Houston Texans Training Camp Preview: Depth Chart, Sleepers and Predictions
Football season is finally here!
Well, kind of. But to me the start of training camp is when it finally feels like the king of sports has made its return.
The Texans start full-team practices for training camp Saturday, July 26, but their talented rookie class reported for duty July 21.
With a significant amount of roster turnover going into the season and a new coaching staff in place, this training camp will take on even more importance for the Texans. Usually, only the rookies have to learn something new, but with new schemes and assignments on both sides of the ball, the veterans will have to go back to school in some ways as well.
Over the following slides, I'll dive into what you should be watching for in terms of sleepers, position battles and the depth chart, and I'll even throw in a few very early predictions for the 2014 season.
Top Sleepers Heading into Training Camp
The second-year player has everything you could ask for in terms of the physical skill set required to play the slot receiver position. Bonner is quick in short spaces, elusive, has good hands and runs precise routes.
With how Texans head coach Bill O'Brien described what he wants from the position to Tania Ganguli of ESPN, it sounds like Bonner will be a perfect fit:
On the inside I would say it is very important to be quicker than fast sometimes. It's important to have good hands. It's important to be a very tough guy, a guy that can block, run for us. Obviously a very smart and instinctive player because it moves a lot faster on the inside with different bracket coverages, one-on-one coverages and different leverages ... things that they see at the snap of the ball that maybe they didn't see when they broke the huddle.
The former sixth-round pick would have probably received playing time last year in the slot, but was hurt before the season began and spent 2013 on the IR.
Bonner enters 2014 on solid ground and has a real chance to compete for the job at slot receiver or at least see playing time as a situational extra receiver and return man on special teams.
Despite not receiving a ton of carries in college, Alfred Blue is possibly in line to be Arian Foster's primary backup after the departure of Ben Tate via free agency. Blue won't be the only running back trying to land the gig, but he at least looks the part of what the Texans will want from their second string player at the position.
Blue has good size, has shown good vision to get up the field quickly and has displayed reliable hands as a receiver during offseason practices. Those qualities have led some to make the comparison to the player he'll be backing up.
No doubt Blue has a long, long way to go before ever being able to fill those shoes, but the early returns on the sixth-round pick from LSU are very encouraging.
Seventh-round picks are never guaranteed to make the roster, but there is a lot to like about Andre Hal.
The rookie out of Vanderbilt has shown he has the ability to be physical with receivers during offseason practices and will look to carry that success into training camp.
The Texans have a giant question mark in terms of depth at the cornerback position, so how well and how quickly Hal develops will be key. Besides the starters on the outside—Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson—the remainder of the depth chart is made up of mostly unknown factors, on some level.
Hal has talent, but as you would guess from a seventh-round pick, he still has a long way to go in his development.
You might be wondering how high his potential is: Brett Kollmann of Battle Red Blog called Hal "the best corner in the 2014 NFL draft" before he was selected by the Texans.
Considering where he was taken, that might have been a reach—OK, it was definitely a reach—but Hal does have clear upside that makes him an intriguing sleeper to watch during training camp.
Position Battle Preview: Slot Receiver
Every team would like to have a talented player at slot receiver, but new coach Bill O'Brien has stressed that the role is very important to his offense.
After taking over the Houston Texans—but before getting a chance to look at his new roster in person—O'Brien believed that he didn't have many attractive options at slot receiver, according to this tweet from Texans TV host Drew Dougherty:
O'Brien: slot WR is important in our offense. We don't really have one right now. #Texans— Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) March 31, 2014
As it turned out, O'Brien later realized he had more available to him than initially believed.
It's possible that he made those early statements based on what he saw on film from last year's primary slot receiver Keshawn Martin—given the numbers Martin posted, you could see why he would come to that conclusion.
What he's probably liked so far from the position during minicamp and OTAs has been the play of both Alan Bonner and particularly that of veteran Mike Thomas, who—after bouncing around the league for a couple of seasons—is hopeful to put down roots in a city whose fans' hearts he once broke.
As Ganguli's ESPN article mentioned, O'Brien will be looking for something different than what the Texans' previous coach, Gary Kubiak, valued from a slot receiver: Kubiak appeared to just line up whichever receiver was third on the depth chart, regardless of whether their skill set fit the position.
O'Brien will treat it differently—I think we need to start looking at wide receiver and slot receiver as being completely separate positions in the O'Brien offense.
They require players with different physical attributes and skill sets; no longer will the two be easily interchangeable.
I really like the upside and potential of Bonner, but Thomas has the edge going into training camp, in my opinion. Despite going into his second year in the NFL, Bonner is basically still a rookie—he missed the entire 2013 season.
