AFC South: Aldon Smith
The Houston Texans are not pleased with themselves, and neither is their Week 5 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.
After starting off Week 4 the right way with a big win at St. Louis, the 49ers bitterly watched the Texans blow a huge fourth-quarter lead at home in an eventual overtime loss to Seattle, allowing the Seahawks to maintain their two-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West.
San Francisco will try not to fall further behind when it welcomes the shell-shocked Texans to Candlestick Park on Sunday night. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and I discuss the matchup.
Ganguli: What changed for the 49ers between Weeks 3 and 4? Is it as simple as playing a weaker opponent, or did they rediscover their identity?
Williamson: Easier competition may have had something to do with it. Against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers were outscored by a combined 56-10. Against the Rams, the 49ers had their way in a 35-11 victory. I truly think the 49ers’ struggles this season have been more because of themselves than their opponent. The trouble in Weeks 2 and 3 started on offense. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham; they don’t have much beyond Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who has been injured. Fortunately, the rushing game got going in Week 4. If the 49ers can keep the run game hot and if quarterback Colin Kaepernick can get the ball to Boldin and Davis, the 49ers will be fine. That will take pressure off a good defense that wasn’t the main problem against the Seahawks or the Colts.
Tania, do you believe the Texans are up to the task of staying with the 49ers, especially after the heartbreak of the Seattle loss?
Ganguli: They were angry about that loss, especially J.J. Watt, who held a menacing news conference (menacing in general, not menacing toward reporters) after the game. They have taken steps to regroup mentally, holding a players-only meeting that allowed for venting, but I think their ability to bounce back will depend on being able to fix some of the problems they had in their first game. Those problems go well beyond quarterback Matt Schaub, who made the most costly and talked-about error this past Sunday in throwing a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up a crucial fumble, dropped a couple of passes and committed a 15-yard penalty that helped set up the game-winning field goal. You’re right that the Texans’ defense hasn’t been the team's biggest problem this season, but Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards this season, and it would like to change that.
How has losing Aldon Smith affected San Francisco’s defense?
Williamson: It would be inaccurate and naïve to think the 49ers don’t miss Smith. He will be away from the team for about a month as he seeks treatment for alcohol abuse. Smith had 4.5 sacks in the first three games this season, and he has an NFL-high 38 sacks since 2011. Last week, the 49ers dominated the Rams’ offense without Smith and star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who was out with a groin injury, and recorded five sacks. Rookie Corey Lemonier and special-teamer Dan Skuta both played well in place of Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks led the way with big games. Still, Smith is such a presence. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to have sustained dominance without him.
Tania, do you think the Texans can take advantage of Smith's absence?
Ganguli: The Texans have had their own issues in the trenches lately. Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the past two games with turf toe and is still considered day-to-day. Left guard Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard Ben Jones last weekend. Coach Gary Kubiak said that was to preserve Smith for the long term; Smith had knee surgery during the preseason and returned from it after three weeks. Meanwhile, right tackle Derek Newton, another young player, has really struggled. In fact, Brown’s replacement, Ryan Harris, has played far better than Newton, Houston's regular starter on the other side. Now right guard Brandon Brooks is hurt with a toe injury that’s got his foot booted. The most consistent player, in terms of health and production, on the offensive line has been center Chris Myers, but Schaub has faced a lot of pressure this season.
Speaking of Schaub, he had a rough weekend against the best secondary in the NFL. What challenges will he face against the 49ers?
Williamson: I think Schaub’s struggles start with him, and I think the 49ers will try to pressure him quickly to see if he crumbles again. You know better than I do, but from seeing replays, Schaub looked broken after the Richard Sherman pick-six. The 49ers are well aware that Schaub has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in the past three games, and they will be looking to add to the list. A player to watch is rookie safety Eric Reid. He has proven to be a ballhawk already. I could see him benefiting from Schaub’s issues.
This is a huge key to the game, Tania. Do you think Schaub can bounce back and be effective?
Ganguli: That will be the most important factor in this game. While I don’t blame the entire collapse on Schaub, you’re absolutely right that he looked broken after Sherman’s interception. By contrast, in Week 2, Schaub threw a late pick-six against Tennessee that put the Texans in an eight-point hole, but he recovered quickly enough to lead a game-tying drive that forced overtime. He didn’t bounce back as well against the Seahawks. He made a few nice throws, including a 17-yard pass to Andre Johnson, but overall, looked rattled. If he can’t recover, the Texans have no chance. But if he can rediscover the guy who led that comeback effort you and I watched live against San Diego in Week 1, I think the Texans are in good shape.
Not going down: The offensive line doesn’t only deserve credit for helping the Colts rush for 179 yards, the unit also should be praised for allowing only one sack to a physical 49ers defense. That’s worthy of a high-priced steak dinner paid for by Luck. The Colts did it with two starters out and right guard Mike McGlynn sliding over to start for injured center Samson Satele. The Colts kept 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, who went into the game with 5.5 sacks, from getting to Luck. “It was a battle,” Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo said. “I was just working my butt off. When you’re going against a great player like [Smith], you can’t take any plays off.”
