Houston Texans' 5 Veterans Who Could Be Camp Casualties
The Houston Texans are only into the first week of training camp, and already the revolving door is spinning away. Players are coming and going in an effort to assemble a roster capable of reversing the misfortunes of last year.
Tyson Clabo, a five-year starter at right tackle for the Atlanta Falcons, was signed to push Derek Newton and bolster the position. Nose tackle David Hunter, who was on the Texans practice squad in 2012, was invited back to fill in for the injured Louis Nix III.
These are just a few of the transactions that have occurred over the last 10 days. If this was a theatrical production, it could be said that all this activity involved understudies. They are just a preview of bigger changes to come for some actual members of the cast.
There are a half-dozen veterans whose hold on their roster spot could be described as precarious. On a more experienced team, there would be more, but 50 of the 91 names listed on the Texans website are either rookies or in their second year. These five stand a chance of being on the waiver wire instead of the 53-man roster once the final cut-downs are made.
When Harris was drafted in 2011, it appeared as if the Texans and general manager Rick Smith had lucked out. To acquire a first-round talent at cornerback with the 28th pick of the second round looked like a real coup.
His draft profile at NFL.com showed Harris with a grade of 7.87, a “Future All-Pro” by their rankings at the time. The people behind the scenes of the NFL’s draft coverage tightened up their grading criteria at some point, giving once-in-a-lifetime prospect Jadeveon Clowney a 7.5 this year.
Whatever his relative standing in the 2011 draft class, there were high hopes Harris could be a key contributor early in his career. With Brice McCain and Jason Allen established as the nickel and backup corners, there was little playing time to spare in his rookie season, logging just 28 snaps by the count of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Jason Allen was released in the offseason, but it took McCain breaking his foot in Week 11 for Harris to finally get on the field in 2012. Covering the slot receiver was a new experience, and he was up and down for the remainder of the season.
His performance failed to inspire any confidence in defensive backs coach Vance Joseph come 2013. While McCain was in the process of having the worst season of his career at slot corner, Harris was only an occasional replacement at the position.
His 210 snaps for the entire schedule were less than the 239 he recorded in the last eight games of 2012. The few times he was tested in slot coverage, players such as Kendall Wright, Cecil Shorts and T.Y. Hilton had little trouble doing what they pleased.
The new coaching staff considers versatility to be one of the most desirable qualities. Bill O’Brien mentioned during OTAs how well outside corner Kareem Jackson was handling the slot:
A slot corner has to have quickness, has to have strength, has to have awareness and has to be able to, relative to the strength, be able to tackle. ... It is a position that is very tough to play. When you have a guy like Kareem (Jackson) that is doing that for us right now, who can play outside and inside, he’s a guy that is playing inside for us too.
With young defensive backs such as A.J. Bouye, Andre Hal and Marcus Williams to compete against, Harris needed to shine from the opening of training camp. In the eyes of Patrick D. Starr from State of the Texans, he has already fallen behind:
Struggles for Brandon Harris today were real. The offense picked up the pace and tested him and won. Harris needs to respond tomorrow.— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
This is the final year of his rookie contract, which carries only $224,878 in dead money by Spotrac’s reckoning. A small price to pay to eliminate such a glaring mistake.
The sixth-year defensive end is the senior citizen on the team’s youngest position group. An overachieving undrafted free agent who has been released and re-signed five times by the Texans, according to their website.
The only season Jamison appeared in all 16 regular season games was 2011, which earned him a new contract in 2012. His good fortune only lasted until Week 6 of that season, when he tore his Achilles tendon. He made the active roster in 2013, but he played in just five games.
This time, he may have run out of second chances.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is looking for down linemen who can play in even techniques. That means going nose-to-nose with guards and tackles and potentially tying up two blockers. Jamison has survived this long as a situational pass-rusher, a specialty that has less value in the current defensive system.
The show ponies in a Crennel defense are the linebackers, and the linemen are draft animals. The most sacks ever recorded by a defensive lineman on one of his teams was eight by Keith McKenzie of the 2000 Cleveland Browns.
When Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com made her first prediction of Houston’s 53-man roster, she slashed the last opening on the D-line: Jeoffrey Pagan/Tim Jamison. Ganguli broke it down by saying, “With Pagan, a sixth-round pick, having been sidelined due to injury it's been hard to tell what he can give the Texans. Jamison has some history with the team and has a decent shot of remaining on it.”
Both Pagan and Jamison are 6’3”, but the newbie weighs in at 310 pounds, while the vet has trouble tipping the scales at 280 or more. Injured or not, who do you think is better at occupying space?
Let’s see what Patrick D. Starr has to say about Jamison's future:
Jamison and (Keith) Browner could be odd men out in Crennel’s new system. Jamison is a touch undersized and last season he was not utilized much by the team, which led to some questions on why he was not used more. His best attributes as a player is his ability to heat up the passer by pushing the pocket in his pass rush. Jamison’s future rests with injury concerns in front of him at defensive end, but it will be an upward climb for the 6th year Texan.
And a downward fall for one of the grittiest players in the short history of this franchise.
Martin looked like a goner coming into training camp. He should be breathing a little easier now. The would-be slot receiver of the Texans saw one of the chief contenders for his spot, Alan Bonner, dismissed from the team for his second injury in as many seasons.
Then he was noticed on Day 3 of training camp by Bill O'Brien, accompanied by a nice compliment on his recent efforts:
I’ve definitely seen improvement from the first day of, all the way back to our veteran minicamp...I think that whole position has improved, and Keshawn is definitely a part of that. He’s become a better route runner, a more sure handed receiver. It’s a battle at that position. ... He’s a guy that has gotten better and better and very fun guy to coach. Good guy, good team guy and works hard every day.
Maybe Martin has corrected the most glaring shortcoming in his game. The one noticed by Brett Kollman of Battle Red Blog:
In theory, Martin’s quickness and route running should make him the ideal slot receiver in Bill O’Brien’s offense. What Martin does not have, however, is a working pair of hands. Drops have plagued Martin throughout his young career thus far, and until I see anything different on the field I can only assume this problem won’t get better.
In fairness, Martin did improve his percentage of passes caught to 62.9 in 2013 from 38.5 in 2012, per PFF. Then again, that was in an offense that treated the slot receiver as just another set of hands.
As a Bill Belichick protege and offensive coordinator of the Texans, Bill O’Brien will be looking to use the slot or “Y” receiver as the key to much of the passing offense. The short and intermediate slant routs are the basis of the majority of reads that Tom Brady has relied on since Wes Welker joined the New England Patriots in 2007.
The game is changing, and the diminutive prototype such as Welker or Julian Edelman is expanding to include Vincent Jackson, Anquan Boldin and even Andre Johnson. These three big, physical types all ran at least 25 percent of their routes out of the slot, as tabulated by PFF.
Martin could improve and still be supplanted by other receivers already on the roster. Mike Thomas was never a threat to join the ranks of Welker and Percy Harvin, but he did have some productive seasons in the low-octane offense of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Thomas has the knowledge and guile to make a living over the middle, even at 5'8".
Should O’Brien decide he prefers a lot of two-tight end formations with Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin, the need for another sub-6-footer like Martin could evaporate.
There are advantages to keeping a player with 4.4 speed and an average of 26.3 yards per kickoff return. They will work in his favor as long as his hands cooperate. Martin must become close friends with the Jugs machine if he expects to stick around.
“Kicker Randy Bullock is still with the Texans. Why?”
Stradley went on to wonder why the former Texas Aggie was with Houston in the first place. The Groza Award won by Bullock for being the best collegiate field-goal kicker was not the result of long-range marksmanship, given that he was 1-of-2 from 50-plus yards in his senior year.
