Here are the defensive story-lines for the Texans headed into camp.
1. When will Ed Reed be ready to play?
This may sound simple and even obvious, but it is no less important for the Texans. The Texans let Glover Quin walk because they thought they could add a veteran safety in Ed Reed who could help them get over the top. Right now they are hoping he can get over his hip issue. If he's not back, the Texans will have to start rookie D.J. Swearinger and no matter how talented they believe him to be, he's still a rookie.
2. Can the Texans get more pressure off the edge this year?
The combination of Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed was outstanding in 2011 only to be disappointing in 2012. We will find out if having Whitney Mercilus coming off the edge makes a difference. Mercilus adds more speed out there, but a big part of the Texans pass rush is their T/E and E/T twists so the OLBs have to work together well with Antonio Smith and J.J. Watt at various times. Regardless, a Watt-only pass rush won't work in 2013.
3. Can Brian Cushing come all the way back from his ACL tear?
Brian Cushing isn't Adrian Peterson, and nobody else is Peterson either. I also don't think Peterson is the measuring stick for everyone coming back from an ACL tear. Cushing will have had enough time between his surgery and the beginning of the season to make it back on the field, but the question is going to be whether or not it affects his lateral quickness. LBs don't have to cut and explode like RBs so there is a greater chance of recovery the year after injury for a LB, but we still need to see it play out like that for Cushing.
From what I've seen on tape and in practices, Earl Mitchell is more than up for this job. Mitchell is quick off the snap, has a phenomenal motor and has good awareness of what is going on around him. The problem for Mitchell is that he's not a natural NT and even in Wade Phillips' 1-gap scheme, the NT has to take on his share of double teams. Despite that concern, I'm looking forward to watching Mitchell perform as a starter in camp. Terrell McClain will be the backup for Mitchell and looked capable at OTAs. McClain can play inside or the outside 3-4 DE spot if need be, but he's not very powerful at the point of attack. I'm looking forward to seeing how he handles his time inside.
The Texans drafted Chris Jones in the 6th round out of Bowling Green and while I like his potential, he might have a tough time making this team. Jones could end up on the practice squad due to a lack of reps thanks to how many options the Texans have at NT during camp. Jared Crick has added 10 pounds this offseason and could factor into the NT spot this year. Look for Crick to get reps inside at various points during camp and maybe even preseason games.
J.J. Watt is coming off of the best season we've ever seen from a 3-4 DE and maybe the best season we've ever seen from a defensive lineman. It's unlikely that he puts up the same numbers, but I expect to see the same player out there. Watt doesn't back it off much in camp and that consistency is what makes him great. Antonio Smith wasn't as effective last year as he was in 2011 so I'm interested to see how he looks this preseason. Smith's play may or may not decide whether or not he gets a new contract. Regardless, the Texans need him to be a bigger factor in 2013, but he turns 32 in August so playing at his highest level is no guarantee and probably even unlikely.
Tim Jamison is a big part of the Texans defensive line rotation, but the Texans have to get him back to 100% again after injuring his Achilles last year. I could see the atrophy in his calf as he walked around during OTAs so I'm sure rehab is still his primary concern right now. Jared Crick, as I mentioned previously, is bigger and stronger than last year and it should serve him well at the DE spot too. He's not going to be a "get up the field" attacking DE like Antonio Smith, but he's hard to move off of his spot and should be even tougher to move with his added weight. Crick was less than a year removed from injury during last year's camp so I'm excited to see what this year's version looks like as he needs to prove that he can take over for Antonio Smith after this season.
The Texans carry four DEs so making the 53 man roster will be very difficult for guys like David Hunter, Delano Johnson, and Keith Browner; however, with Jamison coming back from an injury, the door is definitely open. Hunter is a try-hard player whom the Texans like, but he has to prove he's talented enough in camp. Browner is always going to be a solid camp body but I'm not sure he's ever going to be more than that. Delano Johnson is the player from this group who I am most interested in. Johnson is a former OLB who has continued to add bulk since coming out of college and now we get to see if his natural quickness can meld with his new bulk and if he's tough enough to handle being on the defensive line.
Brooks Reed took plenty of OTA snaps at ILB, but it looks like that was simply to see how he could handle that move just in case the Texans had depth problems there due to an injury in-season. Reed is best-suited to playing the strong-side OLB position, but the Texans have to get more pressure from Reed when he's called upon to rush the passer. Reed isn't a dynamic pass rusher, but he will go all-out on every snap. Camp will give us a look at whether or not the Texans plan on using him inside as a defensive wrinkle this year. Whitney Mercilus showed edge speed and quickness that was superior to Connor Barwin's, yet he was below average against the run and was still very raw as a pass rusher. Mercilus worked on pass rush technique and hand usage in OTAs and that needs to show up on the field this year if the Texans defense is to play like they did in 2011.