No need to go deep: Luck passed for fewer than 200 yards for the second time in three games this season thanks to the Colts' impressive rushing attack. You won’t hear any complaints from him because they won both of those games and it also means he’s not in the position to get sacked. Luck’s average pass attempt traveled a career-low 4.9 yards downfield after he entered the game averaging a league-high 10.1 yards. When Luck did throw downfield, though, he was 4-of-6 on attempts of at least 10 yards.
Some help with the foot: Indianapolis’ defense got a few assists from punter Pat McAfee. McAfee nailed three of his four punts inside the 49ers' 20-yard line. Speaking of special teams, kicker Adam Vinatieri made his first field goal at Candlestick Park. Seattle and Green Bay are the lone stadiums in the NFL in which Vinatieri, who is in his 18th season, has not made a field goal.
Filling in for Landry: There couldn’t have been a better game for safety Delano Howell to make his first career start. The former Stanford safety, starting in place of the injured LaRon Landry, had four tackles, three of them solo, and two defended passes after being inactive the first two games. Howell’s best solo stop -- and best Landry impression -- came in the second quarter when he made an open-field tackle on San Francisco receiver Anquan Boldin that saved a touchdown.
- While we always do our best to emphasize how little we should read into what plays out in the preseason, the Texans hosted a talented team and had to like what they did. Houston looked like we now expect Houston to look. The Texans swarmed the quarterback, hitting Alex Smith far more than the 49ers would have liked. They stuffed a Kendall Hunter run on a fourth-and-1 that might have got the 49ers going. And the offense provided more than enough to make it feel like the result was never going to be in question. The three key players on offense all made nice contributions, as Matt Schaub hit on 11 of 14 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown, Andre Johnson caught a 43-yard pass from Schaub and Arian Foster made a very nice 24-yard run that showed his vision and skill.
- We’re all going to start to run out of new ways to describe the Texans' pass rush, which was very good again while the top players on defense were in the game. They had first-half sacks by Tim Jamison and a Connor Barwin/Antonio Smith combo deal. But they did far more than that in terms of making Alex Smith aware of their presence and uncomfortable. One example: Antonio Smith beat quality guard Mike Iupati with a super-quick swim move inside and was up the middle on Alex Smith in no time. Antonio Smith was flagged for roughing -- and appeared to hit the quarterback in the head. Antonio Smith will surely seek to do the same thing in the future, just with a lower target.
- The 49ers, meanwhile, were without two of their best pass-rushers, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. And a share of Schaub’s good play came with San Francisco’s backups in the game.
- Johnson made a nice play on his deep reception. Schaub rolled right and threw back to the left where Johnson was with defenders Tramaine Brock and Trenton Robinson. Brock wasn’t badly positioned, but Johnson had a far better feel for what was unfolding, and crossed under the cornerback to haul in the reception.
- Fullback James Casey did well on a short pass from Schaub on a third down. Casey had to come back to the ball and go to the ground. But no defender was in range, and he got up and scrambled for a conversion.
- I wrote last week about Lestar Jean practice drops that concerned me. But he showed why the Texans remain high on him with a team-high four catches for 42 yards including a 9-yard TD on a shallow crossing route where he was granted far too much space by the defense.
- Trindon Holliday didn’t have to do much but get to the right sideline and go for his 87-yard punt return touchdown. And it came against low-ranking 49ers who might not be in the league come opening day. But it’s the second return TD for Holliday in two weeks and certainly adds to his chances to make the team as a blazing return specialist.
HOUSTON -- The stadium rocked. A struggling team rebounded. Another rematch was set in motion.
A tie to the old era of Houston’s NFL football beamed.
“It’s just a great feeling to know that Houston’s back,” said Bum Phillips, coach of the Luv Ya Blue Oilers and father of Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
The Texans' best players played best Saturday at Reliant Stadium in a 31-10 thrashing of the Bengals that propelled Houston forward in the NFL playoffs to a Jan. 15 game in Baltimore. Houston lost 29-14 to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Oct. 16.
After clinching the AFC South with a Dec. 11 victory at Cincinnati, the Texans sputtered, dropping their final three regular-season games, although the finale meant nothing to their playoff standing.
“We kind of got back to what we were doing during that seven-week stretch [Oct. 23 through Dec. 11, when we were 7-0],” coach Gary Kubiak said. “We played great defense, we found a way to run the ball, we never really hurt ourselves as a team. That was the key.”
The game had plenty of heroes, including efficient rookie quarterback T.J. Yates and cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Three of the team’s other top players, though, produced first-rate efforts worth a deeper look.
