AFC South: Derek Newton

HOUSTON -- Gone are the days off for veterans just because they're veterans.

Gone are the nights when only rookies are forced to stay in the team hotel throughout training camp.

No Texans are spared from coach Bill O'Brien's sharp tongue. None are spared from running a lap for a mental error.

And you know what? The players like it.

"I love it; it's great," 12-year veteran Andre Johnson said when asked about O'Brien's demeanor. "The one thing that I like about him, and I think that’s the thing when I first met him, he’s straight up with you. He will let you know what needs to be heard. He’s not just going to tell you what you want to hear. I love his demeanor; it’s fun. I think just his whole attitude and everything he brings is a lot of fun."

Accountability has taken precedence during this first Texans training camp of the O'Brien era. What it means for the season is yet unknown, but after a 2-14 campaign in 2013, it was clear things had to change in Houston.

It's the basis from which the team that won consecutive division championships not too long ago will crawl out of the league's cellar.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Hopkins
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexans receiver DeAndre Hopkins has shown soft hands throughout training camp.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

  1. In his second season since being drafted in the first round, receiver DeAndre Hopkins' development seems to have taken a major step. The sure-handed leaping catches he made so often in college are becoming a staple of training camp. (Aside: It's crazy to think about those Clemson teams that had both Hopkins and Bills rookie Sammy Watkins. What an embarrassment of riches.) Hopkins' issues last season weren't based so much on ability as they were on precision. He seems on the right track this season. Johnson said it's clear Hopkins is playing with a lot of confidence, something that's critical for a receiver. What's even better is that his chemistry with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is improving regularly.
  2. Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney has been working through the rehab process from his sports hernia surgery in June, which has limited what he can do during practices. When the staff has let Clowney loose, though, he is a lot of fun to watch. He's quick, powerful and fast. He will absolutely be a player for whom offenses have to account. When an offense is thinking about one player, that's a big advantage for a defense. Not to mention, opposing offenses were already having to keep an eye on defensive end J.J. Watt, who hasn't missed a beat.
  3. Two young players have made significant progress this offseason: right tackle Derek Newton and inside linebacker Justin Tuggle. Newton, the declared starter at the position, struggled last season, but based on what I've seen and heard during training camp this year, he'll be much better in pass protection this season. Tuggle was a quarterback four years ago (the successor to Cam Newton at Blinn College). The fact that he's played linebacker for such a short amount of time means even though he's improved tremendously in the past year, he still has a lot of room to grow. He's competing to be the Texans' starter next to Brian Cushing.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

  1. The fact that Brandon Brooks is still on the Texans' non-football injury list is concerning. Brooks began training camp on the list for what appears to be a back injury. Brooks really came into his own at right guard last season. He's a player who had very high expectations because of that growth, and one the Texans need. Without him, the guard position starts to thin a bit.
  2. The Texans' quarterback situation is tenuous right now. I like the improvement I've seen from Fitzpatrick, but what we're watching right now does not quite simulate game conditions for quarterbacks since they can't be touched during practice. Fitzpatrick's issues in the past have had a lot to do with turnovers, and the decision-making process that leads to or prevents turnovers is hard to simulate in practice. Beyond Fitzpatrick, the depth at the position is concerning. Neither Case Keenum nor Tom Savage has shown during practice that they could be viable starters in case of an injury during the season. For Savage, it's part of the learning process. Nobody expects the raw but talented rookie to be ready just yet.
  3. Beyond a wily group of veterans, the Texans have a lot of unproven players they'll depend on defensively. When looking past Watt on the defensive line, there are more questions than answers. Who will play nose tackle? How will defensive end Jared Crick do in a starting role? Questions remain on the back end, too. This could be a big year for a lot of young players. But it's hard to know how they'll fare without any proof yet.
[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJ.J. Watt has taken the time to help his teammates with technique during camp.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Whether it's linebackers coach Mike Vrabel running with his group after practice or defensive backs coach John Butler facing his players during drills to compensate for an odd number of cornerbacks, this Texans staff is particularly hands-on. It starts at the top with O'Brien, a coach who makes sure to be involved with every position on his team.
  • Safety D.J. Swearinger's goal this season is to create at least one game-changing play in each game, whether that's an interception, a forced fumble or even a pass breakup that leads to a turnover. Swearinger is getting started in practice, regularly intercepting the ball. And each time he does it, he runs it back to the opposite end zone, finishing with an ad-libbed celebratory flair.
  • Player-to-player coaching happens a lot, and Watt is embracing his growing role as a team leader in that fashion. During a recent practice, he stopped Jeoffrey Pagan during a drill to offer tips on moves to use.
  • A pair of receivers from Texas A&M are doing their best to make it difficult for the coaching staff to cut them. EZ Nwachukwu and Travis Labhart make very few mistakes. Nwachukwu's speed is apparent. His work on route-running has shown during this year's camp.
  • Undrafted rookie Chris Boswell and third-year kicker Randy Bullock are competing to be the Texans' kicker. That battle will be decided during the preseason. They've so far alternated kicking days, and both have made their fair share.