Thomas is light years ahead in terms of experience.
Bonner might have more natural talent, but Thomas has proven he can succeed at the pro level, which will likely carry weight with the new coaching staff.
Predicted Winner: Mike Thomas
Position Battle Preview: Inside Linebacker
The Texans have many moving pieces at linebacker that could line up in multiple places during the 2014 season, but expect Brooks Reed to get the nod as the starting inside linebacker next to Brian Cushing.
Reed spent his first three seasons as an outside linebacker, but is likely a better fit on the inside. Outside of his rookie season—during which he filled in for an injured Mario Williams—Reed has struggled as a pass rusher, making him a frequent target for scorn by the fans.
What Reed does well, however, is play the run, and he also has the athleticism to move enough in coverage.
He's by no means a great cover linebacker, but he's at least physically gifted enough to drop in the zone and not get embarrassed, like previous Texans' inside linebackers.
I believe Reed is the clubhouse leader for the position at the moment, but that doesn't mean he won't face tough competition for the job.
Like most Texans players at inside linebacker, Dent was known as a solid run defender for Atlanta but someone who also struggled in pass coverage, according to John Maney of Pro Football Focus:
Akeem Dent showed some promise in run defense, playing more than 550 snaps in his second season, but failed to make an impact in the passing game, as he struggled in coverage and proved to be an ineffective blitzer.
Like Joe Mays, Bradie James or DeMeco Ryans in his last season, Dent will most likely be a two-down linebacker as a run specialist, with Jeff Tarpinian coming on the field during obvious pass situations. The best way for Reed to beat out Dent and secure the job is to prove to the coaching staff that he's capable of playing well in pass coverage.
As far as their run-stopping ability, Reed and Dent are pretty close.
While I don't think we'll get to a point where fans start tossing out the term "Reed Island," I do think he's a better pass defender than Dent and a better run defender than Tarpinian.
His potential as a three-down linebacker is what sets him apart in this competition.
Predicted Winner: Brooks Reed
Position Battle Preview: Slot Cornerback
At the moment, Brandon Harris is the presumed primary slot cornerback more by default than anything he's done on the field to earn the spot.
The Texans didn't draft a single corner during the 2013 draft, released Brice McCain and didn't select a corner until the seventh-round of this year's draft; you could say they have a few question marks at the position.
The biggest of all, of course, is who they will put on the field as their slot corner.
Coach O'Brien mentioned several times during the offseason that he believes 70 percent of the game on defense will be played in nickel, dime or some other form of a sub-package. If this holds true, the Texans third cornerback will have a vital role this season.
His statement rings true to me because many teams—especially successful teams—use different variations of a spread offense with three or four receivers on the field at any given time. If the offense isn't in a base package with either 12, 21 or 22 personnel, then the defense shouldn't be in their base formation either.
How well they can pull this off will come down to the production from their slot cornerback. The Texans have many options for the spot, but none of the players being considered have NFL experience as a tested and reliable player in the slot.
Most people seem to assume that Harris will be the guy because of his experience, but I'm not sure what experience they're referring to. He has been on the roster for three years, but he's never started a game and wasn't even active for half of the team's games over his first two seasons.
Andre Hal and A.J. Bouye are very much alive in the competition, and both have a legit chance to win the job if they outperform Harris during training camp and the preseason.
While Harris may be the likely starter, he's not entrenched at his position like some other veterans.
One wrench that might get tossed in could be if none of those listed options perform well, Kareem Jackson could slide over to the slot, with a reserve corner taking his spot on the outside where they might be better suited.
Jackson will still be one of the team's starters on the outside, but he did spend some time working in the slot during offseason practices.
Coach O'Brien spoke about the position and Jackson's possible hybrid role to Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com:
A slot corner has to have quickness, has to have strength, has to have awareness and has to be able to, relative to the strength, be able to tackle. Because they can be a force player verses certain formations. It is a position that is very tough to play. When you have a guy like Kareem (Jackson) that is doing that for us right now, who can play outside and inside, he's a guy that is playing inside for us too.
Unless Harris, Bouye or Hal—the latter two are likely a better fit on the outside—step up and blow everyone away during camp and the preseason, Jackson could receive a decent chunk of playing time in the slot this season.
The potential scenario could be that when they go to their nickel package with three cornerbacks, Johnathan Joseph would stay on the outside, Jackson would move inside to the slot and Bouye, Elbert Mack or Hal would take over Jackson's spot on the outside for that play or series.
From P.D. Starr of State of the Texans, Bouye could be a nice fit on the outside when Jackson moves to the slot:
The rangy corner has good instincts but was primarily a special teams player in 2013. However, this season he has the makings for a solid backup as a boundary cornerback. If Bouye can prove he can provide a difference in the secondary, it could move Jackson inside when the Texans go three cornerbacks.