Running back Arian Foster: After Foster popped an 8-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to tie the score at 7-all, he changed sports as he celebrated.
A Lakers fan who apologizes to Houstonians for his NBA affection, he was talking with fans via Twitter during a recent Lakers-Rockets game. If the Rockets won, he pledged, he’d do a touchdown celebration paying homage to them.
The Lakers won and got him off the hook. But Foster decided to follow through with the idea anyway. He celebrated with Hakeem Olajuwon’s “Dream Shake” -- a hard stop with a ball fake, followed by a reversal and fadeaway jumper he tossed over the crossbar.
Foster finished with 24 carries for 153 yards and two scores. He was only the third undrafted running back in league history to eclipse 100 yards in his first playoff game, joining Ryan Grant (2007) and Paul Lowe (1960).
The Texans’ blocking was tremendous. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 102 of Foster’s rushing yards came prior to initial contact. That’s two-thirds of his total.
The second touchdown, a 42-yard ramble, was his most impressive run of the day. He got to the right sideline and looked to have no chance to stay in bounds. But he followed one good block, and surprised strong safety Chris Crocker with his balance and ability to navigate the sideline as he slowed down, then hit the jets.
“I guess he thought I was going out of bounds,” Foster said.
Defensive end J.J. Watt: Shortly after Jake Delhomme signed with the Texans on Nov. 30, the veteran quarterback was running the offense at a walk-through. Watt batted down several of his passes at the slow-paced practice and felt guilty for doing so.
“He was kind of mad at me,” Watt said. “And I was like, ‘That’s kind of what I do, that’s my thing.’”
He did his thing to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton with 52 seconds left in the first half, but rather than knocking down the ball thrown from point-blank range, he caught it. And before many people on the field realized where it was, he was carrying it to a 29-yard touchdown that put Houston ahead 17-10.
Coaches and teammates said that while reporters and fans don’t see it, Watt snares balls like that all the time at practice.
And while several pass-catchers wouldn’t go so far as to say they’d struggle to make the same play, the guy with the best hands on the team wasn’t too proud to say otherwise.
“It’s almost impossible,” fullback James Casey said. “You’re so close to the ball, and obviously the guy is throwing it hard to have it on that trajectory. To be able to catch it like that is remarkable; that’s why you never see it happen.
“Guys bat balls down but they don’t actually catch it. I’d catch zero out of 10. Maybe out of 100, I’d catch one every now and then just getting lucky.”
Watt followed up that giant play by tracking Dalton as he fled the pocket and sacking him on the final play of the first half.
It was Watt’s first touchdown since high school. He didn’t score one as a tight end at Central Michigan or as a defensive end at Wisconsin.
Denver’s Von Miller or San Francisco’s Aldon Smith will win defensive rookie of the year, but Watt didn’t trail them by much in terms of overall initial impact. Miller will have a chance to match Watt’s postseason pace in a game Sunday.
The always-calm Johnson has been waiting for a playoff game since 2003, when he was the Texans' top pick in the franchise’s second season. He admitted to being antsy and overly anxious to make a play. After one failed pass attempt, he returned to the bench and slammed his helmet to the turf.
Late in the third quarter, though, he and Yates made a connection that sealed the game. Lined up on the left, Johnson put a double move on Adam Jones, who bit, slipped and moved laterally instead of back as he recovered.
Johnson was wide open, and Yates delivered a ball that hit him in stride for a 40-yard touchdown that gave the Texans a 24-10 lead.
In the end zone, he stopped and looked to be enjoying a contemplative moment to take it all in and consider all that had come in his career before the big moment.
But that wasn’t it at all.
“I’ve jumped in the stands a few times here, and I’ve been grabbed by the face mask and everything,” he said. “So I was kind of thinking about jumping, that’s what the pause was for.”
The play had about put Reliant Stadium into orbit, but Johnson made it safely back to earth.
Mario Williams and Antonio Smith rated as quality players in the old 4-3 scheme. They may be better in the new front. And the Texans will now be a deep team at the spot while they still need to address outside linebacker, at least one safety spot and cornerback on the defensive side of the ball.
Watt should help a run defense that faces Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew twice a season and crash the backfield to make quarterbacks less-than-comfortable.
Ultimately he’ll get six shots a season to do his part to attack Peyton Manning and two guys drafted a bit ahead of Watt, Tennessee’s Jake Locker and Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert.
At 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Watt's virtually the same size as Williams.
Many of us thought the team coveted Aldon Smith, who would have been an outside linebacker. But Smith went seventh to San Francisco.
I see no panic in this pick.
I felt some from the Texans last year in the first round when I believe they wanted running back Ryan Mathews and didn’t recover well when he disappeared ahead of schedule. They wound up with cornerback Kareem Jackson.
McShay goes seven rounds. I’ll only share three.
No. 8 -- Tennessee Titans
Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
“Fairley is the best interior pass-rusher in the 2011 class, has tremendous overall upside and fills a major need.”
