It was a selection that was booed quite emphatically, but not because NC State star defensive end Mario Williams wasn’t a good player; he was actually great player in college who finished his final season with the Wolfpack recording 62 tackles, 24.5 for a loss and 14.5 sacks. But because the Houston Texans decided to select Williams over the likes of USC sensation Reggie Bush and Texas’ own Vince Young, the only way Texans fans would accept the 6-foot-7, 291-pound Williams was if he became one of the league’s most dominant forces on defense.
Four years later… former Texans General Manager Charlie Casserly, now an analyst with the NFL Network, was smiling after he had the foresight to go with his instinct to use the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft to select Williams and not cave into the fans’ demands to draft the more popular option. Casserly was criticized for a lot of moves during his tenure as Texans GM, but the Williams pick was the last straw, and he resigned shortly after the ’06 draft. But in retrospect, Casserly got it right, and Williams has developed into the monster off the edge he envisioned when he selected him and is unquestionably the top prospect in the Texans organization.
A three year starter for the Texans who never missed a game and is now entering his fourth year [Williams qualifies as a prospect as he’s just 24 years old], Williams’ career didn’t get off to a smooth start in his first season. Starting all 16 games as a rookie, Williams dealt with a lot of pressure, as he was the focal point of a defense that didn’t have much star power. He was double teamed and chipped on all year long, but despite being criticized he still managed to collect 47 tackles and 4.5 sacks. The ensuing year, Williams proved all the critics wrong, and instead of experiencing a sophomore jinx, he made adjustments and emerged as the sack master he is today by totaling 59 tackles and 14 sacks. Last year, Williams made his first Pro Bowl after he registered double-digit sacks  for a second consecutive year, and from this point on he will be a perennial All-Pro for the Texans. The Texans as a whole have put together a solid defense, and their front four with Williams, free agent acquisition Antonio Smith, Amobi Okoye and Travis Johnson is a formidable unit.
Showing his ability last year and proving that he was vastly underrated during the 2008 draft, running back Steve Slaton, the No. 2 prospect in the organization, was an absolute steal for the Texans in the third round. Slaton had a tremendous rookie campaign for the Texans last year and played in all 16 games, making 15 starts. He finished the year with 268 carries for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns; not to mention the 50 receptions for 377 yards and a touchdown he contributed through the air. But when Slaton was being evaluated during the draft process by scouts and analysts alike, including myself, his elusiveness and playmaking ability were obvious, although the biggest concerns were his size, drop in production and the fact that he had 664 carries during his three-year stint with the Mountaineers. That amount of carries for a player listed at 5-foot-9, 197 pounds was alarming, and even though a 4.45 in the 40 is a good time, scouts were expecting to see a faster time from such an explosive player. Slaton’s fall was the Texans’ gain as he enters his second year in the league with confidence and a much larger role on offense. The Texans have to monitor Slaton’s touches this year, especially if he’s having success. When a player of that stature is successful, coaches have a tendency to overuse them and ultimately wear them down to the point of an injury. Houston can’t afford a problem in the backfield.
The linebacker position is an area on the Texans roster that won’t be a problem this year after the front office found a player that fits perfectly with DeMeco Ryans, USC’s Brian Cushing. At 6-foot-3, 243 pounds, Cushing, the third rated prospect in the organization, brings an action figure like physique to the field and a superhero mentality that intimidates the opposition sideline-to-sideline. Cushing has a nose for the ball and makes plays at the line of scrimmage. He breaks down well and plays with leverage. He’s aggressive and unleashes big hits against the opposition. He flows well to the action and uses his speed in pursuit of the ball carrier. He gets good depth on his drops in coverage and possesses adequate ball skills. He finished out his career at USC with 73 tackles, 10.5 for a loss, three sacks and an interception. Cushing has great ability and will most likely be the starter on the strong side this season, but he has a glaring injury history that can’t be ignored: separated shoulder (2005), shoulder surgery (2006), high ankle sprain (2007), and a knee sprain (2007). The good news is that Cushing was completely healthy in 2008 and performed at a high level. He’s a workout warrior and prepares his body very well, so maybe he’s turned a corner and his injury history is just that… history.
The selection of Slaton in 2008 was as good as it gets, especially for where he was selected. But in the first round, the Texans took a chance on Virginia Tech offensive tackle Duane Brown, who was projected to be a mid-second, early third round selection. For the most part, Brown played well and showed promise, as he started all 16 games last year, but the 11.5 sacks he surrendered has to decrease as he enters his second year. Even though Brown had a rookie campaign filled with ups and downs, his potential warrants being the No. 4 prospect in the organization. Brown’s athleticism and technique were intriguing and he displayed good balance battling in the trenches. A year under fire will prove to be beneficial for Brown as he continues to grow as a blind side protector. He now understands what it takes to play the position, and an offseason of conditioning and getting stronger will allow him to take the next step in his progression.
The term “sophomore jinx” was something that Williams didn’t experience, but it’s something that the aforementioned Okoye dealt with last year. The Texans first round pick in the 2007 draft, Okoye was the youngest player ever drafted in the opening frame of the April spectacle at the age of 19. Okoye is still developing as a player and is raw in some areas of his game. He’s a tremendous physical specimen and is incredibly strong, but his technique has to improve for him to be effective. As a rookie, he played in all 16 games, starting 14 and got away with bull rushing the opposition which translated into 5.5 sacks. Last year, he played through a high ankle sprain and was unable to generate the burst he needs to be successful. He played in 14 games, starting 12 and recorded just one sack. Okoye showed toughness by playing through an injury, but he didn’t help the team in a majority of the games he played in. This year is a huge year for the 22 year old. It’s key that he makes the proper adjustments in the trenches and starts to use his hands, strength and technique in sequence instead of sporadically. Until that happens, Okoye will just be a talented player with enormous upside, instead of the Pro Bowl caliber defender he can become.
The bottom half of the top 10 is dominated by defense; rookie defensive end Connor Barwin checks in at No. 6, linebacker Xavier Adibi breaks in at No. 7, cornerback Antwaun Molden is ranked eighth, free safety Dominique Barber rises to No. 9 and linebacker Zac Diles rounds out the list at No. 10.The Texans second round draft pick this past April, Barwin is expected to see time this year as a situational pass rusher. A tremendous athlete with great upside, Barwin offers versatility to the Texans defense and can lineup in a rover role that the opposition will have to be cautious of. Adibi struggled with injuries during his first year, but when he was on the field he played very well. As a situational defender, who filled in to start five games, Adibi contributed 35 tackles on defense and special teams. Adibi and Diles will compete for the WILL position during training camp, and it will definitely be a battle to watch. Before he was placed on injured reserve last year, Diles had amassed 66 tackles, a sack and an interception in just eight starts. It’s an open competition right now, but all signs point towards Adibi having the upper hand. Molden is a question mark early in the year, after he suffered a broken ankle late in the season last year. The Texans third round pick in ’08, Molden played well on special teams as a rookie and registered 20 tackles. The team has high hopes for the 6-foot-1, 190-pound corner, but at best he will challenge for the nickel role. Another second year player that has a chance to crack the starting lineup is Barber. Primarily playing on special teams last year, Barber showed his athleticism and recorded 15 tackles in just 12 games. Barber has a pedigree and tremendous bloodlines; he’s the son of Marion Barber, Jr. and the brother of Dallas Cowboys star running back Marion Barber III.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.