It's the worst time of the year for football fans: the down time between Organized Team Activities and Training Camp, a time where most fans thank whatever god or otherwise benign force they pray to that no one got seriously injured so far and beg that it doesn't happen in camp, either. It's also a time during which most of us pledge to ourselves that we're not going to watch another Lakers/Celtics finals and wish the Astros would just stop playing in order to spare us the misery of watching the "product" they're fielding now. Although these elements are somewhat mitigated by the US' success so far in the World Cup this year, as die hard football fans, I'm sure most of you can agree that sports are boring right now.
So let's consider what we've got to look forward to in Training Camp: camp battles. Although it seems that the party line talks about "bringing in competition" far more often than it actually delivers on it, this offseason appears to actually have some real intrigue going forward that has serious implications concerning what most of us cautiously anticipate being the franchise's first playoff run. So what should we be looking for in camp in 2010?
We'll start with the obvious: K Neil Rackers vs. K Kris Brown. I'll spare in depth detail on this account, as a front page post garnered serious discussion while offering all but a definitive case for Rackers being the Texans' second kicker (and the end of the last original Texan). Rackers had a much better season than Brown last year, is historically a better kicker, and apparently blew Brown away toward the end of OTAs. The problem? Both kickers have serious questions surrounding their reliability under pressure. Neil Rackers led the league with an incredible 94.1% accuracy rating during the regular season for the Cardinals last year, but went 1 for 3 in the playoffs. I don't think any of us care to think about Kris Brown and what could have been if he hadn't choked last year. Needless to say, special teams proved last season to be critical. It was the difference between 9-7 and no playoffs and potentially 11 or 12 wins and playoffs over the over-hyped Jets (wouldn't that have been a nice feeling after the walloping in game 1 last season?).
The Interior Offensive Line. Right now, Kasey Studdard and Antoine Caldwell are starting at left and right guard, respectively, while Chris Myers continues to maintain his title as starting center. However, competition at this position is perhaps reaching a fever pitch: relatively well-paid free agent Wade Smith, 6th-round rookie Shelley Smith, Chris White, and Mike Brisiel all seem to be on relatively equal footing with at least Studdard and Caldwell at this point in the year, and could easily push for a starting gig at any moment.
- Kasey Studdard lacks the ideal athleticism and intelligence to be an elite player at left guard, but what he lacks in ability he makes up for in meanness. He has the inside track on the left side because he did show marked improvement in each game last season and because his dad played with Kubiak, which appears to be critical criteria for standing a real chance of being on the team.
- Antoine Caldwell has all the ability in the world, but seemed to lack the know-how to stay on the field last year. While not bad per se, he often seemed lost and had a tough time cracking the starting line-up, despite relatively weak competition in vastly undersized Chris White and Mike Brisiel, who was the definitive weak link on the line before hitting Injured Reserve early on in the season.
- Wade Smith signed a 4 year, $12 million contract with the team back in March, guaranteeing him $6.25 million. That's an awful lot of money not to start, although it's not the first time we've seen this happen (Dan Orlovsky had the best job of all time last season). He is fairly versatile, which seems to be a selling point for the team, and played admirably last season for the Chiefs, including leading the charge for Jamaal Charles' explosive season. It's tough to say, but I don't think he needs to do much to beat out Studdard.
- Shelley Smith continues the long and illustrious tradition of bringing in borderline athletes from Colorado State as a favor to the school for taking on both of Kubiak's boys. Although the pipeline has admittedly been rather prosperous for the team, giving us WR David Anderson, TE Joel Dreessen, and OG Mike Brisiel (among many, many, many other CSU alumni who have had roster spots on the team at varying points), Smith might have more trouble than all of the guys listed here at catching on. He has ideal size and athleticism for the system, and has the key trait of being a family friend to ensure that he'll stick on the roster, but barring injury, he'll almost certainly spend his first few years as a back-up.
