Breaking Down Houston Texans' 5 Biggest Training Camp Projects
The Houston Texans will be counting on many players to step up and develop quickly this season.
Coming off a 2-14 season and a coaching change, not surprisingly their roster isn't full with reliable veterans at most positions. Rookies and players who spent the majority of their time in years past on the bench will be asked to fill a bigger role.
How quickly those projects become solid contributors will go a long way toward determining the success of the team this year. With the team just a couple of weeks away from starting training camp and finally putting on the pads, we'll soon find out what type of progress they've made.
The years and faces change season to season, but the NFL keeps moving on. Every team has to deal with roster turnover, so using that as an excuse for failure won't be tolerated by many fans. The coaching staff can't dwell on who isn't here, but it, instead, has to focus on getting the most out of who is currently wearing the uniform.
Luckily for the Texans, Bill O'Brien appears to embrace that attitude.
There's no time to worry about the past or the future; the only thing that matters is the present, because what happens now will determine who gets a new contract and who will be looking for a new job.
Not all projects are rookies. Some players who are changing positions or haven't played much, despite this not being their first season, also fit the category.
Here are a few names to track during training camp and the preseason.
Brooks Reed's Transition to Inside Linebacker
The Houston Texans have had a revolving door at the inside linebacker spot next to Brian Cushing ever since the team traded DeMeco Ryans to the Philadelphia Eagles a couple of years ago. Even the spot occupied by Cushing has a big question mark surrounding it given his recent injury issues.
The Texans will attempt to answer that question by moving a former outside linebacker over to a new position. How quickly Brooks Reed takes to inside linebacker and starts to perform will be crucial for the Texans defense.
Moving Reed from the outside to the inside has been discussed for longer than just this offseason. Reed's lackluster performance as a pass-rusher over the last two seasons have helped fuel that speculation.
According to Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com, the move is something Reed has anticipated, and he's ready to take on the challenge.
Obviously, we drafted some talent and the coaches will adapt to switching the players as need be. From the beginning, I’ve been preparing to play inside backer if I had to so I’m ready if I do, I’ll play outside if they need me to play outside.
They are pretty different positions in the 3-4 (defense), that is. But it’s something that I can do and that I’ve done in the past minimally but it’s something that I’m up for if that happens.
The move makes sense for a couple of reasons.
The main reason is that Reed was too often glued to opposing blockers while rushing the passer.
The Texans didn't need Reed to average 10 sacks a year to play on the outside, but his combined total of 5.5 over the last two seasons won't cut it. With the addition of Jadeveon Clowney along with 2012 first-round pick Whitney Mercilus; Reed is no longer needed at outside linebacker.
Secondly, the move fits his strengths.
Reed is a guy who has always handled the run well and can move a little bit in coverage, so his skill set is a better match for inside linebacker compared to outside linebacker. Without the task of having to rush the passer, unless the team decides to blitz, expect Reed's performance to increase in his new role.
This move will also increase the Texans' ability to be versatile on defense, which is important to the new coaching staff.
Depending on the formation or down-and-distance situation, the Texans could move Reed back to outside linebacker with Clowney and Mercilus moving to defensive end.
It's just another wrinkle in what should be an exciting and varied attack from the Texans defense.
If he hits his potential, C.J. Fiedorowicz has a chance to become the total package at tight end.
The Texans already have two talented players at the position, but they lacked a player who could excel in both receiving and blocking duties. Last season with Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin—with little exception—the opponent probably knew what their assignment would be each play while they were on the field.
Ryan Griffin was the blocker, while Garrett Graham was the primary receiver at the position. Of course they mixed it up some, but neither player excelled at the other task.
In a common theme this offseason, the development—or lack thereof—of Fiedorowicz will be a big determining factor of the level of versatility the offense can achieve.
Having Fiedorowicz on the field will keep opposing defenses guessing more than they did last season.
While he wasn't utilized much as a receiver in college—had 91 catches for 899 yards total over three seasons—that was more due to the offense at Iowa than it being a knock on his skill as a receiver.
That underutilized skill as a receiver was something Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com noticed during his predraft evaluation.
Has stature and enough speed to threaten the seam. Understands how to use his frame and physicality to create subtle separation. Makes athletic hands catches off his frame. Sizable catch radius. Shows toughness and concentration in traffic. Lowers his shoulder to deliver a blow after the catch.
With Fiedorowicz lined up inline with the offensive line as a traditional tight end, that will allow Graham to split out more often as a receiver. If Fiedorowicz is successful, it will also allow Griffin to move around some as a possible H-back depending on the formation.
His development will make the Texans more versatile and increase their options on offense.
In today's NFL, tight ends are often pegged as either receivers or blockers, but the guys who can do both are rare. Fiedorowicz is that rare breed and should keep opposing defenses guessing when he's on the field.
Can Alfred Blue Win the Backup Running Back Position?
