Newly minted general manager Nick Caserio has taken a harrowing rebuild project and done a relatively outstanding job in his first few months turning the key in Houston with the additions of Shaq Lawson, Maliek Collins, and Mark Ingram in free agency.
It couldn’t have gotten much worse for the Texans, who now find themselves enveloped in franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson’s legal battle. For Caserio, the skies stay dark when looking towards the draft with just one selection within the first 100 picks of the 2021 NFL Draft. It adds insult to injury when focusing on a Texans roster that looks to be below, below-average on paper, and that’s being nice.
After the departures of wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller and defensive end J.J. Watt, there are little to no playmakers left on the roster. Fuller’s departure to Miami in free agency has left a crater in the Texans’ receiving room with slot players Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb set to align as the team’s top two wideouts. Houston is desperate for talent, so a best-player-available approach with Watson’s future currently up in the air was my approach here. Using The Draft Network’s Mock Draft Machine, I took a look at which prospects Houston could, and should, target next week in this Texans-only mock.
Round 3 (No. 67 overall): Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB, Syracuse
It’s irrelevant that Bradley Roby is suspended for the first game of the season, the Texans must add talent to a cornerback room without a player over 5-foot-10. Ifeatu Melifonwu is a rangy prospect whose production increased the more snaps he received at Syracuse. At 6-foot-3, Melifonwu touts ideal traits for the position with the skill set to thrive from the onset of his career.
For a prospect of his stature, Melifonwu will provide everything 2019 second-round selection Lonnie Johnson Jr. wasn’t. Melifonwu, an ultra-competitive defender, consistently was a presence in the run game who isn’t afraid to crack pads near the line of scrimmage. He immediately becomes Houston’s top cornerback to kick off Caserio’s rebuild.
Round 4 (No. 109 overall): Ben Cleveland, IOL, Georgia
After an abysmal 2020 that saw Houston amass just 1,466 yards on the ground (second-worst in the NFL), a nasty interior lineman is a must-add here for Caserio with David Johnson expected to pair with Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram Jr. in a three-headed rushing attack. For an organization that has failed to use a selection on an interior lineman since Nick Martin in 2016, Ben Cleveland is an immediate impact athlete with Power Five experience who provides a culture change along the core of Houston’s offensive line. Cleveland has excellent functional strength in both the run and pass game and rarely is beat when his anchor is secured in pass sets. Cleveland, a riser on my board, will slide in nicely adjacent to Tytus Howard.
Round 5 (No. 147 overall): Josh Palmer, WR, Tennessee
Whether Watson or Tyrod Taylor suits up in Week 1 under center, added pop out wide is in desperate demand with the aforementioned loss of Fuller. With Cobb and Cooks both aligned best working out of the slot, Palmer should be afforded the opportunity to garner a large role in his rookie campaign.
Palmer is a riser on most draft boards and has the skill set necessary to become an immediate impact wideout at the next level in offensive coordinator Tim Kelly’s scheme. In his senior campaign, Palmer totaled 475 yards with four touchdowns, good for 14.8 yards a pop.
Round 5 (No. 158 overall): Khyiris Tonga, IDL, BYU
With both Collins and Jaleel Johnson set to enter free agency next spring, Khyiris Tonga offers a three-down talent at nose tackle with a refined skill set in stopping the run. At 322 pounds, Tonga is a hoss along the defensive line with loads of room to improve on his linear mobility and positional versatility if Houston opted to provide even front looks this season.
Round 6 (No. 195 overall): Shakur Brown, CB, Michigan State
Shakur Brown, like Melifonwu, offers additional length into an underwhelming Texans secondary. A primary press corner, Brown thrived during his time as a Spartan in close confines. Although he has minimal starting experience (19 games), Brown played his best football at the tail end of his Michigan State career, a positive when targeting prospects this late in the selection process. He does have room to grow, like many others on the Texans roster, but this scenario offers him time and reps to develop into the type of talent head coach David Culley could see produce as a starter for years to come.
Round 6 (No. 203 overall): Jonathon Cooper, EDGE, Ohio State
This is a dream scenario for Culley if Jonathon Cooper falls this far in the sixth. Cooper, a former four-star recruit, would provide a nice jolt of speed on the outside to pair with Lawson and Whitney Mercilus. There’s just something about the water in Columbus, Ohio, where pass-rushers seem to be in aplenty throughout each draft cycle. Cooper isn’t Nick Bosa or Chase Young by any means, but he has the ability to garner six-plus sacks per season throughout his career working as a designated edge rusher at the onset of his career.
Round 6 (No. 212 overall): Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR, Illinois
No one is expecting Houston to be major threats in the AFC South, let alone the playoffs, so taking a flier here on one of the rawest prospects in the entire class is worth the risk. Josh Imatorbhebhe is everything DK Metcalf was from strictly a testing standpoint just a couple of seasons ago. Along with his 40-yard dash time of 4.48 seconds and 24 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, Imatorbhebhe recorded a ludicrous 46.5-inch vertical; a number that would have been the highest ever recorded in the history of the NFL Scouting Combine. He’s extremely explosive who has the chance to develop into an X wideout if he puts it all together.
Round 7 (No. 233 overall): Tony Poljan, TE, Virginia
Working out of heavy two-tight end sets at Virginia, Tony Poljan’s skill set would slot nicely opposite Jordan Akins in Houston’s pass-happy offense. At 6-foot-7, Poljan isn’t the most athletic prospect, but his production backs up his ideal measurables. He totaled 10 touchdowns combined his last two seasons in Charlottesville, a model of his innate ability to find open space in the intermediate areas of the defense. He’s also excellent working in-line as a blocker with stout hands in the run game to handle opposing lineman.