Our interview series now moves along to a less crushed-on draft pick among the CSC faithful: Justin Houston. Houston hasn't been discussed as much as a potential Saints draft pick, but you never know with Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis.
So I asked a few questions of Jeremy Attaway (MaconDawg) over at Dawg Sports, the SB Nation Georgia Bulldogs site, and he gave me some surprising answers that even the Saints front office would be wise to read. If you are someone who likes Houston as an option for the Saints, this may just change your mind.
Jon: What is your personal opinion on Houston?
Jeremy: I’ve been following Justin since he was a junior at Statesboro High School in southeast Georgia. In fact, he was a part of the first recruiting profile that I ever did at the first blog I ever wrote for. Even then it was obvious that the guy was going to grow into an NFL-caliber athlete. Houston redshirted in 2007 before making an immediate impact in Willie Martinez’s 4-3 defense in 2008 and 2009 (7.5 sacks, second team All-SEC).
As a junior in 2010, however, Houston really turned it on, finishing with 10 sacks (second in the SEC to only Auburn’s Nick Fairley). Justin has a great football IQ, and as a result is rarely out of position. He’s a stocky 6'3, but has longer arms and uses his hands well to shed blockers. He also has an incredibly strong lower body. This is evidenced in hard numbers by the fact that he set a Georgia football conditioning program record for the power clean as a redshirt freshman (420 pounds). Anecdotally, I can say that Justin Houston’s thighs are bigger around than my waist. He’s one of those freakish athletes who was just born to play somewhere on a football field.
Jon: From watching Houston, how would you say he performs as a pass rusher?
Jeremy: Justin was Georgia’s best pass rushing weapon from the 4-3 in 2009 and from the 3-4 as a linebacker in 2010. In truth, Georgia actually played out of a 4-2-5 nickel at least 40% of the time this season, and in that formation Houston perennially put his hand in the dirt as a pass rushing defensive end. Perhaps his best asset in that role is his deceptive speed/strength combination. As I noted above he has great lower body strength, and he likes to use it by faking a speed rush for a couple of steps before engaging the blocker in a bull rush straight to the quarterback. That maneuver doesn’t always get you the sack, but it’s a great way to collapse the pocket, which is the next best thing.
Jon: How does Houston perform against the run? Would you say he’s a better pass rusher, or run stopper?
Jeremy: At this point Justin is better against the pass. He’s not the prototypical, every down NFL 4-3 defensive end, and that’s one reason Georgia’s transition to the 3-4 helped him shine. If the Saints’ personnel folks draft him I imagine it would be as a weakside end who can actually drop back in coverage if necessary (though that’s one part of his game that still needs a good bit of work). At 6'3 and 260 pounds he’s the perfect guy for the "Jack" linebacker position in the 3-4, the guy who’s strong enough to hold the edge on most running plays, able to cover tight ends and running backs in the flat, and provide a pass rush while putting his hand down in the nickel or dime packages. To me in the 4-3 he’s a 3rd down specialist as opposed to a guy like Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn, who I think fits the Saints’ scheme better. That being said, his strength numbers sometimes have helped him play above his weight in college. Whether that’s going to be the case in the pros is another question altogether.
Jon: As a pass rusher, is Houston more of a bull rusher or a finesse rusher?
Jeremy: He’s a versatile mixture of both. As noted above, he likes to draw tackles off their base with his speed. That’s probably partially a result of the scouting report on him as a freshman and sophomore: a speed rusher first and foremost. But Houston grew over the course of his time in Athens from a 225 pound undersized defensive end to a 260 pound oversized linebacker, and that rendered the original scouting report obsolete. Another hallmark of Houston’s pass rushing is that he varies his speed off the line to keep blockers off balance. That’s been a teaching point in Georgia’s defense (partially because it can help disguise blitz packages), but it’s clearly one that Houston picked up. He’s a smart rusher who finds a way to get to the passer. Maybe not every down, but consistently enough to cause problems.
Jon: Finally, do you think he will have what it takes to be a great DE/OLB in the NFL?
Jeremy: It pains me to say it, but no. No I don’t. I think Justin has the ability to be a great 3-4 linebacker in the NFL. I don’t know that he has the size to anchor the defensive end spot in the 4-3, especially not on the stong side. I imagine that Houston will go sometime in the late 1st to early 2nd to a base 3-4 team that’s intrigued by his athleticism and the fact that he’s played a year in the 3-4 already. Georgia’s defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, was Wade Phillips’ defensive line coach in Dallas, a Nick Saban assistant, and Romeo Crennel’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland for a time. Grantham’s a part of the NFL’s renewed 3-4 diaspora and he’s made clear that the version he runs in Athens is essentially the defense he ran in the NFL. Given the specter of a lockout, I think GMs will place a premium on guys like Houston who can come in and play with a minimum of teaching time.
That being said, I probably would have had the same assessment of former Florida defensive end Alex Brown, who Houston kind of reminds me of, when he came into the league. Brown, as Canal Street Chronicles readers know, is still in the league 10 years later. That says as much about my talent evaluation skills as it does his football abilities, and points to the fact that the NFL is full of guys who should be selling insurance or coaching high school ball. What a lot of them have in common is determination, and that’s something that I’ve always sensed that Justin Houston has in spades. I don’t know if he’ll be an elite, All-Pro caliber defensive end. But he has what it takes to carve out a career in the league.
I would like to thank Jeremy for taking time out to answer these questions for us. And for more on all Georgian related news, check out Dawg Sports.