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Could Justin Madubuike evolve DeMeco Ryans’ Texans defense?

“The front, again, is everything for me, and we’ll invest a ton of resources into the front. If you want to play good defense, your front has to be elite, and that’s what I envision us playing: elite defensive football.”

Houston Texans coach DeMeco Ryans finished his last press conference of the 2023 season addressing the front seven, where he had once shined as a player and now a hopeful focus for his football team.

“We have to get better there – and to get better there – you have to invest the resources there up front, so that’s what we’ll do. That’s where our focus is heading into the offseason is to make sure our front gives us an opportunity to win some games.”

It was an honest, and extremely fair, assessment of the Texans after their crushing 34-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson and running backs Justice Hill and Gus Edwards had combined for 206 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. They gradually wore down the Texans’ defensive front with little opportunity to rest as C.J. Stroud and the Houston offense could not stay off the field.

Ironically, this was a strength of the Texans for most of the year. They were one of the NFL’s best run defenses in 2023 and saw monster seasons from edge rushers Will Anderson and Jonathan Greenard as well as the emergence of second year linebacker Christian Harris.

That leaves the question of where the front could improve primarily to two spots on the defense. The defensive tackle position, manned in ’23 by Maliek Collins and pending free agent Sheldon Rankins, and linebacker play alongside Harris.

Defensive tackle plays a pivotal role in controlling the line of scrimmage and they’re asked to be versatile in DeMeco Ryans’ attacking front four – notably, one of the best in the game is set to reach free agency.

After terrorizing the Houston Texans with a sack in their Week 1 contest and two quarterback hits in the playoff matchup, Baltimore Ravensdefensive tackle Justin Madubuike is reaching the market after a career year.

Madubuike had an insane 13 sacks, 56 total tackles, 33 quarterback hits and 64 total pressures per Next Gen Stats. It was a season that earned him Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors and is going to yield to a significant pay day.

He was one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in football and found the quarterback at an exceptional rate. Madubuike’s 2.7% sack rate was the highest in the NFL amongst defensive tackles and a big part of why he led the position in sacks.

Part of this was due to Baltimore’s scheme, they let Madubuike play like a star player. He was employed on stunts and utilized in a way that made him dynamic and interruptive alongside players like former Texan Jadeveon Clowney.

If the Texans want to improve the front, he represents an obvious solution in free agency.

Madubuike is a perfect fit for the attacking 3-technique defensive tackle that Ryans covets. He would impact the run game consistently while also giving the Texans a dynamic pass rusher on the interior that few NFL teams are able to employ.

This play, where Madubuike chases down Offensive Player of the Year Christian McCaffrey, encompasses everything that Ryans has preached. The concept of “Swarm” and down-to-down effort that ultimately dictates the game. It’s easy to envision a brutally tough front led by Madubuike and the Defensive Rookie of the Year in Anderson.

His pass rush skillset would not only demand double teams to aid the rest of the line but his athleticism could be ideal for stunt plays with edges like Anderson and Jerry Hughes.

There are fair concerns about the potential addition, largely financial ones. A contract for Madubuike could cost over $20M APY in free agency. That would almost certainly eliminate Houston’s ability to bring back Greenard after his career season. Would Ryans more so covet the edge rusher or a defensive tackle that impacts the game in a whole different way? That’s uncertain.

There’s also the matter of regression. It’s a fair question for any player that breaks out like Madubuike.

Can the Texans expect Madubuike to perform like this into future years? He had never produced more than 5.5 sacks or 10 quarterback hits in a season prior to 2023. Even if he maintains his level of play at a high level, it’s likely that his sack percentage will decrease closer to league average moving forward as well simply off chance.

Last year, the San Francisco 49ers signed Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a huge deal after a similar career season. He was an impactful player for the 49ers this year, but he did not touch double digit sacks the way he did in 2022.

If the Texans are comfortable financially with investing in a defensive tackle and understand they may see dominance, but never to this level, it could be a great fit for Houston.

The team has over $50 million to spend in free agency. It’ll be up to general manager Nick Caserio to decide how to invest if he wants to meet Ryans goals of improving the front. If Madubuike ultimately dodges the tag from Baltimore, he looks like an enticing solution to their problem.

Story originally appeared on Texans Wire