Early Predictions for Houston Texans' 2014 Training Camp Battles

Brian McDonaldContributor IMay 29, 2014

Early Predictions for Houston Texans' 2014 Training Camp Battles

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans approached this offseason as a two-year process, in my opinion, even though I doubt they would ever admit that publicly. That strategy was evident to me with how they approached free agency and prioritized quarterback during the draft.

    If you plan to be a contender this year, you don't wait until the fourth round to take a quarterback or make safety Chris Clemons your biggest free-agent signing. I don't disagree with the strategy because the team had too many holes to reasonably fill in one offseason, but fans should curb their expectations for this year.

    Coach Bill O'Brien might turn out to be a great coach, but he's not a miracle worker.

    Having holes and question marks across the roster will lead to many competitions for starting jobs and reserve spots during OTAs, training camp and the preseason. The most talked-about competition is of course for the starting quarterback job, but it's far from being the only one worth watching.

Quarterback

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    Coach O'Brien said recently that the race for the starting quarterback position is still wide open and that each quarterback will get an equal number of snaps for the foreseeable future. Despite that, I would still bet that Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter in Week 1 against the Washington Redskins.

    O'Brien on the quarterback competition: "It's wide open." Says they've all been improving at picking up the offense. #Texans

    — Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) May 27, 2014

    O'Brien: QB reps right now need to be equal. Competition still wide open at that spot. #Texans

    — Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) May 27, 2014

    Via Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, Bill O'Brien talked about when he might name a starter:

    Whether it’s two weeks from now, three weeks from now, two months from now...we’ll make a determination on who gets the most reps to get them ready for the game. But we’re not there right now. We’ve got to continue to give these guys an equal amount of reps to give them an equal shot.

    Right now the Texans have four quarterbacks on the roster, but I expect them to cut or trade one before the start of the season. If forced to guess who that will be, I'd bet on T.J. Yates by process of elimination. Fitzpatrick was brought in to be the veteran leader, Tom Savage is the future developmental quarterback, and Case Keenum costs the team nearly nothing after being signed as an undrafted free agent.

    With the list narrowed down to three players, the Texans will start Fitzpatrick until they feel Savage is ready and won't get overwhelmed, or if the team feels the season start to slip away with a losing record at the bye week. If the Texans are 3-6 or worse going into their bye in Week 10, expect to see Savage as their starter for the first game out of the break.

    O'Brien: Fitzpatrick/Keenum/Yates obviously ahead of Savage right now, knowledge-wise. #Texans

    — Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) May 28, 2014

    I don't think Fitzpatrick is an upgrade over Matt Schaub. I say that with a view of Schaub's entire career and not just last season. Fitzpatrick has started all 16 games just twice during his career and threw 39 interceptions over those two seasons.

    We all know what Fitzpatrick's ceiling is, and considering that he'll turn 32 years old during the season, he can't be considered the team's future at the position. With that in mind, it would be in the team's best interest to give both Keenum and Savage meaningful snaps during training camp, the preseason and the regular season to determine if either player is worth building around as a franchise quarterback.

    However, Keenum will most likely spend the majority of the season as the third-string quarterback. Coach O'Brien has said before that he values a quarterback with a quick mind who can process information and get rid of the ball on time.

    When Keenum struggled over the final five games last year, one of his biggest issues was not identifying targets who came open underneath early in the play while staring down the deep threats, and that caused him to hold onto the ball too long. With what Keenum showed in college and on the field late in the season last year, I don't think he fits the mold of what Coach O'Brien wants from the position. I would like to see him get a shot, but that's my guess.

    Savage has better physical tools than any quarterback on the roster, so he'll be given every opportunity to win the job, but expect Fitzpatrick to be named the starter for at least the early portion of the regular season. Of the quarterbacks currently on the roster, Savage is the future, but he's not ready just yet. Until he is, expect Fitzpatrick to be the starter.

Right Tackle

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    Associated Press

    Like many others, I assumed that last year's starter Derek Newton was out the race, and the starting gig would go to either David Quessenberry or Brennan Williams. The former seventh-round pick was mediocre during the 2012 season and just awful last year, earning a negative grade from Pro Football Focus, per CSN Houston.

    However, according to Patrick Starr of State of the Texans, Newton not only came into OTAs in much better shape than last season but his technique also looked quicker and more fluid.

    Much criticized offensive tackle Derek Newton has arrived to OTAs in great shape and it is apparent he put in much work this offseason. He moves much better than before and has a better kick step with quickness in his pass sets. Newton had a major knee injury after 2012 that slowed him into 2013 and his added weight from the injury set him up for a below average 2013 season.

    Day one at OTAs was a positive start for the right tackle and seeing him appear to be more focused for the season is a good sight.