- Chris White is listed at 6-2, 292 on the roster, but I've seen for myself and heard from others that a far more accurate listing has him closer to 6-0 and as light as 280. Chris White is by far the most technically skilled of those listed. He has dutifully and admirably filled in at all points during which he has been called to stand in, and has the advantage of being the only true back up center on the team. White will almost certainly not play left guard due to his lack of size, but offers real competition for the right guard spot should Caldwell continue to struggle.
- Chris Myers is a guy who gets a bad rap for the team-wide embarrassment that was opening day, 2009. He is fairly small, but is extremely intelligent and has held together a continually-improving pass-blocking line. He's not going to win many battles in terms of power, but against defensive tackles not named Kris Jenkins, he holds up well and tends to keep Schaub upright. I don't see him losing his job as the starting center, but it could happen.
- Mike Brisiel provides perhaps the most interesting case for a challenger to start. Kubiak is simply not one to let a guy who has played "well enough" at a position to be supplanted, unless your name is Zac Diles. Brisiel had the right guard position on lock without any real hint of a challenger, despite Caldwell's acquisition, heading into the 2009 season. After he was injured, there was speculation he wouldn't even be ready for the beginning of the 2010 season. That concern has subsided, but it remains to be seen if Brisiel will have an inside track to regaining his position on the right side.
The real hang up in all of this is that none of these guys are particularly great. They all have things they do reasonably well, and I'd argue that with the exception of Studdard, they all fit the system. This battle is particularly interesting because it does seem to genuinely be an open competition, which as has been mentioned, is not something typical of Kubiak's MO.
- Arian Foster had a strong finish to the 2009 season after 15 weeks of futility between Steve Slaton, Ryan Moats, and Chris Brown. He has an excellent combination of size and speed and seemed a natural fit for the system. He is currently labeled as the starter.
- Ben Tate was a late riser in the 2010 draft, moving from 3rd or 4th rounder to 2nd rounder after answering questions about his long speed at the combine. I don't think I'm alone in saying I expected him to take the starting job fairly quickly, but a hamstring injury that sat him out for nearly all of OTAs undermined any real chance he had at competing early on. Now it seems his "inside track" may have derailed, as Foster has the starting job and Slaton appears to have regained enough of the coaching staff's trust to be in serious contention for the position. He offers a lot of the same power and speed that Foster does, and at the very least offers a very talented set of fresh legs in the rotation.
- Steve Slaton is cause for much hope (for his sake) and much wariness (on all our parts). Expectations were sky-high for Slaton after dominating as a rookie runningback, but fumble problems that reared their head late in 2008 were immediately present, and eventually he went on IR after a disappointing 2009 effort with a fairly serious injury. After undergoing cervical fusion in his neck, can he really handle being an NFL runningback? His value as a receiver means he'll get on the field, but the window may have closed for Slaton's chances as a serious starter in this league.
The Tight Ends. If he's healthy, there's little question Owen Daniels will try and regain the magic he had in the first 8 games with Matt Schaub last season... but the writing seems to be slowly scrawling itself on the wall that Daniels is on his way out of town. Contract negotiations appear to be going poorly, as Daniels wants top tight end money, which he might have deserved if not for this unfortunate injury. So who's going to be the number two tight end this season; who's going to be Daniels' potential replacement?
- I've said it before and I'll say it again: James Casey is the most talented tight end on the roster. He's got unparalleled athleticism that makes him a better blocker than Daniels nearly be default and a sort of aura about him that gives him that sort of "spectacular catch" potential that makes the imagination run wild. He was extraordinarily tough and versatile in his college days, but his rookie season was puzzling. He was beat out on the depth chart by fellow rookie Anthony Hill almost off the bat and even after Daniels and Hill went on IR, the team seemed to shy away from getting Casey on the field often, opting instead for 3-wide sets with Joel Dreessen as the lone tight end. He appears to have picked up a knack for getting slightly injured, as well, but I will say that my money's on this guy for tight end of the future.
