Houston Texans: What to Watch for at OTAs
The first round of organized team activities (OTAs) for the 2013 Houston Texans began on May 20. These are voluntary activities, and are limited to seven-on-seven, nine-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills. No contact is permitted and the only protective gear allowed for the participants are their helmets.
OTAs are little more than low-key practices, where players go through the motions associated with their positions. For the grizzled veterans that do show up, they are a good faith attempt at demonstrating their commitment to the team. The same holds true for the draftees, although what happens will influence their slotting on the depth chart come training camp.
For the majority of undrafted free agents (UDFAs), they are a life-or-death proposition. OTAs are their only chance to make a first impression. What they are all praying for is a vote of confidence from the coaching staff that results in an invitation to training camp.
The Texans ended last season on a very unsatisfying note, dropping four of their last six games. These uncomplicated drills are their initial opportunity to rid themselves of the bitter aftertaste associated with that disappointment. And their first chance to starting fixing the problems that led to the collapse.
The team starts off the year with a surplus of uncertainties. What questions will the opening round of OTAs hope to answer?
Did Matt Schaub Get His Mojo Back?
Yeah, I can hear all the skeptics out there echoing that Muddy Waters song: "You Can’t Lose What You Never Had."
What will it take for the most maligned Texan to say “Got My Mojo Workin'?" All we have heard is that Matt is healthy. This is being sold as a positive development over last year, when he did not practice with the team until training camp.
Whether Schaub is ready to reverse the slide he endured is lingering in the back of everyone’s mind. OTAs are not much of a test for experienced players, and reveal little about what they are capable of in actual game conditions.
If anyone needs a reminder, his five touchdowns, five interceptions and 84.1 passer rating during that 2012 meltdown lingers over the proceedings like a recurring nightmare. It will take until September for something more pleasant to replace those bad dreams.
Is There A Number 3 Receiver Out There?
The Texans are the only team in the league where their No. 1 wide receiver, Andre Johnson, has 30 times the career receptions of the rest of the so-called veterans at his position (818 vs. 27). This illustrates just how desperate the need for a solid second receiver has become.
DeAndre Hopkins has been awarded the No. 2 spot on the depth chart by default. The combination of being the team’s first-round draft choice, plus the mediocre performances of Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean in 2012 and Devier Posey’s torn Achilles tendon guaranteed it.
If Martin and Jean fail to step it up in OTAs and beyond, who will be the first wideout off the bench on passing downs? The front-runners are sixth-round pick Alan Bonner, undrafted free agents Andy Cruse, Alec Lemon and Mike Smith, and practice squad holdover Jeff Maehl.
It is safe to say that no one in this undistinguished collection is going to strike fear in the hearts of the opposing defensive back coaches. Recent experience has shown it takes at least three quality pass-catchers to win a title.
Only three Super Bowl Champions in the last 20 years have had a rookie come through as their No. 3 wide receiver:
- Travis Taylor, 2000 Baltimore Ravens
- Torry Holt, 1999 St. Louis Rams
- Kevin Williams, 1993 Dallas Cowboys
This means the situation is not entirely lost, just exceedingly difficult.
Receiver statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
Will Arian Foster Reassert Himself?
How can over 1,400 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns be considered a down season?
When your average per carried barely exceeded four yards for most of the year, and your rushing yardage in nine of 16 games was less than the magic 100. The Texans are 16-6 over the course of Foster’s career when he breaks the century mark. In the four 2012 regular-season losses, Arian’s numbers were 58 carries for 186 yards and a 3.2 average.
Stephanie Stradley, a blogger who covers the Texans for the Houston Chronicle, put Foster’s season in perspective in an interview with Chase Stuart of Football Outsiders. The accumulated effects of instability on the right side on the line, the lack of a true inline fullback and erratic QB play served to drag his numbers down.
