Houston Texans Training Camp Preview: Top Five Position Battles
With training camp for the Houston Texans just around the corner, there are some very interesting position battles about to unfold.
Some of these battles are by design, and orchestrated by the coaching staff to push incumbent players to perform. Others are more organic, and developing out of a deep pool of talent this team has gathered over the last several drafts.
From the obvious to the subtle, here are a few of the struggles for positions worth following as the 2010 training camp for the Houston Texans progresses.
The most obvious and in your face battle is the kicker competition that team management has instigated between legacy kicker Kris Brown and veteran free agent from the Arizona Cardinals Neil Rackers.
The Texans signed Rackers almost immediately after the 2009 season ended, due to the constant disappointments in the kicking game over the course of the year.
For example, during the 2009 season-ending home victory over the New England Patriots, fans at Reliant Stadium as well as at home on the couch watched in awe as kicker Kris Brown missed two field goals and one extra point.
Knowing that what if scenarios are just what if: What if the game meant as much to New England as it did to Houston? What if Bill Belichick decided not to sit Tom Brady and keep him healthy for the postseason? What if Tom Brady stayed in for the last drive of the game for the Patriots, drove down the field in perfect Brady fashion and scored a touchdown?
The final score of the game would have been 34-34 and into overtime, not 34-27 and the first winning season for the Texans. The seven points left on the table from missed kicks would have held much more weight.
The Texans would be looking at a new kicker and a new head coach.
During this training camp watch these two veteran kickers as their battle commences, and watch the Texans to see how they are able to generate high-pressure kicking situations to create a real competition.
Three Headed Monster
Another interesting position battle to keep an eye on this preseason for the Houston Texans is going to be the battle for starting running back.
The Texans have what some are calling a crowded backfield. This is a sore spot for the Texans, and an area that will be under a microscope throughout camp.
First, third-year veteran Steve Slaton, who rushed for over 1,200 yards in his rookie season, is returning fresh off a sophomore season riddled with fumbles and low productivity. Recently cleared for contact by his doctors after a type of neck fusion surgery, he is looking to regain his former glory and the starting job.
Next, 2010 second-round pick from Auburn, 220-pound thunder back, Ben Tate is the self proclaimed best back in the draft. This one-cut wonder ran under multiple schemes in college for a total of 3,843 yards and 24 touchdowns in his career. Look for him to rise up the depth chart as training camp evolves.
Finally, returning undrafted free agent Arian Foster from Tennessee. Foster’s national recognition may not be very large; however over the last two games of the 2009 season he was famous in Houston. Averaging 6.3 yards a carry and scoring three touchdowns, Foster ended the season winning the respect of teammates and fans alike.
So far this offseason Arian Foster seems to be the back to beat. Ben Tate has been sidelined with a hamstring, and Steve Slaton has yet to be released for full participation.
This battle will provide us with epic drama: The returning hero off what was once a season-ending injury, the young rookie who needs to prove his draft status, and the underdog with a chip on his shoulder grinding out his place in history.
Push the Pile
The success of the previously mentioned running back battle is going to be fortified by the interior offensive line battle. Tackles Eric Winston and Duane Brown are solid starters, and are in no immediate jeopardy of losing their spots.
However, after last season’s under par display and injury issues, the three interior spots are up for grabs.
During this offseason the Texans opted out of renewing nine-year veteran and original Texan Chester Pitts’ contract. The offensive guard missed most of last season with injuries.
In place of Chester Pitts the Texans signed free agent Wade Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs. The 6'4", 310-pound guard/center is poised to come in and shake up the Texans' depth chart.
Wade Smith will be competing with returning players like Chris Meyers, who executed most of the snaps at center for the Texans in 2009. As well as returning sophomore from Alabama Antoine Caldwell, veteran guard Kasey Studdard, veteran guard Mike Brisiel, and Colorado State rookie Shelley Smith.
With these six athletes all scratching for the starting spots, look for this battle to go deep into the preseason, and even stretch out over some regular season games.
Cream Shall Rise
Over the past four years during the Gary Kubiak /Rick Smith era, the Texans have struggled to develop consistent players at the defensive tackle position.
