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Ranking Strength of Every Houston Texans Positional Unit

Jeffery RoyContributor IIIJune 1, 2014

Ranking Strength of Every Houston Texans Positional Unit

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    The Houston Texans conducted their first round of OTAs on May 27-29. Head coach Bill O’Brien and his coaching staff had their first prolonged exposure to every positional unit. Their judgment of the relative strength of each unit is likely premature, given they are dealing with a roster of 89 players.

    As reported by Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, O’Brien summed up the situation in the most general of terms at the close of the proceedings:

    Overall, I would say these guys have worked extremely hard. They’ve been competitive. I really think as it relates to this week, I can see improvement throughout the three days. I thought overall it was a good week and a good way to end the week today.

    That and a host of other innocuous comments give us very little to go on if you are trying to get a feel for where the team stands at this earliest of stages.

    Houston Chronicle blogger Stephanie Stradley explained how the new regime limits access to players, which makes it difficult to keep the public informed:

    In the past, media members would pretty much chase down the players they wanted to talk to after practice, but also the head coach also answered questions at the same time. Now, there are no questions right after practice on the field, and the media is asked to leave before the practice is concluded. So if you are wondering why information doesn’t come out of practice sessions as quickly as in the past, that is why.

    The thoughts of the players and coaches would have been useful in determining how comfortable they are adapting to all the changes. As it stands, a little more conjecture than normal will be required to assign rankings to each group.

    We will work from the weakest unit to the strongest, using a preliminary list of the players who will compose the 46-man active roster on Week 1 of the 2014 season. There are four OTA sessions, a mandatory minicamp and six weeks of training camp remaining, so the list is clearly in its formative stages.

Quarterbacks

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    Ryan Fitzpatrick
    Case Keenum
    Tom Savage

    That’s right, Texans fans, the most important position on the team is also the weakest.

    Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle described the playing field of the quarterbacks as “level,” while Brian T. Smith quoted Bill O’Brien as saying the competition is “wide open.” Both descriptions are just another way of saying none of these guys has the requisite skills to handle the responsibilities of the job right now.

    T.J. Yates told James Palmer of CSN Houston the Texans “have been studying old Patriots film quite a bit in quarterback meetings.” If the quarterbacks have been watching closely and listening to O’Brien, they realize the freedom that Tom Brady has to make pre-snap adjustments goes beyond deciding which receiver will be his hot read.

    As described by Brett Kollmann of Battle Red Blog in his extensive breakdown of Bill O’Brien’s expectations for the position, the quarterback also calls the blocking assignments. Center Chris Myers made those calls in the past but no more. Kollmann defines the hierarchy on offense as being strictly one-dimensional: “If the quarterback does not do it, it does not get done.” (Italics are Kollmann's.)

    This offense is the antithesis of what Gary Kubiak jammed down Matt Schaub’s throat for seven seasons until the quarterback finally choked on it. Schaub never had the independence or confidence to opt out of a play in response to a defensive adjustment that came after Kubiak made the call from the sideline.

    When coaching at Penn State, O’Brien certainly did not place the same burdens on Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg that he did on the Patriots signal-caller. What will be expected from this Texans trio will be a simplified version of what is run in New England.

    The emphasis in the draft on bolstering the run with a guard, tight end, running back and fullback should take some of the load off the passing game this year. No matter how far the offense is stripped down, it cannot compensate for the limitations of the current quarterback candidates.

    Fitzpatrick may have scored 48 out of 50 on his Wonderlic, but his intelligence is directly proportional to his fondness for throwing picks. His interception percentage of 3.6 is the highest of any NFL quarterback who has started at least 50 games in the past five seasons.

    Keenum started off like the answer to Andre Johnson’s dreams in his first three starts, which he lost by a total of seven points while throwing seven touchdowns (five to Johnson) and no interceptions.