No. 39 -- Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas
No. 77 -- Marcus Gilchrist, CB, Clemson
PK says: Virtually every time they’ve talked about quarterbacks, they’ve talked about the ability to rollout and move. Good offensive line or no, I don’t see them going with the least mobile of the top eight quarterbacks.
No. 11 -- Houston Texans
Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
“There has been talk about the Texans possibly trading up to get Peterson and significantly upgrade their secondary, but in this dream scenario they stay put and get one of the four elite players in this class.”
No. 42 -- Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon
No. 73 -- John Moffitt, G, Wisconsin
PK says: A first-round dream scenario becomes possible thanks to the ascension of Smith and J.J. Watt. I hope they think they need an interior defensive linemen like Paea.
No. 16 -- Jacksonville Jaguars
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
"Kerrigan is the kind of safe pick GM Gene Smith likes, a player who works hard and can contribute right away with solid skills and a high motor."
No. 49 -- Torrey Smith, WR, Maryland
No. 80 -- Edmond Gates, WR, Abilene Christian
PK says: Gene Smith has attacked key positions in bunches, so he could nab a couple receivers. But no quarterback until the second of the team’s two fourth-round picks?
No. 22 -- Indianapolis Colts
Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
"Carimi would provide more protection for QB Peyton Manning but, more importantly, would be a significant upgrade for a running game that struggled mightily in 2010."
No. 53 -- Clint Boling, G, Georgia
No. 87 -- Terrell McClain, DT, USF
PK says: It’s hard to imagine no skill position guys with the value picks, but it could be healthy for the roster.
No. 8 -- Tennessee Titans
Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
“I'll stick with Fairley here. As I've said before, defensive line probably falls lower on the list of team needs behind the obvious question of who will be taking snaps, but it's not a minor need. And to get the most productive interior lineman in the college game last year, a player who was simply unblockable against really good competition, is a solid get for the Titans at No. 8 overall. Fairley gives you immediate help at a key position and he offers the value of a top-five pick. Disruptive versus both the run and the pass, he will help this defense now and the Titans can look for a linebacker later on. Why has Fairley fallen? For me, it's just mainly because of the fact that, while brilliant in that one season, he has less of a body of work. But he's by no means dropping on talent questions.”
My thoughts: If Blaine Gabbert falls to the spot, this blows up. Otherwise, if Fairley doesn’t go here, how far might he fall after the team where his Auburn defensive line coach now works passes on him?
No. 11 -- Houston Texans
Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
“The Texans have needs all over the defensive side of the ball and I also think they're looking to move off this pick for the right package of picks. But if they can't get a deal done and stick at No. 11, Smith represents a ton of upside for a defense that really needs to add some pass-rushing help opposite the great Mario Williams. Again, a lot of the problems in the Houston secondary started up front. I think they should find the tools Wade Phillips needs to get to opposing quarterbacks in his scheme, and Smith will remind him of Ware, a real matchup headache to be used on the edge of that 3-4.”
My thoughts: Trading up isn’t a crazy idea if you consider the potential cost. But Smith can rush and that’s what they need. Don’t knock him because he’s not Von Miller or Robert Quinn.
No. 16 -- Jacksonville Jaguars
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
“Earlier in the draft process, Kerrigan was saddled with the tweener tag, but that's not the worst problem in the world. Guys like DeMarcus Ware have heard the same and went in a similar range. What Kerrigan can do is line up on the edge and cause problems in opposing backfields. The Big Ten is loaded with talent at the tackle position and nobody could consistently stay in front of this guy. Jack Del Rio will love his relentlessness and motor, and quarterbacks will learn quickly to find out where he's lined up while going through reads. Jax needs the pass-rush, and Kerrigan can help.”
My thoughts: Kerrigan is such a popular pick for the Jaguars and Gene Smith made such an unpredictable call last year with Tyson Alualu at No. 10. So we might all miss by a lot here.
No. 22 -- Indianapolis Colts
Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
“One more pick that stays at least relatively the same from previous mocks, I just really like the fit. The Colts have to improve on the offensive line and even while Peyton Manning is a maestro working out of the shotgun, they need to be able to do more both in the run game and in pass protection. I had another O-lineman here in previous mocks, but Solder also offers a smart, athletic tackle who has been consistently rated as a first-round option. Indy has brought in some quarterbacks to work out, but Solder is more of an immediate help to a team still thinking about titles.”
My thoughts: Is it finally a time where need and value and outside desire all line up for the Colts and we see a semi-predictable pick? I would think Peyton Manning and the running backs hope so.
The Texans sights are set on defense, says John McClain.
With Wade Phillips chiming in, the Texans are already better, says Richard Justice.
McClain has the Texans taking Aldon Smith.
Rick Reilly sat down with Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning.
The higher the Colts have drafted in the first round, the better Bill Polian has fared, says Mike Chappell. He’s determined to be patient with his picks.
