6 Biggest Areas of Concern for Houston Texans Heading into Training Camp

Jeffery Roy@Jeff_n_WestburyContributor IIIJuly 17, 2014

6 Biggest Areas of Concern for Houston Texans Heading into Training Camp

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    As the road to training camp for the 2014 Houston Texans grows shorter every day, the list of concerns surrounding the team keeps getting longer.

    The trial separation between Andre Johnson and the organization threatens to turn into a full-fledged divorce. The rehab of Jadeveon Clowney’s sports hernia could take away vital reps in contact drills and exhibition games. The linchpin of the defense, Brian Cushing, is saving himself for the regular season by sitting out the entirety of the preseason.

    If these were the only things keeping Texans fans awake at night, they could be quickly covered so the conversation could move on to more positive areas. This short list is followed by other concerns that will keep people talking up until the season opener and beyond.

Wide Receiver Uncertainty

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    Andre Johnson broke his silence of the last two months when he spoke to NFL Media's Marcus Smith on July 9. In a brief recap of the discussion that was reported by the NFL’s Marc Sessler, Johnson gave conflicting responses on where he stands with the Texans.

    When asked if he would show up for training camp, Johnson answered, “Hopefully. We'll see what happens. Training camp's three weeks away, so we'll see what happens."

    Will he be in the lineup for the season opener against the Washington Redskins? Johnson’s reply was, "I don't know. I can't answer that question."

    Then Ian Rapaport, the NFL’s top media insider, tweeted the next morning that four teams were interested a trade for the Texans' all-time leading receiver. Later that day, Sessler expanded the list to eight teams.

    John McClain, Texans beat writer with the Houston Chronicle, predicted in his article of July 10: “When he finally reports, probably before the Washington opener, Johnson will work as hard as ever, keep his mouth shut as he always does, learn his new system, have another terrific season, and continue to augment his Hall of Fame resume.” 

    Johnson had better show up, because if he digs his heels in and refuses to report, this outfit is left with a group of wide receivers worthy of an expansion team.

    DeAndre Hopkins will someday develop into a No. 1 receiver. He is just not ready to take over in his sophomore campaign. If Hopkins is forced to accept that position, who is prepared to be No. 2?

    Journeyman Mike Thomas was signed to play in the slot, not line up outside the numbers and run post routes. DeVier Posey has shown tantalizing displays of talent, but his value as an every-down receiver is unknown after two seasons of contending with injuries. It appears that Keshawn Martin does not have the hands to match his 4.45 speed.

    Alan Bonner, Alec Lemon or Travis Labhart could be the next Wes Welker, an undrafted free agent who was traded to the New England Patriots the same year Bill O’Brien joined their staff as an offensive assistant. It still took Welker two teams and three seasons before his ability was recognized.

    O’Brien did wonders keeping the Penn State program from plunging into the abyss after an unprecedented scandal. Patching together an effective group of wideouts from a skeleton crew of fresh-faced youngsters would be difficult but not nearly as challenging.

Quarterback Competency

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    The quarterbacks of the 2014 Texans are a convenient punching bag. Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth is the latest combatant to get his licks in.

    His list of the “Five Worst Quarterback Situations” starts off with Houston at No. 28. Tanier correctly ascertains the draft options open to the Texans this year and concludes none of the prospects at quarterback represented the best use of the No. 1 overall pick.

    He even grants that among the free agents at the position, Ryan Fitzpatrick “may have been the best of the bunch, Josh McCown included, but that's not saying much.”

    A good example of “damning with faint praise,” Tanier concludes Fitzpatrick is his own worst enemy. The evidence given is last year’s overtime game between the Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals, which was “lost, won, then lost again.”

    Tanier could have piled on, considering the 0-8 record of Case Keenum as a starter. Tom Savage and all his wandering before putting in just one full season at the University of Pittsburgh was also fair game for criticism.

    Just the same, there is something for Bill O’Brien and quarterbacks coach George Godsey to work with.

    The Texans have not been very good in the red zone in recent years, ranking 23rd and 14th in their division-winning seasons of 2011 and 2012. Fitzpatrick threw for eight touchdowns with no interceptions and a passer rating of 110.5 inside the 20-yard line in 2013. Keenum completed only six red-zone passes, but five went for scores.

    Fitzpatrick has never played for a team that had a top-10 rushing attack. The Texans running game was little help for Keenum, ranking 20th in yardage and 28th in rushing touchdowns last year.

    The emphasis of the Texans offense in 2014 will remain the same whether or not Andre Johnson comes to his senses. A team does not draft the best guard prospect, a block-first tight end, a 225-pound running back and a smashmouth fullback to create a facsimile of the Denver Broncos.

    The model is more along the lines of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, who have both run the ball more than they have passed it in the last two seasons. True, there is not a Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick on this squad. That will hopefully come later.

