5 Houston Texans Who Will Steal Starting Spots in Training Camp
The roster and depth chart for the Houston Texans will be a very fluid situation during training camp and the preseason.
Some veterans are locked into starting roles, such as J.J. Watt, Andre Johnson, Brian Cushing, Johnathan Joseph, Arian Foster, Duane Brown and Ryan Fitzpatrick, assuming they all stay healthy, but many other spots are up for grabs.
With a new coaching staff who will want different things from each position compared to the previous staff, players who used to be a good scheme fit no longer meet position requirements. Nowhere on the roster is that more true than the defensive line.
Under Wade Phillips, the Texans defensive linemen were allowed to penetrate and play some as one-gap defenders. In contrast, under Romeo Crennel, the Texans defensive linemen—except for Watt—will be asked to play more as two-gap run-stuffers than penetrating pass-rushers.
With the change in philosophy and much roster turnover, spots are more open this year than they have been in the past.
Over the next several slides I'll go over a few names that could surprise people and possibly take a veteran's starting job with a good training camp and preseason.
Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are safe, but Brandon Harris could be in trouble.
Brandon Harris having a rough go at it today. Plenty if completions on him today. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
Technically the slot corner position is not a starter, but Bill O'Brien and Romeo Crennel have said the Texans will play in their nickel or sub-package about 70 percent of the time. If that ends up being true, Harris or whomever wins the slot corner job will be on the field as much as a starter.
The player who could take away the spot from Harris is seventh-round draft choice Andre Hal.
While Harris has struggled, the rookie from Vanderbilt has stepped up during training camp and is playing more like a veteran than the 2011 second-round pick.
Even though Harris has been in the league for three years, his experience in terms of playing time has actually been limited, so the gap between the two isn't as great as you would expect.
Andre Hal has picked it up since a slow start today. Breaks up a deep pass Intended for McClung. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
Hal has hit a few bumps in the road as you would expect from a late-round rookie, but he's definitely outplayed his draft status. He's also outplayed Harris when matched up against future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson and 2013 first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins.
Deep down the middle Fitzy to Andre and he catches it one handed (David Tyree-style). Catch by by Andre Hal that is, defending 80— AdamWexlerCSN (@awexler) July 27, 2014
Rookie Andre Hal with the interception of Fitz on a drop ball to Andre Johnson. Hal with great coverage. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 27, 2014
Most players would be intimidated against competition of that level, but Hal hasn't backed down and has actually gotten the better of the matchup on occasion.
Hal seems to enjoy playing tight, physical coverage, which will fit in with what should be a more aggressive defense this season. While the more immediate opening is in the slot, Hal is also a candidate to play on the outside if Joseph or Jackson gets hurt or just needs a rest during the game.
Bottom line, Harris has had his chance. Maybe it wasn't a great chance because he barely played, but you could also argue that he never earned it during practice over his first three seasons. The new coaching staff didn't select Harris, so loyalty to a former high pick shouldn't be a factor in the position battle.
C.J. Fiedorowicz and Garrett Graham will play different roles despite being listed at the same position, and both will be on the field for most offensive snaps, but who will be listed as the first tight end on the depth chart might not be a lock.
Graham had a great season last year with limited playing time. Despite only playing 13 games, starting just 11 due to injury and being behind Owen Daniels before Daniels got hurt, Graham still finished 2013 with career highs in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Graham's stat line of 49 receptions, 545 yards and five touchdowns may not be eye-popping, but as I pointed out in a previous article for Bleacher Report, his per-game average in those stats after the injury to Daniels multiplied out over a full season would have put him near the top at the position.
Taking his per-game average in that time period of four receptions for 50 yards, he'd end up 64 receptions for 800 yards over a full 16-game season—good enough for the top 10 among tight ends in both stats.
Saying all that, it seems hard to believe that a rookie third-round pick could take Graham's spot this year, but Fiedorowicz has much higher upside.
Fiedorowicz has better size and physical talent than the other tight ends, is a better blocker than the other tight ends and could potentially develop into a better receiver than the other tight ends.
From P.D. Starr of State of the Texans, Fiedorowicz has played well during training camp but is still working on parts of his game that weren't used while at Iowa.
He is a polished inline blocker and has a chance to become a better pass catcher. His pass catching is not the issue, it is the fine tuning of his route running that needs work. If Fiedorowicz keeps blocking the way he has been in the first two day of pads, he will be finding more snaps when gamedays arrive.
At worst, Fiedorowicz will be lined up as the inline tight end or "Y" receiver with Graham ahead of him as the starter. Fiedorowicz is already a better blocker than Graham, so only his development as a receiver will hold him back and prevent him from moving ahead of Graham on the depth chart.
The former Iowa tight end has better hands and ability after the catch than most give him credit for possessing. Bill O'Brien saw that skill set during the Texans' workout of Fiedorowicz before the draft, and draft analysts like Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com also saw reason to believe he could develop into a great receiving tight end.
Surprising lower-body flexibility to sink his hips to run sharp-angle routes. 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.