What happens after the draft?
Here’s the whole Austin Collie story from Tim Layden that we posted about this week.
Has Manning’s search for an edge even encompassed tanking baseline concussion tests?
Everything but 32 draft picks is up in the air, says Tania Ganguli.
If you really like a guy, take him, says John Oehser.
The big expectation is the Titans will take Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley at No. 8, says Jim Wyatt.
Ruston Webster’s got an important voice, says Wyatt.
The big question is when the run on quarterbacks starts, says Wyatt.
You’ve heard my draft thoughts and seen my mock draft pick for the Jaguars.
It’s time for me to hear yours.
It appears there are a couple positions of need that they won’t be able to address here -- there is no safety worthy of the spot and the top two cornerbacks are likely to be gone.
So here’s our Jaguars first-round draft poll.
I offer four guys I think will be available that could draw their interest. I take a cop out with the quarterback, because I do not know how they’ve stacked them but believe they could grab the third or fourth quarterback of the draft at No. 16 if they think he’s worth the pick.
If you’re on board for Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder or Colin Kaepernick, that slot is all inclusive.
Vote as you wish, but I am more curious about what you think they will do than what you think they should do.
It’s time for me to hear yours.
Three players who would be very nice fits for the Texans as they rebuild will be gone by the time they are on the clock, I think.
That’s why Texans A&M’s Von Miller, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and North Carolina end/backer Robert Quinn are not in this poll. If you think Houston’s hellbent on getting one of them, there is a trade-up scenario for you.
I’ve also given you four players I think they will consider at No. 11 who I suspect will be available at No. 11.
Safety is a huge position of need, but no safeties are rated as first-round caliber. Texas cornerback Aaron Williams could convert, but this seems too early for him as well.
I'd ask you to please vote for what you think they’ll do as opposed to what you think they should do, but who are we kidding in terms of my influence on you?
I think my blog network brethren would say the same thing I do: Most of my thinking in our combined mock draft came from an educated connecting of the dots that combines what I know about my teams’ draft philosophies, what I know of teams' needs, who’s available in this context, what I’ve been told, what my gut says and what I've been calling for.
So Kevin Seifert over at the NFC North isn’t saying Andy Dalton is the 12th-best player in the draft. He’s reiterating what he’s been writing about how quarterbacks have to have a higher value and how Minnesota has to have one.
Three of my four picks for the AFC South line up with what I’d call the conventional thinking at this point. Maybe I outsmart myself with the Colts, but I’ll explain myself in a second.
Here’s a bit more than I was able to offer in my comments in the mock, which you’ll find here.
Titans at No. 8 – Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
I think the defensive rebuild has to go inside-out. I think the character concerns on Fairley are overblown or are something that line coach Tracy Rocker, who worked with him at Auburn, and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray can handle. I think that the Titans can find ways to turn him into a consistently productive player. But maybe this match is too easy. The alternatives would be a defensive end, though Da'Quan Bowers has dropped for them because of his knee, or quarterback if they choose to be bold.
Texans at No. 11 – Aldon Smith, DE-OLB, Missouri
Somehow, I sense that Smith has become unpopular with a good share of Texans fans. His name certainly lacks the juice of Von Miller or Robert Quinn. But plenty of teams would like to get their hands on Smith, who’s an intriguing option as an outside linebacker in Houston’s new 3-4 defensive front. He’s got intriguing size at 6-foot-4, 263 pounds. The best defensive player in this scenario may be Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, but rushing the passer is not what he does best and that’s what the Texans need most.
Jaguars at No. 16 – Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Too easy a fit? Perhaps. But when GM Gene Smith said last week that there are a lot of guys who, like Kerrigan, fit into the formula he likes, there is no doubting that Kerrigan does. Still, who among us saw Smith taking Tyson Alualu at No. 10 last season? We could see another surprise. Smith loaded up on defensive linemen last year. If he takes Kerrigan or another end now, it should be the last defensive linemen for a while, and he should move on to secondary and receiver help. Cameron Jordan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward are all heavier. But with a rugged interior, the Jaguars need speed more than size.
Colts at No. 22 – Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois
Everyone and everything says offensive line. And I could have taken Nate Solder, Gabe Carimi or Derek Sherrod here. I just think the odds of Bill Polian doing what we all expect are low. While there will be one and should be more than one offensive linemen for Indianapolis in this draft, Polian won’t let the need steer him. Two years ago we all had the Colts liking Peria Jerry, but he went to Atlanta three spots before Indy took Donald Brown. I hear Liuget is a better fit that Jerry would have been. More interior push helps Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and Liuget would help the run defense.
We spent three days last week emailing back and forth and compiling a mock put together by eight divisional bloggers. John Clayton stood in for the NFC East.
Perhaps we add some different insight to the speculation. Perhaps we echoed prevailing wisdom. (I can raise my hand on that, as you will see.)