    Perhaps Newton will be considered a candidate for the starting job at right tackle, but I still think that gig will go to either Quessenberry or Williams, who both spent last season on injured reserve after getting hurt during camp.

    The Texans invested a third-round pick in Williams last year, so he'll be given every opportunity to win the job if he's healthy. If the Texans don't want to keep all three players, Williams would be more expensive to get rid of than Quessenberry and Newton, who were sixth- and seventh-round picks, respectively.

    Quessenberry looked very good last year during training camp while mostly playing at left guard but was hurt before he could win the job. Coming into the year when he was drafted, scouts believed he could play either guard or tackle in the NFL. That's a valuable commodity to have on the roster.

    "Everywhere."- #Texans OL David Quessenberry when asked what position on line he's preparing to play.

    — Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) May 28, 2014

    If the race is close between Quessenberry and Williams, the Texans will give the job to Williams not only because of their higher investment in him but also because Quessenberry as a backup can play every position except center. On the other hand, Williams is only a right tackle. Quessenberry's versatility would be a huge asset as a backup, which could play against him in the race for the starting job.

    My early guess is that the starters will be Duane Brown, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Chris Myers, Brandon Brooks and Brennan Williams. If the Texans keep eight offensive linemen like most teams, that would make Ben Jones the backup at center, Quessenberry the backup at guard and Newton the backup at tackle.

Slot Receiver

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    Associated Press

    Bill O'Brien said back in March that the roster didn't have a great slot receiver and that the position was important for his offense. Since that time he's had a chance to look at his players some more and said that he now feels like the position is in better shape than he initially thought.

    Former Jaguar Mike Thomas is thought to be leading the race at the position, and Patrick Starr of State of the Texans has called his performance during veteran minicamp and OTAs impressive:

    Veteran wide receiver Mike Thomas has been one of the more impressive sights since the start of voluntary mini-camp at the beginning of the month and how he used that time to build on what he did today. He runs routes with confidence and his years in the league are showing on the field and has become a viable option for one of the wide receiver positions.

    He has shown he can go vertical but he has looked good catching the ball in voids and working in space. Thomas has a real opportunity to make the team and with absent players from the position it has given Thomas more time to impress.

    At this moment, Thomas is clearly ahead of former fourth-round pick Keshawn Martin, who has had a disappointing start to his career. Over his first two seasons he totaled just 32 receptions for 338 yards combined.

    Thomas missed last season after being cut by both the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals last August but had a big year for the Jaguars in 2010, leading the team with 66 receptions for 820 yards.

    The other options besides Thomas or Martin are undrafted free agents Travis Labhart and Anthony McClung and second-year player Alan Bonner, whom the Texans selected in the sixth round. Several undrafted free agents like Arian Foster, Tim Jamison and Justin Tuggle have made the Texans roster over the last several seasons, but beating out several veterans for a job will be difficult.

    Patrick Starr from State of the Texans said the most impressive young guy was former Texas A&M Aggie Labhart:

    Labhart was the stand out of the group and despite his small frame, he impressed with his athleticism and movement in traffic. Not to mention he catches the football away from his body as a pure hands catcher. He will make noise when training camp rolls around and a good chance the fan base will get behind the home state kid.

    I expect the Texans to keep five wide receivers on their roster, and four of them are locked in already: Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Thomas and DeVier Posey. There will be three to four players competing for the last spot.

    Lacoltan Bester has also impressed some like Jayson Braddock of Sportstalk 790, but he seems like a better fit as an outside receiver.

    WR Lacoltan Bester continues to impress. It started as a tryout and then he got a contract, now he's looking at home at #Texans OTAs

    — Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) May 27, 2014

    Can Labhart beat out Martin and Bonner? Sure, but due to the limited snaps that rookie free agents receive during camp, he'll have to excel and impress the coaches every time he's on the field. As of now, expect Johnson and Hopkins to be the starters on the outside, Thomas will be the slot receiver, and Posey will be the fourth receiver when the offense uses a spread formation.

Defensive End

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    Joe Howell/Associated Press

    After Houston lost veteran Antonio Smith to the Oakland Raiders during free agency, the starting defensive end spot opposite All-Pro J.J. Watt was a big question mark going into the draft. The Texans addressed the position but not until the sixth round when they selected Jeoffrey Pagan from Alabama.

    Pagan was expected to compete with veterans Jared Crick, Tim Jamison and free-agent signing Ricardo Mathews, but the rookie is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. As of now, I'm penciling in Crick as the other starter at defensive end.

    I loved the selection of Crick in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. He totaled 19 sacks over his sophomore and junior seasons at Nebraska but saw his stock drop after getting injured during his senior season. Leading up to the draft, NFL.com thought he would be a good fit as a 3-4 defensive end:

    A defensive tackle at Nebraska, Crick shows value not only in his ability to play inside effectively but also as a potential defensive end, particularly in a 3-4 scheme. The two-time all-conference selection has displayed enough football acumen, especially in his junior year, to still hear his name called early in the draft.

