Houston Texans: What We've Learned Through Week 1 of Training Camp
One week of training camp is in the books, and we're inching closer toward finally seeing the Houston Texans back on the field!
What we can't do after one week of training camp is jump to conclusions, but we can start evaluating the early progress and trends.
Like cooking a complex meal, there are many ingredients and steps to building up a good team during training camp; so to continue with the cooking analogy, the water has barely began to boil.
The first several days of training camp were almost like an extension of OTAs and minicamp because the players didn't practice with pads on. Now that pads have been on for about five days, the image of the team is starting to come into focus like an old Polaroid picture.
Some of the news has been positive, some of it has been negative, but it's important not to get either too high or too low at this time of the year.
One thing that not all fans or even media members realize is that the goal of a training camp practice or a preseason game isn't necessarily the same as it would be for a game during the regular season. During the regular season the only goal is to win the game, but the same isn't true for the earlier parts of the process.
Like a pitcher in spring training who is working more on getting his feel back for his arsenal of pitches, or even working on a new pitch rather than trying to get the hitter out, the goal of preseason games and training camp is to find out what the team's strengths and weaknesses are and then work to improve them, not to win the game.
If you can win the game in the process then that's great, but it's not the main goal like it would be during the regular season.
All that being said, here are a few stories and developments that have popped up during Week 1 of training camp that warrant watching as the Texans move forward.
Health Could Be a Concern for Key Veterans
Both players are at the point when guys at their position start to decline. We shouldn't be shocked if their names are on the injury report nearly every week this season, but that doesn't mean they can't have a productive year.
Any of you who are also fantasy football players will know that in year's past Tom Brady's name has been on the injury report every week for a "shoulder" issue, yet there's never any doubt about whether or not he'll play.
I'm not saying you shouldn't be concerned at all, but my feel for the situation is that they're mostly being held out for precautionary reasons. LaDainian Tomlinson used to sit out the entire preseason every year and then dominate during the regular season; veterans don't need as much practice time as the young players.
Andre Johnson said he would hope to play in 1st preseason game, but he’s gonna do what’s best for team. Again sounded unconcerned abt injury— AdamWexlerCSN (@awexler) August 3, 2014
Why risk worsening the injury or creating a new one during a meaningless game if it's not necessary? I'm not saying that they won't need reps to be ready for the season, but they definitely don't need as many.
Really all they need is to be back for the third preseason game which is treated like a dress rehearsal. Before that the starters don't play that much anyway—typically just one or two series during the first game—so they won't be missing too much.
While I would love for them to be 100 percent healthy right now, with them being out of the lineup, it will give extra snaps to guys such as DeVier Posey and Alfred Blue who need more playing time.
As long as they're back and ready to play in a couple of weeks, the snaps for other players and lesser risk of them worsening their injuries will be worth them sitting out.
With Johnson, this could just be a product of him missing earlier practices and needing to get back into shape. Either way he's off the field, but time and more reps will likely fix that issue.
The bigger concern is with Foster.
He's a running back who had injury issues in college, injury issues in 2011 and then of course again last year when he missed the final eight games. The potential of Foster's injury to linger worries me a little more, plus the Texans have less behind him at running back than behind Johnson at wide receiver.
Despite playing in a new system, I don't think Foster needs many preseason reps. He learned the playbook during minicamp and OTAs and practiced it some during training camp; if they can get him into the season healthy, he'll be fine.
Priority No. 1 is to protect his health and keep him fresh for the regular season. If he can get a few reps in the preseason, that'd be great, but it's more important to make sure his hamstring and anything else that ails him is right before they push him.
Quarterbacks Aren't Ready to Run the Show
Bill O’Brien will ask more and expect more of his quarterbacks than what the previous staff did.
That’s not to say that Gary Kubiak—a former NFL quarterback—didn’t expect or want his quarterback to play well, but he treated the position like a game manager more than a leader.
Matt Schaub, Case Keenum and David Carr were reined in heavily and not given the freedom to run the offense in the same way many quarterbacks are in today’s pass-first league.
No argument from me that it was probably the best strategy for most of the Titans' quarterbacks, but Schaub could have handled the extra responsibility which might have led to more team and individual success.
I’m not suggesting that Schaub should have been the offensive coordinator on the field like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, but basic freedom to audible could have been beneficial.
Kubiak ran a solid scheme and believed that, if his players executed that, his offense could be successful against any defense. That thought wasn’t completely untrue, but there were times when the opposing team had the perfect defense called for the Texans' play, and a negative play could have been avoided with an audible.
Things like being able to flip the direction of the run play or come to the line with two plays called and being able to “kill” the first one if he didn’t like the look of the defensive formation could have extended drives, led to big plays or at least prevented big plays for the defense such as Richard Sherman’s pick-six in Week 4 of last season.
