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2017 Houston Texans Training Camp: Position Battles

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Matt reviews the positions available before shoulder pads are dusted off this Friday.

NFL: Houston Texans-OTA
Staring Quarterback Deshaun Watson?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Intrinsically, training camp is very important. It’s when the rules of the huddle are established, playbook language is transcribed and translated, plays are put in place, and technique is refined and perfected, until all of it coagulates together and the season starts because the calendar says it does. All of that is fun. It’s all important. The problem is you can’t see it. It’s all physical toil regurgitated in tweets and peppy groupthink. Because of its vagueness, and where we all are in relation to where things are actually happening, I don’t care for much of it.

But what I do care about is the roster, and depth chart. The results all these actions lead to. It doesn’t matter if Stephen Anderson catches a touchdown pass against Carolina in the first preseason game, or if Houston goes 4-0 before September, or who’s in the best shape of their life and wowing everyone at camp. Most of these reported specific individual actions don’t mean anything once the season starts. They are just nice moments. Free samples before football truly begins.

What does matter are the end decisions that decide the configuration of the team. Who ends up starting, and who fits in specific roles. Quarterback, right tackle, interior offensive line, and the variations in the secondary are the most undecided positions. Below are my thoughts on each, and how I think it will all work out.

Quarterback: Deshaun Watson v. Tom Savage

This is the big one. The one that really matters. We all ready know what Bill O’Brien says about rookie quarterbacks. The league is really difficult. None of them are fully prepared to play. But because of the glop poured out of blender: Tom Savage’s performance last year, the context that has surrounded his NFL career so far, Houston trading up for Watson while surrendering a first round pick in the process, and being “a quarterback away” for the fourth season in a row, it adds a thick plot to something that had once seemed already decided.

Personally, I want to see Watson start. The beginning of the lunar calendar is a larger sliver than the faith I have in Savage being anything more than a bounce around, big armed, backup quarterback. I felt that Watson was the best quarterback of this rookie class...right now. In the end he might not end up being the best of the bunch because of his lower ceiling and weaker arm, but he is the most polished. Understanding defenses, anticipating open receivers, finding the open man, manuevering the pocket, are all subtle aspects of the position he excelled at in college. If Houston was drafting a quarterback to start immediately, he was the guy to take.

Hopefully pretty things arise when camp starts. Those lovely words and reports about how impressed the coaches are by how quickly Watson is picking up the playbook, and locker room status updates praising his leadership ability, need to come seeping out of camp. It’s more than likely Savage isn’t much of anything. Houston would probably be better off for the short term, and the long term, if they play Watson now rather than later.

That being said, I don’t think Watson starts week one. Savage is probably going to be the QB1. He’ll be bad against a skin bubbling schedule. And Watson will start around week eight once the schedule difficulty cools off a bit, and has had some time to stew.

Right Tackle: Chris Clark v. Juli’en Davenport v. Breno Giacomini

You can’t see me. If you could, you would see me pour fresh refrigerated purified water all over my carpet for Derek Newton. The hologram, who was never that transparent to begin with, had both of his patella tendons torn by Von Miller without being touched. He didn’t play last year after the injury. He won’t play again this year. Chris Clark started in his place and wasn’t good at anything, losing all the goodwill he had at being a perfectly acceptable midgame replacement tackle.

This offseason Houston didn’t do much to replace Newton. The tackle market was absurd because teams have come around to the idea that having two good tackles is better than having a singular great left tackle, and the past draft was weak at the tackle position. Free agent tackles went for more than usual, and potential early round replacements were based more off need than talent. So now Houston is stuck with Clark, the very strong-very bad Giacomini, and fourth round pick Davenport.

As I wrote after the draft, I really like Davenport. He’s a natural pass blocker. He has great feet and hands. The question is how quickly he can adapt to the talent and speed of the pro game. If he does, he’s going to start. He would end up being the best pass blocker of the three. Since Houston is playing either the long decision making Savage, or rookie Watson, they will probably go with the best pass protector. Regardless of playing at Bucknell, and the brain molding process he has to go through, Davenport will most likely end up being exactly that.

Interior Line: Zach Martin v. Greg Mancz v. Xavier Su’a-FIlo v. Jeff Allen

You could make the argument that the Jeff Allen signing was worse than the Brock Osweiler signing. Both players were among the worst in the league at their position. Osweiler, fettered in the pocket by any slight disturbance, terrible at making decisions, and being unable to complete basic human actions like throw a four yard flat route astride a grave, was comparable to Allen, lazy, slow footed, brought nothing to his blocks, and came off the ball weak and soup stained. The difference is Houston needed a quarterback and took a shot on a young one who was average the year before, and Allen was signed instead of Brandon Brooks, one of the league’s best guards, to save a million dollars a year and one year off a contract.

