When the Houston Texans hit the field for training camp, the team will officially begin its eighth season as a franchise. Since the 2002 NFL Draft, the Texans have struggled with inconsistent play on the field and ineffective decision-making rolling over from the Charley Casserly era.
Slowly, Houston has progressed into an 8-8 team, but not at the rate owner Bob McNair expected to achieve.
From 2002 to 2005, the front office demonstrated certain irrationalities when drafting players and lacked the desire to pursue top-notch free agents. The majority of Casserly’s draft picks turned out to be a bust, especially QB David Carr, the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. Ironically, offensive lineman Chester Pitts remains the lone member on the active roster from the inaugural 2002 draft class.
Despite the number of appalling draft choices over the four-year period, Casserly was able to help current head coach Gary Kubiak establish a benchmark with ideal, prototypical players for his particular offensive and defensive scheme.
When Kubiak accepted the job on Jan. 26, 2006, he inherited All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson and cornerback Dunta Robinson. Both Johnson and Robinson possess the raw, natural talent to fit any type of pro system.
Kubiak made an immediate impact with his first draft class by selecting proficient, franchise players such as defensive end Mario Williams, middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end Owen Daniels. In his first season as head coach, the Texans finished fourth in the AFC South with a 6-10 record.
With one season under his belt, Kubiak began molding his players into his notable “Denver" syle of play. He utilized the 2007 NFL Draft by selecting DT Amobi Okoye with the 10th overall pick. Also, he added more pieces to the puzzle with the selection of WR/KR Jacoby Jones, cornerback Fred Bennett and linebacker Zac Diles.
Kubiak’s squad took a giant step forward in 2007 with an 8-8 record, marking the first time in franchise history that Houston finished at least .500.
In 2008, the Texans drafted a franchise left tackle in Duane Brown, who fits perfectly into Alex Gibbs’ "zone blocking" scheme, and superstar running back Steve Slaton. As the season progressed, Brown demonstrated significant improvement while Slaton emerged as the franchise running back.
Slaton concluded his rookie campaign with 1,282 rushing yards on 268 carries, including nine touchdowns. He accumulated the most rushing yards by a rookie in the league and ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards behind Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams, Clinton Portis and Thomas Jones.
For the 2009 NFL Draft, the Texans encountered one of the most important drafts in franchise history. When analyzing potential draft possibilities, Houston made a commitment to improve their front seven on defense by focusing on the selection of versatile athletes.
Kubiak and Smith filled the remaining holes in the front seven with the drafting of former USC linebacker Brian Cushing at No. 15 and University of Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin at No. 46.
Known for being an intense competitor, Cushing adds a new dimension to the Texans’ linebacking core, which already features a superstar in Ryans. The 6-2, 243 pound Cushing displays unique versatility with his ability to play all three linebacker positions.
Barwin, a former tight end, converted to defensive end for the Bearcats last season. He displays excellent footwork and provides the Texans with the type of pass rushing skills Kubiak desperately needs. Barwin can play both sides and go outside to rush the passer.
With several critical elements in place, the Texans may potentially have the greatest season in franchise history. Unlike previous years, Kubiak will head into training camp with an explosive offense and a young, talent core of defensive players.
During the offseason, Kubiak and Smith put their heads together to figure out how to elevate the team to the next level. Overall, they realize the team must add a run stuffing nose tackle, a pass rushing DE, an impact free safety, a strong outside linebacker and a backup, goal-line running back for Slaton.
Smith got his pass rusher by signing DE Antonio Smith to a five-year, $35 million contract. The former Arizona Cardinal defensive lineman had eight tackles and a sack in the Super Bowl and makes an ideal counterpart opposite Williams. Plus, Smith will be reunited with Bush, who was an assistant with the Cardinals prior to joining Houston’s staff.
Although things look promising, the Texans still need to address some present holes in the roster. As training camp approaches, Houston will keep their options open by watching the free agent market, paying attention to final cuts and developing the skills of in-house players.
It’s no secret that Kubiak has an escalating amount of frustration toward DT Travis Johnson, the team’s 2005 first-round (16th overall) draft pick. His lackluster work ethic combined with several on-field issues and injury history caused Kubiak and Smith to sign DT Shawn Cody as an unrestricted free agent.
Last season with the Detroit Lions, Cody finished with a career-high 37 tackles. Overall, the Texans chose not to draft a defensive tackle, meaning they have high expectations for Okoye and possibly Cody to anchor the team’s interior portion.
Houston’s pass defense ranked 17th and only intercepted 12 passes in 2008. After missing out on drafting former LSU safety LaRon Landry in 2007, Houston has been trying to find a prototypical free safety to fill a tremendous void. However, the only free safety worthy of being a first round pick this year would have been USC junior Taylor Mays.
Mays announced his intent to return to USC for his senior year, leaving University of Missouri’s William Moore as the top-rated safety in the draft. At 6-1, 230 pounds, Moore has the size and speed to be a playmaker in the NFL, but ultimately rated as a second-round pick at best.
Since the Texans elected not to pursue high-priced free agent Roy Williams, who was waived by the Dallas Cowboys on March 5, the All-Pro safety eventually signed a one-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Despite some outside pressure, Houston stood their ground by not going after the former University of Oklahoma standout, due to his overall ineffectiveness in pass coverage with the Cowboys.
Kubiak’s defense needs a safety capable of handling the pass, especially with perennial QB Peyton Manning in the division. With a bleak free agent market at safety, Houston re-signed Eugene Wilson to a three-year deal.
Basically, the Texans will continue to keep their options open for a backup running back to compliment Slaton. The Ahman Green experiment never worked out, so Kubiak will either stay in-house with Chris Brown, Ryan Moats, or give undrafted free agent Arian Foster or Jeremiah Johnson a fair shake to earn a roster spot.
Out of the potential in-house candidates, Brown is the biggest at 6-3, 220 pounds. Unfortunately, the former University of Colorado standout has a lengthy history of injuries during his six-year NFL career and can't be counted on to stay healthy over the course of the regular season.
Moats, Foster and (Jeremiah) Johnson have a similar build in comparison to Slaton, but Kubiak wants to find a goal-line back equivilant to Ron Dayne.
It won’t be surprising if the Texans take a strong look at the free agent market to address this need. Don’t expect free agent running backs Edgerrin James, Rudi Johnson or Deuce McAlister to wear a Texans’ uniform this season. It’s no secret that Kubiak likes (Rudi) Johnson; however, Houston would prefer a younger, more durable back to compensate Slaton.
Throughout the season, opponents may look to expose the Texans’ weaknesses at safety by looking down the field for 20-yard completions or attempt to hit Slaton hard every time he carries the ball, especially if the Texans can’t find an ideal backup.
Since the Texans run the “zone blocking” scheme, Slaton will get hit harder than most running backs. Defenses have more time to react and hit Slaton at full speed as he looks to cut and slash through open holes.
Plus, with Slaton possessing a smaller frame, teams view him as a “hitable” back. Houston’s success will ultimately depend on him staying healthy and remaining on the field.
Both Kubiak and Smith know what's best for the Texans. Prior to the regular season, they will work out the final details necessary for putting the Texans in position to make its first ever postseason appearance.