Tomorrow, all of the Texans' veterans report to NRG Stadium; the rookies already reported on Monday of this week. Training Camp action begins Saturday, and the preseason is finally upon us! Certainly every player is feeling immense pressure to earn or retain a role with the Texans, or perhaps another NFL team if they don't pass muster with O'Brien during camp here in Houston. There is no doubt that a few players are feeling significantly increased anxiety going into a new system in 2014.
Before we get started, let's at least agree that there is often more scrutiny with players picked higher in the draft than those acquired in later rounds. We'll forgo adding South Carolina Gamecocks D.J. Swearinger (2013 2nd-round pick), and Jadeveon Clowney (2014 1st-overall pick) to this list. Swearinger will be determined to demonstrate growth going into his second year, and Clowney will be trying to prove the pre-draft critics wrong. It will be very interesting to see their chemistry reunited on the field, and they'll both get the opportunity to develop over the course of a couple of seasons unless they do something unthinkably bad.
That being said, let's focus on players who have at least a couple of seasons under their belt and need to prove they belong in their starting roles for the Texans in 2014. I'll attempt to measure the anxiety and pressure using a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a player relatively secure in his role, and 10 being a player on the verge of getting replaced and/or or cut for mistakes or poor performance. For example, J.J. Watt would be a .0001. The #Bamboozled version of Ed Reed would be a 13 on this scale.
In no particular order, we will review the following candidates:
Jared Crick (DE)
A fourth-round pick from the 2012 NFL Draft and now filling the large void from the recently departed Antonio Smith, Crick is going to be under increased pressure to really be consistent and deliver in 2014. I was excited when we drafted him, and he has shown flashes of great ability, but he disappears a lot too. Such is the life of a defensive lineman at times, but avoiding mistakes and being disruptive will ensure he secures a starting role on the team.
I would rate him on our very subjective pressure scale as a 7.
Derek Newton (OT)
I think we can short-stroke the hyperbole on this one and somehow hope that his pass-protection technique improves, or the Texans will be going through quarterbacks faster than we can count. Now, in fairness, Newton was a 7th-round pick in 2011, so the expectations for him should be balanced accordingly. His run-blocking is solid, and he has very little threat of a position battle to worry about after the recent loss of David Quessenberry to deal with a life-threatening situation and with Brennan Williams being cut by the Texans earlier this week after he failed a physical. It is Newton's job to lose, as he was already named the starter at right tackle, but he is most definitely going to have to deliver in 2014 for the team to be even remotely successful on offense.
Despite the lack of available competition, unless you are going to make a case for Clabo, I would put Newton at an 8 on our pressure scale.
Brandon Harris (CB)
In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans traded back up into the late second round (with the Patriots) to select Brandon "No Fly Zone" Harris with the 60th overall pick. His highlight reel from the University of Miami had me pretty excited that we might have a great nickel corner on our hands. Unfortunately, Harris has underperformed by mostly flailing around aimlessly on special teams and collecting penalties. In three seasons with the Texans, Harris only has 7 passes defended and 37 tackles. He must be under severe scrutiny to perform and deliver in 2014, and I would submit that the bright lights of camp will be focused on him to even make the 53-man roster. He has plenty of competition coming from A.J. Bouye, Elbert Mack, Josh Victorian, Marcus Williams and Andre Hal. It's time for "No Fly Zone" to step it up and prove he was worth a second-round pick.
Harris should be sitting with a pressure score of 10 based on his history and heading into the final year of his rookie contract with a new coaching regime. Hopefully he makes the most of this new opportunity!
Brooks Reed (LB)
Reed was also selected by the Houston Texans in the 2011 NFL Draft, 18 spots higher than Brandon Harris, as the 42nd overall player taken in that year's draft. Reed has been slightly above average throughout his three seasons as a starter, racking up 128 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, and 6 passes defended.
He hasn't been a dominant pass-rusher, usually arriving just a fraction of a second too late for a sack, but his run-defense is consistently excellent. Now that it is official that he is moving to inside linebacker, I think we'll see Reed flourish and exceed expectations for a 2nd-round pick going into his fourth NFL season.