What Texans players play for now

December, 17, 2013
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The Houston Texans can't make the 2013 NFL playoffs and they can't save their head coach's job. And after last week's loss to the Indianapolis Colts, it's less likely they can help their defensive coordinator move from interim head coach to regular head coach, despite his winning record as a head coach.

I asked several players Sunday evening: What do you play for now?

WR Andre Johnson, 11th season: "I'm just trying to win. Trying to end this streak. That's pretty much it. I only play the game for one reason and that's to win and hopefully one day win the Super Bowl. So other than that, I don't really set any personal goals or anything like that."

RB Ben Tate, 4th season: "I'm playing to get a W. I play because I love the game, I love doing this."

TE Ryan Griffin, 1st season: "Anytime you play, it's on film. So at this point we're playing for pride right now. You've got to put the right stuff on film. Everybody sees that, everybody in the NFL. It doesn't matter what your record is it is each play. So that's what we're playing for."

CB Johnathan Joseph, 8th season: "My pride. That's what I play for each and every week. My pride overrides everything else because I just want to go out there and play good, winning football from the beginning of the whistle to the end of the whistle. So I think it's about pride. Going out there and putting winning football on tape."

LG Wade Smith, 11th season: "I play for the fact that I love playing football. I want to win. I know if I play well, it's contributing to helping us get a win. If the offensive line plays well, then it's contributing to us getting a win. And we just go from there."

RT Derek Newton, 3rd season: "For my team. Myself. We're trying to get Ws each week."

OLB Brooks Reed, 3rd season: "Play for? Pride. Self respect."

ILB Darryl Sharpton, 4th season: "I play for my teammates. I play for my coaches. I play for Bryan Braman, Joe Mays, all the guys in the linebacker room. Reggie Herring, all my coaches. I mean, that's what you play for. It's your job. It's an unbelievable opportunity that people would kill for no matter what situation. I don't take it for granted. I've been through a lot of ups and downs and having this opportunity to play professional football in a great city like Houston, I'm going to take full advantage of my opportunity and give it my all."
If you want a clear delineation between wins and losses for the Houston Texans, you can find it in red-zone efficiency.

In the Texans' first two games, their only two wins this season, their offense entered the red zone seven times and scored touchdowns every single time. Since then the Texans have scored touchdowns on only 2 of 12 red-zone trips.

John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information looked into the breakdown of the plays for me.

He found that of the 53 red-zone plays the Texans have run, 28 have been passes and 25 have been runs. Only 10 of those passes have been thrown into the end zone. That means 35.7 percent of the Texans' red-zone pass attempts have been thrown into the end zone, ranking them 19th in the NFL. Only 18.9 percent of the Texans' red-zone plays overall have been passes into the end zone, ranking them 17th in the NFL.

Here's what happened each week:
  • In Baltimore, the Texans' first red-zone trip began with an illegal-substitution penalty on the Ravens that converted a fourth-and-4 and took the Texans to the Ravens' 18-yard line. Then came a 10-yard Arian Foster run, followed by a run for negative yardage and two incomplete passes. Their next red-zone trip also was aided by a Baltimore penalty. Once inside came a 4-yard run, a 3-yard run and then a pass for negative yardage before the field goal.
  • Against the Seahawks, the Texans' first red-zone trip ended in a Matt Schaub interception. Their second resulted in a touchdown and their third a field goal. That field goal came on a drive that began at Seattle's 19-yard line. Schaub threw four passes and completed one of them. Foster ran twice for a total of 7 yards.
  • The one and only red-zone trip against the 49ers ended in a missed 45-yard field goal. The drive had stalled because of a holding penalty on Owen Daniels. That knocked the Texans to a third-and-11. Then Daniels false-started, and the ensuing third-and-16 was too much for Houston to overcome.
  • Of the Texans' six red-zone trips against the Rams, four came when the Texans were already down by 25. Two ended in T.J. Yates interceptions, one ended in a touchdown and the last ended with the end of the game. The Texans' two first-half red-zone trips ended in field goals. The first stalled with a third-down false-start penalty on right tackle Derek Newton, then a 7-yard pass on third-and-9.