    In the meantime, Fitzpatrick has to learn to not give the game away. If he can’t, then a top-five pick in next year’s draft will make his stay in Houston a short one.

Running Back Depth

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    We shall start off by assuming Arian Foster will be healthy for all 16 games in 2014. A risky assumption, no doubt, but for the sake of argument we’ll let it ride.

    The risk is not just the result of his recent injury history, but also his age. Foster turns 28 on August 24, an age where the production of running backs takes a steep dive. An analysis by ESPN Stats & Information shows running backs' rushing and receiving numbers fall by 15 percent after 27 and continue to drop every year after that.

    The best way to preserve the man who promises to be the focal point of the offense is to cut back on his reps. If that offense is designed to live on the ground, somebody, in fact some bodies, are going to have to pick up the slack.

    The Texans roster has several candidates. The problem is the big backs, Andre Brown and Alfred Blue, have their own recent injury histories. Brown had concussions in 2012 and 2013 and a broken left leg in both seasons. Blue saw his potential breakout season at LSU cut short by a torn ACL in the third game of the schedule.

    The small backs, Dennis Johnson and Jonathan Grimes, are untested when it comes to handling the wear and tear of a 16-game season. Johnson had 57 touches in 2013, and Grimes had 27. Last season is the entire body of work for each of these players.

    The myth is that accomplished practitioners of this position have become as disposable as moist towelettes. Want a small back? Deji Karim, a member of the 2013 Texans, is an unsigned free agent. Big backs are a harder to come by, but Michael Bush happens to be on the market.

    Players of this caliber are the disposable type and readily available. Ideally, every team in the league would like at least two reliable backup running backs. They bide their time on special teams until they are needed to tote the ball or gather in a pass.

    If Foster goes down and his production has to be replaced, look out. Brown is brittle, and Blue (6’2”) runs tall, which makes him an excellent target for defensive headhunters. The better choice is to go with the small back.

    In the last five years, seven players 6’2” or taller have gained over 500 yards in a season. Twenty-six players 5’10" or less have hit the same landmark. Short guys are easier to acquire and harder to find on the field.

    A little variety can’t hurt, so keeping one of each type could be the way to go. Just hope that kick coverage doesn’t put any of them on injured reserve.

Defensive Line Rotation

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    The concept of a rotation for the defensive line of the Texans makes for an appropriate analogy.

    J.J. Watt is the axle of the line, and the rest of the unit makes up the wheel that rotates around him. The analogy becomes flimsy once you realize the axle has been forged from titanium and the wheel is composed of rubber bands.

    The question is, which of these rubber bands is the dollar-store variety and which is industrial strength? At this point, there is no way to tell from the packaging.

    In a 3-4, two-gap system, the nose tackle has got to be able to handle the stress. If the middle of the line is soft, the entire defense is at a disadvantage.

    Is Louis Nix ready to make the leap from the collegiate level to starting in the NFL? He lost weight to look his best at the combine and was still in the same range in the 40-yard dash (5.42) as other players who were over 320 pounds. His first step is what really counts, and that was pretty quick when he was carrying 350 pounds most of his career.

    The alternative is Jerrell Powe, who has the same dimensions as Nix (6’2”, 331 lbs) without the cachet of being the ideal prospect in his draft class for the position. Powe played for defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in Kansas City, and this sort of familiarity seems to breed contentment.

    Who is the best defensive end to line up opposite Watt? Tim Jamison is a fine pass-rusher when healthy, but he hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2011. Jared Crick is a stout run-plugger but is slow off the line and has nothing more than a rip move in his pass-rushing arsenal.

    Jeoffrey Pagan has the edge in size (6’3”, 310 lbs) over the rest of the competition at end. Before he was signed by the Texans, Pagan expressed his pleasure at playing in a defense that looked for him to be a two-gap, multi-technique lineman. That could be an admission his capabilities do not allow him to do anything more than fill the gaps, making backfield penetration unlikely.

    Ricardo Mathews is the sole experienced veteran besides Watt. Six starts in four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts is not a stirring recommendation. Then again, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney took most of the snaps, leaving little playing time for Mathews.

    That makes for one axle and six rubber bands. Most 3-4 defenses carry only six defensive linemen. Jadeveon Clowney might put his hand on the ground in passing situations, turning the smallest defensive end into a luxury.

    Jamison is undersized at 287 pounds, probably making him the odd man out. It also takes away his five years of experience, though his infirmities kept him out of 37 games over that time. This rubber band snapped too many times.

Linebacker Flexibility

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    The linebackers in a Romeo Crennel defense are supposed to make most of the noise. Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest in New England, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in Kansas City and even Kamerion Wimbley in Cleveland benefited from this philosophy.

    This position group in Houston is ready to shine, particularly after its dingy season in 2013.

