Pick-six jackpot

Teams are hoping that a Texans draft trend will also pay off big for them

Updated: June 13, 2012, 3:54 PM ET
By Eddie Matz | ESPN The Magazine

Brooks Reed and JJ WattBrent HumphreysIn 2001, rookies Brooks Reed (left) and J.J. Watt led Houston's historic defensive revival.

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IN THE FIRST playoff game in Texans history this past January, rookie defensive end J.J. Watt was stuck at the line. The game was tied at 10 in the second quarter, and on this particular play, Watt just couldn't penetrate into the Bengals backfield. Seeing that quarterback Andy Dalton was about to uncork a pass, Watt instinctively threw his hands into the air, hoping for a deflection. Instead, the 6-foot-5, 288-pound lineman somehow came down with the football, then took off toward the end zone and scored an improbable 29-yard touchdown.

That play led to a 31-10 Texans rout. It also capped a remarkable defensive turnaround for what has long been one of the NFL's worst units. Last season, the Houston defense allowed 1,459 fewer yards than it did in 2010, marking the third-largest improvement in the Super Bowl era. The "Bulls on Parade" defense, named after the Rage Against the Machine song that has become the Texans' anthem, was led by local rock stars Watt and outside linebacker Brooks Reed, the first rookie duo in 15 years to notch five sacks apiece. "It's crazy how much this town has fallen in love with our defense," Watt says.

Know what else is crazy? How much a team can improve by blitzing one side of the ball in the draft. The Texans are the star example, but plenty of other teams are reaping immediate rewards by following the formula: Spend six or more picks in one year to strengthen a weak unit. In 2011 alone, the six teams (Texans, Bills, Broncos, Redskins, Seahawks and Titans) that used six or more selections on D gave up, on average, 568.5 fewer yards than in 2010. Meanwhile, the five offenses that added six-plus picks (Patriots, Raiders, Packers, Cowboys and Skins) improved an average of 470.4 yards apiece.

You have to emphasize the areas that you're not good at. For those two teams, why not take the guys on defense knowing that it helps your depth and helps you get better?

-- NFL personnel director on the 2012 draft tactics of the Packers and Patriots

The tactic worked so well for the Packers and Patriots offenses, in fact, that the two teams are trying to do the same thing on defense in 2012 to turn around their historically bad units. It's drafting for need taken to the extreme. "You have to emphasize the areas that you're not good at," one NFL personnel director says. "For those two teams, why not take the guys on defense knowing that it helps your depth and helps you get better?"

Both Green Bay and New England had remarkable success last season despite their record-breaking defensive ineptitude. The Packers were the first team in NFL history to have the league's worst defense (411.6 ypg allowed) and make the playoffs. The Patriots, just half a yard better at 411.1 ypg, became the most porous Super Bowl defense ever. Come draft day, both organizations not only threw a six-pack of picks at the defense, with an emphasis on pass rushers, they also made bold moves to do so. In the second round, Packers GM Ted Thompson moved up eight spots to snag DT Jerel Worthy of Michigan State. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound space eater had been Scouts Inc.'s No. 23 overall prospect but dropped on draft day after he admitted he sometimes took plays off at MSU. The previous night, Thompson used his first-rounder on USC DE Nick Perry to boost a pass rush that fell from 47 sacks in 2010 to 29 last year. At OTAs in June, Packers coaches had Perry lined up on the left as a hybrid LB/DE and moved Clay Matthews to his preferred spot on the QB's blind side. "That gives them two edge rushers that can really get after the passer," Scouts Inc.'s Kevin Weidl says. "You'll see a major improvement from their defense."

Fellow Super Bowl contender New England also pulled out all the stops in an effort to make more stops. After trading up just three times in 11 years, Pats coach Bill Belichick worked two deals during this year's first round to grab defenders he coveted. Explosive Syracuse DE Chandler Jones, taken at No. 21, was one of the fastest-rising prospects during the run-up to the draft. And Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, taken at No. 25, is a strong interior defender who made all the playcalls for last year's BCS champs. Jones and Hightower were two of four straight defensive captains chosen by Belichick.

Of course, the other thing Houston's formula shows is that smarts aren't necessarily a requirement for getting huge rookie output. Texans D-coordinator Wade Phillips runs an aggressive but simple 3-4 scheme. ("If you're the Will linebacker and we call 'Will Rush,' you rush," he says.) And with fewer offseason workouts under the new CBA, Watt & Co. are a good case study in just letting the newbies play. "Sometimes learning the playbook can be a lot for rookies," Weidl says. "They're better off just reacting instead of thinking."

Besides, the most important thinking was already done on draft day.

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