HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – The waiting and the anticipation are just about over.
The Houston Texans reported to training camp Friday and will hit the field for the first time Saturday morning at the team’s practice facility. And after a ground-breaking season in 2011 in which they won the AFC South for the first time and made their first playoff appearance in franchise history, expectations are through the roof this season.
Going deeper in the playoffs is just the beginning. The belief is the Texans could break all the way through to the Super Bowl this season.
These lofty expectations are bolstered by the fact that the key players from last season’s breakout season are back. But that doesn’t mean the Texans are without issues and areas of concern heading into the season.
Here are 10 things to watch out for and see how they unfold throughout this training camp.
10. How much will we miss Jacoby Jones returning punts?
After a few seasons of hold your breath and see what you get at punt return, the Texans cut their losses and sent Jones packing after a couple costly muffed punts during last season’s second-round playoff loss to Baltimore. But after a couple of years of knowing who would return punts, that role is again up in the air. The most likely candidate seems to rookie receiver Keshawn Martin. The coaching staff was at least pleased with Martin’s ability to secure the football during OTAs and minicamp. We will soon see how he handles things when the action is live and the punt coverage is bearing down on him.
9. Where is James Casey needed most?
James Casey, the former Rice standout, has developed into a nice player for the Texans these past few seasons as an H-back, fullback. But with the loss of No.2 tight end Joel Dreesen, Casey is now listed as the Texans starting fullback and the No.2 tight end behind Owen Daniels. That may be too much pressure on a young and still largely unproven player. The Texans offense and Casey will be served best if third-year tight end Garrett Graham can develop enough to assume Dreesen’s role in the offense during camp.
8. Will the legit No.2 receiver step up?
It seems like every year there is that question of who will become the Texans legit receiving threat opposite Andre Johnson. That question is magnified this season because the second receiver will now be looked upon to become Johnson’s heir apparent as the veteran receiver begins to show signs of wear and tear. Kevin Walter has been solid as a No.2 receiver but the Texans need a potential game breaker. They believe they may have found it in rookie receiver DeVier Posey, who runs a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash. But second year receiver Lestar Jean may have something to say about that as could fellow rookie Keshawn Martin. Time and experience will reveal which if any are ready to unseat Walter and eventually replace Johnson.
7. Can cornerback Kareem Jackson take another step toward reliability?
Easily the most maligned player on either side of the football following a disastrous rookie campaign in 2010, Kareem Jackson quietly silenced many of his critics with a solid, if not spectacular, 2011 campaign. He shared time with veteran Jason Allen throughout the season, but the coaching staff felt confident enough in Jackson’s development opposite Johnathan Joseph that Allen was allowed to go free. Dallas Cowboy veteran Alan Ball, who is familiar with Wade Phillips’ defense, was brought in during OTAs and minicamp as an insurance policy just in case Jackson doesn’t progress as expected.
6. Where does rookie first-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus fit into the outside linebacker rotation?
The last we saw Connor Barwin and rookie Brooks Reed were holding it down pretty good in the absence of Mario Williams last season, which put everyone at ease to the point no one blinked when Williams bolted for a rich contract with the Buffalo Bills during free agency. But as solid as Barwin and Reed are, the Texans still need a speed rusher to maximize pressure on the quarterback off the edge. That’s where Mercilus comes in. Don’t expect the rookie, who had one spectacular season at Illinois, to start right away but look for him in obvious passing situations to come in and apply pressure on the quarterback.
5. Is inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton ready to go?
Darryl Sharpton seemed well on his way to a breakout season as an inside linebacker in nickel coverage in 2011 before a torn quad injury derailed his season. Sharpton remained sidelined during OTAs and minicamp which raised speculation about whether or not he will be ready for fall camp. But all indications are Sharpton will be back on the field. DeMeco Ryans, who was the run-stopping inside linebacker, is gone so now Sharpton is left to compete with newly acquired veteran Bradie James, who is familiar with Wade Phillips’ system from their Dallas Cowboys days together.
4. How will the Texans rebuild the right side of the offensive line?
With the departures of tackle Eric Winston and guard Mike Brisiel, the right side of the Texans offense took a big hit this offseason. But it’s not like they didn’t have guys who had taken meaningful snaps waiting in tackle Rashad Butler and guard Antoine Caldwell. The concern, however, is if either is ready to step into those roles fulltime. It was hard to see during the non-contact OTAs so we will see a lot more during training camp. Butler could be pushed by second-year player Derek Newton while rookie third-round pick Brandon Brooks and his massive frame could be ready to take the leap into the starting offensive guard role.
3. Is Andre Johnson still the same game-breaking receiver?
Andre Johnson has been the Texans primary playmaker since his arrival, but perhaps that is about to change. After Johnson missed nine regular season games due to hamstring injuries last season, the focus of the offense shifted to rely on the versatility of running back Arian Foster. Johnson, who also missed OTAs and minicamp after having arthroscopic knee surgery, is expected to be 100 percent for training camp. But there are signs the five-time Pro Bowler is slowing down which means Gary Kubiak may have to manage him a little differently this season. Now that doesn’t mean that Johnson isn’t still one of the top receivers in the NFL or that we shouldn’t expect the spectacular catches from him, but how much the offense relies on him may have to be tempered.
2. What will Wade Phillips and 3-4 defense do for an encore?
Defense coordinator Wade Phillips returned home and instantly became the savior after his attacking 3-4 defense transformed the Texans defense from the worst in the league to the No.2 overall defense in just one season. Talk about a remarkable turnaround. But now comes the hard part which is maintaining success. If you look at Phillips’ defense the quick turnaround has been there at every one of his stops. But long-term sustainability has always been the issue. Chances are the Texans will again be one of the league’s top defensive units but the loss of players like outside linebacker Mario Williams and inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans could be more painful than many think. But you have to feel good about a unit that has stalwarts like inside linebacker Brian Cushing, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, safety Danieal Manning, defensive end Antonio Smith and rookie sensation defensive end J.J. Watt.
1. Is quarterback Matt Schaub ready to go?
All indications are Matt Schaub is 100 percent healthy and ready to return to the football field after missing the end of last season and the franchise’s first playoff appearance due to the Lisfranc fracture he suffered in his right foot. Schaub also sat out OTAs and minicamp as a precaution but the Texans will need him to be healthy if they have any realistic hope of advancing deeper into the playoffs and possibly reaching the Super Bowl. Second-year quarterback T.J. Yates was a big surprise last season after being pressed into duty but this is Schaub’s team and the Texans need in there to have the season they hope.
Contact Terrance Harris at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Terranceharris.