    Jadeveon Clowney is ready to become the 21st century version of Lawrence Taylor. Brian Cushing is ready to start earning his six-year, $55.6 million contract extension. Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus are ready to climb out of the bottom of the Pro Football Focus rankings (subscription required) for 3-4 outside linebackers.

    Reed may not get that chance if the shift over to inside linebackers becomes a reality. The switch has been taken as a given, with an article on the Houston Texans website by Deepi Sidhu describing the move.

    Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel refuses to give the move his unwavering support. In a June 30 press conference, Crennel was asked by John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, “Is Brooks an inside linebacker now?” Crennel answered:

    Well, not totally. We’re giving him a look on the inside and I think what that does is increase our flexibility that if he can go inside and get it done inside, then he can go outside. He played all outside last year, so now I feel like I can put him at either spot depending on what the needs are, and he’s a value to us.

    This coaching staff is big on adaptability and flexibility. Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston covered the Bill O’Brien press conference after the close of the mandatory minicamp on June 29. In his “10 observations,” Zangaro listed one as “Versatility is key.” Quoting O’Brien:

    I think every position, with the exception of quarterback, punter, place kicker, long snapper are fluid. They have to be able to play multiple roles. This is way in the future here, but when you can only have 46 guys on a game-day roster, the phrase ‘the more you can do’ is a really important phrase.

    That is another way of telling opponents, “You won’t be sure where we’re coming from or what we will do.”

    Mercilus flipping over to the strong side has escaped the notice of most Texans watchers. This switch was as inevitable with Reed sliding over to the inside. “More drops into coverage instead of solely rushing, rushing, rushing,” Mercilus said of his added duties on June 18 .

    Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller rated all the linebacker corps in the league and put the Texans at No. 3.

    You see, the Texans already had a very good linebacker group before they drafted Jadeveon Clowney and moved Brooks Reed to inside 'backer.

    Clowney and Mercilus coming off the edge gives Houston two freakishly long athletes with the talent to beat blockers in multiple ways. Stack them off of Reed and All-Pro-caliber Brian Cushing and you have four linebackers who are very difficult to scheme against.

    Reed will be moving inside, at least some of the time. Mercilus will be moving to the closed side of the formation and covering the tight end more often. Clowney will be moving to outside linebacker, standing up instead of coming out of a three-point stance. Maybe Cushing will move to the outside under certain conditions, returning to the position where he started his NFL career.

    A lot of moving parts to sync up and not much time to do it. The total complexity of this defense will not be unveiled until the regular season in order to keep the opposition in the dark. Should it work out as planned, it could be something to behold.

Head Coach Overload

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    Bill O’Brien is the only NFL head coach who does not have an offensive coordinator on his staff. Not delegating this task is reminiscent of Gary Kubiak picking plays from his Denny’s menu replica. Rick Dennison may have had the title of offensive coordinator, but Kubiak was the one making the calls to Matt Schaub over the receiver in his helmet.

    O’Brien’s approach could be “coordinator by committee,” where the offensive position coaches (George Godsey, Stan Hixon, Charles London, etc.) consult with O’Brien to devise the playbook for that week’s opponent.

    A head coach acting as coordinator is nothing new. A look at the top 20 coaches in career wins showed 11 coordinated the offense or defense at some point. The only ones to do it since 2000 were Bill Parcells (Dallas Cowboys 2005-06), Jeff Fisher (St. Louis Rams 2012) and Bill Belichick (New England Patriots 2000, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2011).

    O’Brien’s first exposure to coaching in the NFL came on Belichick’s staff. He worked his way up from offensive assistant to offensive coordinator. It was only natural that when he assumed the head coaching position at Penn State, O’Brien would take over the play-calling for the Nittany Lions offense.

    The dual responsibilities as head coach and coordinator were a familiar role when O’Brien was handed the keys to the Texans offense. Why should he turn over the control to anyone else?

    Jerome Solomon, sports columnist for the Houston Chronicle, in an article titled “Calling plays may cause O'Brien's plate to overflow,” remarked on other NFL coaches who directly managed the offense of their team.

    Despite the logic that the additional responsibility has to take away from attention to other details, there is a growing trend of NFL coaches who want to handle play-calling duties. This season, three first-time NFL head coaches - Arizona's Bruce Arians, Philadelphia's Chip Kelly and Chicago's Marc Trestman - did so.

    Like Kelly's system, O'Brien's offense is complicated. No one knows it better than he does, so it stands to reason no one would be better at calling the plays.

    Those three staffs at least have a “Rick Dennison” coach with the designation of offensive coordinator, even if he only advises the head coach on play selection. The image of Kubiak running the offense from the sideline is still fresh in the minds of his detractors. O’Brien doing the same has got to make some of those same people nervous.

    The possibility his reach has exceeded his grasp may have crossed O’Brien’s mind. This could explain why the plan is to relinquish the play-calling in 2015, according to Solomon. Letting go of something he loves to control is the sign of a man who can learn from someone else’s mistakes.