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2019 Houston Texans Training Camp Position Battles

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A look at the spots up for grabs this preseason.

NFL: AUG 14 Texans Training Camp Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Roadside carcasses end up the same way. Carrion sucked down by read headed swirling birds. Bones stolen to decorate rodent lairs. Tails slowly fizzling away. Until all that’s left is a brown tuft of fur, marooned by the summer sun. The possum, the skunk whose smell disappears, the racoon, the rabbit, all end up the same way. Their bodies become unswept Supercuts floor blowing to the tune of traffic. Dream big. Work hard. This is what you think about when you run.

The NFL offseason is over. Roster cuts, franchise tags, free agency, the NFL Draft, OTAs, and trades, all of it has happened and passed away. All that’s left is that malodorous batch of hair, training camp and preseason, and then all will be right, and real official football will be back here again.

Training camps and preseason are mostly boring and rarely have impact on what happens during the season. Preseason records don’t have a correlation with regular season win totals. The stars from preseason football end up with practice squad spots and remove themselves from consciousness once everything really begins. It’s an opportunity for young players to feel professional football, like a stress induced dream preparing one for some upcoming future endeavor, until football becomes real. And occasionally, players battle for early season playing time.

Usually the Texans’ starting roster is settled by this time of year. We know who will and won’t start so this mandatory quest to see who wants it more are for the third string tight end, and kicker competitions, then for finalizing actual starting positions on the roster. This season is different. With Houston’s entire offensive line in flux, position battles at tight end, slot cornerback, and interior rusher, there are actual things to look forward to and watch for over the course of this month. There’s some bones to pick through. Some guts to scrape out.

OFFENSIVE LINE

When Houston plays preseason football, and when I scroll through August newsfeeds to sift through content like some toothless floppy hat prospector, the only thing I’ll care about is the offensive line. Only two of the spots seem determined right now. Nick Martin at center, which says more about when he was drafted than his actual performance, and Zach Fulton at right guard, who is worse than he was in Kansas City, but mediocrity is all it takes to be the Texans’ best offensive lineman.

The rest of it is all up for grabs. Left tackle, left guard, right tackle. You can name any player to start at these positions and I’d believe you. No offensive line combination is too absurd. Juli’en Davenport—Tytus HowardNick MartinZach FultonSeantrel Henderson. I guess so. Matt Khalil--Martinas Rankin--Nick Martin--Zach Fulton--Tytus Howard. Sure. Let’s do it.

The last combination is the one I think it ends up being, not the one I want it to be. These are two entirely different statements. Houston didn’t pay Khalil $7.5 million to sit on the bench. If he’s healthy he’ll be a disastrous week one starter. Rankin was interesting enough at left guard, and the team might have ruined his tackle prospects by playing him at left tackle, a spot he should have never played last season after missing the entirety of training camp, to assume a career switch to the inside will happen. Senio Kelemete was below average last year. His hands have always been awful. He was the team’s worst interior pass blocker last season. It’s reasonable to assume Houston wants to have either Howard or Scharping to start this season if all things else are equal. I’d guess it would be Howard, despite PFF scores against MACtion, Scharping needs to learn a NFL pass set and those things usually take longer than a month to learn.

As excited as I am to watch and rewatch condensed preseason games to scour over the offensive line this month, none of this will probably even matter. Bill O’Brien has treated the offensive line like a waterbed the last two seasons. Each week he rolls over squishing the unit until it falls back into place in an entirely different fashion. Hopefully this doesn’t happen. Hopefully Houston can find its five it can stick with over the course of the season, and some week one ankle snapping doesn’t derail everything all over again. Regardless, this is the most unsettled, and most important part of the team this summer. All attention should be drawn to it.

TIGHT END

Both of the Jordan rookies had fun rookie seasons. All Jordan Thomas does is catch touchdown passes. Jordan Akins averaged 13.2 yards per catch and had a catch rate of 68% as a Van Wilder rookie. Each one showcased what even modest athleticism can do at the position. It’s unbelievable that speed and strength can be utilized to beat man coverage, and tight ends can do more than run into the flat and be tackled three yards short of the first down marker.

The performance of these two, the signing of Darren Fells, and the selection of Kahale Warring, brought Ryan Griffin’s reign of terror to an end. Houston will have its best tight end group since like 2012 by default. Yet, Griffin was third on the team in targets with 43, and the Texans will need to replace his targets with these three players. There’s enough to go around for all three players, but the question now will be which player will get the most snaps.

The best guess is Thomas. He’s a better blocker than Akins. He emerged as a legitimate redzone threat. There’s more upside here since he’s four years younger than Akins. If Darren Fells makes the team he’ll probably be used only as a blocker, especially to help out the tackles on either side of the line of scrimmage. He had only 12 targets last season. Kahale Warring is a rookie, and tight end is one of the hardest positions for young players to learn since they must learn both the pass and run game.