For better or worse, O’Brien will give his quarterbacks more freedom.
O’Brien wants his quarterback to be a “partner in the offense," according to a report by Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk. What that means in terms of how much freedom the signal-caller will be given will be something to watch for during the preseason, but I feel confident in saying that it will be a great deal more than what was given to Schaub under Kubiak.
The responsibility of changing protection assignments, flipping the direction of a run play, using an audible to call a new play or anything else that varies from the play O'Brien calls into the headset is why Ryan Fitzpatrick was always a lock to be named the starter from this group of quarterbacks.
I’m not suggesting that Fitzpatrick is anywhere close to being capable of pulling off the extra responsibilities flawlessly, but the advantage he has over Keenum or fourth-round rookie Tom Savage in terms of experience is enormous.
While Fitzpatrick might be more capable of executing what O’Brien wants, his performance during training camp still suggests that the offense will be a work in progress during the preseason. He’s displayed a quick release and decisiveness on where to go with the ball, but he’s making mistakes just like the other quarterbacks.
Ryan Fitzpatrick looked good out of the gun and showed good zip, decision-making and ball placement in seven on seven drills. Not in pads— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) July 27, 2014
Just because he’s the best fit with the offense as of now—that likely won’t last all season—that doesn’t necessarily mean that Fitzpatrick will play better than he has in the past or any better than Schaub did under Kubiak.
Of the quarterbacks on the roster Savage is clearly their future, but he’s several miles behind the other players. The development of any rookie selected in the fourth-round is likely to be slow, but in Savage’s case, that process could be even slower.
Savage relied on his physical talent to fit passes into tight windows, stared down his primary target and never developed the finer points of playing the positon while in college. It also didn't help that he missed two years of playing time while transferring from Rutgers and Arizona before eventually landing at Pittsburgh.
All of the Texans’ quarterbacks have flaws. The question is, which flaws are more easily fixed and which flaws are more easily worked around to allow the quarterback to still execute the game plan to some degree?
Savage is just swimming over his head at the moment, Keenum’s accuracy is shaky and he’s too slow in his reads before and after the snap. While Fitzpatrick also has inconsistent accuracy and forces too many passes into windows he doesn’t have the arm strength to fit them through.
Case Keenum had another delay of game today as he was trying to make a read at the line. #Texans— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) August 3, 2014
For the time being, Fitzpatrick’s experience has shown in how quickly he picked up the offense, and his flaws are the most manageable. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but he’s the best the Texans have for now.
Fitz has looked good in his intermediate game and the #Texans are going to have to pick spots with him to go over the top with him.— PDS (@PatDStat) August 3, 2014
As I said on the introduction slide, don’t get worked up either way over the early results. However, I wouldn’t be shocked if O’Brien dialed back part of his game plan and the responsibilities he gives to the quarterback if Fitzpatrick struggles early.
Secondary Should Be Improved This Season
Even if the secondary's overall play doesn't improve, its production likely will because the pass rush is almost guaranteed to be better this season than in 2013.
Not rocket science here, if the defensive backs don’t have to cover for as long because the front seven is getting pressure on the quarterback and speeding up his clock, then the defensive backs can get more aggressive and are less likely to get beat deep.
The help up front will definitely be a huge help, but I think the group's talent has improved, despite not making any splashy additions in free agency or during the draft. The Texans did add talent, but the additions were under-the-radar moves made by adding cheap veterans and late draft picks.
Other players who were already on the roster, possibly improving from year one to year two, will also help the strength of the unit.
Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson both produce between the level of a solid starter and a Pro Bowl-caliber corner, but the players' development around them will determine the secondary's overall strength.
In particular I’ve been impressed by the strides second-year safety D.J. Swearinger has made and seventh-round draft choice Andre Hal's quick development. Swearinger is a lock to start, but both players should make an impact this season.
For Swearinger, the talent has always been there—which is why the Texans drafted him in the second round—but he made the mistakes many rookies who are pushed into early playing time make and was often criticized for being out of position and giving up big plays.
The good news is Swearinger seemed to recognize what went wrong last year and is determined to not let the same things happen in 2014. He’s hit his playbook hard, is playing under more control and just has a better idea of what the coaches want from him.
Don’t expect him to become Troy Polamalu over the course of one offseason, but he’ll surprise people this year with his performance.
Swearinger said that he's been studying more this year and working on his technique more than he did as a rookie. #TexansTC— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) July 26, 2014
Hal on the other hand had to prove to the coaching staff that he belongs due to his status as a seventh-round choice. Players drafted in the seventh round are definitely not guaranteed a spot on the roster during their first year like players drafted earlier, so he’s had to fight and will have to continue to fight to earn his spot.
The early results for the corner out of Vanderbilt are mostly positive. Not surprisingly, it’s taken him a day or two during each stage of practices—minicamp, OTAs and training camp—to get his footing and get comfortable, but he’s come on quicker than I’m sure some had expected from a player selected that late.
