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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Houston Texans Season Preview

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Houston Texans (projected finish: 8-8)

Team synopsis: Gary Kubiak returns for his fifth season as Texans head coach, desperate to get his team to the playoffs.  The Texans have won 25 games in the last three years.  That’s sixth best in the AFC over that timeframe, which means that they’ve “averaged” a playoff berth per year since 2007.   Only, you know, the Texans have never been to the postseason.  Ever.  That probably won’t change this year, though if talent develops on both sides of the ball, the Texans could really light up the win totals in 2011 and 2012, under a new coach, one would think.

Best Players

  • QB Matt Schaub (trade — Atlanta/2007 & 2008 2nd round picks)
  • WR Andre Johnson (drafted — Miami/2003 1st round pick)
  • WR Kevin Walter (signed — Cincinnati/2006 restricted free agent)
  • TE Owen Daniels (drafted — Wisconsin/2006 4th round pick)
  • RT Eric Winston (drafted — Miami/2006 3rd round pick)
  • DE Mario Williams (drafted — N.C. State/2006 1st round pick)
  • DT Amobi Okoye (drafted — Louisville/2007 1st round pick)
  • LB Demeco Ryans (drafted — Alabama/2006 2nd round pick)
  • LB Brian Cushing (drafted — USC/2009 1st round pick)
  • SS Bernard Pollard (signed — Kansas City/2009 waiver claim)

Best Prospects

  • RB Arian Foster (signed — Tennessee/2009 undrafted free agent)
  • WR Jacoby Jones (drafted — Lane/2007 3rd round pick)
  • RG Antoine Caldwell (drafted — Alabama/2009 3rd round pick)
  • DE/LB Connor Barwin (drafted — Cincinnati/2009 2nd round pick)
  • CB Kareem Jackson (drafted — Alabama/2010 1st round pick)
  • CB Glover Quin (drafted — New Mexico/2009 4th round pick)
  • FS Dominique Barber (drafted — Minnesota/2008 6th round pick)

The Texans have made progress every year since they finished with the worst record in the league in 2005, and hired Gary Kubiak as head coach.  Progress is good.  You’d easily find 6 or 7 NFL franchises who envy the work done by a team that didn’t make the postseason in any of it’s four seasons under Kubiak, and never in any of its eight seasons as a pro franchise.  Of course, those are the franchises who also haven’t been to the postseason since Kubiak became an NFL head coach: Oakland, Denver, Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, San Francisco, and St. Louis.

24 other teams have found their way into the postseason in the same timeframe.  Only Buffalo and Detroit have a playoff drought stretching longer than the Texans’ January-less existence.  And so we have to frame incremental progress in it’s proper context: even long-maligned franchises like the Bengals, Jets, Redskins, and Cardinals have performed better than the Texans in Kubiak’s tenure.  Progress has kept the Texans from being a laughingstock like the Raiders, but the result has been the same.   In some ways, their plight has been worse.  The Texans have been skilled enough to make the postseason each of the last three years, and there’s no other way to put it besides that they have failed each time.

So the idea that the incremental progress will continue and lead the Texans to the postseason in 2010 with the franchises’ first ten win season is based more in pattern building practice than understanding what is really happening in Houston.

There’s talent abound here.  Too much talent to think that the Texans could be headed for a five or six win season: such a year would be an epic breakdown in both offensive and defensive coaching, and would need to be combined with a historically awful season in field goal kicking where the Texans lose a bunch of close games due to these failures.  No, the Texans might not be a playoff contender, but certainly they aren’t a team that will feature double digit losses either.  What this looks like is another team that will win a game for every one it loses, more because of Kubiak than in spite of him.

The Texans should overcome the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who signed with the Redskins after his contract expired.  The players who he trained in Kubiak’s system are all still in town, and I do not expect any sort of per-play drop-off from quarterback Matt Schaub, or his receivers.  Andre Johnson has led the Texans in receiving every year of his career, and would unquestionably be the most recognizable face in the history of the franchise, even as he gets overshadowed by brash, loudmouth prima donas at his position.  Jacoby Jones is absolutely in play to emerge as a dynamic second target, where veteran Kevin Walter would hardly be displaced by such a development.