- Joel Dreessen is a case study in solid scouting work on guys already in the league. No one had heard of this guy, then he comes to Houston and is all of the sudden not just our long snapper, but our second tight end... and it works--fairly well by the end of the season. Nevermind the ignominious CSU connection, Dreessen is a reliable blocker, a willing special teams player, and solid receiver. He has had the second tight end spot on lock down up until this point, when a shoulder surgery sidelined him and gave opportunity for new rookie Garrett Graham and James Casey to receive considerable repetitions with the first team.
- Anthony Hill had all the potential in the world at one point. Before his second ACL tear in college, he was thought to be a first round pick in the order of Brandon Pettigrew: a great red zone target who functioned as an extra tackle on the field. Then his second ACL tear happened and he had a forgettable senior season and was drafted in the 4th by the Texans. Then he started playing a lot when the team was struggling to run the ball and Owen Daniels went down. He finished the season with 1 catch for 9 yards and a first down, but O what a catch it was. Hill caught the ball and dragged defenders with him for a crucial first down before promptly tearing his ACL for a 3rd time. The catch was reminiscent to me of David Anderson's single reception in his rookie year, when he took the ball for 27 yards in a game during which the team was being blown out by New England. It's doubtful that a guy with as many ACL tears as Anthony Hill will last much longer in this league, and his career may very well have ended even now, but he does have the potential to be a great contributor on this team if he can recover and stay healthy.
- Garrett Graham was probably the biggest WTF pick of the 2010 draft for Houston. Even those of us aware of the injuries to the other tight ends were scratching our collective heads at this one. However, Graham appears to be built in a similar mold to fellow Wisconsin alum Owen Daniels and seems to have a natural knack for catching the ball. After receiving significant reps in OTAs with the first team due to injuries, Graham has a real chance at being a contributor early on in his career if he is indeed a Daniels clone.
The Defensive Tackles. I don't think it's idle talk when Kubiak keeps repeating that Earl Mitchell "might just steal someone's lunch money." In fact, I think it's an indictment on Amobi Okoye, who stands a very real chance of being replaced after being basically terrible for two and a half years. Forget what Pancakes tries to force down our throats with his hot air and glass-half-full spin: the kid cannot play the run. The excuse continues to stand that he's extremely young despite being a 4th year player, but the team appears to be taking seriously the prospect of replacing him.
- Earl Mitchell is a--surprise!--converted tight end out of Arizona who I really had no idea about going into the draft, despite my religious following of the event since the team's inception and especially since 2006. He ran a blazing 4.89 at the combine and has repeatedly impressed the coaches with his quickness. As a more personal analysis, a friend of mine plays for Arizona and has spoken well of his maturity, his leadership, and the fact that he spent a lot of time looking unblockable. Mitchell is everything Okoye is supposed to be without the pretense of playing the run well, which means he'll see a lot of time early and often as the team tries him out in place of Okoye.
- Malcolm Sheppard is the UDFA surprise who really had the potential to be drafted at least where Earl Mitchell was. He was dominant in the SEC and despite being light has a reputation for playing the run extremely well, on top of spending extensive time as a DE, and thus showing a lot as a pass rusher. Of the many intriguing prospects offered by Sheppard making the active roster, pushing either DelJuan Robinson or Frank Okam off the team may be one of the most notable. If Sheppard is really as talented as scouting reports would lead one to believe, Malcolm Sheppard could be a significant contributor early on.
- Antonio Smith might surprise some people, but the coaches have spoken often of their intention to give Smith more time on the interior defensive line. Smith's presence has the distinction of perhaps challenging Shaun Cody, which would be a welcome change as Cody really doesn't bring much to the table. Smith is good at applying pressure and collapsing the pocket, but seems to lack closing ability. Extended time at defensive tackle means either Cody or Okoye will be riding the bench and Barwin will be seeing a lot of additional time as a starter at defensive end, as well.