    When defenses learned to keep Keenum bottled up in the pocket, the lack of a running game (96 yards per game in his last five starts) and a deteriorating offensive line sealed his fate, along with a 0-8 mark, as the quarterback of record.

    Tom Savage is a dollar-store version of Blake Bortles, the man the Texans would have taken with the first pick, according to Tony Pauline of TFY Draft Insider, if the right deal had come along. Savage's top-drawer arm was on display for only two full college seasons as he transferred from Rutgers to Arizona before settling in for his senior year at Pittsburgh.

    He enters the NFL at the age of 24, older than most rookies but less experienced due to sitting out his transfer years. Patrick D. Starr from the State of the Texans website thinks “his skill level is much more advanced than the group” of quarterbacks. This endorsement belies the recent history of the position.

    From 2004 to 2013, 72 quarterbacks have been taken in the fourth round or later. Only one has appeared in the playoffs, our own film buff T.J. Yates, who ended up winning the first postseason game in franchise history. It seems ironic he will lose his spot on this squad to a draft choice who stands little chance of duplicating his accomplishments.

    The long-term solution at quarterback for the Texans is probably still in college. Then again, Ryan Mallett may be going into his fourth season as a member of the New England Patriots because he has the stuff to be the heir apparent to Brady. Mallett continues to be the object of much speculation; Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal was the latest to weigh in on his trade potential.

    For now, we will go with what we’ve got. And a sad lot it is.

Linebackers

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    Brian Cushing (ILB)
    Brooks Reed (ILB/OLB)
    Whitney Mercilus (OLB)
    Jadeveon Clowney (OLB)
    Mike Mohamed (ILB)
    Jeff Tarpinian (ILB)
    Ricky Sapp (OLB)

    Now this doesn’t seem right.

    The second worst unit has a former defensive Rookie of the year and a prospective defensive rookie of the year/first overall draft pick, in addition to first-round and second-round picks in the projected starting lineup. What is so wrong with this picture?

    To start, former defensive rookie of the year Brian Cushing is coming off his second season-ending injury in as many years. Prospective defensive rookie of the year Jadeveon Clowney has outstanding physical gifts but is making a position change and has been plagued by questions about his work habits. On a side note, should he be named defensive rookie of the year, he would be the first No. 1 selection to achieve that honor.

    Mercilus and Reed were ranked as the two worst 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (aka PFF, subscription required for Premium Stats). Both will be switching positions; Reed will be taking more snaps as an inside linebacker, and Mercilus will move from the weak side to the strong side to make room for Clowney.

    The depth provided by Mohamed and Tarpinian were at the inside spots last season. The lack of depth on the outside will force Reed to back up that position, where his lack of pass-rushing prowess dragged him to the dregs of the OLB rankings last year.

    Finding a second-string prospect who can be dedicated to providing some pressure from the edge will be a daunting task. The choice must be made from undrafted free agents Jason Ankrah, Terrance Lloyd and Chris McAllister, veteran special team expert Ricky Sapp and Trevardo Williams, a 2013 fourth-round selection who is short on size (6’1”, 240 pounds) but recorded a 4.57 40-yard time at the combine, per NFL.com.

    The two-gap approach favored by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is designed to turn the linebackers into the most impactful members of the defense. Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel forged a career as one of the most versatile players in the annals of the NFL by getting the most out of his moderate athletic skills. If that ability can be translated into some teachable form, this unit will eventually elevate its stature. 

Specialists

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    Shane Lechler (P)
    Randy Bullock (K)
    Dennis Johnson (KR)
    Keshawn Martin (PR)

    Lechler is the savior of this unit, a Hall of Fame talent on the downside of his career but still an expert on ball placement. Fifteen years into his NFL career at age 37, he still ranked fifth in yards per punt at 47.6 and third in kicks downed inside the 20-yard line.

    The number of punts returned and return average still ranked near the bottom because of the ongoing travesty that defined the Texans' kick coverage over the last two seasons. The fact that it took the firing of Gary Kubiak to end the ineptitude of special teams coach Joe Marciano demonstrated the extent to which Kubiak valued loyalty over performance. 

