There are always storylines heading into each camp that will either define the way a roster is shaped, or can define how good a team can be. Here are three offensive storylines to watch during the preseason for the Texans.
Can DeAndre Hopkins become an instant threat as the new starting WR2?
The Texans haven't ever had a consistently dangerous WR2 since, well, since ever. While I think DeAndre Hopkins can certainly become a quality NFL WR, the question is whether or not he can make an immediate impact while the window for success is still open with Andre Johnson as the Texans WR1. We will see how quickly QB Matt Schaub and Hopkins can gel in the preseason.
Will anyone step up and prove that they deserve to be the starter at right tackle?
The Texans thought Derek Newton had the size and athleticism to take over as the starting RT of the future, but that future was hastened last year once Rashad Butler was lost for the year. Truth be told, neither guy looked very good in preseason. Newton had an average to below average first year and the Texans drafted Brennan Williams in the third round because of it. The problem is that I'm not sure Williams or Newton are better than veteran Ryan Harris and I'm not sure that any of the three are good enough for what the Texans want this season. My early money is on Ryan Harris winning the job.
Will the running game still be the headliner of this offense, or will Kubiak look to attack through the air more in 2013?
I don't think we'll ever see Gary Kubiak abandon what he believes in which is a solid running game that helps to balance a play-action passing attack that threatens defenses on the intermediate and deep levels. With that said, I also don't think Kubiak has much interest in putting Schaub in many second-and-long and third-and-long positions, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a more aggressive approach from the offense with the passing game being used to open things up for the running game. The Texans passing game usually comes out looking sharp in the preseason and early in the year so we may not have this question answered until we get 2 or 3 games deep into the season.
We all know that Matt Schaub is the punch-line for many a joke amongst Houston sports fans and media, but he's better than the jokes would lead you to believe. The problem for Schaub and the Texans is that we've probably seen his best work and we already know that it will take help from the running game and defense in order for Schaub to be able to win at a level higher than what we've seen so far.
I'm looking for a better year for Schaub this year thanks to the addition of Hopkins and a willingness by Kubiak to throw it a little more. What we need to see from Schaub in camp is a building of chemistry with Hopkins. If he can trust Hopkins early on, then we should see the offensive get out of the gates quickly.
T.J. Yates is probably the de facto backup, but I'm not sure he's substantially better than Case Keenum. Yates is just a guy in my opinion and while I wasn't crazy about Keenum based on what I saw last year in camp, he looked much more confident and capable in OTAs. I think Keenum is one to keep an eye on in camp. Stephen McGee is a bit of a wild-card because he's taken NFL snaps, has good size and has enough of a skill-set to warrant being in the mix for the backup role even though I think he's the clear-cut 4th as camp opens.
The more I studied the running game this offseason, the more I began to realize that the offensive line (and TE/FB at times) was the primary culprit in the run game failures last year. Arian Foster has been used fairly heavily by the Texans so there is obviously a chance that he won't have the same burst we've seen in the past, but his yards after contact show that he's still running hard. I know Foster hurt his calf in OTAs, but I'm not too worried about him as we head into camp. If his lower body gets tight on him again at any point, however, I will start to be concerned.
Ben Tate was in the doghouse last year, but he's the second-best RB on this team and needs more carries this year to help keep Foster fresher. Tate is in a contract year so he has to stay healthy and run hard if he wants to get a free agent paycheck. I can't see the Texans paying to keep Tate since Foster is so expensive now so Tate is auditioning for the rest of the league which isn't a bad thing. There are some interesting battles that will be going on for the third, and maybe even fourth, running back spots.
Deji Karim is a veteran who is a capable RB3 but who also has kick-return ability so he's the favorite to win the RB3 spot. I'm a fan of the potential with undrafted free-agents like Ray Graham, Cierre Wood and Dennis Johnson. Graham was a beast at Pitt before tearing up his knee and if he gets right physically, he could be a camp surprise.
Wood has the size, burst and cutback ability that I'm sure the Texans love since it is a perfect fit in the zone scheme, but he has to prove he can put it to consistent use and that he can play on special teams. Dennis Johnson comes from Arkansas where he was very productive. The only reason he wasn't drafted was because of his height, but he's a fearless, tough runner with foot-quickness and return ability. He might be the best of all the UDFA RBs in camp.
They forgot about Dre. We all may have forgotten about Dre headed into last season after Andre Johnson battled injuries in 2011, but he came out on fire again last year. Once again, "as long as he stays healthy," I see no reason to believe that Andre Johnson will fall off significantly even though he's not as fast as he once was.
The key to the offense is likely going to be the rookie Hopkins because he's got better game speed than Kevin Walter, a better ability to make plays after the catch and can make defenses pay if they match up against him with a sub-par corner. Hopkins looked terrific in OTAs and I can't wait to see how he looks in camp when he gets to battle against CBs Joseph and Jackson.
