By John P. Lopez
It’s a dicey thing reviewing training camp when the first on-field fight hasn’t even broken out. That’s like panning a movie during opening credits.
Nevertheless, considering the abbreviated camp schedule, coming off an off-season void of any official work with coaches, the importance of the first week is amplified.
With that in mind, some Texans players clearly have embraced the opportunity, others have flopped and still others remain unknowns. Here are the moves and shakers as I see it thusfar:
Beginning with the defense, which clearly is the most pressing need, rookie tackle J.J. Watt, outside linebacker Connor Barwin, linebacker Darryl Sharpton, cornerbacks Jason Allen and Sherrick McManus, safety Glover Quin and tackle Earl Mitchell lead the way.
Watt’s instincts are as impressive as his physique. He has a knack for taking the right angle at impact, getting his hands up at just the right time to bat a ball and pursuing the right angle. Barwin often has been overlooked with Mario Williams’ move to linebacker, but has impressed with speed, cover skills and ability to get into the backfield. Sharpton earned an opportunity in the middle with Brian Cushing out and has made the most of it, always finding his way to the ball and sticking ball-carriers with authority. In the secondary, McManis and Allen are flat-out making more plays on the ball than anyone else. Quin has found a home at safety as well, fulfilling the hope that facing the line of scrimmage would allow his instincts to flourish.
Offensively, we must mention quarterback Matt Schaub, even though we all know what he can do. The point is, he’s doing it again, flawlessly. Schaub’s greatest strength has been his accuracy and yet again he’s hitting receivers perfectly with perfectly placed throws. Beyond that, those turning heads consistently include running back Ben Tate, who came in looking the part and has showed a burst and breakaway ability. Also, the receiving corps will be bolstered with Terrance Tolliver and Lester Jean consistently making plays and picking up the offense quickly. A tough decision will have to be made at tight end as well, as Anthony Hill has had a strong start, behind Joel Dreesen and Owen Daniels, who already looks to be in Pro Bowl form. Along the offensive line, it’s been difficult to find a real mover with limited full-contact, but both tackles — Eric Winston and Duane Brown — have taken lots of reps and look to be in top shape.
The last thing cornerback Kareem Jackson needed was a slow start to training camp. But that’s exactly what’s happened. The first two days of camp, I saw him get turned around on simple 7-on-7 drills and then Thursday when the teams went 11-on-11 and 9-on-7, Jackson was smoked on a pair of big plays, including a long reception by Kevin Walter.
Tight end Garrett Graham could well be the odd man out at tight end. He’s simply not making coaches notice him, which is difficult considering the other players at his position.
And finally, while he may fit in the “Still Unknown” category, I’m going to put linebacker Brian Cushing among the unimpressives. It’s been seven months since his knee surgery and Cushing still has yet to participate in team drills and scrimmages — even when the squad is in helmets and jerseys. No one needed to come into camp and make a bolder statement, but Cushing has done the exact opposite. He’s raised more doubts.
Kick returner Trindon Holliday has done nothing, either, opening the door for Derrick Tounsel to turn some heads in the return game.
The obvious ones are the free agents, who only Thursday joined their teams after the CBA was ratified. Beyond those players, there remain unknowns when it comes to quarterback T.J. Yates, safety Shiloh Keo, cornerback Brandon Harris, Jesse Nading, who will back up Mario Williams, and — most significantly — fullback James Casey.
This is Casey’s last chance to carve a niche in the NFL. He has been adequate at moments and a complete unknown others, since full-contact has been limited. He also found out Thursday the Texans brought in fullback Lawrence Vickers, with the hope of wresting the job away from Casey.