Well, here we are. A week away from the start of training camp, football journalists, bloggers, and anxious fans everywhere are waiting on baited breathe for their yearly influx of depth chart changes and over analyses of mild physical kerfuffles. Can you blame us? It's been roughly three months since anything relatively significant happened in the world of NFL football (if you don't count various star players continuously trying to one up each other against the nation's police departments), and we are dying for some real, actual news. No more toned down mini camps or workouts. No more contract disputes clogging the headlines. No more bored superstars going onto reality shows.
It's football time.
With that in mind, I've compiled a rather subjective countdown of the top ten stories I am most interested in following as your Houston Texans congregate in the southern summer heat next weekend. You may have a beef with ranking, or possibly with certain stories' placement at all, but I think we can all agree that no matter what we're just glad that we have something to talk about at all.
Six more weeks...six more weeks....six more weeks.
10. The development of Whitney Mercilus
There were several different groups within Texan nation as a whole that wanted different things out of Houston's first round pick in April. Tight End, Wide Receiver, Outside linebacker, Middle linebacker. The signing of Bradie James all but assured that Dont'a Hightower would not be the Texans' selection, but still there were very, VERY loud cries for the likes of Coby Fleener, Stephen Hill, Alshon Jefferey, Brian Quick, and Rueben Randle. While the receiving situation wasn't ideal, I was a proponent of taking an outside linebacker to add much needed depth behind next year's starters, Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin (full disclosure, my first choices were Shea McClellin, Chandler Jones, and Nick Perry). To me, Houston's defense is a lot more dependent on prime talent than their offense simply because the zone scheme makes it possible for undrafted free agents to rush for 100 yards a game. Why spend a first rounder on a wide receiver when you can make due with a third rounder?
Luckily enough for me, Rick Smith agreed and drafted Whitney Mercilus 26th overall. I'll admit I didn't really do my homework on him during the draft process. He was just kind of..."there"...to me. After finding a few games online, however, I quickly understood why he was picked. Explosive off the line, strong, and with good bend, he can really get after the passer when he is let loose. I like him to be the Texan's version of Aldon Smith this year, in that he is brought in on 3rd and forever to just go get the quarterback. What I want to see from him in camp, however, is how his run stopping skills develop. Connor Barwin, if he has another good year, will cost an arm, a leg, and half a love handle to keep in Houston for 2013 and beyond, so Mercilus may be elevated into the starting role sooner than anticipated. If he wants to be a full time outiside linebacker, he absolutely has to be able to set the edge against big left tackles. We already know he can pass rush, so let's see how well rounded he can become by week 1.
9. The progression of corner backs
Jonathan Joseph is awesome, but beyond that the Houston stable of CB's has a lot of question marks. Can Kareem Jackson make the leap from slightly average to mildly decent? Will Brice McCain continue to be a terrific slot corner, or regress back to the mediocrity of his first two seasons? Will Brandon Harris prove he can run with deep ball threats when he is brought in on dime packages? How is Roc Carmichael doing after missing his rookie year with an injury? Does Alan Ball crack the depth chart?
A lot of things need answering come camp time. I fully expect Joseph, Jackson, and McCain to be one, two, and three on the depth chart, but don't count out Carmichael. He has dedicated himself in the off season more than most players in the NFL, and has set up his own sessions with fellow second year prospect Lestar Jean on a regular basis to improve footwork, technique, and overall conditioning. Will it pay off? Who knows, but the video of the duo working with each other certainly shows promise.
8. The fullback/tight end situation
James Casey is a good fullback, in my opinion. He isn't the most powerful blocker in the world, but his pure athleticism out of the backfield makes him a dynamic weapon when his number his called. To me, he would be better utilized as a good receiving tight end that also happens to block well rather than so-so gap destroyer that can also do work in the flat. Enter Moran Norris, the former/current Texans fullback that will likely fill the more "traditional' role between the tackles a la' Lawrence Vickers last season. Can he take over as the full time fullback while Casey moves back to tight end? I would sure hope so.