The award itself is no guarantor of professional success. In the decade before Bullock was selected, just two winners (Nate Kaeding, 2003/Mike Nugent, 2004) out of the 23 kickers taken in the NFL draft were deemed worthy of a pick. Only two others, free agents Graham Gano and Dan Bailey, found steady work in the league.
Two days after the Cardinals loss, three free-agent kickers were brought in to compete for the job. That was the public perception. One of the kickers was former Texan Neil Rackers, who set the team scoring record of 135 points in 2011. He conveyed the reality of the situation to Mark Berman of FOX 26 Sports.
"We all hit the ball really well, but they told us they were not ready to make a move at this point."
The 49-yard attempt that went wide left the following week against the Indianapolis Colts also turned out to be the losing margin. The stubborn decision to not make a change after another game-altering failure was a prime example of Gary Kubiak’s tendency to prize loyalty over production.
That loyalty was rewarded when Bullock made his last 12 attempts of the season, including his only try from over 50 yards. Loyalty is not a transferable commodity.
Bill O’Brien did not invest a fifth-round round draft pick in Bullock and has no motivation to retain him. Chris Boswell, an undrafted free agent from Rice, is expected to receive an equal shot at making the roster.
If neither applicant is qualified for the job, there is no shortage of kickers, young and old, who warrant a tryout. While O’Brien has yet to show us every side of his coaching personality, it’s doubtful playing favorites is one of them.
When T.J. Yates was traded to the Atlanta Falcons for linebacker Akeem Dent, no one was happier than Keenum. Yates was his main challenger in the quarterback pecking order, and now he was off to another team.
By all appearances, Keenum had locked in the backup quarterback spot. Tom Savage had the build, but Keenum had the resume if their performances in training camp needed a tiebreaker.
Bill O’Brien named Ryan Fitzpatrick the starter weeks ago. Keenum has not admitted to have any designs on unseating Fitzpatrick. He told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle just after Yates was traded (subscription required), "I've got to prove myself every day."
Keenum may be a man of faith, but he is no innocent in football matters. Once NFL defenses learned to keep him in the pocket, the fast start in his first three games of 2013 turned into a steep decline over the next five. The result was a 0-8 record as a starter and nothing but bench time in the last three games of the season.
Capt. Ron of the Battle Red Blog gave a fine encapsulation of why Keenum came up winless:
Case Keenum struggled last season after being 'forced' into a scheme that was mostly a mismatch to Keenum's strengths. He had very little support around him with poor pass-protection and the absence of an effective running game due to injuries. The Texans also had to play from behind in most games where they abandoned the run completely.
It is presumed there will be more support this season in the form of running the ball and O-line play. Keenum also has to get better at making the quick read so he can get rid of the ball on time.
His struggles in training camp are understandable as he tries to assimilate the concepts of a new offense. The second round of two-a-days proved to be unkind to Keenum:
I think today might have been the best I've seen Ryan Fitzpatrick. Case Keenum didn't have a great day. Off target a lot. #Texans— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) July 27, 2014
Ball not coming out of Keenum's hand good today. Struggling some to get his accuracy together today ". #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
According to Texans analyst John Harris, Keenum has not progressed past his legendary days at the University of Houston. In his “21 Training Camp Observations: Day 2,” Harris made a Freudian slip when he observed, “Keenum might be the best ‘back shoulder’ college quarterback I've seen and he made one of those throws to Keshawn Martin during 7-on-7 as well.”
The ability to make back-shoulder throws does not define an NFL quarterback, as Harris knows. It starts with making the right pre-snap reads, and in the case of Bill O’Brien’s offense, calling out the offensive line protections as well.
Keenum still has a bit of the gunslinger in him and needs to temper that quality into a more disciplined approach. One that does as well late in the game as it does early. With Keenum at the controls in 2013, the Houston scored 95 points in the first half and 58 in the second.
If all this proves to be too much for Keenum, the Texans have first call on players released by other teams. By the end of August, a lot of names will be floating around who might prove a better fit.
There is a month and four preseason games for Keenum to make certain no one considers that the right move.
Advanced stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).