That being said, I hope Warring can win this one, and become the team’s tight end one. He’s a great athlete, he showed proper blocking technique in college, he can stretch the middle of the field, and was a great play action threat in college, something Houston needs to run more of this season. Unlike Thomas who could be a competent tight end, Warring has the potential to become a vital weapon in a great offense. After a hilarious draft where the team’s first three draft picks may not provide anything this season, it would be beautiful if Warring could come in and start right away.

SLOT CORNER

The Texans didn’t have the cap space to spend big in 2018. Despite having a putrid secondary, that led to Shareece Wright starting at CB2, Houston paid for one corner that offseason. Aaron Colvin. They handed him a four-year $34 million contract to play the slot and move Kareem Jackson to safety.

It didn’t work. Kevin Johnson was injured immediately. Colvin spent most of the season dealing with a sprained ankle and didn’t even get the chance to come back and play when he was healthy. Houston had to move Jackson back to corner and flung Wright loose to get beat by double moves. Somehow, once again, Johnathan Joseph was the team’s best cornerback even at the age of 47.

Eternal optimism bubbles and springs forth the following statement, “Colvin was hurt last year. He’ll be able to step in and play the slot now that he’s healthy.” This is probably what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to be good. Last season Colvin was shoddy even when he was healthy and he’s only had one good season when sandwiched between A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey on the Jaguars 2017 all-time great pass defense. Regardless of his contract, he’s far from being a sure starting cornerback. Free agent Briean Boddy-Clahoun, and rookie Xavier Crawford should both compete for his spot. Who knows? There may also be some magical story just waiting to be told hanging on the roster who can take over this spot as well.

The good news is the rest of the secondary is set. Joseph, and Bradley Roby will start on the outside. Tashaun Gipson and Justin Reid will start at safety. If they could even scramble together mediocre, and J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are great and healthy once again, Houston’s pass defense could be average, something vital for a team having to play a murderous schedule against great passing offenses.

INTERIOR RUSHER

The Texans opted against bridging the gap to extend Jadeveon Clowney, and frontload his contract when the team still has $40+ million in cap space, but had the audacity to give Angelo Blackson $4 million a year to not rush the passer. They also brought back the same version of the same player by keeping Joel Heath and Brandon Dunn. Carlos Watkins is supposed to play again this season. They drafted Charles Omenihu. They didn’t add any interior rushing help. The Texans have a void when they bring only four down linemen.

Although Blackson made his money picking up 500 snaps isn’t guaranteed. He’s redundant with the rest of the defensive linemen. They’ll roll in and out of this spot to keep each one fresh throughout the game. Players improve. They learn how to do things like tug the inside shoulder when ripping under a punch. Yet Blackson, Heath, and Dunn are all 26, and haven’t showed flashes or any ability to do anything more than play the run. In Houston’s base 3-4, this is fine on first down, and sometimes on second. But it becomes a traumatic issue against teams that can throw the football, and in pass rushing situations when Watt and Clowney are clubbed and maimed, or can’t win their one v. one matchups, see Houston v. Indianapolis in the Wildcard Round last year.

In obvious pass rush situations Houston will probably go with Watt, Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and player X. I only say probably because Mercilus was out of his element last year. The Texans were adamant to have Watt and Clowney rushing wide on the outside shoulder, aside from the occasional Clowney divebomb. This squeezed Mercilus out wide, forcing him to speed rush and turn the corner, instead of playing tight in space where he can use his hands to pull and rip around pass blockers. It made him ineffective last season as a rusher. Trading Mercilus is improbable, but isn’t out of the question, especially since they played more Nickle and 4-3 last season than ever before.

Houston can clean a lot of this up by moving Clowney or Watt to the ‘3’ on third and long to allow Mercilus to be the team’s third best pass rusher, and an effective one again. But the Texans are trying to preserve Watt, and don’t like him having to deal with additional tentacles and claws squeezing his torso and wrenching at his eyes, and Clowney still doesn’t understand rushing wide well enough to try and push him to learn how to rush from a second position. The best option would be to move Watt inside on third down situations, let Clowney and Mercilus rush on the edges, and then hope and pray someone can improve enough to even find 5 sacks as a defensive tackle.

This probably won’t happen though. They’ll probably keep things similar to last season, and if they make a move, they’ll probably move Watt or Clowney to more of a 4i to get Mercilus tighter to the last blocker. That still lives a void at the other defensive tackle spot. Watkins. Heath. Dunn. Reader. Blackson. Omenihu. I don’t know who it will be, but someone needs to learn how step up and rush this passer from this group this summer.