Getting there is the first challenge, but the lack of red-zone productivity explains why the Texans' offensive yards per game ranks seventh in the league, but their points per game rank 26th.
Arian Foster and Frank GoreGetty ImagesTwo of the NFL's top rushers, Arian Foster and Frank Gore, will try to carry their teams Sunday night.

The Houston Texans are not pleased with themselves, and neither is their Week 5 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.

After starting off Week 4 the right way with a big win at St. Louis, the 49ers bitterly watched the Texans blow a huge fourth-quarter lead at home in an eventual overtime loss to Seattle, allowing the Seahawks to maintain their two-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West.

San Francisco will try not to fall further behind when it welcomes the shell-shocked Texans to Candlestick Park on Sunday night. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and I discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: What changed for the 49ers between Weeks 3 and 4? Is it as simple as playing a weaker opponent, or did they rediscover their identity?

Williamson: Easier competition may have had something to do with it. Against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers were outscored by a combined 56-10. Against the Rams, the 49ers had their way in a 35-11 victory. I truly think the 49ers’ struggles this season have been more because of themselves than their opponent. The trouble in Weeks 2 and 3 started on offense. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham; they don’t have much beyond Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who has been injured. Fortunately, the rushing game got going in Week 4. If the 49ers can keep the run game hot and if quarterback Colin Kaepernick can get the ball to Boldin and Davis, the 49ers will be fine. That will take pressure off a good defense that wasn’t the main problem against the Seahawks or the Colts.

Tania, do you believe the Texans are up to the task of staying with the 49ers, especially after the heartbreak of the Seattle loss?

Ganguli: They were angry about that loss, especially J.J. Watt, who held a menacing news conference (menacing in general, not menacing toward reporters) after the game. They have taken steps to regroup mentally, holding a players-only meeting that allowed for venting, but I think their ability to bounce back will depend on being able to fix some of the problems they had in their first game. Those problems go well beyond quarterback Matt Schaub, who made the most costly and talked-about error this past Sunday in throwing a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up a crucial fumble, dropped a couple of passes and committed a 15-yard penalty that helped set up the game-winning field goal. You’re right that the Texans’ defense hasn’t been the team's biggest problem this season, but Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards this season, and it would like to change that.

How has losing Aldon Smith affected San Francisco’s defense?

Williamson: It would be inaccurate and na´ve to think the 49ers don’t miss Smith. He will be away from the team for about a month as he seeks treatment for alcohol abuse. Smith had 4.5 sacks in the first three games this season, and he has an NFL-high 38 sacks since 2011. Last week, the 49ers dominated the Rams’ offense without Smith and star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who was out with a groin injury, and recorded five sacks. Rookie Corey Lemonier and special-teamer Dan Skuta both played well in place of Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks led the way with big games. Still, Smith is such a presence. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to have sustained dominance without him.

Tania, do you think the Texans can take advantage of Smith's absence?

Ganguli: The Texans have had their own issues in the trenches lately. Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the past two games with turf toe and is still considered day-to-day. Left guard Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard Ben Jones last weekend. Coach Gary Kubiak said that was to preserve Smith for the long term; Smith had knee surgery during the preseason and returned from it after three weeks. Meanwhile, right tackle Derek Newton, another young player, has really struggled. In fact, Brown’s replacement, Ryan Harris, has played far better than Newton, Houston's regular starter on the other side. Now right guard Brandon Brooks is hurt with a toe injury that’s got his foot booted. The most consistent player, in terms of health and production, on the offensive line has been center Chris Myers, but Schaub has faced a lot of pressure this season.

Speaking of Schaub, he had a rough weekend against the best secondary in the NFL. What challenges will he face against the 49ers?

Williamson: I think Schaub’s struggles start with him, and I think the 49ers will try to pressure him quickly to see if he crumbles again. You know better than I do, but from seeing replays, Schaub looked broken after the Richard Sherman pick-six. The 49ers are well aware that Schaub has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in the past three games, and they will be looking to add to the list. A player to watch is rookie safety Eric Reid. He has proven to be a ballhawk already. I could see him benefiting from Schaub’s issues.

This is a huge key to the game, Tania. Do you think Schaub can bounce back and be effective?

Ganguli: That will be the most important factor in this game. While I don’t blame the entire collapse on Schaub, you’re absolutely right that he looked broken after Sherman’s interception. By contrast, in Week 2, Schaub threw a late pick-six against Tennessee that put the Texans in an eight-point hole, but he recovered quickly enough to lead a game-tying drive that forced overtime. He didn’t bounce back as well against the Seahawks. He made a few nice throws, including a 17-yard pass to Andre Johnson, but overall, looked rattled. If he can’t recover, the Texans have no chance. But if he can rediscover the guy who led that comeback effort you and I watched live against San Diego in Week 1, I think the Texans are in good shape.

