The Houston Texans are well into the second week of training camp and some key developments are starting to emerge.
There are a few starting jobs up for grabs, primarily at right offensive tackle and left outside linebacker. The competition revolves around where players will end up on the depth chart—if they make the active roster at all.
To that end, these are the players who have either improved or diminished their status in the limited action so far.
Keenum spent the entirety of last year on the practice squad. For someone who has only played in preseason games to date, he has received more than his fair share of media coverage in training camp. The praise has been coming from all quarters.
"He’s (Keenum) having a really good camp," head coach Gary Kubiak told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. "He’s going to play a lot in the preseason."
Stephanie Stradley, who also blogs for the Houston Chronicle, echoed a similar impression of Kubiak’s fondness for the former University of Houston product:
There are some who believe that there is a real quarterback competition between (T.J.) Yates and Keenum. Part of the reasoning for this is how high Kubiak reportedly is on Keenum’s play.
Patrick D. Starr of State of the Texans tempered his compliments with some caution:
One thing is for certain, Keenum’s game has taken a step up from last season but the biggest question mark is can he do it against other teams. Keenum understands the offense and the players he is going against but his real test is going to come against a real defense designed to stop him.
Chris Baldwin of CultureMap Houston was quite forceful in his article subtitled “Case Keenum's idiotic doubters need to face reality:”
It's almost like they're (the doubters) personally offended by the notion — no, the truth — that the University of Houston icon has emerged as more than a token novelty in the NFL. They don't want to acknowledge he is pushing T.J. Yates for the Houston Texans No. 2 quarterback job — and they go as far as insisting Texans coach Gary Kubiak can't really be serious with such talk.
Is Keenum just reaping the benefits that come with being a local favorite, or has he really improved that much? There will be ample opportunities to display his burgeoning talents before the start of the regular season.
The backup quarterback is often referred to as the most popular player in town. Some kind of trickle-down effect has conveyed that popularity from last year’s backup, T.J. Yates, to Case Keenum. This fall from grace is not the consequence of anything Yates has done, but what he has not done.
Circumstances conspired to deprive him of any worthwhile playing time. Matt Schaub stayed healthy for the entire schedule, and all that was left was some mop-up duty in three blowout losses.
It’s not so much what has been said as what has not been said. None of the coverage coming from training camp has hinted that Yates is the future of the franchise. What has been published always included Keenum in the discussion.
As for Yates, this was a guy that I openly campaigned for as someone who should get more of a shot at the starting QB spot heading into last season and even at parts of last season when Matt Schaub played so poorly. But nothing I’ve seen out of him so far in two training camp practices has me excited or even remotely encouraged.
In the Quick Hits feature on the Houston Texans website, Yates was asked a series of questions that range from “Best restaurant in Houston” to “Who’s the funniest guy in the locker room?” His answer to “This is your third camp now, is each year any different from the last?” was most revealing:
Yeah. My first camp was right out of the lockout so we got our playbooks like a week prior to camp. Heading into camp, my head was spinning and it was completely different as far as every moment that we had off of camp or meetings I was studying. Nowadays I don’t have to do that.
This response could be interpreted as to how comfortable he feels based on experience, or that complacency has started to creep in.
When final cuts are made on August 31, last year’s No. 2 quarterback could be this year’s tenant once more. Keenum would be stashed on the practice squad for another season, and the status quo would be maintained.
Then again, a team in desperate need of a competent reserve QB might be willing to acquire Yates in exchange for a draft choice. However it turns out, this is turning into the top position battle in camp.
When considering what physical qualifications a receiver needs to succeed, hands always come up.
Here, Brien Straw of the In the Loop show on Sports Radio 610 compares his digits with the 10-inch mitts of Hopkins. One look at this and that unforgettable line from The Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun” takes on new meaning: "Big hands, I know you’re the one."
An even better way to get everyone’s attention is to keep turning peoples’ heads with dazzling catches. Of course, teammates are going to gush over your feats just to show their support. But few will go to the lengths of what offensive tackle Duane Brown said to Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle:
Oh, man, I haven’t seen a young receiver like him before. It’s amazing. When a ball is thrown, put your money on DeAndre.