The importance of a return to form by Matt Schaub has been noted, and the presence of blocking beast Greg Jones at fullback is a big-time addition. Check out the next slide for what is happening on the O-line.
Will There Be A Right Tackle Rotation Again?
A recent trend in the NFL has been to overemphasize the importance of the left offensive tackle. A lengthy Pro Football Focus (PFF) analysis showed this to be true in a number of respects. While the article concentrates on what this means for the passing game, it is equally important when running the football.
The Premium Stats section of PFF (subscription required) showed the Texans’ rushing attack was almost equally divided by direction: 266 attempts over the left side and 270 over the right.
Who knows if this influenced the Texans to re-sign RT Ryan Harris and spend two draft picks on this position. The popular belief is that is last year’s experiment of musical chairs at this critical spot was ineffective.
Yet, when it came to running the ball, the yardage gained over the right side (1211) surpassed the left (1103). The right is usually the “strong side” of the formation where the tight end can put a body on someone, so this disparity does make sense.
Derek Newton and Harris divvied up the duties at right tackle, with Newton starting all but two games. Newton played some unknown portion of the season with a torn right patellar tendon.
Recovery from the surgery to fix the problem has kept him out of OTAs, putting the spotlight on rookies Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry. Williams was already in the doghouse when Gary Kubiak declared him “way behind” due to a lingering knee issue. Quessenberry will therefore get most of the snaps until the health of his competition improves.
Due to the relative youth of these combatants, unless someone comes forward in a big way the rotation will continue to go round and round.
Who Is the No. 3 Tight End?
It should be sixth-round selection Ryan Griffin of Connecticut, because the only other candidate seems to be Phillip Supernaw from the 2012 practice squad.
Supernaw does have a supporter in backup QB T.J. Yates, who said, "He was my favorite receiver on the scout team.” Both have a size advantage over incumbents Owen Daniel and Garrett Graham, who are each listed at 6’3” and 245 pounds.
Griffin measures out at 6’6” and 250 pounds while Supernaw is an inch shorter at the same weight. The Texans run enough two-tight end formations that an extra body or two is valuable insurance.
The luxury of having a combo player like FB/TE James Casey is no longer in the cards now that he is a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. The battle for this roster spot is going to be fought right down to the final training camp cutdown.
Where Is the Depth on the Defensive Line?
The Texans began OTAs with an opening at nose tackle because of the absence of Shaun Cody, who is still an unsigned and unrestricted free agent at this point. There is no shortage of contenders who want to take his place.
Sunny Harris looked the part in training camp last season until a triceps injury put him on injured reserve for the year. Unfortunately for him, Lance Zierlein of the Houston Chronicle reported Harris looked “sluggish and out of shape” after tipping the scales 12 pounds over the 300 he was expected to weigh.
Terrell McClain was added to the 2012 active roster when Cody missed four games with a bad back. Patrick Starr from The State of the Texans blog liked what he saw McClain on the first day of OTAs, stating he “looked fast today and played like a man fighting for a roster spot.”
The draft brought in MAC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Jones from Bowling Green, a defensive tackle known for his ability to get the upper hand in one-gap matchups. This makes him the ideal player for the 3-4 responsibilities in Wade Phillips’ scheme.
Jared Crick bulked up over the break and now carries 295 pounds on his 6’4" frame. Delano Johnson took the same route to get up to 290 pounds in an effort to move from outside linebacker to defensive end. Both Starr and Zierlein seem to think Johnson maintained his quickness even with the added weight.
No sightings so far of DE Tim Jamison, who is on the mend from his own season-ending injury. His well-known work ethic ensures he is doing everything possible to be ready when the time comes.
Are There Enough Linebackers To Go Around?
The good news is Darryl Sharpton seems to put his hip troubles behind him, and has fully participated in every activity. The bad news is Tim Dobbins is nowhere to be found.
Sharpton did not play at all until Week 10 of 2012, and by Week 17 was out of the lineup for what little was left of the season. With Brian Cushing still on the mend from his torn ACL, it was reassuring to have at least one starting inside linebacker out there.