 

Double Coverage: Texans at Chargers

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
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JJ Watt and Philip RiversGetty ImagesJ.J. Watt and the Texans could make it hard on Philip Rivers if San Diego's offensive line does not hold up.
In the second half of the opening Monday night doubleheader, Houston is traveling to San Diego to put an end to NFL Week 1. The Chargers are in rebuild mode, while the Texans are looking to take the next step this season and become true Super Bowl contenders. While the Chargers’ fan base should be revved up for this prime-time contest, getting J.J. Watt blocked could be a very futile effort for San Diego’s offensive line. ESPN.com’s Matt Williamson and Houston Texans reporter Tania Ganguli bring you their Double Coverage preview.

Tania Ganguli: How has the atmosphere in the organization changed with GM Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy taking over?


Matt Williamson: A change in San Diego was certainly needed. The environment had become stale and the once wide-open window under former coach Norv Turner and a roster stocked with great players has closed. A rebuild is needed, and a new general manager and head coach are what is needed to potentially get this team back where it once was -- or maybe beyond. Has the right side of the Texans’ once-great offensive line been fixed?

Ganguli: It's certainly on its way. The Texans are rightfully very high on right guard Brandon Brooks, and right tackle Derek Newton is healthy. They didn't mind rotation in those spots last year, but stability will definitely help.

Can McCoy turn Philip Rivers (back?) into an elite quarterback?

Williamson: I feel as though we have seen the best of Rivers’ impressive career, unfortunately. That being said, the scheme change, which stresses getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, could be an advantageous move to boost Rivers. He does have a quick release and makes quick reads, making him a good fit for what McCoy is looking to accomplish.

What is the status of Arian Foster, and might Ben Tate have an expanded role for the season and to open the year?

Ganguli: Tate will have an expanded role, especially early in the year. The Texans won't ride Arian Foster too much given he missed all of the preseason, training camp and most of organized team activities (OTAs). He was working, but they're intent on being smart with his return to make sure they have him at full strength late in the season.

What are the biggest problems with the Chargers' offensive line?

Williamson: Once again, the scheme switch to a short passing game should help the protection of this line -- a line that is better-equipped to run block than protect. Still, the true problem with this line is they simply lack good players up front. They added a few free agents, but no one that is even a league-average starter, and they used their first-round pick on D.J. Fluker to play right tackle. However, I have my doubts that Fluker is quick or light enough on his feet for edge protection. Instead, I think Fluker could be a Pro Bowler at guard.

What impact does first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins have on the Texans' offense?

Ganguli: It's difficult for rookie receivers to put up big numbers, but Hopkins will have a major impact on the Texans' offense. He'll take pressure off Andre Johnson, on whom the Texans were overdependent last season in their passing game. He is very skilled on contested catches and will help Houston's red zone efficiency.

What impact does Dwight Freeney have in San Diego?

Williamson: Can he still be productive at 33? Of course it would be ideal to have Melvin Ingram in the fold as well as Freeney, who could be the perfect mentor, but Freeney has looked quite spry through the preseason and should have plenty left in the tank. The concern for me is that San Diego will be forced to play the 33-year-old too many snaps, which could lead to less effective play late in games and especially late in the season.

How big a boost to this team -- tacitly and emotionally -- is it to get Brian Cushing back on the field?

Ganguli: Cushing makes a difference in both ways. He creates mismatches in the pass rush that free up the outside linebackers. His presence in the middle makes things easier on the Texans' defensive backs, too. Emotionally, Cushing provides an edge for the Texans' defense. His maniacal intensity is contagious and the Texans feed off it.

How will Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews impact each other?

Williamson: While Mathews is a decent pass-catcher, Woodhead is an exceptional all-around contributor in the passing game. Their roles should be very distinctive, with Mathews -- who has looked excellent this preseason -- as the early-down workhorse (if he can hold up) and Woodhead being the specialty movement player that is equal parts running back and slot receiver.

Watt is a rare interior pass-rusher, but does Houston have enough pressure coming from their 3-4 outside linebackers?

Ganguli: That remains to be seen. It's definitely been a focus for the Texans' outside linebacker group. Whitney Mercilus, now in his second year, has taken over as a starter opposite Brooks Reed after the departure of Connor Barwin. Mercilus set a franchise record for rookies with six sacks last season, but he missed most of training camp and the preseason. Reed is healthier than he was at the end of last season when he returned from a groin injury. He had an offseason surgery to repair it fully.

Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

The highly respected Andre Johnson seeks the ultimate team goal, not more personal ones, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

Arian Foster isn’t going to rush to return from his lingering calf strain, says McClain and Tania Ganguli.

To which I say: And he shouldn’t. But it’s hard to forget in June he said the only reason it was attention-worthy was because it was a slow news cycle and the press needed headlines. If it was such a little a deal as he maintained then, he’d be practicing now, right?

Two injured candidates for the right tackle job, Derek Newton and rookie Brennan Williams, have worked their way back from knee injuries, says Dave Zangaro of CSH Houston.

The Texans' Week 3 game against Baltimore will come against a team missing tight end Dennis Pitta, who suffered a serious hip injury Saturday, says CSN Houston.

In these nuggets from Drew Dougherty of the team’s website: Johnathan Joseph’s new workout routine, video of Foster talking about his movie role, Brooks Reed on J.J. Watt practicing his motivational speeches, and receivers catching tennis balls.

Indianapolis Colts

With his traditional opening day arrival theatrics, Reggie Wayne got to Anderson, Ind. by helicopter, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

The newest member of the Colts, rugby player Daniel Adongo, started off by learning some basics -- like Practice details from Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union tell us of a far better day for Chad Henne than Blaine Gabbert.

To which I say: Fans who watched it and are reading about it should be upset that Gabbert was struggling just to take snaps. Even if it's just one afternoon, he should be past such things.

Was Gabbert’s bad practice a big deal, asks O’Halloran.

Gus Bradley said how Gabbert bounces back can be the biggest thing to come from Saturday, says John Oehser of the Jaguars website.

Low expectations of the Jaguars offense gives first-year coordinator Jedd Fisch an opportunity to formulate a creative offense, says Gene Frenette.

Marcedes Lewis wants to forget about the past two years, says Mark Long of AP.

First-year guard Drew Nowak tweeted that his car got hit on the way to the team hotel, but that he’s fine, say O’Halloran.

Tennessee Titans

Two newcomers from Super Bowl teams -- Bernard Pollard and Delanie Walker -- see great expectations with their new team, says David Climer of The Tennessean.

Details of Saturday’s practice fight, from John Glennon of The Tennessean, who also touches on Brian Schwenke’s hamstring, Coty Sensabaugh's surge, and the return of navy blue jerseys for a couple games. Here’s a picture that gives you a sense of the fight -- from a fan who took it during a period of practice when media was not allowed to take pictures or shoot video.

Pollard says part of what the Titans' defense has to do is get a kid receiver like Justin Hunter ready for action. (With video from Wyatt.)

If cornerback Tommie Campbell pans out, he could be like Seattle's Richard Sherman, says Pete Prisco of CBS Sports.

The coordinators talked of early standouts, on the other side of the ball, says Glennon.

The Titans' offense is streamlined under Dowell Loggains, says Teresa Walker of AP.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | SouthAFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC South team as training camps get underway.

Houston Texans: Right tackle. There is a lot to sort out at linebacker, and we don’t know who the third receiver is going to be. But we’ll go to the right side of the offensive line, where Derek Newton is coming off knee surgery and third-rounder Brennan Williams has battled a knee injury of his own. Ideally the two would slug it out through camp, but we don’t know when they both will be ready to make a full push for the position. That could give sixth-rounder David Quessenberry the chance to win the job, at least at the start, or prompt the Texans to turn to middling veteran Ryan Harris. It’s a key position that will have a big bearing on how Arian Foster runs and the protection offered to quarterback Matt Schaub.

Indianapolis Colts: Receiver. There is a lot to sort out on the offensive line. But the Colts have question marks at receiver for Andrew Luck in his second season. Reggie Wayne is locked in as the super-reliable top option. But Darrius Heyward-Bey is No. 2 and never lived up to his draft status in Oakland. With a good quarterback in a new system, could he blossom? T.Y. Hilton did some good things as a rookie, and if he minimizes his drops, he can really be productive, particularly from the slot. After that, things thin out. LaVon Brazill is suspended for the first four games. Griff Whalen missed his rookie year hurt.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Quarterback. Once again, the team will be trying to find the guy who can perform best: Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne. But new general manager David Caldwell, new coach Gus Bradley and a new staff don’t have the investment in Gabbert, the 10th pick in the 2011 draft. Henne has more experience. Both guys played their best when they first started last season. Gabbert fizzled on a bad team, got hurt and was shut down. Henne had a couple of big games, but ultimately didn’t offer much more. Coordinator Jedd Fisch’s system will allow the quarterback to make plays on the move more, which should be advantageous to Gabbert. Mike Kafka and Matt Scott are unlikely to pull an upset.