    The current coaching staff not only places a high value on special teams, but they involve more coaches in the process. Patrick D. Starr from State of the Texans took special note of how “the majority of the position coaches are helping with gunners, blocking assignments and returns, all in one drill.”

    All the attention reminded Jayson Braddock of SportsTalk 790 in Houston that the old-school emphasis paid to special teams was still in vogue:

    This #Texans coaching staff spends a tremendous amount of time on STs. They understand that it's truly 1/3 of the game. #Texans

    — Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) May 29, 2014

    Randy Bullock pulled out of his midseason slump to finish the year hitting 12 consecutive field goals but still could not split the uprights from over 50 yards until Week 10. It was his only successful kick from that distance in five attempts on the year.

    Even with the streak, he ranked next to last in field-goal percentage. Chris Boswell was signed from Rice University to provide some competition for Bullock this year, a factor that was absent from training camp in 2013.

    Boswell had a mediocre senior year at Rice, hitting less than 70 percent of his field goals and going just 2-of-6 from beyond 50. His presence could be nothing more than a warning to Bullock that he is replaceable.

    Johnson is the top kickoff returner in SEC history, with three career returns for touchdowns. Unless Andre Hal sticks as a sub-package cornerback, Johnson could be in line to add kickoffs to his role as the change-of-pace running back.

    The special teams debacle could be why Martin took a step back as a punt returner in 2013. He ranked sixth in the league in 2012 with 12.1 yards per return, and with the renewed emphasis on this aspect of the game, he could be a consistent contributor once more.

Defensive Backs

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    Johnathan Joseph (CB)
    Kareem Jackson (CB)
    D.J. Swearinger (S)
    Chris Clemons (S)
    Kendrick Lewis (S)
    A.J. Bouye (CB)
    Marcus Williams (CB)
    Shiloh Keo (S)

    No single statistic tells the story for the defensive backs in 2013.

    They were ranked third in total passing yards allowed per game and right at the top in passing first downs allowed per game. All this good work was undone by giving up 29 touchdowns through the air and ranking dead last in opponent red-zone scoring percentage.

    The secondary made it easy for opposing offenses by playing almost no zone coverage and heavily relying on man coverage with overmatched players. Two inexperienced safeties in D.J. Swearinger and Shiloh Keo were of little help to a still-injured Johnathan Joseph and fellow cornerback Kareem Jackson, who regressed back to the harmful habits of his rookie season.

    Now Swearinger and Keo are a year wiser and joined by two healthy veterans in Clemons and Lewis. Joseph sat out the first day of OTAs and went unmentioned in any subsequent reports of on-field workouts. He and Jackson did get a “showing leadership” nod from Bill O’Brien in the OTA recap on Battle Red Blog.

    Due to the lack of comments by players, one can only wonder if things are heading in the right direction. Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston did manage to wrangle some quotes from Swearinger on how he feels about the new defense: "I like it a whole lot better than last year because it gives us flexibility. We’ll be able to confuse a lot of quarterbacks, switching calls and stuff like that. I like it and (I’m) just ready to keep going with it."

    A host of questions remain to be answered in the coming weeks.

    Will Joseph ever return to the form he showed in 2011, when he made the kind of plays that fully justified his big free-agent contract?

    Will Clemons or Lewis take the lead in the battle for the starting safety position next to Swearinger?

    Is the Brandon Harris experiment at slot corner over, and if so, who will assume this vital role?

    Is there room for more than one undrafted free agent on the active roster? Bouye and Lonnie Ballentine bring some much needed size to the secondary, but Marcus Williams was an All-American game-changer at the FBS level. Are any of these prospects good enough knock to Harris and Eddie Pleasant out of the picture?

    Finally, when will the art of the takeaway return to this defense? Houston's seven interceptions were last in the league in 2013, and the secondary couldn't come up with a single pickoff over the final six games of the 2012 season. 