A three base WR set seems inevitable in Houston because Owen Daniels is returning from an ACL injury that cost him the second half of the 2009 season.  While Daniels returns, the Texans are watching running backs falling like flies.  2nd round pick Ben Tate will miss the year with a fractured ankle.  Last year’s starter, Steve Slaton, had a cervical vertebrae fusion procedure in the offseason, which all but forces him into a part time role, and then he fumbled on the goal line in the teams first preseason game.  Slaton has a severe fumble tendency, which makes him a third down back going forward.  That means Arian Foster, an undrafted rookie from Tennessee in 2009, is now a feature back in the truest sense of the term.  Chris Henry, formerly of Arizona by way of the Titans, will likely win Tate’s spot on the roster, but he’s about as incomplete a back as will ever get taken in the second round of the draft.  Running fast in a straight line is his only skill.

Granted, the Texans are at pretty good hands at RB in future seasons, which is one reason they won’t make a move, but with no backs who are good in pass protection, and a need to throw the ball more to make up for a limited running game, the passing offense will suffer.  Notice above, I said the per-play production would be unaffected for many players, including Matt Schaub.  That remains true, but Schaub made it through 656 QB plays last year (runs, sacks, pass attempts).  A more limited offense in terms of balance that runs through Schaub means more stress on the offensive line, and many more targets on Schaub by opposing pass rushers.  It would not be the world’s gutsiest prediction to predict that 40-90 of those QB plays might be made by Schaub’s backup Dan Orlovsky.  And while the Texans don’t have any obvious injury risks among the receivers, perhaps it wouldn’t be wise to expect Johnson, Jones, Walter, and Daniels to make it through 16 game seasons.  Fortunately, there is fantastic depth at this position.

There is less depth up front, where most of the pressure is this season.  Incremental progress would be a nice gift from LT Duane Brown, who improved greatly in his second season — and still might not have been one of the 25 best LTs in football.  Next stop: middle of the pack!  Or so the Texans hope, with Schaub’s blind side at stake.  Eric Winston, on the other hand, is one of the best right tackles in all of football.  If David Stewart of the Titans is the premier RT in football, and Baltimore’s Jared Gaither is the best displaced LT playing on the right side, certainly Eric Winston is in that discussion.  RG Antonie Caldwell is a heady player who could be a stud at the guard position for years, beginning now.  Chris Myers is a smart Center who sorts protections well, but can get overpowered by the best nose tackles in football.  The AFC South is a pretty good place for his skill set.  At left guard will be Kasey Studdard, or Wade Smith, or someone; I’m sure they won’t start just four offensive linemen.

Gary Kubiak doesn’t do much on the defensive side except authorize decisions made by defensive coordinator Frank Bush, so this is the side of the ball that could save the Texans’ playoff hopes by exceeding all expectations.  A top ten defense puts the Texans in the playoffs for the first time in their history.  A defense ranked lower than that probably allows too many big plays to make a difference.

The front seven is the biggest strength.  There’s an underlying strength here besides the players: more than half of the teams in the NFL now play a variation of the 3-4 defense.  That means the availability and cost of players who fit best in a 4-3 scheme are at an all-time high/low respectively.  It’s not a coincidence that the Texans were able to add in-the-box players like S Bernard Pollard, DE Antonio Smith, and DT Shaun Cody at hardly any cost to the team.

The Texans really like their defensive personnel, though it’s best players are still highly-drafted, home-grown talent.  DE Mario Williams, the first overall pick in 2006, Amobi Okoye, the 10th overall pick in 2007, and Brian Cushing, the 15th overall pick in 2009, join 2006 2nd rounder Demeco Ryans on a defense that has so many versatile parts that you just have to hope they can turn it into results for the first time this year.

Two problems.  First: Cushing isn’t eligible to play in the first four weeks (Colts, Redskins, Cowboys, Raiders) [ouch].  Second: the back three really isn’t as strong as the front eight.  You could argue that the secondary, aside from Pollard, is a downright weakness.  Plenty of options to use here: CBs Jacques Reeves, Glover Quin, Brice McCain, and rookie Kareem Jackson are your top four.  Reeves is likely to start at one corner, and get picked on.  Quin or Jackson should start at the other, with McCain as the nickel.

I think it would be good for the team if Dominique Barber the first (Marion’s bro) could win the free safety job, because he’s the most physically talented of the bunch.  He’s going to have to beat out the incumbent, Eugene Wilson.  Wilson has never been a bad player, but taken out of the Pats defense, he’s too obvious a target for quarterbacks, and the Texans (who do a lot right under Frank Bush) do not do much to disguise their coverages and protect their secondary, instead relying on their pass rush to make game changing plays.  The Texans are very deep at corner, but can’t really do anything fancy to take away opponents no. 1 receivers.  That’s why Jackson was drafted, but his development will take some time.

