by MIKE MELTSER, SportsRadio 610By Mike Meltser

For reference: Mike Meltser’s January 2015 Texans Roster Holes (Mike’s Offensive Holes Filled? Article)

Four months later, how does that analysis look? How did Rick Smith and Bill O’Brien go about filling those holes? With the moves that were made, how confident are we that the team can improve on a 9-7 season?

DL – JJ Watt, Jared Crick, Jeoffrey Pagan

Thankfully, this is a position the front office doesn’t necessarily have to replenish from the outside. Nothing more has to be said about Watt. Crick came on strong in 2014, especially by the end of the season. Pagan showed flashes as a rookie. Both are under rookie deals, so they are on the roster.

At NT, decisions will have to be made on Ryan Pickett and Jerrell Powe. Pickett solidified the run defense when he signed early in the season; does he want to play another full season, and does Houston think he can hold up for another year? Both Pickett and Powe are free agents.

Conclusion = 3 holes

Verdict: The Texans decided to make a significant move here, signing Vince Wilfork to a 2 year, $9M deal with $5M guaranteed. He’s slotted in as the starting NT, with Powe and Pickett moving on. I’m always very cautious about signing former Patriots, because New England rarely makes mistakes. How much does Wilfork have left?

Based on the money, he will clearly be expected to upgrade on the production of the Pickett/Powe combo. Houston also drafted Rice product Christian Covington, who I like because of his college career and quickness. Pagan should be an improving player.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Nix showed up to OTAs in good shape and earning praise from his head coach. If all pans out, the Texans will have their nose tackle of the present (Wilfork) and future (Nix).

LB – Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing

Clowney’s health status is a far bigger question than his roster status. Is he going to be available for training camp? Is he a candidate for the regular season (6 game) PUP list?

Mercilus, despite his stats, had his best season in 2014. He’s a vastly improved player against the run, and is able to set the edge well. I would pencil him in as a starter for next season. 

Brooks Reed and Akeem Dent are free agents, and I don’t think Reed is a priority FA. 

This is a tough position to figure out in terms of roster holes. Between Clowney’s health and Reed being a free agent, it would seem that the Texans need to draft or sign a legitimate option at OLB.

Conclusion = 3 holes

Maybe the most surprising part of the offseason was the decision not to add more depth at outside linebacker, beyond selecting a project in Reshard Cliett in the sixth round of the draft. The Texans allowed Reed to walk away to the Falcons, and gave Mercilus a new contract.

On the outside, Clowney’s health remains the big question, and I would submit that the decision to draft Kevin Johnson over Bud Dupree gives a point to the idea that Jadeveon’s recovery is going relatively well. Mercilus was solid in 2014, but he needs to continue to improve to justify the new deal.

Inside, the big move was to trade up and select Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney. My educated guess is that if he is in shape and learns the defense, the coaches hope to have McKinney starting next to Cushing in the base defense.

There are questions about McKinney’s pass coverage and versatility, but he does appear to be the type of classic thumper that Romeo Crennel likes to use. Cushing says he’s the healthiest he has been since 2012, and it’s a huge season for his future.

CB – Kareem Jackson or Johnathan Joseph, AJ Bouye

I have a tough time seeing both Jackson and Joseph back in 2015. Jackson is a free agent, and reportedly turned down an extension in August. To keep him, Houston would need to pay market rate, and cornerbacks are in high demand. Joseph has a high cap figure of $12.25M next season, and I don’t think that is a sustainable figure.

Ultimately, my guess is that the Texans opt to either re-sign Jackson, or let him walk and figure out a way to keep Joseph at a cheaper rate.

Conclusion = 1 hole

Verdict: Wrong. Smith opted to re-sign Jackson to a significant contract during the opening weekend of free agency, and Joseph remains on the roster with a $12.2M cap hit.

This investment in the corner spot was made possible largely based on the releases of Andre Johnson, Chris Myers, and the re-structured contract of JJ Watt. Given that the Texans are operating at a quarterback disadvantage in the division, I like the decision to fortify the secondary here.

Also, Houston drafted Johnson in the first round, a decision that clearly fits the “best player available” criteria. While I still like Joseph/Jackson as a CB combo, this team needs a bit more raw quickness in the defensive backfield, and Johnson definitely adds that.

How ready will KJ be in his rookie season for nickel and dime packages? Bouye’s progress will also be interesting to watch, as he struggled with penalty flags in 2014.

S – DJ Swearinger

Same story as last season. Swearinger himself is a tough player to evaluate; he shows flashes of impact plays, but makes mind-boggling mistakes combined with a lack of true centerfield ability. Nonetheless, the team likes the attitude he brings, and he’s a young player on a rookie deal.

Both Kendrick Lewis and Danieal Manning are free agents. If Lewis is re-signed, you can pencil him in as a starter. Manning probably needs to be replaced, ideally by somebody at a skill position or DB with return ability.

Conclusion = 3 holes

Verdict: Correct on having 3 holes, completely incorrect assuming that Swearinger would definitely be on the team in 2015. I still have reservations about his release, because I think there’s a decent player that lurks within DJ. My hope is that O’Brien and Smith did not give up on him too quickly.

Before his release, the Texans signed Rahim Moore to a legitimate free agent contract, solidifying the free safety spot. Two questions here: who takes over at strong safety, and who is the 3rd safety that Crennel chooses to use?

Stevie Brown is an intriguing signing, as he’s a few years removed from a high INT season, but one more recent year removed from a torn ACL. Lonnie Ballentine spent all of 2014 on a milk carton, but has garnered some pretty good reviews during these spring OTAs. If he is an actual player, that makes me feel much better about this position.

Eddie Pleasant has been a solid special teams player in Houston, but I question if he has the athleticism and instincts to stay on the field as an actual safety. There are some intriguing UDFAs in Kurtis Drummond and Corey Moore.

Overall thoughts: Despite my (unpopular) cautionary stance on Wilfork, I am relatively unconcerned about the defensive line heading into the 2015 season.

The story of the defense will be told, barring unforseen catastrophic injury, at the linebacker spot and at safety. Clowney’s rehab and return is vital for both this season and the long-term future of this franchise. If the Texans can get Watt and Clowney playing together at a high level, that combination seems almost good enough by itself to anchor a top 5 defense.

If McKinney is ready to play as a rookie and Cushing is actually as healthy as he claims, then Houston is in business on the inside. However, both are question marks, though I would give McKinney a good shot to be productive against the run.

I like the signing of Moore, although I’m not certain he will produce statistically like Kendrick Lewis was able to in 2014. The rest of the safeties are a question mark. If Crennel plans to use three safeties for a significant amount of time, I hope that Brown is healthy and Ballentine can play. It’s hard for me to envision Pleasant being a legitimate contributor at safety.

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