At any rate, we know we’re mostly wrong, and we’re eager to write names in draft slots in ink instead of pencil when things kick off Thursday evening. Here’s hoping this helps tide you over.
Analysis: The Panthers are aware of upside and downside with Newton. But a team that has to compete in a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman for the foreseeable future realizes it has to get a franchise quarterback to have a chance in the NFC South. Time to take the big leap on Newton. (Pat Yasinskas)
Analysis: The Broncos are thrilled to see Carolina go with a quarterback, allowing them to pick from the entire defensive board. Denver goes with Dareus because he's a perfect fit and he's ready to instantly impact the NFL's worst defense. (Bill Williamson)
Analysis: The Bills have a great opportunity to land a potential franchise quarterback and don't plan on drafting in this territory again. GM Buddy Nix repeatedly has said the presence of Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter means it's the perfect time to draft a quarterback and let him grow. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: Drafting a receiver this high is risky, especially when quarterback Carson Palmer is talking retirement. So there's nothing wrong with going safe and taking arguably the best player in this draft. (James Walker)
Analysis: It's tough to second-guess the Cardinals under this scenario with the top two quarterbacks off the board. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton needs outside pass-rush help and fresh legs at linebacker. (Mike Sando)
Analysis: I think the Browns should go defense with Robert Quinn and Nick Fairley still available. But our AFC North readers voted for Green when making our mock draft board. He gives quarterback Colt McCoy a legit No. 1 receiver. (James Walker)
Analysis: The 49ers have needs in the secondary, too, so Prince Amukamara could be an option. Quinn was suspended for last season and previously returned from surgery to relieve pressure associated with a benign brain tumor. The question on Quinn is whether the 49ers' medical people would sign off on him. (Mike Sando)
Analysis: A DT with Fairley's power and feet can impact the entire defense, and the Titans need a big transformation on that side of the ball. Still, the gaping hole at quarterback means they may look to maneuver. If they love Jake Locker, it's even possible they'd take him here. (Paul Kuharsky)
Analysis: Jerry Jones may be tempted to trade down, but the revamping of the offensive line is long overdue. Smith has the best upside of any tackle in the draft. (John Clayton)
Analysis: Even though Mike Shanahan will be looking to improve his defense with the first pick, it's going to be hard to pass on a fast wide receiver and the second-best non-quarterback offensive player available in the draft. (John Clayton)
Analysis: The Texans are out of range for Miller and Quinn, who'd be huge additions. Trading down to a team that wants a quarterback here and landing an OLB later in the first would be ideal. I think they address the front before the secondary, and Smith can rush from the outside, helping the whole D. (Paul Kuharsky)
Analysis: A team desperate for a quarterback can't wait for one to fall to them in the second round. Without a third-round pick, trade-up options are limited. Sometimes you just have to jump. (Kevin Seifert)
Analysis: A speedy playmaker in the back end would enhance the Lions' defensive rebuild. (Kevin Seifert)
Analysis: With the top two receivers gone, the Rams get arguably the highest-rated defensive lineman available at this point. Watt has the versatility to play more than one position. He would give Steve Spagnuolo welcome depth on the line, upgrading and diversifying the rotation instantly. (Mike Sando)
Analysis: The Dolphins' interior line has been chaotic for the past three years, and Pouncey is a versatile player who can line up at center or guard. If the Dolphins truly are sold on Ryan Mallett, they might make a splash by taking him here because they don't have a second-round pick to use on a quarterback. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: GM Gene Smith made it clear recently that Kerrigan is hardly the only "Gene Smith guy" who could be available here. But Kerrigan's résumé, college captaincy and work ethic make him a fit considering an edge pass-rusher should complete the defensive line reconstruction. (Paul Kuharsky)
Analysis: If he's still on the board here, the Patriots likely won't be deterred by Bowers' knee injury. Bill Belichick always is searching for value and isn't afraid to draft injured players and give them time to heal. The Patriots drafted Brandon Tate in the third round in 2009 even though he was healing from reconstructive knee surgery. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: The Chargers are thrilled the Cal pass-rusher is on the board. The intense, high-character Jordan is one of the team's top-rated pass-rushers. He should give this team an instant spark. (Bill Williamson)
Analysis: Like the Cowboys, the Giants let their offensive line get too old. Even though Mike Pouncey would have been tempting to take at this spot if he were available, the Giants need a tackle more than they do a guard. (John Clayton)
Analysis: The Buccaneers have a huge need for a pass-rusher. Houston's the best on the board. Time for the Stylez G. White (4.5 sacks last season) era to end. (Pat Yasinskas)
Analysis: The Chiefs are relieved Tampa Bay didn't take Wilkerson. He is a versatile player who will fit in with this defensive line and should help this young defense continue to improve. (Bill Williamson)