Second-year defensive line coach Bill Kollar has a much better understanding of the ability of the players he has to work with going into the 2010 season. That being said, it appears that several of the veteran defensive tackles may be considered “on the fringe” this training camp.
For Instance, during the 2009 season we saw less and less of defensive tackles Frank Okam and Deljuan Robinson, while Sean Cody and Amobi Okoye seemed to share the lion’s portion of the snaps.
In the offseason the Texans drafted Earl Mitchell from Arizona in the third round to increase competition on the roster. Coaches, so far, have had nothing but good things to say about Mitchell and his “motor.” During OTAs coach Kubiak stated that Mitchell is pushing the veterans for time on the field.
They also signed undrafted free agent rookie Malcolm Sheppard from Arkansas, and to everyone’s surprise he is also generating a ton of attention from the coaching staff.
Look for these hungry young rookies to push for playing time, and roster spots.
Yards After Catch
There is a battle brewing at the wide receiver spot for the Houston Texans. This may be the most interesting battle to watch because it is the one that is evolving organically and not by design. Obviously Andre Johnson has nothing to worry about. He is undeniably the Texans No.1 receiver, if not the best receiver in the entire league.
However, the Texans offered Kevin Walter a hefty contract extension this offseason to keep the veteran wide receiver from going to the Baltimore Ravens. Walter had amazing years in 2007 and 2008 with over 60 catches each year and 800 and 899 yards, respectively.
In 2009 his productivity declined about 200 yards over the season, and it seemed that the attention shifted to another younger, more dynamic receiver, Jacoby Jones.
Jones racked up 437 receiving yards with half as many catches as Kevin Walter, and no starts. He was even benched for being late to a meeting for a game.
When Jones has the ball in his hand he becomes an instant threat.
The Texans' coaching staff has been building up Jacoby Jones' work ethic, and his new level of maturity during mini camps and OTAs. Don’t be surprised if after training camp we see Jacoby Jones lined up opposite Andre Johnson more and more during the 2010 season.
Seedy Under Belly Battles
The last five slides focused on the top battles for starting positions on the Texans' depth chart. Some out in the open for all to see, and one, the wide receiver battle, that is just now rising to the surface as the preseason commences.
Here are a few more battles to watch that are not high on the media’s radar, but could have major impacts as the season progresses.
First, who will emerge as the passing-down defensive end? Will sophomore Connor Barwin explode as the pass rushing monster coaches believe he is capable of or will he slump? Will it be Antonio Smith the Texans rely on to pressure Peyton Manning into throwing interceptions?
Second, seven-year veteran full back Vonta Leach is no spring chicken. This hard-nosed blocker and short armed receiver has wowed Texans fans with his side line catch and runs for years.
This season however the Texans signed a second full back, an even older Justin Griffith from the Seattle Seahawks. Look for the Texans to use both in an effort to push each other, and keep at least one healthy throughout the season.
Third, who is going to step up and fill in for strong side linebacker Brian Cushing while he is suspended for the first four games of the season? This should prove to be a pretty exciting competition between linebackers Danny Clark, Xavier Adibi, and Kevin Bentley.
Frankly if you look at Bentley’s performance on special teams last year, he should get it on aggressiveness alone.
Fourth, and probably the most intriguing position battle in the underbelly, is the clamor for the free safety spot. As of now the Texans have Eugene Wilson on the top of the chart. However, Wilson has struggled with injuries since he signed with the Texans from the New England Patriots.
Dominique Barber has shown promise over the last two seasons, and may be the safety that finally solidifies that position.
But wait, what about New Mexico’s ball hawking stud from 2008 Troy Nolan? Nolan spent all last season on the injured reserve list with a fractured hand. While at OTAs and Minicamps this offseason, Nolan has proven that even while injured he kept his head in the game. He is standing out with his coaches, and gaining media recognition as a focused, and hard working safety that truly is about to undertake his first real season in the NFL.
Keep these little underrated battles in mind as well this training camp. It just might be that one of these guys gets the last interception of the 2010 Super Bowl.