If Casey is allowed to go back to tight end, then Houstonians everywhere won't have to wish and hope that Garret Graham isn't a bust, because he is pretty much all the Texans have in terms of backup tight ends. It concerns me that he wasn't able to earn playing time last year. When he came into the league a lot of people likened him to current Texans tight end Owen Daniels, but I just haven't seen it yet. I think I can speak for a lot of Texans fans when I say that I would much prefer a proven (albeit not statically monstrous) commodity like Casey over a possibly "meh" player like Graham.
7. The development of TJ Yates
After last year's improbable run, a lot of Texans fans have been drinking the Yatorade. While I do believe TJ has promise, I'm expecting a lot of progression from this kid before I'm comfortable with Kubiak handing him the keys. Matt Schaub hasn't been the most reliable quarterback when it comes to health, so Yates may be thrust into action yet again this season. If that time comes, I want to see something more from him besides "good enough". Arian Foster and Ben Tate bailed him out of a lot of possessions last year with their running ability, but when the chips are down I want to see TJ have more games like his performances against Cincinnati. There were a lot of close calls and rookie mistakes in 2011 that need to be cleaned up.
Another thing to take into consideration is the possibility of Matt Schaub not being in Houston next season. If he is either too expensive to resign, or is too much of a health risk to invest in, TJ will all of the sudden be the starting quarterback of a superbowl contender. Houston was a Yugo for most of their existence, but they have recently emerged as a full blown Ferrari. He has to be prepared to handle that spotlight, that level of expectation, and more importantly, silence it with his playing ability. You've got one year Mr. Yates - let's see how far you can get.
6. JJ Watt and Brooks Reed - Year Two
To say that JJ Watt was a snub for consideration as defensive rookie of the year was an understatement. Possibly the most exciting young 3-4 defensive lineman in the game today, Watt had a solid rookie campaign despite having almost no time to learn Wade Phillip's defensive scheme, and was saddled with the pressure of turning around a historically bad 2010 defense. What was even more remarkable, however, was that he got even better as the year went on. His coup de grâce? An awe-inspiring AFC Divisional performance against the Baltimore Ravens. 12 tackles, 9 solos, 2.5 sacks. This kid is ridiculous. In brightest spotlight of the biggest game he came up big despite a few unfortunate special teams mistakes costing him a chance to go to the AFC Championship.
Brooks Reed had a similar breakout in 2011. When Mario Williams ended his season in week 5, Reed stepped in and continuously swapped out positions with Connor Barwin between SOLB and WOLB. What happened? 6 sacks in 5 games - that's what happened. 44 tackles in 11 games from three different positions is quite a feet as a rookie. While quiet in the last two weeks of the season while starters got some rest, Reed came up equally big in that same AFC divisional game. 8 tackles, 6 solos, 2.5 sacks.
Simply put, Watt and Reed have the potential to establish themselves as cornerstones of this defense for years to come. They have a full off season under Phillips, their accompanying offense is healthy, and they have fresh new rotational backups in Whitney Mercilus and Jared Crick to lean on. I'll be waiting to hear of their progression in camp to see if they take the next step from exciting prospects to full blown man eaters in 2012.
5. Lestar Jean showing his moves
I'd be lying if I said Lestar Jean isn't the individual player I can't wait to see most this year. He flashes such brilliant in last year's camp and preseason that there is a good chance Rick Smith has found yet another undrafted diamond in the rough. It begs the question what they put in the water down in Houston. Now, I could have easily lumped him in with other receivers and tackled that entire position's question once, but I think he deserves his own mention. Jean has a lot riding on him. Johnson is still one of the best in the game, but he can't stay on the field. Walter is old and slowing down. I firmly believe the only reason Houston didn't take a receiver in the first round is because they thought they had something with Jean already, and I'm inclined to agree. Talent wise, he has a very good shot to get the number 2 wideout position this season, and if his off season sessions with Roc Carmichael are any indication, he has the work ethic and drive to make it happen.
4. Rookie receivers battling for slot duty
Both Devier Posey and Keshawn Martin both have attributes that make great slot receivers. Posey is an absolutely nasty route runner that isn't afraid to extend in traffic. Martin is as shifty as they come, and can be deadly in open space. Is there any reason to believe either one couldn't excel in the slot? There is if Kevin Walter has anything to say about it.