    Not enough answers to these questions leaves this unit firmly planted in the middle of the pack.

Running Backs

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    Arian Foster (RB)
    Alfred Blue (RB)
    Dennis Johnson (RB)
    Jay Prosch (FB)

    Shortly after Bill O’Brien was hired, John McClain tried to explain O’Brien’s offensive philosophy and how quarterback prospects would fit in with it. Before McClain even got to the quarterback side of things, he wrote, “O’Brien is a strong proponent of the running game. He uses a fullback part of the time.”

    Fast forward to the draft, and the selections follow the article’s lead. After Clowney came off the board, Rounds 2 and 3 brought a guard and tight end on board.

    Since most running plays in the NFL go between the guards, Xavier Su’a-Filo fits right in. C.J. Fiedorowicz is not an oversize slot receiver but a block-first kind of tight end. Then Houston took the first of only two fullbacks chosen in the draft by selecting Jay Prosch on the last day. Yes, O’Brien’s commitment to the running game was clear.

    Indeed, there was no other choice. The Texans waited until the fourth round to grab a quarterback, a project who did not play his first full season in three years until 2013. This offense is destined to lean on the running game until a franchise quarterback can be acquired.

    Foster must like the focus on running backs, especially if it can get him more involved in the passing game. In 2011 he averaged more than 11 yards per reception and caught the ball 53 times on a lot of wheel routes out of the backfield.

    When asked by Mark Berman of Fox26 in Houston what he thought about the new offense, Foster replied: “They have a lot of zone schemes, runs, every offense does. The way they want to use me out of the backfield as far as different alignments and matchups they want to have against linebackers and things like that."

    The addition of Prosch signals more of a power game than the “one cut and go” style of the Alex Gibbs' zone-blocking scheme used by Gary Kubiak.

    When John Harris of Texans Radio was asked to assess the effect Prosch would have on the offense, all Harris could do was rave:

    He is the most physical player I saw at the Senior Bowl. He is the perfect fit as this team changes the mindset to a more physical, iso, blast, power run team. Fullbacks don’t really have a starting position, but the Bill O’Brien offense will feature one, particularly with athletic gifts and blocking ability of Jay Prosch of Auburn.

    O’Brien does not need his own Danny Woodhead type of player. But if he wants one, Dennis Johnson is ready and waiting. He runs and catches the ball with equal skill and would benefit from being able to make the extra move that was discouraged in the previous zone-blocking scheme.

    The Texans signed Andre Brown after his release from the New York Giants, but he is the kind of back who takes whatever the defense gives him. Alfred Blue runs with more power and can take a reception upfield for added yardage. Brown also has a more extensive injury history, while Blue showed no effects in 2013 from the ACL he tore the previous year.

Defensive Line

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    J.J. Watt (DE)
    Jared Crick (DE)
    Louis Nix (NT)
    Jerrell Powe (NT)
    Ricardo Mathews (NT/DE)
    Jeoffrey Pagan (DE)

    If Jadeveon Clowney was staying at his collegiate position of defensive end, the D-line would have vaulted all the way to the top. Instead, the unit must be content with this ranking.

    As presently constructed, that ranking rests primarily on the shoulders of the best defensive lineman in the NFL. Watt is the most devastating amalgam of quickness and power the league has seen in a generation. Equally adept at defending the run or rushing the passer, he excels at operating anywhere along the line—either inside where double-teams are more prevalent or outside where mismatches are more easily exploited.

    He was named Pro Football Focus' Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row (subscription required), even though his sack total was nearly cut in half from 2012 (11 vs. 20.5). His overall rating of 111.6 was 268 percent better than the second-ranked 3-4 defensive end, Calais Campbell.

