Houston Texans: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit Heading into Camp
The Houston Texans officially open training camp this Friday, July 25. Rookies and the players recovering from injuries arrived at the Reliant Training Center on Monday to acclimate themselves to the next six weeks of two-a-days and exhibition games.
The veterans who have previously endured all of this are concerned about having this season reach a more victorious conclusion than the last. They wonder about their individual places in the overall scheme of things. At the same time they also want to know, “Does this team have the horses to finally make it past the Wild Card Round?"
Before the helmets and pads are strapped on and these athletes start colliding with each other, this is how the various position groups stack up.
From the very first Super Bowl through the Baltimore Ravens' win after the 2000 season, only nine were won by quarterbacks who have not been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Since the start of the new millennium, every championship team through 2011 has been led by a passer with multiple Lombardi trophies or the regular-season statistics to justify his selection.
The point is, most of the time, it requires a great player behind center to lead your team to the ultimate victory in this sport. By the close of last season, Matt Schaub seemed further away from that level of greatness than ever before.
After winning two overtime games against substandard teams (Jacksonville and Detroit), his passing, along with his leadership of the team, took a dive. After bombing out in the Divisional Round of the playoffs once again, many of the complaints that had followed him throughout his career reached a crescendo.
Schaub doesn’t have an NFL-quality arm, he lacks the mobility to extend plays, he can’t put the team on his shoulders in crunch time, his facial expressions and body language fail to inspire confidence, et cetera and so forth.
The Texans’ quarterback is as much a prisoner of the offensive philosophy of Gary Kubiak as his own limitations, whether they are real or imagined. The head coach would rather avoid turnovers or incompletions than throw a third-down pass beyond the sticks or rely on his wide receivers in the red zone.
No matter who or what is to blame, the offense of this contender will continue to run the ball when most other teams would take to the air.
The purpose of this article is to assign a rank to everyone who plays the position. In the NFL, quarterback depth is a contradiction in terms. There is your starter heading up the depth chart, then a huge dropoff in the second- and third-string backups.
Houston is just like most of the teams in the league in that T.J. Yates and Case Keenum cannot be relied on to seamlessly fill in for Schaub. Yates does have eight games' worth of experience from 2011, but he has not had any subsequent chances to build upon it.
Keenum is an intriguing, if untested, prospect and will get enough reps during camp to see if he is worth keeping around—maybe enough to see if Yates could be dangled as trade bait before the final cutdown.
The Texans are that rare team whose offense revolves around its top running back as much as its quarterback.
Arian Foster had more snaps (831) and more touches (391) than any back in the league. These numbers are largely by design, particularly in the short end of the field, where he led the league with 17 touchdowns.
Every high-profile runner reaches a point in his career when all that contact starts to take its toll. With the most touches in the league over the last three seasons, both the man and his mentor/head coach need to decide if now is the time to reduce this burden.
The time has also come for Ben Tate to get paid or get lost. He has gone from missing his entire rookie campaign, to being the top backup at his position in 2011, to carrying the ball just 65 times due to injuries. If he cannot reclaim something close to his production from two seasons ago, this potentially profitable contract year will find him seeking work as a third-stringer somewhere else in 2014.
Speaking of the third running back, it would be easier to guess which golfer will win the PGA Tournament than who will claim this roster spot. The front-runner was thought to be Deji Karim because of his talent for returning kickoffs.
However, Danieal Manning took over that job in the 2012 postseason and looked like the answer. Undrafted rookie free agents Dennis Johnson from Arkansas or Notre Dame’s Cierre Wood could just as easily be named the third running back.
There was a lot of excitement when free agent Greg Jones was signed to play fullback. He is cast out of the same mold as Vonta Leach and Lawrence Vickers: a hard knocking, block-first kind of fullback who would return Arian Foster to his dominant ways.
Fullbacks are often reserved for a handful of plays, maybe getting on the field for 25-30 snaps a game at most. They can be a big help in short yardage, but their overall effect on the running game is hard to predict when they are used so sparingly.