Graham is a good player and deserves to have a large role on this team, but it's only a matter of time before Fiedorowicz moves ahead of him on the depth chart. How quickly that happens will depend on how soon Fiedorowicz tightens up his route running and learns the offense.
When the Texans signed veteran offensive lineman Will Yeatman, many, including myself, assumed he'd at best provide depth but more likely get cut by the end of training camp.
After the unfortunate loss of David Quessenberry and the poor performance of recent addition Tyson Clabo, Yeatman looks like he won't just make the roster, but may push for playing time.
Derek Newton was named the starter at right tackle during OTAs, but given his performance last season and what little the Texans had at the position when the announcement was made, I don't think Newton's grasp on the gig is very strong.
Clabo—a former Miami Dolphin and Atlanta Falcon—was brought in to provide depth at right tackle and possibly push Newton, but he's been outplayed by the younger Yeatman.
In particular, Clabo has looked painfully slow and uncoordinated when dropping in his pass protection, which has led some to wonder if he'll even make the team.
Offensive tackle Will Yeatman has been better than Tyson Clabo. Not even close at the moment. Yeatman looking like a good pickup. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 30, 2014
He's been a forgotten man since the Texans signed Tyson Clabo, but the O-lineman that jumped out to me was Will Yeatman.— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) July 30, 2014
Let me be clear that none of their options at right tackle currently are ideal starters. However, if Clabo is washed up and Newton doesn't look any better during the preseason than he did in 2013, why not give Yeatman a shot if he continues to play well and see what he can do?
It's not like playing Yeatman over Newton and Clabo would be like putting some great prospect or a savvy veteran with plenty left in the tank on the bench. If both of them stink, you might as well try the new guy because the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Justin Tuggle over Akeem Dent is looking closer and closer to becoming reality.
I mean that more in terms of Tuggle receiving more snaps than technically taking Dent's starting gig, but either way the former undrafted free agent is coming on strong during training camp.
One of the biggest jumps from last year to this year is ILB Justin Tuggle. 2 days of contact he has impressed. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 29, 2014
It appears the lack of depth at outside linebacker—especially as Jadeveon Clowney works through his injury and recovers from surgery—has put an end to the Brooks Reed-at-inside linebacker experiment for now.
That could be something the Texans go back to during the regular season, but for now the inside linebackers playing next to Brian Cushing will be Dent, Tuggle, Jeff Tarpinian and Max Bullough.
Tarpinian and Bullough are both situational players in my view, so the starting job will likely come down to either Dent or Tuggle.
Dent—who came over to the Texans from the Falcons in a trade that involved T.J. Yates—has more experience playing the position, but I think Tuggle's versatility could lead to him receiving more snaps. As I've covered on Bleacher Report well over a dozen times, versatility will be key in everything the Texans do under Bill O'Brien.
Tuggle can play on the inside, he can play on the outside and can stuff the run, and while he's by no means great in coverage, he can also cover better than Dent.
The former Falcon reminds me a lot of past Texans inside linebackers like Joe Mays and Bradie James who played well at times but had very specific roles as two-down linebackers. Dent can't play in obvious pass situations, but Tuggle's ability to rush the passer and drop back should give him an opportunity to play on third down.
Tuggle's three-down ability along with his experience on special teams make him a very valuable member of the Texans defense. Dent has a slight lead on the position as of now, but to borrow a baseball term, Tuggle has the go-ahead run coming up to the plate.
The injury to third-round pick Louis Nix III has opened the door for Jeoffrey Pagan.
While some would assume the injury to Nix would mean that veteran free-agent addition Jerrell Powe would take over the position, I'm not so sure.
Playing Powe at nose tackle makes sense given his size and familiarity with the Romeo Crennel system, but I've been intrigued by the play of the former Alabama lineman.
Pagan lacks the size you would expect from a Crennel nose tackle but has still shown the ability to get the job done. He's been able to use his height and still pretty big frame to stack up blockers and plug holes.
Ideally the nose tackle in this scheme should be around 330 pounds, but if he's still able to clog up the line and allow the linebackers to roam and make plays, what difference does it make what the scale says?
From J Tadpole via Brett Kollman of the Battle Red Blog, Pagan wasn't easily moved in college, which could make him a nice candidate to play the nose position.
Pagan is your classic two-gap immovable object who excels as a roadblock against the run. You basically never see him moved off the football. He has also been revered for his work ethic- was a 180-pound WR coming into his sophomore year of high school then put on 100 pounds to rate as a four-star DE at graduation.
A two-gap immovable object is exactly what you want from your nose tackle.
Not surprisingly, Pagan was behind coming into training camp because his recovery from an offseason surgery kept him out of minicamp and OTAs, but once his learning catches up he has a great chance to earn playing time.
While Powe does have some advantages over the sixth-round pick, as I mentioned earlier, let's not pretend he's a proven factor at nose tackle. Powe has played in just 12 games over his three-year NFL career—with one NFL start—and was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs in the middle of the season in 2013.
Powe fits the mold and has experience under Crennel, but he's far from a lock to man the nose tackle position until Nix returns.