Analysis: Yes, there are good offensive line options here and Bill Polian could pounce on Nate Solder or Gabe Carimi. But the Colts are rarely in range of a top interior defensive lineman and Liuget's penetration means he helps the rush and the run defense. (Paul Kuharsky)
Analysis: The Eagles have spent a lot of time investigating Smith's character and determined he's too talented to let pass. The Eagles need cornerback help, but if Smith is gone, they will look at a right tackle or right guard. (John Clayton)
Analysis: The Saints don't need an immediate star. But he can be the heir apparent to Will Smith and contribute in a defensive end rotation for a year or two before becoming the main piece of this defensive line. (Pat Yasinskas)
Analysis: The players taken 22nd through 24th could appeal as well. Some locals will groan if the Seahawks pass up Jake Locker, but Ingram represents the value pick. Seattle wants to trade down. GM John Schneider was with Seattle in 2000 when the team drafted another Alabama back, Shaun Alexander, in the first round. (Mike Sando)
Analysis: The Ravens love drafting monsters on their front seven, and Heyward would be a good value at No. 26. He has an NFL pedigree and adds another threat to get to the quarterback. (James Walker)
Analysis: The Falcons would really love to get a pass-rushing defensive end, but the board is pretty empty. They can fill that need whenever free agency starts. For now, they'll switch things up and look for an "explosive" player on offense. Baldwin is a huge receiver and could be the perfect complement to Roddy White. (Pat Yasinskas)
Analysis: Another value pick for the Patriots if Solder still is on the board. The Patriots must stabilize their offensive line. Left tackle Matt Light went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate last season but is a free agent and will turn 33 in June. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: Looking to trade down, the Bears are stunned to find one of the draft's top tackles still available. Carimi is an immediate starter. Thanks, fellow bloggers. (Kevin Seifert)
Analysis: The Jets' primary needs are to improve their pass rush and along the defensive line. Ayers can rush the passer and help in coverage. That kind of versatility makes it easier for Rex Ryan to deploy his tricky, aggressive defensive tactics. (Tim Graham)
Analysis: Steelers catch a break with both Williams and Miami cornerback Brandon Harris still on the board. Williams' versatility and physicality give him a slight edge, and he fills the team's biggest need at corner. (James Walker)
Analysis: With Ayers off the board, the Packers continue their succession plan at offensive tackle. It's a luxury afforded to the Super Bowl champions. (Kevin Seifert)
The Texans need to trade up for Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller or LSU corner Patrick Peterson, says Jerome Solomon.
Aldon Smith is still the pick at 11 in John McClain’s newest mock.
A blueprint for the Texans’ success from Lance Zierlein. Excellent stuff in here. The only piece I disagree with is moving Glover Quin to safety. I think it’s too early to make that decision and the team can still find a couple of quality safeties, particularly if the team is willing to shop in free agency when it arrives.
Is Amobi Okoye conceding he can’t play nose in the 3-4? Alan Burge examines.
Letting Vonta Leach leave might not be all bad, says Rivers McCown. I’m not so sure Leach will get a big deal elsewhere.
Best available player or an offensive lineman? That’s the question for the Colts, says Mike Chappell.
Chappell on the Colts and quarterback possibilities in the draft.
The Colts are looking through a broader lens for this draft, writes Chappell.
Blair White is working to build chemistry with Peyton Manning, says Joe Rexrode. Hat tip to Nate Dunlevy.)
Linebacker options for the Colts from Brett Mock.
The Jaguars are in flux at linebacker, says Tania Ganguli.
Pass defense is a big issue, says Vito Stellino.
Late-round finds are great, but first-round choices can make or break a team, says John Glennon.
Would the Titans, should the Titans, take Cam Newton if he slides, asks Jim Wyatt.
Tracy Rocker gives the Titans a big resource on Nick Fairley, says Jim Wyatt.
Fairley says his sleep apnea is under control, says Glennon.
Who might want to trade up to No. 8?
Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Dream scenario/Plan B.
Dream scenario: A run on quarterbacks means the team has more to choose from on defense, and while Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller is too much to hope for, North Carolina’s Robert Quinn is there for them to snatch up at No. 11. Quinn would be inserted as a starting outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme run by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Plan B: A trade down with someone looking to come up for a quarterback would be nice, as the Texans could use extra picks to replenish the defense. In such a scenario, a spot in the middle or high 20s could be used on an outside linebacker like Georgia’s Justin Houston, UCLA’s Akeem Ayers or Arizona’s Brooks Reed. But if they remain at No. 11, Missouri’s Aldon Smith is a guy who could help them.
Dream scenario: They may not value an offensive tackle with the 22nd pick, but it seems like it’s time that they should. Ideally, they’d have their choice between Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi, Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo and Colorado’s Nate Solder. Carimi, who got great experience at Wisconsin, gets the nod from a team that is in the middle of Big Ten country.
