Wide receiver among Texans’ first-round possibilities

*This article is part of our 2012 Path to the Draft coverage presented by Warehouse Pool Supply

INDIANAPOLIS – Coming off the first playoff season in franchise history, the Texans have few, if any, glaring needs.

That doesn’t mean they’re resting on their laurels.

“You go back to the drawing board again, no different than you did every year before,” Texans general manager Rick Smith said Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “It’s a very honest assessment of where we are, where we feel like we’re strong, where we think we need to improve.”

Free agency begins on March 13. The 2012 draft is a month later, and the Texans are widely expected to target a wide receiver with the 26th overall pick. Outside linebacker would become a priority if the Texans don’t re-sign unrestricted free agent .

“I think the wide receiver position is a position where we might strengthen our team,” Smith said. “You can never have enough corners; I know I always say that. Pass rushing is a premium. I mean, it’s pretty standard. We look for guys that make plays, that impact the game. We can never find or have too many players that impact the game, whether you’re talking about a pass-rusher or guy who can take the ball and make a play with the ball in his hands.”

With missing nine games last season and quarterbacks and landing on injured reserve, the Texans’ leading receivers were tight end (54 catches, 677 yards) and running back (53, 617).

Wide receiver had 39 catches for 474 yards in 15 games. had 31 catches for 512 yards (16.5 average) in 16 games with a career-high 10 starts.

“It was a very difficult time for us not only losing our quarterback, but losing Andre,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium. “I thought Kevin Walter and Jacoby played very well for our football team. But I do think it’s important that we continue to develop young players. That is one position where we can do a little better job from that standpoint.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Kevin. I think he’s a solid two in this league and has been for me since I’ve been in Houston. And I think Jacoby made some strides last year as well. You’re always trying to get better, and hopefully we’ll continue to do that at that position.”

This year’s draft class includes several wide receivers who could be options for the Texans late in the first round, including LSU’s Rueben Randle, Baylor’s Kendall Wright, Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd and Rutgers’ Mohamed Sanu.

“It looks like there’s quantity,” Kubiak said. “There’s a lot of guys, a lot of good players. You’ve got to go find those guys late in the draft. Obviously, the guys early in the draft, everybody kind of knows who those guys are, but you’re able to find some good guys late in the draft at that position. So we’ll have to do our homework. We’d like to add some playmakers to our offensive football team, and obviously that would help.”

Johnson, Walter and Jones are all 6-3, but Kubiak said he doesn’t look for wide receivers with specific physical dimensions.

“I think there is a certain size where you may struggle outside a little bit, (but) I’ve seen some great players that are 5-10,” he said. “You talk about (Carolina Panthers receiver) Steve Smith. I was at the Pro Bowl and watched him on the other side of the ball and what he did to us during the season. He’s a great player, not a big guy and can play anywhere. I think you’re looking for great players. You go do what they do best. I don’t think size eliminates guys.”

Whether the Texans go wide receiver or another position – such as outside linebacker, cornerback or somewhere along the defensive line – in the first round, Smith said they will look for the best player available.

“We always do,” he said. “We stay true to our board, and that’s not a philosophy that we’re going to alter because I think it gives you the best chance to have success.

“If you assess value and you follow the value of your board and don’t stretch for need, because I think that’s where people make mistakes, we’ve not done that before, and I would suspect that we stay true to that philosophy and not do that in the future.”

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Kollar details expectations for D-line in 3-4

For a team switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, the Texans have a surprising amount of continuity on their defensive line.

It’s the only position group on defense at which they don’t have a new coach. Assistant head coach/defensive line Bill Kollar, one of the lone holdovers from last year’s defensive staff, returns for his third season with the team.

The only new player in the D-line rotation is first-round draft pick . The rest of the linemen will have similar roles to last year. Even the ones switching to outside linebacker will be de facto defensive ends in nickel and dime situations.

Watt is penciled in as the Texans’ starting left end, a five-technique between the right tackle and tight end. Kollar said the Texans are “expecting to get big things” right away from the 11th overall pick.

“Probably the biggest thing for him this year will be playing the run,” Kollar said. “Playing the five-technique in this defense, you’ve got to be a good run defender, so we’ll be really working with that. And when it gets to third-down situations, we’ll put him inside and he’ll be an inside pass rusher for us.”

Kollar sees the 3-4 as a perfect fit for , who’s slated to start at right end. Smith played in a 3-4 in Arizona before joining the Texans as a free agent in 2009. He’ll be a three-technique, between the left guard and left tackle, which will allow him to utilize his strength against the run. He’ll still move inside to tackle in passing situations like he did in a 4-3 for the last two seasons.