Personally, I believe by the start of the season Lestar Jean will be the team's number 2 receiver while Walter moves inside to the slot where he can work with his sure hands and route running more than his below average speed. This means that Posey and Martin will be competing less with each other and more with Walter (who is most assuredly going to be one of the top three on the depth chart). Will both of our rookies make the team? probably. Martin is valuable as a return man and Posey is too high of a pick to put on the practice squad. The real question is which one of them gets to leech snaps from Walter throughout the year. Right now my money is on Martin based on mini camp reports, but this position battle could shake out to be one of the most exciting of the summer starting next weekend.
3. The Bulls - Year Two
We've covered linebackers, cornerbacks, and physically gifted honey badgers so far, but we haven't quite covered the defense as a whole. While 2012 will be missing recognizable studs like Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, it does have plenty of returning dealers of pain and misery like Brian Cushing, Jonathan Joseph, Daniel Manning, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed, Antonio Smith, JJ Watt, and the new guy, Bradie James. It might not have the flash of Philadelphia, or the pedigree of Pittsburgh, but if I absolutely needed to hurt someone as much as humanely possible, Houston's defense is would be my first call.
With another playoff chase incoming, the Bulls finally get a full off season to ingrain the finer nuances of Wade Phillip's schemes into their heads. More scheme knowledge means more scheme diversity. Scheme diversity means pre-snap ambiguity. Pre-snap ambiguity means someone comes untouched off the edge. Someone coming untouched off the edge means the quarterback gets broken in half. The quarterback getting broken in half means I crack a giant smile. I like cracking a giant smile. As for what I want to see out of camp, I'm mainly looking for overall unit cohesion and learning of the playbook. The sacks and tackles will come, but Durga help whoever runs the wrong coverage on a 3rd and 9 with two minutes to play.
2. Offensive line position battles
For a lot of Texans fans, this is number one. Butler and Newton. Caldwell and Brooks. If the right side of that line doesn't get nailed down quickly and allow time for people to gel together, both the running and passing games will have serious problems. Personally, I'm a huge (no pun intended) fan of Brandon Brooks. Caldwell is decent, but his ceiling isn't very high. Brooks, however, is quite simply the largest individual to ever run a sub 5.00 forty yard dash without their shins snapping. The potential is staggering. Not only is he big enough to give interior rushers like Haloti Ngata and Ndamukong Suh fits, but he is fast enough to block them all the way into Oklahoma as well. Technique and conditioning wise, he has faced questions and criticisms so far, but if he can keep that weight in check and refine himself in camp, I see a very bright future for this kid.
As for right tackle, I'm fairly confident that Butler will come out on top. He stepped in and performed admirably on the blind side in the absence of Duane Brown, so going off that alone he already has potential to be a good right tackle. His run blocking isn't as proficient as Eric Winston, but he also doesn't act as a revolving door in pass protection either. Overall I think we are getting a solid, yet not spectacular right tackle in Butler, and I am excited to see how far Newton can push him in camp.
1. The health of Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub, and Arian Foster
Last year Arian Foster went down with a hamstring injury on the very first day of Houston's lockout abbreviated training camp. This injury then went on to nag him for two months until week 4 of the regular season. That week, of course, being when Andre Johnson went down with a hamstring until week 12. By the time Johnson came back, both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinert were both done for the season. All told, the triplets played less than a quarter of football together in 2011. How the Texans put up 23 points a game is a mystery to me, especially when in 2010 with all three pieces (mostly) in tact they put up 24.
It's a common belief, and probably a true one at that, that if Schaub, Foster, and Johnson were healthy for the entire 2011 season some serious, possibly record breaking numbers could have happened. A top 3 receiver, a top 3 running back, and arguably top 10 quarterback on the same team can do magical things, so my biggest camp story of 2012 is whether or not they can actually make it on to the field in one piece. Sure position battles are nice and all, but there is nothing more important to this team than the health of its stars. The 2011 Texans learned that lesson in spades.
We've seen Foster alone, Johnson alone, and Schaub alone. I can't wait to see what all three of them can do together.