go unheeded.
Through some shrewd draft day trading, the Texans eventually wound up with nine picks, including two in the fourth round and two in the sixth round. To the surprise of no one who is familiar with Rick Smith, they drafted zero safeties. Counting the 2006 NFL Draft as part of the "Smithiak" era, the team has picked three safeties in five years: Brandon Harrison, a fifth-rounder, is the highest selection they've used. Barber was a sixth-rounder, and Troy Nolan was drafted in the seventh round last year. While Smith was head of personnel for the Broncos from 2000-2005, with a major emphasis on scouting for the draft, the team spent three picks on safeties (none after 2002): a 2002 fourth rounder on Sam Brandon, a 2002 seventh-rounder on Chris Young, and a 2000 second rounder on Kennoy Kennedy. Six picks in 10 years, one of which was before the fourth round.
Look at the quality of safeties that have started for Smith, and you'll see that they often have poor pedigrees as well. Kennedy was a Broncos starter for many years, but after Eric Brown left and took what was left of his talents to the Texans in 2002, they tried Izell Reese for a year, Brandon failed in his stint, Nick Ferguson came in as a free agent from the Jets with one career start. Finally, big time safety John Lynch came in as a big time free agent and gave the Broncos a few big time years near the end of his career. Lynch contributed three interceptions, seven forced fumbles, and six sacks in those two years. The other Denver starters, combined, gave them seven-and-a-half sacks, six forced fumbles, and eleven interceptions (five of which came in a complete fluke year by Ferguson) in what equates to ten seasons.
This too, has held true in Houston. Glenn Earl and C.C. Brown, the incumbent starters left by Casserly, were execrable. Has the team attacked the position in the draft? No. In free agency? They've gone bargain basement. The three best safeties the Texans have had since 2006: Pollard, Will Demps, and Wilson, have all been training camp cuts that the Texans have literally signed off the street. Barber has some potential, I suppose, but the other two draft pick safeties have been non-existent due to injury (Nolan) and just plain bad (Harrison).
Despite this, and despite the free agent market being chock full of safeties that have shown they know their way around an interception (Darren Sharper, most notably, but O.J. Atogwe, Antrel Rolle, Sean Jones, Ryan Clark and restricted free agents like Nick Collins, Antoine Bethea and Jarrod Page were all out there for the taking) the Texans made absolutely no move to try and upgrade on the injury-prone Wilson. Heck, they were barely listed on the interested parties sheets for most of these guys. I can understand de-emphasizing safety to a certain extent. It's the last line of the defense, but the Texans went 9-7 last year and when Wilson went down and left John Busing in charge of things, the Texans were a markedly worse pass defense for it. Baseball sabermetricians coined the idea of a "replacement player", a level of player that any team should be able to get from backups and street free agents. Busing was far below that last year, from what I saw and by empirical measures, and it cost the Texans games. They eventually gave up on even trusting him to play near the line and sent him into a zone so deep he wound up in Pearland, limiting the defense's options.
My point in all of this? Well, Rick Smith's Broncos team was able to hold it's own in the AFC for awhile, eventually getting up to 10-6 in 2003, but they didn't really reach the point of an elite team until 2005, when big-time safety John Lynch big timed them all the way to the AFC Championship game. I hate the cliche argument that one player can take a team over the hump, but it's clear that when Smith went against his traditional valuation of safeties and signed Lynch, it made a real difference for the Broncos.
So, Mr. Smith, you've got a team that has established it can be solid in the AFC, you've got a great young talent base to build from and help sustain injuries. Where's our big time John Lynch to put the team over the top?