“For him, he probably will like this better than he did the scheme we played the last two years here, really,” Kollar said. “We were trying to figure out a position for him when we signed him from Arizona here. We said, ‘Well, he’s really not a defensive end.’ He played more inside than he did outside and stuff. I’m sure he’ll fit right at home getting back into this type of defense.”

Watt and Smith will be interchangeable in base packages. If an offense motions the tight end to Smith’s side, he’ll slide out and become a five-technique. Watt will slide in and become a three-technique. For both players – and , who’ll be in the mix at right and left end – the main objective will be stopping the run.

“We’re not going to have eight (defenders) in the box often, so they’ll have to do an excellent job of stopping the run,” Kollar said. “A five-technique in a 3-4 scheme is almost like a defensive tackle in a 4-3. These guys have to be good run-down players. They’ve got to do an excellent job on first and second down against the run, and then they really turn out to be your inside rushers when you go to third down. They turn out to be defensive tackles.”

When the Texans use a three-man defensive line in base packages, they’re confident that and can get the job done at nose tackle. Kollar sees “absolutely no problem at all” with their perceived lack of ideal size for the position.

“What happens, the nose man’s really playing the same type technique that he played last year with us, so it really doesn’t turn out to be a big difference,” he said. “When everybody talks about the big nose man and stuff, those are the teams that play two-gap where they play the nose man head-up on the center and you just want to take two or three blockers on all the time, try to keep everybody off of the linebackers and stuff. We don’t end up playing that scheme, so we don’t need a guy that’s 350 pounds and can’t move.”

Mitchell, a third-round pick from Arizona in 2010, could be one to watch on the heels of a promising rookie season.

“He plays with good leverage,” Kollar said. “He gives good effort for the most part. He ended up playing a bunch (last season). Hopefully, he can stay healthy this year. He had that high-ankle sprain that really affected his play toward the end of the season, but we expect good things from Earl this year.”

Quotes: Texans DC Wade Phillips 2011 Draft Pass

For the third consecutive year, HoustonTexans.com did exclusive 1-on-1 interviews with key figures in the Texans’ NFL draft process for our “Draft Pass” video series.

In the fourth and final segment, Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips spoke with Drew Dougherty of Texans TV on Thursday night of the draft after the Texans selected defensive end J.J. Watt in the first round.

Drew Dougherty: “This is a pretty exciting night for you. Talk about the first reaction when you guys got to turn in that card (for Watt).”

Wade Phillips: “I think ‘yes’ was the first reaction. But no, we were all excited about it. Everybody says in the draft, you know, ‘We can’t believe the guy was there’ and all that stuff, but we were looking for a real good football player that played tremendously hard, and this guy is that.”

DD: “Yeah, he’s got a lot of great effort. But you talked about he’s a really disruptive force on defense.”

WP: “Oh, yeah. He forced more fumbles than anybody they had on their team. He had more sacks. He had more hurries. He had more blocked kicks. Second-leading tackler on their team, and he knocked down I don’t know how many passes. So the guy is a real productive player.”

DD: “Initially, what sort of role do you think J.J. Watt can have on this defense in 2011 and beyond?”

WP: “Well, defensive line is what he plays. He’ll play at defensive end. He can be kicked down inside some on your third-down rush if you need him to. But he’s also a good pass rusher on the outside.”

DD: “How soon did you guys have him targeted? Was it January or even before then?”

WP: “I think the process takes a while to evaluate all of them, put them in the right order. I was really impressed with – Rick Smith and his staff really did a great job of that, and it was pretty easy to say, ‘Hey, this guy’s here and this guy’s there.’”

DD: “How refreshing was this whole process for you compared to other drafts in your career?”

WP: “Well, everybody has their own opinions in any draft that you go through, but I just think the organization, the way they organize it and the way we discussed each player, was really helpful in making a good pick.”

DD: “Take us down to the war room when the pick was actually made. Aside from you saying ‘yes,’ what was the rest of the reaction there from the rest of the scouts?”

WP: “Same way. I think everybody, well I know everybody, was excited. I said it was an organizational pick because everybody was behind it.”

DD: “How impactful will Watt be on the rest of the guys on the defensive line, and what sort of maneuvering do you think it allows you to do with guys like and Mario Williams?”

WP: “Yeah, you can move those guys around some, which I think will really help. Because the more you move people around and give them matchups, that’s what you want. And so we’ll be able to do that, and I think especially with Mario.”