Houston has used its first pick on a defensive player in six of the past seven drafts — the exception is offensive tackle Duane Brown, taken with the 26th overall pick in 2008.
The Texans have the 11th overall pick this time. They finished 6-10 last year, with most of the blame falling on a defense that ranked last against the pass (267.5 yards per game) and 30th overall (376.9 yards per game).
General manager Rick Smith said the Texans won't automatically take a defensive player in the first round this year.
"We're not opposed to taking an offensive player," Smith said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "It just hasn't worked out that way over the last few years. But I wouldn't make the assumption that that's what we'll do (take a defensive player), just based on our past history."
Still, Houston ranked 23rd in both interceptions (13) and sacks (30) in 2010, and defensive coordinator Frank Bush was fired.
Smith acknowledges that the draft is rich with defensive talent, particularly among linemen. And the Texans will move to a 3-4 defensive alignment under new coordinator Wade Phillips — a scheme with increased responsibilities for the men up front.
"We have to evaluate the players based on their ability to perform in the defense that we're going to play," Smith said. "That's incumbent on us to find the players who fit the scheme, and will be able to do what we'll ask them to do."
If the Texans want to complement defensive end Mario Williams with another pass rusher, they could take a hard look at Missouri defensive end/linebacker Aldon Smith, who entered the draft after two college seasons. The 6-foot-4, 263-pound Smith had 17 sacks and 29 tackles for loss in only 23 games with the Tigers.
Or Houston may opt to take a defensive back in the first round for the second straight year, possibly Prince Amukamara from Nebraska. The 6-foot, 206-pound Amukamara intercepted five passes in 2009, but none in 2010 — mostly because quarterbacks avoided throwing his way.
Houston's pattern of taking defensive players in the first round has produced mixed results.
In 2006, Houston surprised everyone by taking Williams with the top overall pick, leaving Reggie Bush and Vince Young on the board. Williams has developed into one of the league's top pass rushers, ranking fourth in sacks in 2007 (14) and making the Pro Bowl in 2008 and '09.
Houston also drafted middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans early in the second round in 2006, and Ryans was named the league's top defensive rookie. Linebacker Brian Cushing, Houston's first-round pick in 2009, tied Ray Lewis for the most tackles in the AFC in his first season (134) and was voted the league's top defensive rookie.
On the flip side, 2007 first-round pick Amobi Okoye has underachieved at defensive tackle with 91 tackles and 11 sacks in four seasons. Cornerback Kareem Jackson, last year's 20th overall pick, was thrust into a starting role and struggled. Houston's secondary allowed a league-high 18 receptions covering 40 yards or more in 2010.
The Texans dropped eight of their last 10 games last season, and much of the fans' criticism was aimed at Smith and coach Gary Kubiak.
Smith knows the team will be under close scrutiny to make the right calls on Thursday, too.
"We did fall short of our goals last year," Smith said, "and we're that much more committed to making sure that as we put this team together for the 2011 season, that we get as strong a group of players together as we can, so that we don't fall short again."
The Texans have twice traded first-round picks on draft day (in 2005 and '08). Last year, Houston traded several picks on draft day and ended up acquiring running back Ben Tate, linebacker Darryl Sharpton and cornerback Sherrick McManis.
Smith wouldn't rule out making more deals this year.
"We go into the draft with the intent of improving our team as best we can," Smith said. "Whether that's just picking the player that fills a spot for a need we have, or making a trade that might enhance our ability to get a better player, or increase our number of players, we're going to be open to it."