    For the first time in his career, Watt will be operating without the able assistance of Antonio Smith. Jared Crick will be the yin to Watt’s yang; he'll be able to hold the line on running plays but contribute little in the pass-rush department. Crick will be limited to duties on first and second down, after which Clowney will be ask to take a three-point stance in obvious passing situations.

    The rest of the unit will be manned by newcomers to the Texans, though Powe did spend some time with Romeo Crennel when he was the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Both Powe and Louis Nix have the body type that has been lacking at nose tackle, with the stout legs and trunk that can readily engage two blockers.

    Depth is an unknown quality, since Pagan is a rookie and Mathews has never been able to hold down a starting role for long.

    The Texans need improvement in both their run defense and pass rush. They ranked 22nd in first-down rushing percentage and yards per rushing attempt. Their sack total dropped from 44 in 2012 to 31 last season. Even worse, the opposing passer rating rose from 80.0 in their last division-winning campaign to 93.9 in 2013.

    Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated detailed how Clowney can be utilized in hybrid 3-4 fronts in conjunction with Watt to throw more at the offensive line than it can handle. Much of the strategy comes down to creating gaps in protection that Clowney can exploit from the second level.

    Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will figure out how to use Watt in ways that will benefit the entire front seven. Whether Crennel can turn another lineman into an effective replacement for Antonio Smith remains the question of the moment.

Offensive Line

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    Duane Brown (LT)
    Xavier Su’a-Filo (LG)
    Chris Myers (C)
    Brandon Brooks (RG)
    Derek Newton (RT)
    Ben Jones (C/OG)
    David Quessenberry (OG/OT)

    After sending three members to the Pro Bowl in 2012, the Texans offensive line took a step backward in the 2-14 meltdown of 2013.

    The warning signs were evident in the first game versus the San Diego Chargers, where 33-year-old Dwight Freeney clearly beat All-Pro Duane Brown several times. Brown came into training camp around 20 pounds under the usual 320 pounds he carries. The effects of the weight reduction and a bad case of turf toe led to a season well below Brown’s standards.

    Houston Chronicle blogger Stephanie Stradley tweeted that Brown is back up to his normal weight and ready to resume pummeling edge-rushers:

    On #Texans radio, @DuaneBrown76 says he's @ 320 lbs, feeling healthy. Let's all get to our fighting weight.

    — Stephanie Stradley (@StephStradley) April 8, 2014 

    Left guard Wade Smith looked like his 10 years in the NFL caught up with him all at once. His lack of mobility forced Chris Myers to shade to Smith’s side of the line to make up for the guard’s limited range. Smith became an unrestricted free agent in the offseason and was not re-signed.

    The hole at left guard was expected to be addressed in the draft but not as early as the second round. Su’a-Filo was the top-rated guard in the 2014 draft class and also played some left tackle for UCLA. He is explosive off the ball but not the kind of sledgehammer that fits a power running game.

    Brandon Brooks is that kind of player—a 340-pound run-blocking terror who only needs to step up his pass protection to become one of the most formidable players at his position.

    Chris Myers has called the assignments for the offensive line since he signed with the Texans in 2008. The quarterback has that duty in the new offense, which frees up Myers to concentrate on protecting the middle when down and distance call for a pass play.

    Case Keenum had trouble handling pressure up the gut like most NFL quarterbacks. If Su’a-Filo plays up to his ranking and Brooks learns to backpedal as well as he can charge forward, the interior of the Texans line should be able to keep a cleaner pocket for Houston’s quarterbacks.

    Most Texans fans would like to see anyone other than Derek Newton manning the right tackle spot. Any hopes that Brennan Williams might be the answer were dashed when he failed to participate in the first two days of OTAs.

    The ever-observant Patrick D. Starr from State of the Texans had some kind words for Newton on the advent of OTAs: “Much criticized offensive tackle Derek Newton has arrived to OTAs in great shape and it is apparent he put in much work this offseason. He moves much better than before and has a better kick step with quickness in his pass sets.”