Tennessee Titans: Cornerback. Although Jason McCourty is locked in as the top guy, the second cornerback slot is up for grabs. Incumbent Alterraun Verner is a smart player with a good knack for slot play. But the team is moving toward more aggressive man-to-man play, and that’s not his forte. Tommie Campbell is physically gifted and fits the mold. The question is whether he can handle it mentally. New senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams did good work as the Titans' defensive coordinator (1997-2000) when there was a similar question with Denard Walker. Rookie third-rounder Blidi Wreh-Wilson also will get a crack at the job.
Incumbent right tackle Derek Newton is coming off knee surgery and is a bit of an unknown for the Houston Texans as they prepare to start camp.

Now third-round pick Brennan Williams, who was expected to make a strong push for the starting spot, has been placed on the physically unable to perform list after a recent knee scope.

Per Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle, Williams will “miss too much time this summer to realistically be a factor when the season starts.”

Ryan Harris and Andrew Gardner are other options, as is sixth-round pick David Quessenberry.

But the Texans need to get settled at right tackle, which was a trouble spot last season. Newton experienced growing pains and yielded at times to Harris.

Injuries are fluid and things can change in a hurry. Perhaps Williams suffered a setback or his initial diagnosis was ultimately incorrect.

The Texans and Williams downplayed his knee issue after he got rolled up on in May.

“He got rolled up this morning in a drill that he was doing, but we think he’s going to be fine,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said on May 11, per the team’s website. “All indications are he’s fine. We’re going to keep him out tomorrow and then put him back to work next week, so we got lucky.”

“I’m feeling great,” Williams said at the time. “Somebody’s been praying for me. I’m doing (all right) ... just a little bit of swelling. Nothing too bad. I’ll be back pretty soon.”

Did the Texans really feel that way then, or did they feel compelled to spin hard on a May injury?

I guess it’s not important. But they need Newton or Williams, and preferably Newton and Williams, ready for their opener at San Diego on Sept. 9.
We pick up our series in which ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, ranks the AFC South position by position.

Today, we examine offensive lines.

Williamson’s AFC South offensive line rankings:
1) Titans (Michael Roos, Andy Levitre, Fernando Velasco/Brian Schwenke, Chance Warmack, David Stewart)
2) Texans (Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Myers, Brandon Brooks/Ben Jones, Derek Newton/Brennan Williams)
3) Jaguars (Eugene Monroe, Will Rackley, Brad Meester, Uche Nwaneri, Luke Joeckel)
4) Colts (Anthony Castonzo, Donald Thomas/Joe Reitz, Samson Satele/Khaled Holmes, Hugh Thornton/Mike McGlynn, Gosder Cherilus)

I place them in the same order.

Just on those lists, which try to outline the likely starting units and include 27 names for 20 spots, one-third of the players are newcomers to the division.

SportsNation

Matt Williamson's ranking of AFC South offensive line units is:

  •  
    41%
  •  
    42%
  •  
    17%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,052)

Everybody will be better.

My questions for Williamson based off his list:

Your overall assessment of the position in the AFC South?

Matt Williamson: I expect the Texans and Titans to have two of the best offensive lines in the NFL in 2013. Both should be drastically improved, and in fact, so should Indy's and Jacksonville's with the massive improvement at right tackle.

Any concern about Titans jelling with two or even three new starters? Are you expecting Roos and Stewart to play better than they did in 2012 with better talent between them?

MW: Tennessee’s offensive line could take a while to jell with the interior being so different and counting on a rookie, but you would think this coaching staff should excel in that department if nothing else. As for Roos and Stewart, I do worry that we have already seen the best of both players and they are starting to decline, but I still expect the Titans to feature a top-10 set of offensive tackles overall. And wow, was their interior bad in 2012!

What's Indy's potential for improvement based on its additions in free agency and the draft? How much will Pep Hamilton's quicker passing system protect the line?

MW: The short passing game will certainly help Indy in protection, but so will the addition of at least two new starters. The Colts just have much better football players starting right now than in 2012.

How did the right side of the Texans group fare last year, and why are you expecting better?

MW: I think Houston is much better off on the right side of its line than a year ago -- which could be huge. The right side of the Texans' line did struggle last year, but hopefully they get away from rotating players there in and out, and I expect Brooks and/or Jones to improve. (I am especially high on Brooks.) Plus, Williams is an excellent fit at right tackle for this scheme if he can seize the starting job.