In the past, when it came to Schaub’s progressions for his wideouts they were quite simplistic:
- Andre Johnson
- Andre Johnson
- Andre Johnson, unless no defensive back is within 10 yards of Kevin Walter
How else to explain the fact that these two had 81.6 percent of all targets for their position? Andre may have ended up with 112 receptions to just 41 for Walter, but you get the picture. Walter also got the message when he was released in March.
A complete lack of faith in Keshawn Martin, Lestar Jean and DeVier Posey translated to a total of 22 passes caught between them. Such anemic numbers called for decisive action. It cost a first-round draft pick by the name of DeAndre Hopkins to address this crying need.
The fear that Hopkins is just another possession receiver due to his 4.55 40-yard time should be erased by a look at his college statistics. Ten of his 18 touchdown catches in his final year at Clemson were for 40 or more yards.
Posey tore his Achilles tendon during the season-ending loss to the Patriots but is still on the active roster going into training camp. Martin showed enough promise as a kick returner that he will be given another year to show improvement.
This puts Jean on the hot seat, competing with sixth-round selection Alan Bonner to be named the fifth receiver. Jean is easier to pick out in a crowd at 6’3” as opposed to the 5’10” Bonner. But the tall one is in his third year and has to show more than he has in the past to stick with this squad.
There are times when the Texans’ offensive minds seem like they would prefer to run four tight end sets if they had the players to pull it off.
In 2012, they would field four receiver formations where everyone was at least 6’3” and 230 pounds. One of them was Andre Johnson, but the intent is clear: The coaches like them big and the mismatches they create even more.
After decades of NFL coaches treating the position as just another blocker, it is now an integral part of the passing game. In fact, it is the rare contemporary tight end who excels in both phases of the game.
Garrett Graham is more interested in ramming his pads into an opposing player than Owen Daniels, which isn’t saying much. Daniels could not be bothered with such grunt work, since he has been the second-leading receiver on the team in their division-winning seasons.
Which makes Ryan Griffin, a sixth-round rookie out of Connecticut, so intriguing. At 6’6” and 260 pounds, he is better equipped physically to take on defensive linemen than his 6’3”, 250-pound compatriots. His hands are good enough to have led the Huskies with six touchdown catches in his senior year.
One definition for mixed bag is “a collection of dissimilar things.” An example of a mixed bag is the Houston O-line.
The current resident at left tackle is All-Pro Duane Brown, but his colleague on the right side could be anybody: Derek Newton, Ryan Harris, rookies Brennan Williams or David Quessenberry, or that huge dude who manhandled your old fridge on to the truck when the new one arrived from Home Depot.
Let us consider the guards surrounding Pro Bowl center Chris Myers. These bookends will be veteran Wade Smith and the second-year man-mountain Brandon Brooks.
Smith was named to the Pro Bowl based largely on the reputations of Myers and Brown and not on the basis of his own performance. Brooks was projected as the right guard of the future when he was drafted at over 340 pounds. After a trial run of 160 snaps late in 2012, it is starter or bust now that his weight is in the range of 320 pounds.
Last season saw what looked like a game of musical chairs at right guard and right tackle. Three players took turns at guard (Brooks, Ben Jones and Antoine Caldwell) while Newton and Harris flip-flopped at tackle.
Who will be the right tackle still has Kubiak worried, and with good reason. Harris is the only one who is ready to go, as both Newton and Williams are on the mend. Should this remain unsettled by the close of training camp, Schaub will be running so much play action to the left it will completely lose the element of surprise.
Rarely can the grade for an entire unit be pegged to the talents of a single player. Of course, J.J. Watt is the benchmark for the Texans’ D-line, and he is that good.
Beyond the insane displays of physical prowess off the field, his feats on the field last season were without parallel.
Antonio Smith is not much of a run-stopper, but he has to be accounted for on passing downs. This frees up Watt and the other pass-rushers to apply pressure more easily. The depth at defensive end will see an upgrade with a fully healed Tim Jamison back in the fold.
Nose tackle Earl Mitchell will not be expected to make plays, just tie up an interior blocker so someone else can shoot the gap. Jared Crick can spell Mitchell as needed and play anywhere along the line.