Sam Montgomery flashed at times in OTAs, but we'll see how he responds when the pads are on and the tempo picks up. Kubiak seemed to think that Travardo Williams was slightly ahead of Montgomery during camp and that shouldn't be a surprise. Williams is a more natural fit in space and I think he's going to end up being a terrific addition to this defense. As for Montgomery, I had serious doubts about him in the 3-4 and even stronger doubts about him playing the SOLB spot where he'll also have to cover.
Bryan Braman may not get a serious look at OLB this camp simply because the Texans have more OLBs right now than in years past. Braman is getting close to locking fully into his role as special teams demon. I don't see Braman as a factor on the actual depth chart in any capacity other than special teams which seems like a shame due to his quickness, motor and athleticism. Willie Jefferson is an UDFA who started his college career at WR at Baylor and ended it at Stephen F. Austin as a DE. Jefferson shows tremendous quickness off the snap as a pass rusher which should not be taken for granted, but he's thin in his lower body and may never be considered a full-time OLB. Jefferson needs to keep adding bulk, but a good camp will land him on the practice squad and that should be his goal right now.
Brian Cushing will take his time coming back and there is a better than average chance that his entire time in camp will be limited. I certainly don't mind that since Cushing's healthy return is a must for the Texans if they want to have any shot against teams running between the tackles against them. Darryl Sharpton needs to stay healthy during camp so that the Texans can lock in on him as their starter next to Cushing for at least this season, but keep in mind that he has landed on the IR in all three years he's been with the Texans. Tim Dobbins certainly didn't ingratiate himself with the coaching staff by missing "voluntary" OTAs, but he was back for mini-camp. We already know that Dobbins is tough in tight spaces and can play special teams, but he's limited when being asked to play multiple snaps and I don't think camp is going to show us anything new.
Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson have their spots locked down, but Joseph needs to play better in 2013. Reports came out after the season was over that Joseph tried to play hurt and that makes sense when you realize how much more frequently offenses attacked Joseph with success in 2012 compared to 2011. Jackson had his best year as a pro, but I am interested to see where his weight is in camp as he came into OTAs over 10 pounds heavier than his playing weight. Jackson claims that he always trains heavier then loses weight before the season.
The nickel CB position will likely go to Brice McCain provided he's healthy enough to be 100% in camp and this camp could very well be the swan song for former 2nd round pick Brandon Harris. Harris lacks deep speed and McCain's quickness and if one of the young CBs comes on in camp, Harris could find himself on the cut list. While I expect Harris to make the team, his spot has to be considered tenuous and the same can be said for Roc Carmichael. Carmichael was drafted in the 4th round of 2011 but was on the IR for the entire 2011 season and played sparingly in 2012. I saw some flashes from Carmichael in OTAs and I think he's got a shot at staking a solid claim to one of the top 4 CB positions, but camp will finally tell whether or not that is the case.
There is some cornerback talent at the back end of the depth chart headed into camp and with Carmichael and Harris needing to prove themselves this year, the door could be open for undrafted free agents like Johnny Adams or A.J. Bouye to snare one of the 5 CB spots available (and they might even keep 6). Bouye was very active in OTAs and is unafraid to take chances. Adams comes with a respected pedigree from Michigan St. and was considered a draftable prospect this year. Both Bouye and Adams have to shine on special teams in order to get into the mix for a top 5 spot.
Danieal Manning is obviously locked into his spot and camp won't really do anything new for him. The problem, in my eyes, is that I really wanted to see Manning working in the box and near the line of scrimmage, but that won't be happening until Ed Reed is healthy and ready to man the deep free safety position and nobody knows when that is going to be. I noticed that Manning looked more comfortable when the Texans used him in 2-deep or around the line of scrimmage and that is what they would be able to do with him if Reed was ready. Manning is one of the best tacklers in the league at the safety position and he can be a good blitzer for Wade Phillips. Until Reed is ready, Manning will have to be responsible for deep coverage and that isn't his strongest attribute.
Rookie D.J. Swearinger can play inside the box or in deep middle, according to the Texans, but I'm not sure he has the closing speed you want in center-field. Swearinger will get plenty of reps in camp which is great because it will speed up the learning process for him. Swearinger was going to be the third safety in the dime package, but not we may see him starting throughout the preseason. I'm not worried about Swearinger's growth as a hitter or tackler, but his coverage ability will get tested throughout camp. Shiloh Keo is a good special teams player and a poor safety. His days are likely numbered until the Texans decide to keep an extra safety or if Reed is out for the beginning of the season. Behind the scenes the Texans were raving about Eddie Pleasant headed into last season, but he spent most of the year on the practice squad and we will get a better look at him in camp. Undrafted free agent Ohrian Johnson has size and potential. If he has a big camp, he's got a shot to challenge for the 4th safety spot or at least lock in on a practice squad spot.