If you are looking for a more objective look, consider what Lance Zierlein of The Sideline View saw Hopkins do to the Texans' top cornerback:
DeAndre Hopkins had two unbelievable battles with Johnathan Joseph during one-on-one endzone drills, and he won both, coming down with the TD catch with Joseph draped all over him in both instances.
This is one player whose own confidence is equaled by that of his coach. When Stephanie Stradley queried Gary Kubiak on what reasonable expectations were for the rookie wide receiver, the head coach replied:
How many balls does that mean he’s going to catch? I don’t know, but I know he’s going to be a big part of our football team. He’ll make us better and boy is he working toward doing that. He’s been exceptional.
The supporters of quarterback Matt Schaub have been pleading for more weapons to maximize the offensive attack of this team. It looks as if their prayers have been received and answered.
The depth at outside linebacker for the Houston Texans is shorter than Gary Kubiak’s list of red-zone plays for wide receivers. General manager Rick Smith tried to address this shortage by drafting Montgomery and Williams in the third and fourth rounds of the 2013 draft.
Both played as defensive ends in college, so their transition from a three-point stance to playing upright was expected to be challenging. It has proven to be exactly that.
If Montgomery has garnered a nickname by now, it should be “Mr. Behind.”
After practice July 31, Kubiak was asked how close the draftee was to practicing (h/t Houston Texans website):
He’s way behind the team. Way behind. He’s behind conditioning wise and, now, he’s got an ankle that he can do nothing about. It’s not his fault, but he’s way behind. Got to get back out here.
When Montgomery finally made an appearance on the field six days later, Kubiak updated John McClain on his progress:
I know he did a little bit today. He’s just behind. It’s going to take some time, and we’re trying to work him through the soreness of his ankle sprain. Obviously, he’s not going to be a part of what we’re doing this week. I may be premature in saying that, but he has a long way to go.
It is still early enough in training camp for the rookie from LSU to reverse course and start to show some progress. But based on his reputation for taking games off and the failure to prepare for his NFL audition, no one is holding their breath.
At least Williams has been participating, even if his efforts have been less than exemplary. Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston described him as “still confident after early camp struggles:”
The outside linebacker from UConn has struggled through the first five days of his first training camp, most notably in the pass rush drill that pins one defensive player vs. an offensive lineman.
While guys like Willie Jefferson and Jared Crick have impressed in the 1-on-1 drill, Williams has not. Williams hasn’t been able to get past guys like reserve guard Andrew Gardner and rookie sixth-rounder David Quessenberry.
Getting your hand out of the dirt and getting around NFL-sized linemen is no small feat. The same athleticism that led to 11.5 sacks in his senior season and a 4.57-second 40-yard dash at the combine may eventually come to the fore. Williams could find himself submerged on the depth chart by the time it finally arrives.
The ascent of Brooks into the starter’s spot at right guard was a given coming into the 2013 season. He's more suited to play there than converted-center Ben Jones, who received the majority of the snaps last year, per Football Outsiders.
Brooks arrived at training camp tipping the scales at 325 pounds, as per Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston. This is a tad portly for any linemen in a zone-blocking scheme.
It did not seem to affect his technique when matched up against J.J. Watt. Lance Zierlein of The Sideline View appeared surprised at how easily the mammoth guard handled the Defensive Player of the Year on occasion:
Brooks had four reps against Watt over two sessions and he did a great job against Watt. During the first session, Watt tried to make an outside move to set Brooks up with an inside spin, but Brooks timed his punch perfectly and jolted Watt outside of the pocket. During the second session, Brooks used pure power to drive Watt to the ground on one of the reps.
Zangaro noticed the same improvement by Brooks as training camp has moved forward:
Early in camp, Watt beat Brooks more often than not but as camp has gone on, Brooks has flipped it.
He remains as one of the strongest players on the team. And that strength has helped him in his battles with Watt.
Brute strength will not work every time, and he will have to backpedal in obvious passing downs when NFL defenses start running those crazy stunts. When it comes to keeping cool under pressure, pancaking Watt a few times can only help.
Offensive right tackle is another position where the depth chart is all topsy-turvy. Ryan Harris is the only man in camp who possesses both good health and any worthwhile experience in that area.
Harris is considered little more than a journeyman, having started 16 games in a season only once in his career. Derek Newton was slated as the starter at the beginning of the 2012 season, but had to split time with Harris later in the year due to a lingering knee injury.