Houston could carry as few as six defensive linemen. Rookies Chris Jones and David Hunter or third-year pro Terrell McClain would normally be long shots to make the active roster. Crick may be more valuable as a backup end, making the addition of one of them as a reserve nose tackle a distinct possibility.
Because Houston runs a base 3-4 defense, it is important to evaluate the linebackers separately. The guys on the inside have different roles than those on the outside, and those roles demand different skill sets.
This makes the return of Brian Cushing essential to the resurrection of the Texans defense. He started his career as the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2009 as an outside linebacker. His transition to the inside seemed effortless when Wade Phillips took the reins as defensive coordinator in 2011.
The former 4-3 OLB brought the knack to rush the passer with him when he made the switch to ILB. Without this threat, both Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin were less effective as edge rushers in 2012.
The Texans still managed to stifle most running attacks, most notably the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson in Week 16. But they were torched by the Patriots in the playoffs when Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen broke off some back-breaking runs.
The absence of Cushing was one the main contributors to the gradual decline of the Houston defense. It was so noted by Adam Schein of NFL.com, who named Cushing one of the NFL’s most indispensable defensive players.
Darryl Sharpton may finally have returned to complete health and be fully prepared to start at the other inside slot. He is still just a two-down linebacker and will be replaced by a safety on passing downs.
The only available depth comes from Tim Dobbins, so the contingency plan is to move Brooks Reed inside should injuries require it. The lack of capable backups last season led the defense into a downward spiral from which it never recovered. A repeat of that misfortune could lead to the same downfall.
This position group is supposed to be manned by the rock stars of the defense. Swooping in from all directions, the OLBs are vying to meet at the quarterback and take him to the ground.
Most 3-4 defenses get the majority of their sacks from this bunch. Here is a quartet of teams and how many of their total takedowns came from this unit:
By contrast, the Texans had 11.5 of their 44 total sacks recorded by the outside linebackers. The majority, of course, came from the defensive line, with J.J. Watt’s 20.5 leading the way.
In 2011, it was almost the reverse situation. The team still had 44 total sacks, but 23.5 were courtesy of the OLBs.
Is it somehow more important for the group in question to tally most of the sacks? Not necessarily, but it does demonstrate how far they fell off from one year to the next.
It also puts an enormous amount of pressure on Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus to step up their game. Reed had six sacks in 2011 after subbing for Mario Williams once he was lost for the year in Week 5. But then he slipped to 2.5 as a starter in 2012.
Mercilus had almost the same experience as a rookie in 2012, bagging six as a part-timer. Now he is the starter at the right or weakside linebacker, where there are more one-on-one battles with the left tackle. Double-digit sacks are the minimum expectation for his upcoming season.
Just like the inside linebackers, depth is also a problem. Bryan Braman is the only experienced substitute, if you call 81 snaps (Pro Football Focus, subscription required) over the last two seasons experience.
Draftees Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams were supposed to work their way into the lineup. According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, Montgomery has been placed on the non-football injury list, leaving his immediate future uncertain.
All this talk about sacks runs the risk of overemphasizing their importance. While they do correlate to defensive performance, five of the top 10 teams in sacks per game failed to make the playoffs in 2012.
But if the Texans’ outside linebackers cannot have a greater impact in 2013, will the rest of defense be able to pick up the slack?
When the defense started to unravel last season, it showed not just on the scoreboard but also in the boxscore. When Chad Henne of the Jacksonville Jaguars passes for 504 yards, something is clearly amiss.
We knew that Johnathan Joseph was nursing a groin injury at the time. The truth was he had two sports hernias to deal with and still managed to take the field.
Since Joseph was not the same difference-maker as in 2011, it allowed the fans to take notice of the development of Kareem Jackson. No longer was he getting lit up on a weekly basis. In fact, his play against Calvin Johnson in the second half of the Detroit game was a revelation.
