The 2011 NFL free-agency period was a good one for the Houston Texans by most accounts. They signed Johnathan Joseph, widely believed to be the second-best corner back on the free-agency market, and Danieal Manning, who—without even playing a snap in a Texans uniform—instantly became best safety in franchise history.
The only potential negative of the free-agent frenzy was the exodus of All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach to the Baltimore Ravens. Leach was not only a great player last season, but he was also a fan favorite and many people voiced their displeasure with the Texans not retaining the 2010 Pro Bowler.
Even some supporters who felt it was not cost effective to give a fullback who would be turning 30 during the season an $11 million contract, including $6 million guaranteed, believed that a replacement in his mold should be found. These same people cheered for the addition of Lawrence Vickers and questioned why he was not immediately thrust into the starting lineup.
After three preseason games with James Casey in that position, however, I believe it is reasonable to say that the former Rice University standout has earned the starting spot. After all, it is possible that with Casey playing the jack of all trades role that has been showcased thus far, the offense could be better than if Leach had been kept.
Big Shoes to Fill
That’s a pretty bold statement to make. Leach was a big reason why the Texans were able to make running the football part of their identity in 2010 after it was a glaring weakness in 2009. He understood the zone running system, sought out the right defenders to block, and made them pay for attempting to tackle league rushing champion Arian Foster.
Casey is not as effective in this particular skill set. He seeks out defenders well, and often isolates them from the running play, but he does not make the highlight reel block that will have announcers chuckling during the replay. To be clear, Leach is the prototype fullback for a 3rd-and-goal from the one situation, not Casey.
Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison have found a home for Casey in the Texans offense though, far beyond the traditional “see the guy, block the guy” fullback mentality. They have found uses for the versatile player that keeps him on the field much more than the generous estimation of 50 percent of snaps that Leach might have played last year.
Unlikely Road to Starting Fullback
Casey was drafted in 2009 because of his versatility. Old by collegiate standards because of a stint playing minor league baseball, Casey spent time playing tight end and running back at Rice University. This wide ranging athletic ability plus his incredible work ethic made him a potential steal in the fifth round.
Casey spent the majority of the last two years though playing on special teams and buried on the offensive depth chart behind Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen. When Casey was named as a potential successor if Leach left, it appeared to some that the Texans were just trying to fill the void with the next best thing on the roster. Now it appears as though they had a plan for Casey all along.
Casey has surprisingly kept his athleticism and ability to play in space well despite gaining 10 pounds in the offseason in order to be a stouter blocker. In the three Texans preseason games, his speed has flashed off the screen despite the extra weight.
This has allowed the Texans to design plays around Casey. One that I saw a couple times against San Francisco on Saturday was a play-action fake in which Casey ran through a hole heading straight for a linebacker as if he was lead blocking. Once in initial contact was made with the backer, however, he broke off in a perpendicular angle to create an underneath route for Matt Schaub, who was executing the bootleg rollout that the Texans love.
The linebacker in this scenario will often believe that Casey is attempting to block him and his first reaction will be to shed Casey in order to get to hole and fill it, leaving Casey wide open. Even if he does not bite on the fake, the average linebacker does not have the ability to stay with Casey in man coverage. Even the vaunted Patrick Willis was unable to.
This is the main advantage that Casey brings to the offense. He is sufficient at blocking at the line of scrimmage and very good at blocking at the second level for outside runs and screens. Due to this ability, opposing defenses cannot remove one of their linebackers when he is on the field because they have to respect the run.
Casey has the ability though, to not only play out of the backfield but also from an inline tight end position and even from the slot. This leaves the defense with a very tough decision; leave a linebacker to cover Casey in space, or to bring a safety up to the line in an attempt to mitigate him as a receiver.
As stated previously, not many linebackers can hang with Casey in coverage. If they choose to use a safety, however, that will leave one less defensive back for Andre Johnson who usually demands safety help, or Owen Daniels who is athletic enough on his own that teams often employ a safety for coverage.
If opposing teams try to get cute and play more nickel defense, the play will be audibled to a run and the Texans offensive line will make them pay for using only six down linemen and linebackers. Matt Schaub, by the way, has shown the mastery of the offense this preseason to make these reads and change plays at the line this offseason, particularly in the 49ers game.
The thing I like the most about Casey in this offensive Swiss Army Knife role is that defenses will constantly be kept guessing. Despite its potency, the Texans offense has become predictable in the past, but with Casey on field he is one quick motion away from completely changing the offensive dynamic and therefore the way the defense must combat it.
For the afore mentioned 3rd-and-goal from the one, the Texans can bring in Vickers. He may or may not be as good as Leach was in that situation, but the offensive line features all five starters from last year and have shown a cohesiveness rarely seen from a blocking unit this early in the season.
Casey will never be the type of fullback that Leach was, but in an unexpected turn of events that might end up being a good thing. He won’t be the most important player on offense this season, but he might create the mismatches that allow the most integral players to perform even better.
James Casey is not a better traditional fullback than Vonta Leach, but he very well could be better for the Texans offense. Oh, and one more wrinkle about him playing in the backfield this year; don’t forget that he threw two touchdowns in twelve pass attempts while in college.
Don’t agree about Casey or have thoughts of your own? Leave them in the comments or let me know on Twitter (@JakeBRB).