Reporting Nate Griffin
HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – There has never been more anticipation for an upcoming Houston Texans football season than what’s to come in 2012. Following a 10-6 regular season finish – best in franchise history – and the first playoff appearance ever, the feeling is that the Texans are primed to either repeat or advance further in the playoffs to a possible AFC Championship matchup.
However, we decided to accelerate the season and present our Texans mock starters as if the season were to begin on Sunday. This is the perfect time since OTA’s, aka, Organized Team Activities are underway.
We get a more up close and personal look at specific players in making a comprehensive assessment of performance during game conditions. Unfortunately, we can only make an assessment of raw skills and abilities since these are pad-less activities.
Therefore, the criteria used to determine our starters will be from what’s been observed during OTA’s such as performance, health, and our analysis from Head Coach Gary Kubiak’s post-session responses.
Obviously to begin the season Sunday, players must be in condition. Hence, the first question for the Head Coach is whether or not his guys are in good enough condition to play 60 minutes.
“We’re in very good condition,” says Kubiak. “The football team is in great condition and (strength and training coach) Cedric (Smith) has done a good job with them. Now comes the thought process, that’s the hard part.”
“They’re physically ready to go, but when you start throwing all the mental part in, it slows everybody down a little bit, so we’ve got to catch them up.”
Speaking of throwing, that’s a good place to start.
Regular-season backup, T.J. Yates would be the starter today. Yates has the eye of a confident two-year veteran after his mid-to-playoff season run in 2011. Yates finished 82-of-134 for 949 yards and only 3 touchdowns against 3 interceptions. But, keep in the mind the situation last season when he was called to start. First, Schaub was lost to injury followed by Matt Leinart.
Yates has put in the work during the off-season which has been evident during 7-on-7 and full team drills. He seems to have a better command of the pseudo-huddle and a greater percentage of his passes are crisp and delivered on-time.
Regular season starter Matt Schaub is running wind sprints during drills to keep in shape which somewhat suggest that his foot is healed. However, Schaub says it is wise of Kubiak not to use him during these exercises.
“I’m moving around great and I’m about as good as I was before my injury so we’ve just got to be smart and not do something here in May when we’re still 3-4 months away from playing games, that could have any setbacks. Everything feels great. I want to be out there but the powers that be want us to be smart.”
Recently acquired five-year vet John Beck, who in 2010 and 2011 was with the Washington Redskins, will be a capable third backup who has big-game experience.
Meanwhile, rookie free-agent quarterback Case Keenum is still in learning mode and more than likely will be a practice-squad signee. He has looked sharp at times especially when rolling out. During one series of plays on Thursday, he was 4-for-4 on short passes during full team drills.
There’s no other name slotted for the starter’s role other than Arian Foster who finished 2011 with 1224 yards and 10 touchdowns. He looks as sharp as ever and the objective is to keep him healthy. Ben Tate is the backup and he’s looked sharp in OTA’s. Tate finished with 924 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2011. That’s a nice one-two punch.
The Texans are looking for that third ground-gainer. While we have heard the name of former New York Giants and Houston Texans running back Derrick Ward as a possible choice, we’ve not yet seen him in camp.
Other rookies getting reps are Davin Meggett from Virginia Tech, son of former NFL star RB, Dave Meggett. Former William and Mary RB Jonathan Grimes is getting work. Also add third-year player Javaris Williams from Tennessee State to that mix.
James Casey gets the starting nod at fullback. See more about Casey under tight ends. Derrell Smith who was a free-agent signee from Syracuse in 2011 could be the backup at fullback.
This is an area that will spark concern. Three of the five offensive linemen are cemented for starting positions from left tackle to center. Duane Brown is the starter at left tackle, while the starter at left guard is eight-year pro Wade Smith. The starter at center is Chris Myers. Those three combine for 19 years of NFL experience with Smith being the senior.
The right side of the line is where the questions begin. Right tackle Rashard Butler has been waiting in the wings and has occupied a Texans locker for six seasons but has been in the league for seven. He started four games at left tackle in 2010.
But in 2011, Butler spent most of the season on injured reserve with a triceps injury. It is now or never for the 6’4” 317 pound 29-year old from The U where he was also a teammate of the departed Eric Winston.