    Crick possesses the size and athletic ability to play in various positions across the defensive line. He flashed the ability to defeat blocks and get to the ball-carrier in the backfield. He is active in the run game and shows great instincts. He can also run down quarterbacks with pure hustle. Off the snap, he uses his size and hands to get off blocks.

    Crick's versatility could make him a three-down lineman. He has the strength and block-shedding ability in the run game to play as the 3-4 end on first and second down and the pass-rushing ability to slide over to defensive tackle if the Texans go to a four-man front in their nickel package like they did last year. Jamison also has some of that same versatility, but he's not as strong in the run game.

    Mathews could also be an interesting option. The former Indianapolis Colt has shown nice versatility and an ability to chase down defenders, according to Patrick Starr from State of the Texans:

    ...Mathews showed today why he was brought in with his versatility on the field. Mathews can contribute at the nose tackle or defensive end spot but more impressive was his ability to move from the interior of the defense. He was chasing down plays and moving at a quicker pace than the rest of the interior and he will be one to watch as a situational player for the Texans.

    The rookie Pagan is a huge guy who might excel in run defense once he's healthy, but I don't think he's capable of making an impact as a pass-rusher. It also can't be ignored that his development will be slowed by missing practice time while recovering from the injury.

    Crick has an edge on the competition but not a stranglehold.

Inside Linebacker

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    This position group has the potential to be one of the best units on the team but could also easily turn into a nightmare. If Brian Cushing returns to form, Brooks Reed is a better fit inside than outside like some expect, and Max Bullough is the thumping run defender he was in college, then the Texans will be rock solid at inside linebacker.

    However the opposite is just as likely. If Cushing gets knocked out for the season for the third year in a row, Reed isn't able to cover in space, and Bullough proves to lack the speed required for the position as some expect, then the Texans will be in trouble.

    Patrick Starr from State of the Texans talked about the often debated Reed-to-inside-linebacker move earlier this year:

    A defensive end at Arizona and an outside linebacker for the Texans 3-4 defense, Reed has really struggled to be more than edge setter in the run game. He has been non-existent as a pass rusher and for a defense that needed a real edge presence, Reed was not the player the Texans hoped he would be.

    The Patriots had Teddy Bruschi who had the same issues as Reed. Went from defensive end at Arizona to inside linebacker for the Patriots, while Romeo Crennel was there as the defensive coordinator. The Texans played with the idea in 2013 with Reed in the middle next to Brian Cushing, but the failures of Trevardo Williams, Willie Jefferson and Sam Montgomery left the Texans no choice but to leave Reed on the outside.

    Reed has done spot duty as an inside linebacker in short yardage situations, and he has the size and speed to play that position in a 3-4 defense.

    Reed underperformed at outside linebacker over the last two seasons and was in danger of losing his job even before the selection of Jadeveon Clowney. With Clowney and Whitney Mercilus both on the roster, moving Reed to inside linebacker was a necessity. After racking up six sacks over 11 starts during his rookie year while filling in for an injured Mario Williams, Reed totaled just 5.5 sacks over his next 28 starts over the last two years combined.

    While Reed contributed almost nothing as a pass-rusher, he did play strong against the run, which should serve him well at this new position. He doesn't have great speed for outside linebacker, but he has more than enough for inside linebacker. He hasn't been great in coverage, but he's better than main competition Bullough in that area of the game.

    This position is Reed's to lose.

Slot Cornerback

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    Associated Press

    If Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season was today, Brandon Harris would be the Texans' third cornerback and receive the lion's share of the snaps in the slot. As much as I would like to see football this week, it's a good thing that the season doesn't start now, and because of that, Harris' job is by no means safe.

    He was almost invisible through the first three years of his career with zero starts. The former second-round pick was also left off the active game-day roster for the majority of his first two seasons, so he doesn't have a firm grasp on the starting gig.

    The players expected to push him are second-year player A.J. Bouye and rookies Andre Hal and Marcus Williams; the latter was impressive during the rookie minicamp, according to Patrick Starr of State of the Texans:

    Williams was the only priority free agent cornerback brought in by the Texans and joined drafted rookie Andre Hal getting majority of the work during the three day session.  With the lack of depth at corner back, Williams has solid ball skills and has the frame to compete for a roster spot. Initially not looking like a boundary corner at the moment, his physical nature he displayed at North Dakota State could be a good fit at nickel cornerback for the Texans.

    He has some work to do on his overall technique to be successful on the NFL level, but he has the skill set to get to that point.