Because of this decision the interior blocking in 2016 was a mess, and now, moved a year later, it’s a jumbled wordsearch of mismatched cardboard edges scattered around the floor. Allen was putrid. Su’a-Filo scraped average for the third year in a row. Mancz was surprising. And now the team has former second round pick Nick Martin back trying to claim a starting spot. A combination of these four players will end up starting at center and the guard positions.

This decision was thought to be simple, Mancz moved to the bench and replaced with Martin, while everything else stayed the same. Then Mancz surprised nearly everyone, me included, and was a solid player last year. Although he played well, he’s probably going to give up the center spot to Martin. Martin has the draft pedigree and talent, and usually players like him get their shot when they get back. What makes all of this interesting is Mancz could probably play guard, and because of the dull play at both guard positions, he will be in line to possibly take over at either spot.

If Mancz does end up moving to guard, my guess it will be to right guard. Sua’-Filo plays well next to Duane Brown. The left side of the line was the only part that Lamar Miller could manage any yards behind. Even though it’s impossible for Sua-Filo to grab someone with his hands, and when he misses he misses badly, he was at least playable, unlike Allen was last year. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, Allen was credited with 5 penalties, 4 sacks allowed, 10 blown pass blocks, and 8 blown run blocks. Via charting stats he was bad, and with eyes he was a travesty. I don’t doubt that Mancz can outplay last year’s version of Allen. The holdup is Allen was pretty good in Kansas City before, and he’s paid a lot of money. He may have had one bad year, an aberration, and the team may want to make sure an asset isn’t wasted. Still, Mancz should have a shot to compete at either guard position this year.

My best guess is this one ends up a wash. The same simple decision coming to fruition. Su’a-Filo at left guard, Martin at center, and Allen at right guard, with Mancz adding depth and waiting for a chintzy link to barge through.

Secondary: Corey Moore v. Eddie Pleasant v. Robert Nelson v. K.J. Dillon

Unlike the offense, the defense is pretty settled. There are questions on the front seven like where will Jadeveon Clowney play, and who will fill in the vacated defensive end or outside linebacker spot that will be there once the decision is made. I don’t think it matters much though. The unit is so, so multiple. They will rotate a variety of complementary guys through while understanding who will get the majority of playing time. And in four man rush situations it’s fairly concrete who will clobber the quarterback.

The secondary is different though. It’s been a fluid group ever since Rick Smith decided not to franchise tag A.J. Bouye, and wisely let AFC Defensive Player of the Month Quntin Demps walk. Take this unit losing two starters, then add another layer to it. No one knows where Kareem Jackson is going to play. He had a bad year last season, and played some safety in the incredible defensive effort against New England in the Divisional Round. I’m a Jackson safety truther. I think he can handle playing with two eyes instead of one, he’s always been a spectacular tackler, and he’s lost the quickness to hang in man coverage. If he’s moved to safety the Texans’ will have a sure tackler next to the full field covering Andre Hal, and could remove a question mark and fill a need all at the same time.

If this happens Houston will have an open at the slot corner position. Here Robert Nelson would be the favorite against training camp invites, UDFAs, and Thomas Decoud. It would be his spot to lose. He looked good in coverage last season. His one problem was he had no idea what to do with his hands once the ball was in the air.

If Jackson stays at cornerback, than strong safety becomes a lone wolf, free-for-all. Corey Moore, Eddie Pleasant, K.J. Dillon and maybe even Nelson would all be in position to take over for Demps, and another could possibly remove Hal from the lineup because of his inability to tackle. Moore played the most last year at this position. But Pleasant has been here secretly hiding forever, and has made some occasional great plays like that goal line tackle against New England. Dillon didn’t excite me much out of college, and after a season ending injury, I’m still not excited. Additionally, even if Jackson is left at corner, that doesn’t remove questions from the secondary. Kevin Johnson is going to be one of the better corner backs of the league. He just hasn’t played a full season. One day the unicorn blood Johnathan Joseph sips from in the Forbidden Forest will run out, and the 33 year old will start to play like a man his age should. And, as said earlier, Jackson had a rough 2016.

Even if I think Jackson should make the full move to safety, it’s likely he won’t. I’m sure there will be sub packages that will place him back there, especially against teams with great tight ends, but the team will probably leave him off the line of scrimmage. Instead, I assume we will see Nelson play the fourth corner spot, and the ambulance chasing lawfirm of Jackson, Joseph, and Johnson will maneuver around the other corner spots. At safety I’m expecting Hal to stay there because they need someone with speed back there, and Corey Moore will start next to him.

This year, I’ve felt and said so often once the sun came back, that this is my favorite time of the year. I said this when it first warmed up and I began to leave the house and lay in the grass. I said it when baseball started, the days got longer, and all that water became accessible. I said it when we were stuck in summer during the NBA Finals. I said it when the sun began to boil blood and melt asphalt in July. Now, I found myself saying it again, with training camps starting and epiphany lurking on the horizon. And when I say it again next month, when vacation ends and week one begins, who ends up starting at these positions are what I’ll care about once this time becomes that time.