How much better can the Jags' line be with the addition of Joeckel, return of a healthy Rackley, a healthy Nwaneri and a scheme heavier on zone stuff?

MW: I expect Monroe to continue to quietly be nearly dominant and Joeckel to do very well right from the start, but I don't have a lot of faith in the interior. But just improving on what might have been the league's worst right tackle situation in 2012 should pay off for the Jags.

Who are the weakest links in the division among projected starters?

MW: I would say the interior of Jacksonville’s line is the weakest spot in the division. Outside of the tackles, I don't see a real mobile group to transition to the zone-blocking scheme, either. And I have little faith in Rackley overall. That could be next year's offseason project (among many other things).

As for me …
  • I hope Brooks lives up to what we've heard about him this offseason. I'd like to see the Texans with a very big right guard who has special feet.
  • J.J. Watt's influence is certainly being felt here. The reigning defensive player of the year is part of why we could see entirely new interior line starters for both the Titans and Colts.
  • Rackley will be under a large spotlight and rightly so. He missed his second year with an injury. Will we see a second-season jump, or does he turn out to be a Gene Smith leftover who hurts this team? New line coach George Yarno will have a lot do with how it pans out.
  • The Titans' offensive line has to be good for the team's overall plan to have a chance to unfold. I expect it will be very good, and the depth will be better should they run into injuries again.
  • Cherilus reportedly had a major knee procedure. The Colts clearly are confident he will be OK.
Cut back runs were far harder to find for Arian Foster in 2012 than in the two years before.

Here’s a good look at what went on with the Texans run game last season, from Lance Zierlein of the Houston Chronicle blog.

A couple key points from his piece on what has to happen for the rushing offense and Foster to get back to form:
  • “The offensive line doesn’t have to move defenders all over the field, but they do have to stalemate defenders more frequently and prevent as much penetration as we saw last year.”
  • “[T]hey must do a better job of securing the edge. … There were way too many times where that ‘edge’ was nothing more than a defender pushing (right tackle Derek) Newton too far into the backfield.”
  • “The problem with cut blocks is that if the [offensive] lineman misses, then the defender is running free. When executed properly, it opens massive creases. The Texans have to do a better job of cutting, and Foster has to make teams fear the back-side lanes once again.”
  • “The Texans have to do a better job of keeping the LBs on the second level rather than letting them take liberties with the run game at the point of attack.”

In 2010 and 2011, Foster averaged 4.7 yards a carry. In 2012 it was 4.1. That’s not an insignificant drop. Over the course of 319 carries -- Foster’s average in his three seasons as the starter -- it’s a difference of 191.4 yards over the season.

I’m not as concerned about Foster’s workload as a lot of other people. Worry about now now, and later later, and now the Texans have one of the most effective backs in the league.

They shouldn’t hesitate to give him the ball.

If they can make the sort of adjustments Zierlein outlines, Foster can go from very good back to great in 2013.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | SouthAFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the AFC South as summer break looms:

Houston Texans: Even if Derek Newton recovers well from his knee surgery, are they sure he can be good at right tackle? In Newton's first year as the starter there, veteran Ryan Harris still got a share of the snaps. Now the team has to see how Newton recovers, will consider rookies Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry and brought Harris back as veteran insurance. They’ve surely got comfort in numbers, but you’d much rather have a sure thing at the front of the line. If second-year man Brandon Brooks doesn’t play well from the start at right guard, right tackle could be an even bigger problem. And the Texans need to be able to send Arian Foster both left and right to be unpredictable in the run game. They also need to protect Matt Schaub from all angles.

Indianapolis Colts: The team’s biggest defensive moves have been keyed on stopping the run. Outside linebacker Erik Walden is an edge-setter, defensive linemen like Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin should help stop backs and safety LaRon Landry is a force in the box when he’s healthy. If cornerback Greg Toler pans out, he will help the pass rush, and rookie outside 'backer Bjoern Werner could be an impact rusher if he transitions quickly from college end. But can this team consistently rush the passer? The only truly proven rusher on the defense is Robert Mathis, and for the first time he’ll be playing without Dwight Freeney drawing some of the blocking attention. To me, the major question is: Can they rush the passer effectively?

Jacksonville Jaguars: Who is the quarterback? Blaine Gabbert had most-favored status from the last regime, because the general manager of the last regime traded up to draft him 10th overall. That doesn’t mean anything to new GM Dave Caldwell or new coach Gus Bradley. They are looking for a guy who will give them the best chance to improve. If it’s Gabbert, that’s fine. But Chad Henne has said he believes there isn’t a charade element to this competition, and the team is talking as if new addition Mike Kafka and even undrafted rookie Matt Scott have an equally good chance of winning the job. Odds are very high this team will be looking for its long term-quarterback in next year’s draft. In the meantime, opportunity abounds.