The Houston Texans have two big question marks on their depth chart at running back. I'm referring, of course, to who their two backups will be, but considering Arian Foster's health concerns, let's make that three question marks.
One answer to those questions should come from sixth-round pick Alfred Blue. The rookie from LSU was underutilized in college due to a crowded backfield and some injury problems, but he is poised to have a better NFL career than college career.
Of course until they put the pads on, it will be hard to answer the questions for sure, but what makes Blue so intriguing is the comparisons of his skill set to the Texans' star at running back.
Patrick D. Starr of State of the Texans is one of the people who has taken notice of the similarities.
Rookie running back Alfred Blue is one to watch. He can do a little bit of it all and looks very comparable skill wise to what Foster can do. We are not saying they are currently on the same level but they are from the same mold as a player. One who can one cut and get up field and catch the football with ease.
Starr also thinks Blue will be a good fit in the O'Brien offense.
Blue fits the mold that O’Brien has been preaching with versatility and most impressive is his pass catching ability out of the backfield. He has hands like a receiver and his running style is smooth when he gets the ball in open field.
The New England Patriots under O'Brien used their running backs as receiving targets better than most teams and plan to do the same with Foster. With what they plan to do with their starter, Blue's ability as a pass-catcher will likely help determine how much playing time he receives as a rookie.
That skill set as a receiver should set him apart from his main competition—Andre Brown—for the role of being the primary backup to Foster. Brown has proven to be a solid runner when healthy over his NFL career, but he has just 32 career receptions.
Going into the 2014 season at the age of 28 and coming off back surgery, Foster shouldn't receive over 300 touches in my opinion. The Texans will need a backup capable of executing similar plays and assignments when Foster is off the field to avoid a drop-off in production.
Whenever Blue gets up to speed on learning the NFL style and the Texans offense, he will be that guy.
The O'Brien offensive system will require more from its slot receiver than under former coach Gary Kubiak. According to Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com, unlike Kubiak who often just gave the slot-receiver role to whoever was the third receiver on the depth chart, O'Brien has said he will treat it as a separate position.
So who will line up in that new and more important position? Those duties will likely be shared between veteran free-agent addition Mike Thomas and 2013 sixth-round pick Alan Bonner. How evenly the snaps are split will be determined by the growth and development of Bonner.
Bonner was a guy many were high on after he played well last year during training camp, but unfortunately for him, an injury put him on injured reserve (IR) and ended his year before the regular season began. Bonner has again looked good during minicamp and OTAs, according to Starr, but we need to see him in game situations.
Bonner possesses more natural athletic talent than Thomas, but without any NFL experience, he will face a tough challenge trying to learn the offense and learn what it takes to compete at the pro level. Both players are capable of contributing as the return man on special teams which could spell the end for Keshawn Martin.
The ideal slot receiver is very quick in short and small spaces, can make tough catches while getting hit, is capable as a run-blocker and is able to read the coverage to take advantage of more two-way go's than receivers have on the outside. Bonner has the first two qualifications in spades, but we won't find out where he stands in the other two areas until the Texans get back on the field for training camp.
Thomas will likely be the starter when the season opens against the Washington Redskins, but both players should make the roster and be counted on to make an impact.
How Quickly Will Tom Savage Develop?
The Houston Texans seem to have playoff-caliber talent at nearly every position on the roster, except for the most important one: quarterback.
The team didn't invest as highly in their future quarterback as many fans wanted and opted, instead, to add a fourth-round pick. Since it is unlikely that the rookie will be ready to play for Week 1, the Texans will saddle their hope for a better season on the back of veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick might be capable of playing more efficiently than the Texans' starters last season, but he has also been a quarterback prone to making mistakes over the majority of his career. In fact during his only two seasons as a full 16-game starter, Fitzpatrick threw for a combined total of 39 interceptions—not very efficient.
So what, then, will aforementioned rookie Tom Savage's role be?
Savage has more natural and physical talent than either Fitzpatrick or Case Keenum, but he must overcome a steep learning curve. The already toilsome learning curve for the typical rookie will be made more difficult because of the complex nature of the Texans offense and the fact that Savage went two years without playing during the middle of his college career.
Fitzpatrick could turn out to be a decent option as a stopgap until a more talented player is ready to take over. Just as likely an option, however, is Fitzpatrick turns out to be a disaster, forcing the Texans to make a change.
If Savage isn't ready when that moment comes, the Texans will have to turn to Keenum. I wouldn't mind seeing what Keenum is capable of in the new offense, but of the guys currently on their roster, Savage is clearly their future.
Savage has the size and arm strength required to play the position at a high level, but he will have to prove to the coaching staff that he can execute in the other areas of the game. Other areas include his accuracy and not staring down his receiver which he struggled with in college.
Once he makes the necessary strides in those areas, the job will be his.
The Texans have to hope that moment will come soon.
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