Plan B: Who’s the value guy who’s slipped? That’s the man the Colts are most likely to pounce on, but I can’t predict who it’ll be. A quality defensive tackle can do a lot for the defense, and if Illinois’ Corey Liuget is still available, he could be a guy the Colts like. He’s drawn comparisons to Anthony McFarland, and while McFarland didn’t work out well, the qualities he had that were appealing are still appealing.
Dream scenario: Even for a dream, the idea of a safety worthy of the 16th overall pick is far-fetched. So we’ll move past that. If they love a quarterback, they could have some appealing options. Otherwise, I see GM Gene Smith sticking with his foundation-building plan, and that would mean a defensive end. If they want bigger, it’s Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt. If they want faster, it’s Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan. Aldon Smith would also be an option. Picking among all three would be a great spot.
Plan B: We’ll stick with the foundation plan and turn to the interior offensive line. Florida’s Mike Pouncey could be a rock at guard or center (if he can learn to snap) for a long time and looks to be the sort of fixture the Jaguars would love to stock the roster with.
Dream scenario: Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert slips to No. 8 while a team or two jump up to grab non-quarterbacks in the top seven. The Titans would have their quarterback of the future, with offensive coordinator Chris Palmer set to tutor Gabbert as soon as the lockout ends, while the pressure to get a veteran who can hold down the fort eases a bit since the Titans get one of the top rookies.
Plan B: With the top two quarterbacks gone, the Titans address defense and hope Auburn tackle Nick Fairley can be an impact guy whose interior play can have a positive bearing on the other 10 defenders on the field with him.
Here’s what he’s got the AFC South doing.
Tennessee Titans, No. 8
Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Scenario 1: Fairley makes the most sense at this point and he has tremendous upside. He's worth the pick from a talent standpoint, but there are legitimate questions about his football character and if the Titans pass, that will be the reason.
Scenario 2: [Prince] Amukamara is worth the pick and would fill one of the Titans' top five needs.
Scenario 3: If [Julio] Jones were to fall this far, Tennessee would consider taking him given Kenny Britt's recent off-field issues, or if he were available it might provide an opportunity to trade back with a team like the St. Louis Rams and perhaps address need at quarterback with someone like Washington's Jake Locker.
My thoughts: I’m on board with Fairley if things unfold as expected with the top seven players. If Blaine Gabbert or Patrick Peterson somehow slip, I think they’d pounce. Among players likely available, I think Locker is second-most likely to Fairley, with Jones next.
Houston Texans, No. 11
Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina
Scenario 1: Taking Quinn is the best-case scenario outside of [Von] Miller somehow falling this far. Quinn would be a nice complement to fellow OLB Connor Barwin, one of the best ILB tandems in the league in DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, and difference-maker Mario Williams up front.
Scenario 2: If Quinn is gone, then a 5-technique like [J.J.] Watt or California's Cameron Jordan would be the pick.
Scenario 3: The Texans could be forced to weigh value against philosophy here if the players above are gone. Amukamara would be the value pick, but I tend to think they would lean toward Missouri DE Aldon Smith because new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is determined to upgrade the front seven.
My thoughts: Quinn would feel like a home run. If he’s gone, I feel like one of those more rugged ends who could play in a 3-4 would be the value, though Smith would fill the more the outright need. Amukamara would surprise me.
Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 16
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Scenario 1: General manager Gene Smith likes safe, high-motor, strong-character picks who can contribute right away, and Kerrigan fits that mold perfectly.
Scenario 2: If the Jaguars were to take a chance with this pick, it could be on Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers and his knee issues.
Scenario 3: Their three other top needs are reaches here, so reaching for Locker or moving back for another quarterback might be a possibility.
My thoughts: Kerrigan is an easy match to make, but he’s not the only high-motor, hard-worked Smith is going to have a crack at here. They already have a DE with knee questions in Aaron Kampman, and I suspect they’d fear Bowers. Watt or Smith are possibilities.
Indianapolis, No. 22
Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
Scenario 1: Solder is a no-brainer. The Colts gave up the fewest sacks in the league last year, but that was mostly due to QB Peyton Manning getting the ball out quickly. But Solder has the athleticism to help in protection when he's ready to step into the lineup. More importantly, he's already a monster at 6-foot-8 and 319 pounds and would help upgrade a running game that finished 29th in the league (92.7 yards per game) last season.
Scenario 2: Liuget is the higher-ranked prospect and is a strong possibility as the kind of quick, penetrating defensive lineman the Colts like.
Scenario 3: If the top four offensive tackles are off the board, Indianapolis could reach for Mississippi State OT Derek Sherrod.
My thoughts: As soon as a player or a position is deemed a no brainer for the Colts, I get scared. One of the top four offensive tackles sure looks like a match. I don’t see them looking to Sherrod as he seems a bit like Tony Ugoh. I could certainly see Liuget. Is there a receiver value here?