Dobbins is a special teams captain, and the first inside linebacker off the bench. Every time his name came up this week, we were reminded that OTAs are voluntary. But his absence has gone unexplained and cannot be sitting well with his teammates.
The shortage of ILBs has forced Brooks Reed from his outside post into the middle. The speculation has been flying that he may end up there permanently.
With the loss of Connor Barwin to free agency, this would leave the outside linebacker position in the hands of a second-year part-timer (Whitney Mercilus), a converted special teamer (Bryan Braman) and two first-year players (draftees Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams).
The OLBs are supposed to be the trendsetters in this defense, the human wrecking balls that lay waste to pass-happy quarterbacks. It will take every bit of Wade Phillips' experience and guile to turn this group into an effective pass-rushing unit.
Is the Safety Position Safe?
Ed Reed is off in Colorado, tending to his arthritic hips. Shiloh Keo, normally a stalwart on special teams, has been taking Reed’s first team snaps during OTAs. Danieal Manning has been adapting to life as Glover Quin’s replacement, playing the role of a safety that often masquerades as a linebacker in nickel and dime defenses.
Second-round draft choice D.J. Swearinger is with the second team, getting his first taste of life in the NFL. Eddie Pleasant, who recorded a grand total of three snaps in his first season, is playing alongside D.J. in the hopes all this chaos will afford him more playing time.
To sum up the situation: Reed’s return date is unknown, Manning is attempting a comeback from a mediocre season at deep safety with a position change, Keo is trying to prove he can do more than cover kicks, while a true rookie and a near-rookie fight over who gets to be the third safety when the Texans go dime. Which just happens to be about 70 percent of their defensive formations.
Combine this with the linebacker shortage, and Coach Phillips could be having a hard time going to sleep. You might need an Ambien, Wade.
Can Houston Win a Super Bowl with a Rookie Placekicker?
Write it down: Randy Bullock will be the Houston Texans’ placekicker in 2013. How can I be so sure? As of publication, there is not another kicker on the team’s official roster.
This organization is expecting a player who has never kicked in a regular season NFL game to be its leading scorer. Kickers are rarely worth a draft choice, except the Texans thought differently of Bullock in the 2012 draft.
They felt he was worth a fifth-round pick. And could be the man, or rather the foot, to propel them all the way to the Super Bowl.
To put so much pressure on an untested player must be unprecedented. Believe it or not, there have been three teams over the last 20 years who taken home the Lombardi Trophy with the help of just such an individual:
- Justin Tucker, 2012 Baltimore Ravens
- Doug Brien, 1994 San Francisco 49ers
- Lin Elliott, 1992 Dallas Cowboys
So take heart, Texans fans. Your favorite team is not testing uncharted waters, at least when it comes to this crucial task.
Will Special Teams Benefit from Extra Coaching?
The Houston Texans had the worst special teams performance of the 2012 NFL season. According to Football Outsiders, their ranking was 30 percent below that of the 31st team in the league, the Oakland Raiders. Not only were they at the bottom of the barrel, they punched a hole right through it.
The fact special teams coach Joe Marciano kept his job in spite of this travesty is a mystery. Management decided all Marciano needed was a little help.
They hired a special teams assistant by the name of Bob Ligashesky. He was special teams coordinator at Tampa Bay last season, a unit ranked 28th by Football Outsiders' metrics. Not what you would call a stirring endorsement of Ligashesky’s ability.
On the other hand, the Texans did add a truly special player to their special teams. Shane Lechler, who had spent his entire career with the Raiders, has been one of the top punters in the league over the last decade.
At 36, his skills may have slipped a bit. His gross and net averages for 2012 were at their lowest levels in six seasons. Reports from the scene indicate there still may be some thunder left in his foot, so at least Marciano and his aide have a new tool in their belt.