One thing to watch is a the usage of Connor Barwin as a weak-side stand-up pass rusher in Cushing’s absence.  This is a wrinkle that the Texans’ opponents will have to be prepared for.

I have brought Gary Kubiak’s game management skills into question over the last three years many times.  There’s little doubt he can draw up some of the best offensive gameplans in the game, but then again, so could Jim Zorn.  Last week, in the preseason, the Texans had the ball on the fringe of field goal range down by three points with ten seconds in the game and no timeouts.  Maybe to see what his offense could do under the pressure, or to test the mettle of 3rd QB John David Booty, the Texans offense stayed on the field for one more play.  Booty took a three step drop, and crumbled under the pressure of a predictable double A-gap blitz from the Arizona Cardinals, ending the game without a tying FG attempt.  This after Bush’s third string defense gave away a 16-0 lead in the fourth quarter.

The outcome is meaningless in the preseason.  But Kubiak’s inability to prepare the players who care about preseason outcomes the most to deal with even the most obvious situational variables (pass blocking, pre-snap reads, not taking sacks to end games) speaks to a team wide problem that the Texans either come out and torch the opponent from the first snap, or they get into shootout with inferior teams often hungrier and smarter than they are.  This is going to happen to the Texans in the regular season as well, so you might as well plan for it now.

They can get to 8, or perhaps 9 wins again, but the Texans best chance to make the postseason involves Peyton Manning missing some games.  The last time that happened, the Houston franchise played as something called the “Oilers”.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Houston has just three quarterbacks in camp, and is unlikely to keep that many, as John David Booty likely does not make the final cut.

Wide receiver is a major crunch for the Texans, who could justify keeping up to seven of them (six actual receivers, one return specialist).  There are five veterans that all play at a high level, including David Anderson and Andre Davis.  Then the team drafted an undersized tight end out of Pitt, Dorin Dickerson, and converted him to a receiver to get a major match-up advantage for those crafty gameplans.  They need a spot for him, and holding six receivers is probably the answer.  But then there’s specialist Trindon Holliday, drafted in the sixth round to help break games open.  I’m thinking that David Anderson could be the one whose roster spot is in danger, if Holliday proves indispensable.  As of this time, nothing he’s done in the preseason or camp has been particularly impressive or deserving of a roster spot.

The Texans will probably keep four TEs, under the idea that James Casey plays both TE and FB in some formations.  Joel Dreessen started a half season last year, but with the selection of Wisconsin TE Garrett Graham, his roster spot is somewhere in between in jeopardy, and good as gone.  Then 2009 draft pick, Anthony Hill and Derek Fine have a camp battle for the role of specific short-yardage and goal line TE.  Hill is too good of a blocker to let go at this point, I think.

Houston can’t afford to keep 4 backup interior lineman, and with Wade Smith (who can play all five positions) active every game as a sixth lineman (assumes he doesn’t win LG job), they really don’t need to.  That means for three guys, 6th round pick Shelly Smith, last years RG Mike Brisel, and backup C Chris White, there’s just two spots on the OL.  Rashad Butler will be the third offensive tackle behind Winston and Duane Brown.

Relief for Okoye and Cody on the interior comes in the form of third round pick Earl Mitchell.  Behind him, DelJuan Robinson and Frank Okam battle for the fourth — and likely final — DT spot.  Keeping six DEs, including the versatile Barwin, would not be shocking.  The team added DE James Wyche when Ben Tate went on IR, and Wyche could impress in the remaining preseason games.  Tim Jamison is a useful pass rusher, formerly of Michigan.  Adding a veteran here is a possibility, as the Texans prefer an aggressive DL rotation.  Xavier Adibi will be tasked with replacing Cushing in the lineup for four games, nominally at least, teams still use more 3 WR sets (and defenses more nickel) than conventional defensive wisdom accounts for.  Danny Clark remains on the roster bubble, as he probably won’t be the backup MLB, and if he makes the roster, it might just be as a player to fill a hole for four weeks until Cushing returns.  Darryl Sharpton, a fourth round pick, has performed well in camp and should be the first backup to Demeco Ryans.

Fred Bennett finds himself very much on the bubble, two years removed from a stellar rookie season that few remember as he has mastered the “trail and watch” cover skill since then.  Sherrick McManis is a nice find out of a stout Northwestern defense in the fifth round, and could be either a fifth corner or a fourth safety.  Antwaun Molden was a third round pick two years ago, and the team likely is less done with him than with Bennett.  Still, beating Molden might be the only chance Bennett has to make it.  That, or learn to hit someone as a safety, big guy.

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