Tennessee Titans: All Titans questions start with the quarterback. Jake Locker is now protected by a great offensive line, which should also greatly improve the run game. The new offense will give him a lot of play-action as well as rollouts and bootlegs, which will be threatening because of his extraordinary speed. His short-yardage targets should be dangerous -- Kevin Walter is super reliable; Kendall Wright should blossom; Delanie Walker and Chris Johnson need to be consistently reliable. The deep guys are a solid bunch if healthy. Kenny Britt and Nate Washington are capable of making downfield plays, and the team is super high on rookie Justin Hunter. The defense will be better, which means the Titans will have the ball more. What can Locker do with it?
Reading the coverage …

Houston Texans


Ed Reed offered reassurance that all will be fine with regard to his surgically repaired hip, says Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle. Reed is still not sure precisely when he will be back.

Ganguli points us to video of Tom Brady’s kick at Reed in the AFC Championship Game that Reed said he thinks caused his hip issue.

Tim Dobbins stands by his decision to skip OTAs to work on building his house in Nashville, says Ganguli.

To which I say: It sounds odd, but voluntary is voluntary and if he proves the team’s best option at inside linebacker next to Brian Cushing, the OTA absences won’t factor into a decision.

Gary Kubiak is concerned about right tackle, but Derek Newton and rookie Brennan Williams are expected to be ready for the start of training camp, says James Palmer of CSN Houston.

Vonta Leach would like to return to the Texans, he told Mark Berman of Fox Houston.

To which I say: Don’t know why he’d say it publicly, since the presence of Greg Jones means it can’t happen.

Indianapolis Colts

Robert Mathis on LaRon Landry: “He brings ugly. He brings a streak to us that we haven’t had.” Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star has this story on Landry, who was not part of OTAs.

Ahmad Bradshaw feels like he will bring a spark to the Colts’ young offense, writes Chappell. Bradshaw said he looks forward to helping Vick Ballard and the rest of the running backs.

The Colts' offensive tackles, Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus, have a friendship that dates back to Boston College, says

Remembering a funny slip up Chuck Pagano made at the combine regarding Leach, who’s now a free agent, with Brad Wells of Stampede Blue. (I've been told this morning that they won't pursue Leach).

Pagano said nose tackle Josh Chapman amounts to an immovable 800-pound safe on the middle of the field, says Marcus Dugan of Colts Authority.

Jacksonville Jaguars


It’s never been an easy ride for Alan Ball, who signed with the Jaguars because of the chance to start, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union. Safety Dwight Lowery sees a perfect system for Ball.

To which I say: Ball really struggled when he had opportunities with the Texans last season, so he’ll need a big turn-around to be effective for the Jaguars.

The Jaguars claimed former Patriots quarterback Mike Kafka, who they cut to make room for Tim Tebow, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

“(Maurice) Jones-Drew's future with the Jaguars will be tied to his production on the field, not his culpability in a bar altercation where somebody is clearly sticking to a bold-faced lie, says Gene Frenette of the Times-Union.

Tennessee Titans


“Seeing (Marc) Mariani on the practice field is a testament to modern orthopedic medicine and his dedication,” writes David Climer of The Tennessean.

Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey sees Gregg Williams and Jerry Gray balancing each other out, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Chris Johnson disputes the notion that he’s selfish, says The Tennessean’s notebook.

To which I say: He sold himself as not just a running back, but a playmaker, when he held out for, and received, a new contract. He has hardly been the guy he said he’d be. Despite his assertion, him getting 2,000 yards isn’t the best route for the Titans to get to the playoffs.

Johnson speaks highly of Shonn Greene in this piece from Crag Peters of the team’s website.
Minor ankle surgery for Duane Brown shouldn’t be a big deal.

Wallace
Brown
Cleaning a bone spur out should line him up to start training camp healthy. And a healthy Brown is a necessity for the Houston Texans.

Brown’s become an elite left tackle. Considering the uncertainty of the right tackle spot, the idea of Brown at less than 100 percent qualifies as scary.

Derek Newton is coming off serious knee surgery and the guys who are the primary competition for his spot are rookies -- Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry.

Andrew Gardner was Brown’s backup at the end of last season. He’s appeared in five games in three seasons with Miami and Houston in three seasons.

The Texans would be a completely different team without Brown.

As I said Tuesday in a post about Jacksonville’s Jason Babin, the most important phrase for a guy having surgery at this time of the year is “ready for training camp.”

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