Antoine Caldwell gets the start at right guard. However, he will need to prove that he has earned the start after getting the nod for 13 games in three seasons. The Texans didn’t have use of his services in 2011 due to a nagging high ankle sprain.
WIDE RECEIVERS – TIGHT ENDS
While Head Coach Gary Kubiak said earlier that the team is in good condition overall, the guys who primarily cause panic for opposing defenses while stretching the field for the running game are not quite – eye popping.
“Flashes! They’re all what we thought they were – getting a little fatigued right now,” says Kubiak. “That bothers me. You’ve got to be able to run all day. (DeVier) Posey is out here pretty tired today, (Thursday). We’ve got to get those guys, condition-wise, to where they can do it all day long. But talent-wise, it’s exactly what we thought we were going to get.”
Let’s admit that the young guys are looking to add depth to what the Texans already have in Kevin Walter and Pro Bowler Andre Johnson who is still rehabbing from knee surgery performed roughly two-plus weeks ago. Johnson feels that in roughly 3 to 4 weeks he will be ready to play.
Hence, we will start the players who are healthy. Ten-year vet Kevin Walter gets the start on one side. He is the leader during drills and looks like the savvy veteran when catching the football as his total focus is on the ball until he makes the catch. Looking the ball in is wide-receiver speak for “focus”.
The other wide receiver who has impressed but not yet “wow’d” is second-year pro Lestar Jean. However, he gets the starting nod opposite Walter. Jean is on the edge of a break-through. He gained an additional 6 pounds of muscle in the off-season, has the quickness in and out of breaks, and runs well after the catch.
He’s runs very crisp routes and catches most passes with his hands. He’s listed at 6’3” 205 but looks to be slightly heavier. The size obviously creates mismatches in the secondary against shorter cornerbacks.
Owen Daniels gets the start at tight end. However, when the Texans use the two-tight end set, James Casey gets the call opposite Owen Daniels. The 6’3″ 243 pound Rice product is healthy and seems to be in regular season form.
STARTERS ON DEFENSE
There will not be many surprises here as most of last season’s starters seem to be healthy and ready to play today. This defense is loaded with the talent.
Therefore, we begin with the defensive line in the 3-4 and start with J.J. Watt at one defensive end. Shaun Cody gets the nod at nose tackle, the 6’4” 301 pound stopper in the middle.
Brian Cushing, who finished the regular season 16th overall in tackles with 114 and 4 sacks, obviously gets the call at one inside linebacker spot while newly acquired 10-year vet Bradie James gets the nod at the other inside LB position. The Texans didn’t sign James to have him sit on the bench.
The outside starting mock backers are second-year vet Brooks Reed who knows all eyes are watching with the departure of Mario Williams to Buffalo. Connor Barwin, who led the Texans last season with 11.5 sacks, is the other starter at outside backer. The Texans finished with 44 sacks in 2011, 6th best in the NFL.
With the addition of first round pick Whitney Mercilus who will be used primarily as a defensive pass rush specialist on 3rd down situations, per Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips, the Texans will add to that total.
MUCH IMPROVED SECONDARY
The defensive secondary will be even better this season with the strength of the front seven providing the pass rush and physical play up front. Simply means that teams and opposing quarterbacks will not have the time to get deep passes accurately down the field.
Teams will attempt to challenge a secondary that collected 15 interceptions in 2011. They finished with 17 total team interceptions, good for a 13th place tie with San Diego and Jacksonville!
But, the Texans secondary is a more experienced and cohesive unit group. Therefore, the confidence to make the big plays this season should be the norm rather than the exception. Expect this group to play loose and unload big hits on opposing receivers.
That leads me to third-year pro Kareem Jackson who gets the start at left corner. Jackson made tremendous strides last season. With a complete off-season, OTA’s, training camp, and a full off-season of Wade Phillips in his ear, expect Jackson to have a break-out season.
We know he supports the run as he was 8th on the team in tackles with 42. Now it’s about being in the right place at the right time to defend the deep ball.
Jonathon Joseph, was 6th with 44 tackles, but tied with the departed Jason Allen for a team leading 4 interceptions. He gets the start at the other corner.
The hard hitting Danieal Manning gets the nod at free safety while fourth-year pro Glover Quin gets the start at strong safety. Watching these guys work as a group should be encouraging to the coaching staff. They communicate well on the field and the confidence and unity amongst the four of them is quite evident.