Reed should be scored at about 6 on the pressure scale, with a lot of upside to get re-signed if he performs above average in his new role.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (QB)
Let's not kid ourselves into thinking that he's the definitive answer as the next franchise quarterback for Houston, but he has been named as the Texans' starting signal caller going into 2014. His job is to lead the offense in the most critical role of any football team, especially an NFL football team where the quarterback statistically has the greatest influence on the outcome of a game.
The expectation is that Fitzpatrick will be functional at executing the offensive scheme for at least a year or two while the Texans continue to search and/or develop the long term answer. Unfortunately, Fitz has a somewhat negative history with respect to protecting the football, and the Texans are coming off of 2013 campaign where Matt Schaub declined into a "Pick-6" turnover machine. The amount of support and patience O'Brien provides will likely be limited if Fitzpatrick struggles in too many games early in the regular season. Then again, what is the alternative?
Case Keenum struggled last season after being "forced" into a scheme that was mostly a mismatch to Keenum's strengths. He had very little support around him with poor pass-protection and the absence of an effective running game due to injuries. The Texans also had to play from behind in most games where they abandoned the run completely. Rookie Tom Savage has the prototypical size for an NFL quarterback, and early indications of a very strong arm, but he has limited time under center after changing university programs a couple of times before entering the 2014 draft.
I would argue that O'Brien may be feeling more pressure about the Texans' quarterback situation than any of the quarterbacks do themselves. According to some media sources, the Texans have the 31st-ranked starting quarterback in the league with the worst backup quarterback ranking in the NFL.
Fitz is realistically sitting at a 6 on the pressure scale due to lack of options for the Texans to really replace him right now unless he implodes at a level like Matt Schaub did last season.
Whitney Mercilus (OLB)
Heading into his third NFL season, Mercilus needs to prove beyond any doubt that he is worthy of a first round draft investment. While his stats on paper look good with 72 tackles, 13 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery and 1 pass defended in his first two NFL seasons, the game film doesn't show him being an impact player who helps to determine the outcome of games at this key position.
During the 2013 season, he wasn't unleashed to pass-rush as often as his role normally should be. That was somewhat due to the scheme requiring him to hold the edge and provide run support in many games where the other team had the lead and was just running out the clock. This is the same reason J.J. Watt's stats were down as well compared to Watt's history-making 2012 season of destruction.
Mercilus has struggled at times in run-defense, though he has shown flashes of being a disruptive pass-rusher. Please note the embedded film room articles from our very own Matt Weston, which should give a shot of confidence in things to come. Under linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, I suspect that we'll see significant improvement from Mercilus in 2014. In this new scheme under defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, he'll also be asked to drop back into coverage at times.
More drops into coverage instead of solely rushing, rushing, rushing," Mercilus said on June 18 of his added duties. "So now, (I am) understanding concepts and formations of the offense and being able to drop back into coverage, understanding what are my keys, what am I reading for, and reacting between pass and run, especially when I do have to drop back into coverage."
Up to 260 pounds from his 252 last year, he feels great about the shape he’s in and is excited about the new role he’ll play in Romeo Crennel’s defense.
"Of course I love it," Mercilus said. "It’s definitely showing my versatility and being instinctive on the field."
While his pressure score is probably between 9 and 10, let's call it 10, Whitney Mercilus gets my vote as the player who should feel the most pressure to perform up to expectations in 2014 due to being a 1st-round pick in a critical role. Granted, Brandon Harris has a similar pressure score on this very subjective scale, but he is easier to replace and was a late 2nd-round pick.
Mercilus also gets my vote as the player who I think will have a breakout "All-Pro" performance and more than exceed expectations. I hear he just finished working out in California with Colin Kaepernick and several other NFL players, and that he has come away inspired with a new perspective. With all of the attention that Watt, Cushing and Clowney will be given by opposing offenses, Mercilus should reap great rewards. He also has arguably the best position coach in the NFL in Mike Vrabel, so no excuses. Get it done!
So what are your thoughts on this? Which Texans' player do you think is feeling the most heat to "deliver or die" in 2014?