If nothing else, the guys in this competition mean we might finally be able to close the deal on 3rd downs more often. All the players mentioned have a real chance to help this team do something it has struggled and failed to do since Kubiak came and made it a premium: fluster Peyton Manning. It all should be said that Okoye is back at his rookie weight, which means he's back at the weight that bought him his only good season. He is said to be much faster than in either of the past two seasons, and thus stands a chance at retaining a starting spot, but there's little doubt the team is challenging him and will be offering up a much more substantial rotation at his position.
The Other Corners. Kareem Jackson and Glover Quin are your 2010 Houston Texans starters at cornerback, and that's a done deal. Jackson is expected to have a big impact on defense and immediately stepped into the starting role as the team's number one corner. Glover Quin had a great rookie season, and we're all praying he doesn't pull a Fred Bennett/Steve Slaton. But what about the other guys? We've got Brice McCain, who had a shot at starting before Glover Quin, we've got Jacques Reeves, who despite being laughed out of Dallas has quietly been our best corner since arriving, we've got Antwaun Molden, who has all the tools to succeed and none of the health, we've got Sherrick McManis, who is puzzling everyone by not moving to safety, and we've got Fred Bennett, who should be cut but might not be because sometimes Gary Kubiak makes really dumb decisions concerning the secondary, see: DeMarcus Faggins. I've heard and read that early DC projections have McCain as the nickel, Molden as the dime, and Reeves as the 5th cornerback--which would be a giant step forward for this team, despite the fact that Reeves is still a fairly well-paid Free Agent; because Reeves is a known quantity, we know how solid he is. If he's going to be our quarter cornerback, then the team has improved dramatically in terms of depth. There's also the issue of McManis, who seems assured to make the team as apparently the 6th corner, which is a bit excessive for a team that has a logjam at guard, tight end, and apparently kicker.
The Linebacker to Replace Cushing for 4 Games. It's been talked about to death, but Brian Cushing's absence will hurt the team. There's little reason to fear at this point that he'll exhibit a drop in play, but nonetheless, for 4 games, the team will be facing the most difficult portion of its schedule without him. So who will it be? The prime candidates are Kevin Bentley, Danny Clark, Darryl Sharpton, or Xavier Adibi.
- Kevin Bentley is a solid, reliable linebacker who does everything well and is at this point the best depth the team has at any position. He's a leader as a special teamer and the team has scarcely missed a beat when he's been asked to step in for small lengths of time, usually to give DeMeco Ryans a rest, or in 2008, to replace injured Zac Diles or terrible Morlon Greenwood. I doubt that Bentley gets the opportunity, but he is a strong candidate to do an adequate job of playing the strong side in Cushing's absence.
- Danny Clark was really bad when brought in for the 2007 season. He played most of the time and had very little impact as the team fielded another awful Richard Smith defense. He went to New York in 2008 and for the next two seasons was surprisingly solid. He was said to be brought in directly as Cushing's temporary replacement and in that regard stands a good chance at actually getting the job, but I have doubts that a man who probably won't finish the season on the team will see time over the other guys in this competition.
- Darryl Sharpton was a pick that absolutely infuriated me when the team made it. He was a mediocre linebacker at Miami who had a lackluster career. He is poor in coverage and very slow, but is decent at blitzing and solid against the run. It's likely he was drafted for the same reason Clark was signed: in the immediate future, to replace Cushing for 4 games, but in the long term, he might be looked at as a Kevin Bentley replacement. The reverend's nephew has the disadvantage of being the rookie in this situation, and thus has a lot of ground to make up here.
- Xavier Adibi is kinda like Amobi Okoye, by which I mean we all keep hoping "this" becomes the season where he puts it together. He has a ton of talent and put it on display at Virginia Tech, but has looked absolutely goofy in significant time on the field. However, he's had a lot of time to practice and has bulked up significantly. If he has retained his speed, he offers a tantalizing replacement for Cushing in that he might actually offer comparable rushing and pass coverage, though the team would surely lose a little in terms of playing the run.
So there you have it: the most significant camp battles facing the team at the moment. I applaud you if you actually read the whole thing. So are there any other battles you see cropping up? Who do you think wins these?