Keyshawn Martin was a big letdown last year, but that often happens with rookies so I'm not going to hold that against him headed into camp. If the lights aren't too bright for Martin, we'll see him give the Texans a decent look from the slot, but the real question is how often the Texans are going to go from 3WR sets? If the Texans prefer to stay with their 2TE sets or with their 2RB/2WR sets, then there won't be all that many snaps for any of the other WRs.
I would like to say that I'm excited about Lestar Jean, but that ship has sailed. Jean almost looked like he was coasting through OTAs. With Hopkins on the team and with DeVier Posey coming off the PUP list at some point, it might take a big camp to earn Jean any regular season snaps.
Rookie draft pick Alan Bonner isn't very big, but that joker can cover some ground very quickly over the first five-to-seven yards. He's raw, but he's got some separation potential and I'm interested to see if the Texans try and fit him into the slot in an attempt to give Keyshawn Martin some competition. I don't think Andy Cruse is going to be a factor and I think Alec Lemon is too slow. I know the coaches like Jeff Maehl, but there may be too much competition now for him to have any shot at making the roster.
There isn't really much to say about Owen Daniels since he's usually very steady. I did think he looked a little slower out of his breaks than I've seen him in the past and it wouldn't surprise me if he's not as athletic as he once was. OD is still solid and will still be a factor for the Texans, but he could see some of his catches going to DeAndre Hopkins or even Garrett Graham. Graham has more potential than some might think and I thought he improved as a blocker last year. Graham might be in position to take over for Daniels as early as next year if the Texans cut Daniels for cap purposes so keep that in mind this season.
Even though rookie Ryan Griffin has the size and potential blocking ability to fit into the role that Joel Dreesen used to play, he still needs to add weight and he's unlikely to be anything more than a sparingly used TE3 at this point. Phillip Supernaw is a guy the Texans like, but he was hurt in OTAs and he will really have to shine in camp in order to make this team over a draft pick like Griffin.
Duane Brown weighed just 300 pounds at OTAs which was a much lower weight than where he ended last season. That shows a desire to get quicker, and to be in better shape as the season begins. I'm not worried about Brown at all. I thought he was the best LT in football in 2011, but I also thought he took a small step back last year. I'm expecting Brown back on top this year.
Derek Newton is physically ready for camp, but he was overweight during OTAs as he watched from the sidelines so we'll see where that weight is when camp begins. Newton is still learning the position, but he's got technique and balance issues and he doesn't always play with good leverage. Even though Newton is the incumbent, I don't think that should give him much of an advantage as the starting RT. That spot should be wide-open.
Ryan Harris may not be the sexy selection, but I think he could come into camp as the best selection at RT. Harris got a ton of snaps as the starter in OTAs due to injuries to Newton and Brennan Williams and Harris showed that he was capable last season. I don't think Harris is the long-term solution, but this camp might be about finding the most consistent RT than can to start the season and Harris could be that guy.
Brennan Williams is a rookie and he missed OTAs due to injury. That's a bad combination. I could sense that Kubiak wasn't happy that Williams was on the sidelines with an injury as rookie really need OTAs to acclimate themselves into the process. I have a hard time believing that Williams will be much of a factor this year, but maybe he'll surprise in camp.
Andrew Gardner isn't going to impress, but the Texans know they can keep him on the roster and he can provide T/G depth. I don't think he'll make this team. Nick Mondek was a practice squad tackle with good athleticism but little experience so unless he really picked something up from last season, he could find himself back on the practice squad once again. I like rookie David Quessenberry, but I think he belongs with the guards and it wouldn't surprise me if he ends up getting more snaps at guard than tackle during camp.
Guards / Centers
Chris Myers is steady and more than capable of holding down his starting spot. Myers will be 32 by the middle of September, but he's still in great shape, has remained injury-free and plays a position where he should be able to last for awhile unless he becomes a cap casualty.
There were snaps late in the year where I thought Brandon Brooks looked outstanding and he's about 20 pounds lighter this year which should improve his quickness and endurance. The RG position is his and I am excited to see how such a powerful guard will perform in this offense. The one area of concern that I have for Brooks is his pass protection.
As for Wade Smith, he had his ups and downs last year and the Texans could be viewing this as Smith's last year -- especially with guys like Quessenberry and Ben Jones who might be able to play LG at a much cheaper rate. Smith is who he is as a player so camp doesn't really mean much to me in that regard. I'm just waiting to see how he looks when games start.
Ben Jones showed that he was a capable player last year and I really like his quick feet, but I'm just not sold on the fact that he can be a starting guard. He has to play guard right now, but I think his final position will be at center when he replaces Myers in the future. In a perfect world, I would like to see Ben Jones and Wade Smith battle for the LG spot even though Smith would likely win. Alex Kupper and Bryan Collins will fight for a roster spot, but I don't see much of a chance for either guy to make the final roster since Ben Jones can play C/G and Quessenberry can play T/G.