Draft pick Andre Hal with the play of the day. Picks off Deep ball by Fitzpatrick to Andre Johnson. One handed grab against his helmet— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) July 27, 2014
What’s been impressive about Hal in particular is that he doesn’t seem overwhelmed, afraid or in awe of the receivers he’s being asked to cover.
He’s had to cover a future Hall of Famer in Andre Johnson, last year’s first-round draft choice DeAndre Hopkins and many other talented receivers, but he’s played physical with all of them and hasn’t backed down.
If Derek Newton Loses His Job, It Won't Be to Tyson Clabo
Derek Newton was named the starter after David Quessenberry left the team to receive treatment for lymphoma.
The news that Newton retained his job was disappointing to most fans, but the team didn't have a better option.
Fans received a brief glimmer of hope when the team signed Tyson Clabo, but after watching him practice during training camp, maybe that hope was misplaced.
Don't know how much he has left in the tank. It's early but Tyson Clabo is way behind at the moment. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 29, 2014
Newton is the starter and will hold onto his job during the preseason, unless he's awful, but if Clabo isn't capable, then who will step in if he struggles? The answer might be in fourth-year player Will Yeatman.
Offensive tackle Will Yeatman has been better than Tyson Clabo. Not even close at the moment. Yeatman looking like a good pickup. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 30, 2014
No matter who starts at right tackle, we'll most likely be disappointed with the performance from that position. The Texans aren't close to having a perfect roster, but there's no doubt to me that right tackle is their second-biggest position of need besides quarterback.
At least with quarterback there is some reason—as small as it may be—to hope that maybe O'Brien can work his magic on Fitzpatrick or that Savage will develop quicker than expected. At right tackle, what reason is there to be optimistic?
Newton and Clabo aren't long-term answers. Yeatman may be better than the Texans thought when he was first signed, but I have serious doubts that he's their future at the position.
The Texans will piece it together for this year, but right tackle will need to be made a big priority going into the offseason next year.
Versatility on Defense
The Texans have preached versatility all offseason long, so it should come as no surprise that they've mixed up looks and position rotations during training camp.
While their greatest versatility is at linebacker with several players who can move to either linebacker spot or even down to the defensive line, depending on the formation, the versatility won't end there.
This organization has repeatedly said that they'll be multiple, it's very apparent today. They want players to be able to shift positions.— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) August 2, 2014
Brooks Reed will be moved around quite a bit, but he won't be the only one. Reed will see time at inside linebacker, outside linebacker and possibly even on the line when the team goes to a four-man front in their nickel or dime package.
Justin Tuggle has also moved back and forth between both linebacker spots, and Jeoffrey Pagan has moved between defensive end and nose tackle. Even first-round pick Jadeveon Clowney has moved from outside linebacker to defensive end and has even seen snaps at defensive tackle during training camp.
Tuggle—a former quarterback—will play some at outside linebacker, but according to Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com, he has a chance to start on the inside where he knows he'll have many important responsibilities. Tuggle said:
The defense runs through you you know that if yo [sic] have to get everyone aligned you have to make the calls. If you don't, someone will be misaligned they might break one up the gap. So there's a lot of pressure you have to put on yourself to get everything ready.
Forget the traditional position names for this defense. The lines will be blurred, and players will move around frequently.
Shane Lechler Is Still a Boss
You're looking at the second punter to eventually go into the Hall of Fame.
Death, taxes and Shane Lechler placing booming punts exactly where he wants to are all things that are guaranteed in life.
Lechler isn't a young man anymore—in football terms—but he's still performing at very high level.
Punter Shane Lechler placed a career-best 34 punts inside the opponents' 20-yd line in 2013. #Texans— Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) December 30, 2013
Sadly, he was one of the Texans' best weapons last year. Having the punter as your biggest plus is never a good thing, but a talented punter is obviously a great tool to have on the roster, especially on this team.
Most people don't expect the Texans to have a great offense because of who their quarterbacks will be and the injury situations with Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, so having a punter who can turn a three-and-out into bad field position for the other team is valuable.
Over his career Lechler has been one of the rare guys—like Ray Guy was—who is able to achieve both great length and hang time on his punts. Going into 2014, Lechler has set some lofty goals for himself in both areas.
From Dave Zangaro of CSNHouston.com, Lechler's coordinator, Bob Ligashesky, thinks he's capable of reaching his goal which would be a record.
I think for Shane Lechler, whatever he sets as a goal. I think if there’s anybody that can do it, it’s Shane Lechler because if anybody’s going to work as hard as he can to attain it, it would be Shane Lechler.
Whatever happens with the offense, Bill O'Brien will be able to rely on Lechler to bail the team out of bad situations and not put what should be a very good defense in bad spots with a short field.