The injury to Newton’s patellar tendon was serious enough that drafting Williams seemed like a smart move. His final year at North Carolina was cut short by a torn labrum in his shoulder, which kept him out of the combine and lowered his draft stock.
Houston still took a flyer on him, because he looked nimble for his size (6’6”, 318 pounds). But maladies have plagued him from the moment he donned a Texans uniform.
Williams’ first injury in rookie minicamp required an MRI, and ended up keeping him out of OTAs. Drew Dougherty of the Houston Texans official website relayed the news via Twitter that he was on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list as of July 23:
With #Texans OL Brennan Williams on PUP, he's limited to non-contact work w/club trainer or physician, and can attend meetings.
— Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) July 23, 2013
Then Deepi Sidhu of the Houston Texans official website noted on July 31 what Gary Kubiak had to say about the ailing tackle’s condition:
(Williams) had his knee drained following swelling that kept him out of practice yesterday. Williams did some individual work on the bike in the morning but did not participate in team practice.
As the first week of training camp concluded, Stephanie Stradley of the Houston Chronicle pondered what might become of Williams' first year with the team.
Does this become 3rd round pick Brennan Williams sort of a red shirt year? With his knee issues, he is far behind the other players in both conditioning and basic technique. Though Brandon Brooks had a tough camp last year, he eventually made it onto the field in 2012 after his conditioning got better. Williams is behind where Brooks was last year because he isn’t healthy enough to do anything other than observe practice and ride the bike.
Between Brennan Williams and Sam Montgomery, the third round of the 2013 draft is looking like a no-fly zone for the Texans, because neither one is taking off.
While Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams have been disappointments as outside linebackers, Jefferson has been a gift.
Signed out of Stephen F. Austin State University as an undrafted free agent, his speed as an edge rusher has caught the eyes of the coaches and the media.
Gary Kubiak knows there are some gaping holes to fill at the position, and told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle that Jefferson was ready to contribute.
"This guy has a chance to really help us, and I mean immediately," he said.
Patrick Starr of State of the Texans took to Twitter and said a friend thought Jefferson looked like the third overall pick in this year’s draft:
KTRE-TV covers the Nagodoches area, home to Stephen F. Austin, and sent a crew to interview Jefferson at camp. The long shot to make the roster knew he had a chance during a conversation with the head coach:
When coach Kubiak pulled me aside one day and told me I have a shot to do what I'm doing now, I just took it to heart man. He told me you have to grind to shine so I'm just grinding.
The Minnesota Vikings can expect to see a good deal of grinding from this lanky linebacker come Friday night.
Most placekickers fail to get much attention until they miss an important kick. Since Bullock has yet to face one of those, he has escaped notice throughout much of training camp.
You can count on an old pro like John McClain of the Houston Chronicle to remedy that situation. He went so far as to ask Gary Kubiak why there were no other kickers in camp, even though Bullock spent his rookie year on injured reserve:
He showed us a lot before he got hurt. We believe in him because we know what he's capable of doing.
Apparently, Kubiak is now a member of Miss Cleo’s Psychic Network. A player who has yet to kick in a regular season game is somehow a known quantity.
Tom Gower of Football Outsiders has a mixed view of Bullock. The Battle Red Blog interviewed Gower, who recapped the Texans’ 2012 season for the Football Outsiders Almanac:
The good news is Shayne Graham was so awful last year it's not very hard to find an upgrade. The bad news is, well, who knows what kind of kicker Randy Bullock is. Some college kickers handle the NFL's shorter tee and narrower uprights well. Others do not.
That is not what anyone would call a stirring endorsement. Drew Dougherty of the Texans official website is trying to reassure fans that his kickoffs have more distance than the dead ducks Graham launched last year:
— Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) August 6, 2013
And Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston seems strangely impressed that Bullock can hit not one, but both uprights from the 50-yard line:
Randy Bullock showing a strong leg. He's playing posts though. He's hit left and right uprights from 50.
— Dave Zangaro (@DZangaro) August 2, 2013
What we should be hearing is how the kicker is splitting the uprights from distances up to 50 yards, and clearing the crossbar from beyond that mark on at least half of his attempts.
So until he hits a few in an actual game, the jury is still out. And in Bullock's case, unproven is basically a synonym for falling.