    Bouye made the team last year after going undrafted and has also looked solid during OTAs, according to Jayson Braddock of Sportstalk 790:

    In 1/2 field reps, AJ Bouye continued to flash his break on the ball potential. #Texans

    — Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) May 28, 2014

    Braddock wasn't the only one impressed by A.J. Bouye. Starr wrote:

    Second-year cornerback A.J. Bouye has been impressive with the way he has picked up where he left off from last season. He has what you want in cornerback: a good feel for routes and more importantly on what to do when the ball is in the air. He is taking advantage of his opportunity when he gets on the field once again and is showing he belongs on this team.

    Harris has the most experience of the four players mentioned, but his experience is still limited for a three-year veteran. Of all the battles talked about in this article, this could be the last one decided because the veteran in the lead is far from a strong incumbent. Harris isn't leading this race because he's proved to be a strong player; he's leading because his challengers have almost no experience.

    When Harris has made it to the field, he's had a problem with getting flagged and burned by a good double move. Williams and Hal are a bit of an unknown, but I wouldn't be surprised if one of them passes Harris on the depth chart.

Kicker

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    David Seelig/Associated Press

    Randy Bullock was selected by the Texans in the fifth round of the 2012 draft; that's a pretty high spot for a kicker. Since that moment, nothing has gone right for the Texas A&M Aggie.

    He missed the entire 2012 season with a leg injury and then followed that up with a shaky performance in 2013. The Houston native made just 74.3 percent of his kicks last season, which ranked him second to last in the league to Sebastian Janikowski. He was even worse from long distance, going just 13-of-22 on kicks 40 yards or longer.

    Bullock's struggles were highlighted during late-game pressure situations early in the season. He missed all three of his kicks during the Week 2 game against the Tennessee Titans, including a kick from 46 yards at the end of regulation; the Texans had to win the game during overtime.

    He also missed three field goals during the three-point loss to the Colts at home in November. Included in that were two misses during the fourth quarter.

    Bullock's challenger is Chris Boswell, another Texas native with a big leg. General manager Rick Smith said of Boswell, according to Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston: "He’s got a big leg. He came and he did a really good job at our pro day. We had our local workout. He was a very impressive man in that environment." 

    Former Rice kicker Boswell struggled with accuracy as well, going 14-of-21 last season, so he shouldn't be viewed as the savior at the position. Bullock went a perfect 12-of-12 over the Texans' last seven games, so he showed improvement but didn't face many pressure situations during that time. Boswell is definitely alive in the competition.

    My guess is that the coaching staff will let the competition go all the way through the final preseason game before making a decision. Bullock is the starter for now, but Boswell can win the gig with a better performance.

    Even if Boswell doesn't win the job, signing him to compete with Bullock was a great idea. The incumbent should view the signing as a challenge to his job, so we'll get another chance to see how he'll hold up under pressure.

    Bullock needs to answer the big questions about his toughness and ability to come through under pressure. If he's able to win this competition, that will go a long way toward answering those questions and easing the minds of the coaches and fans.

Kick Returner

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    Associated Press

    Keshawn Martin performed well as a kick and punt returner in college for Michigan State with three returns for a touchdown, but it hasn't translated into NFL success. Some of the blame was put on longtime special teams coordinator Joe Marciano when he was fired shortly after Gary Kubiak was let go.

    Martin improved from 23rd in 2012 to ninth last year in yards per kickoff return but never gave fans the feeling that he was a threat for a big return. He fared worse as a punt returner with a rank of 18th in yards per return.

    The problems I noticed while watching Martin the last two years were indecisiveness and not being able to identify and hit the hole quickly enough. He danced around too much, which allowed opposing defenders time to get downfield, swarm around him and kill the return. Part of that could have been the poor blocking in front of him, so I hope he gets another shot.

    Drafting Jay Prosch to add to the special teams unit and letting Ryan Griffin spend more time on that side of the ball now that the team has C.J. Fiedorowicz to take more snaps at tight end should improve the unit, regardless of who is named the return man.

    There's no sense in naming Martin the starter now; this competition should be allowed to play out over the preseason. The other players who are expected to be in the competition are wide receiver Alan Bonner, running back Dennis Johnson and cornerbacks Andre Hal and Marcus Williams, assuming they all make the roster.

    From James Palmer of CSN Houston, Hal loved playing the role of kick returner at Vanderbilt but never returned punts: "I love returning kicks. I did it all of my career at Vanderbilt; I did it in high school. I had a touchdown against Georgia my sophomore year. I like doing it man. I like having the ball in my hands."

    Martin has the edge as of now, but whoever wins the job will be someone who can make the roster at his main position as well; the Texans won't keep a return-only specialist. I like Johnson, who became the return man late last year when Wade Phillips took over, but it will be difficult for him to make the roster with Arian Foster, Andre Brown and Alfred Blue ahead of him.

    Of all the names I listed, Martin and Hal have the best chances to make the roster, so I expect one of them to be the primary returner, or they'll possibly split the duties until a clear winner emerges.