While one player will eventually be named the primary slot corner, this battle won't end during training camp or the preseason.
With the options available, I would be surprised if one player out of the group was able to set himself apart as clearly the best. The battle will continue into the season with the gig up for grabs from week to week, depending on who plays better.
Predicted Winner: Brandon Harris—for now.
Position Battle Preview: Kicker
This battle will be like picking between the most physically fit 500-pound men; there are no winners here.
Randy Bullock was a disaster for most of last season, but I'm not sold that the player the Texans signed as an undrafted free agent—Chris Boswell—is a better option. I'm sure some of you will think that anyone but Bullock would be a better option, but the numbers tell a different story.
Boswell was signed to compete with and push Bullock, but his accuracy wasn't any better during college than that of the erratic Texans kicker. Bullock's field goal percentage of 74.3 percent was awful last season—the only kicker worse was Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski—but over his college career, Boswell was just as shaky.
At Rice, Boswell made just 76.1 percent of his kicks over his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons—just a hair better than Bullock—and followed that up by making only 14 of 21 attempts—66.7 percent—in his senior season.
That's the guy who is going to take Bullock's job? I don't see it.
Boswell has a strong leg, but so does Bullock—I don't see that as an advantage. Bullock was shaky early, which seemed to affect his confidence and maybe his mechanics. By game 10, however, Bullock figured it out, and he made his final 12 field goal attempts of the season.
Bullock by no means has the job locked up, and I don't expect it to be a competition in name only, but I also don't expect Boswell to be named the Texans' starter.
Predicted Winner: Randy Bullock
Predicted Two-Person Offensive Depth Chart on Offense
|Quarterback:||Ryan Fitzpatrick||Case Keenum|
|Running Back:||Arian Foster||Alfred Blue|
|Fullback:||Jay Prosch||Ryan Griffin*|
|Tight End:||Garrett Graham||C.J. Fiedorowicz|
|Outside Receiver 1:||Andre Johnson||DeAndre Hopkins**|
|Outside Receiver 2:||DeAndre Hopkins||DeVier Posey|
|Slot Receiver:||Mike Thomas||Alan Bonner|
|Left Tackle:||Duane Brown||Will Yeatman|
|Left Guard:||Xavier Su'a-Filo||Ben Jones|
|Center:||Chris Myers||Ben Jones|
|Right Guard:||Brandon Brooks||Ben Jones|
|Right Tackle:||Derek Newton||Tyson Clabo|
*When Prosch is out, the Texans most likely just won't use a fullback, but Griffin does have potential as an H-back, depending on the formation.
**If Johnson is out of the game, Hopkins would become their primary receiver, with Posey becoming the second option instead of stepping into Johnson's role.
Predicted Two-Deep Defensive Depth Chart
|Defensive End:||J.J. Watt||Ricardo Mathews|
|Nose Tackle:||Louis Nix III||Jerrell Powe|
|Defensive End:||Jared Crick||Ricardo Mathews*|
|Rush Linebacker:||Jadeveon Clowney||Whitney Mercilus**|
|Inside Linebacker 1:||Brian Cushing||Akeem Dent|
|Inside Linebacker 2:||Brooks Reed||Justin Tuggle|
|Outside Linebacker:||Whitney Mercilus||Brooks Reed|
|Outside Corner 1:||Johnathan Joseph||A.J. Bouye|
|Outside Corner 2:||Kareem Jackson||Andre Hal|
|Slot Corner:||Brandon Harris||Elbert Mack|
|Free Safety:||Kendrick Lewis||Chris Clemons|
|Strong Safety:||D.J. Swearinger||Shiloh Keo|
*Jeoffrey Pagan will likely take his place when healthy.
**If Clowney goes out, Mercilus will take over the role as the main pass-rusher, with Reed moving over to the strong side at outside linebacker.
Early Predictions for the Season
Quarterback starts: Ryan Fitzpatrick: 10, Tom Savage: 4, Case Keenum: 2.
Arian Foster's stat line: 14 G, 1,250 YDS rushing, 7 TD, 55 REC, 475 YDS receiving.
Andre Johnson's stat line: 15 G, 90 REC, 1,300 YDS, 7 TD.
DeAndre Hopkins' stat line: 65 REC, 1,050 YDS, 8 TD.
J.J. Watt's sack total: 15.
Jadeveon Clowney's sack total: 11.
Offensive Rank Yards / Points per game: No. 18 / No. 23.
Defensive Rank Yards / Points allowed per game: No. 4 / No. 6.
2014 Record: 7-9.