    When Houston was a dedicated zone-blocking outfit, David Quessenberry was projected to be the ideal guard for that scheme. Now that the team will do more combo blocking, he will probably move back to his natural position at right tackle. Jayson Braddock of SportsTalk 790 in Houston noticed how Quessenberry bulked up in a season spent on injured reserve:

    David Quessenberry has added muscle, asked about being in NFL weight room for a year. "I've gotten bigger & stronger" http://t.co/ITtcnH7Umd

    — Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) May 28, 2014 

    Newton knows he has been put on notice to get better or get out. Bill O’Brien and offensive line coach Paul Dunn will not tolerate another season where the right tackle occupies the cellar of Pro Football Focus rankings at his position.

Receivers

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    Andre Johnson (WR)
    DeAndre Hopkins (WR)
    Mike Thomas (WR)
    DeVier Posey (WR)
    Keshawn Martin (WR)
    Garrett Graham (TE)
    Ryan Griffin (TE)
    C.J. Fiedorowicz (TE)

    What is the sound of one hand clapping? It is the same as a Houston Texans receiving corps without Andre Johnson.

    The typical answer is nothing, which may be a bit extreme. DeAndre Hopkins could be a rising star in the new offensive system, Mike Thomas is an established pro, Garrett Graham has improved every season with the Texans, and the rest of the group has some talent but just needs the playing time to gauge their true potential.

    It is just unimaginable picturing this team without No. 80 lining up outside the numbers. After 11 seasons full of individual accolades that were removed as soon as the new head coach took over, it seems natural for Johnson to ask, “Is this still the place for me?”

    With Johnson, there are enough weapons on this squad to put fear into opposing defenses that they cannot afford to load up on the run every down. The same cannot be said without him.

    Knowledgeable fans will point to the 6-3 record the team compiled when he missed the final nine games of the 2011 season. Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates led the team to its first AFC South division title relying on Owen Daniels, Jacoby Jones, Kevin Walter, Joel Dreessen and Arian Foster.

    The difference in 2014 is that Foster is the only remaining member from that tea, and Graham is the only receiver with veteran credentials.

    The smart money is predicting that Johnson will ultimately return for a variety of reasons. Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle spoke with Adam Lefkoe of Bleacher Report and laid Johnson’s options on the line:

    He’s doesn’t have any leverage, he’s getting older, he makes too much money to be traded, it’s a really delicate situation. I could seeing it going on for a couple more months before cooler heads finally prevail and Andre Johnson is finally back in a Houston Texans uniform.

    Imagining a world without Johnson forces the observer to look more deeply into the virtues of the rest of this unit.

    Hopkins was one of the wide receivers on the NFL All-Rookie team along with Keenan Allen, though Allen had the better statistics. Hopkins might have exceeded Allen’s 71 catches for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns if he had Philip Rivers throwing to him. 

    With Johnson missing from OTAs, other receivers got to pick up the slack. Thomas appeared to be making the most of the situation until he missed the final day of OTAs. The former Jacksonville Jaguar had his best season when the underrated David Garrard was his quarterback, and there is not a comparable passer on the present roster.

    DeVier Posey is in the second season of his comeback from the Achilles tear he suffered in 2012. It is not unusual for that sort of recovery to take more than a single season, which makes 2014 the year for him to put it all together.

    Keshawn Martin needs to hold onto the ball when it comes his way, a problem that caused Bill O’Brien to comment, “Slot WR is important in our offense. We don't really have one right now.”

    Graham signed a nice three-year deal for $11.25 million, according to Spotrac, a sum that will oblige the tight end to up his production into the 60-70 catch, seven-to-eight touchdown level.

    Griffin and Fiedorowicz are the 2.1 version of today’s tight end, the 260-pound blocker/receiver who can either usher your running back over the goal line or overpower the average defensive back in the corner of the end zone for the score.

    This is an OK bunch of players without Johnson, but it's the best unit on the team when the all-time leading receiver in franchise history is in the fold.

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