After Megatron had five catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown in the first half, he had just three for 37 yards and no scores in the second after Jackson took over the primary coverage duty. This represents quite the turnaround from his first two years in the league, when he was a 25-yard completion waiting to happen.
Not enough attention was paid to the loss of Brice McCain. There was already some slippage in pass coverage before McCain suffered a broken foot in Week 13.
It turned into an avalanche when Brandon Harris had to play slot corner for the first time against the Patriots the following week. The 42-14 loss to New England brought all the enthusiasm of the 11-1 start to a crashing halt.
Now that Joseph and McCain have recovered, and Harris has undergone his introduction to the slings and arrows of slot coverage, the Texans not only have starting talent but a little depth to go with it.
When Laurence Olivier asks if his diamonds are safe in Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman answers: “No, it’s not safe. It’s very dangerous. Be careful.”
Olivier’s character proceeds to do horribly painful things to Hoffman’s teeth. Sort of along the same lines of what the Texans’ safeties did to the hopes of their team over the final five games of 2012.
Glover Quin and Danieal Manning allowed opposing quarterbacks a 113.6 passer rating over that period. That goes a long way to explaining why the strong safety was not re-signed by the team that drafted him.
Quin’s place on the roster was then filled by the greatest safety since Ronnie Lott. Ed Reed may be getting on in years, but no one in pro football is better at reading an offense from the standpoint of an over-the-top defender.
What would Reed have answered if Olivier had asked, “Is it safe?” If he had been inquiring about his health, would it have taken threats of bodily harm for the former Baltimore Raven to admit his hip was bothering him?
Or was it just as big a surprise to Reed, as it was the to rest of us, that he needed surgery? We may never know. The latest status update from John McClain of the Houston Chronicle is:
Nobody has a clue when Reed is going to be healthy and ready to play.
Luckily, a hotshot safety was still on the board when the Texans’ second-round selection came around in the 2013 draft. D.J. Swearinger would be their choice.
His draft profile at NFL.com described him this way:
Best in a two-deep look, might not have the range to make plays and length to take on deep routes in single-high, although South Carolina often asks him to fulfill this role. More of an enforcer against receivers than backs.
Wade Phillips does not call a lot of two-deep looks for his defense. On passing downs, he is more likely to bring a safety into the box. Perhaps Swearinger is better suited to play deep while Manning creeps up towards the line.
In any case, adjustments will have to be made until Reed is ready to join the party. That will include bringing in Eddie Pleasant when a dime package is the call. Is that safe? You make the call.
There is no need to recount the repeated failures of the kick coverage teams to effectively patrol the midfield return lanes. If any attempts have been made to address this deficiency through personnel decisions, they have not been evident during the offseason.
That is, unless you believe in addition by subtraction. Several of these perpetrators are no longer part of the team: Quintin Demps, Mister Alexander, Jesse Nading, Barrett Ruud and Alan Ball.
Tim Dobbins, special teams captain, was re-signed but stirred up a hornets’ nest by not participating in OTAs. He will be directing his old playmates, Shiloh Keo, Bryan Braman, Roc Carmichael, Brandon Harris, Keshawn Martin and those rookies who happen to make the active roster.
Danieal Manning handled kickoffs during the postseason and did an exceptional job.
His 94-yard return to open the game versus the New England Patriots would have been even more memorable if the Texans had not settled for a field goal. Deji Karim is another option if Manning is deemed too valuable as an every-down player.
Keshawn Martin may end up as the default punt returner if no one takes his place. If the coaching staff feels it will interfere with his development as a receiver, then the job could go to Alan Bonner or Dennis Johnson.
There is not much to say about Randy Bullock, other than the kicking job is his as long as he is physically able. A host of placekickers are but a phone call away, so there is no need for one of them to take up a roster spot at the present time.
If their punter had been a problem, then Shane Lechler would have been the answer. Except Donnie Jones was above average, ranking in the top half of the league in net yards per attempt.
Then again, Lechler could be the first punter voted into the Hall of Fame. And the Texans’ kicking game could stand a boost in every possible area. To the extent that his stratospheric punts could help the coverage teams, his place on the team earns the unit its "plus."