NFL Nation: Shaun Cody

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Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Houston Texans: The Texans might add no one of note in free agency, as they have minimal cap room and people they need to re-sign, starting with safety Glover Quin. But, given the players likely not to return, they will have more open spots than a draft class alone will be able to fill. One of those is nose tackle Shaun Cody. Much has been made of the team’s need to fortify at inside linebacker. Brian Cushing and whoever is beside him would benefit from better run-down play from the nose, so how about bringing in a guy for a spot where they’ll have only Earl Mitchell if Cody is gone? I propose Tampa Bay’s Roy Miller, a solid run-stopping player I believe could adjust to the role in Wade Phillips’ scheme, which is not like most 3-4 fronts.

Indianapolis Colts: The Colts have a lot of money and need to upgrade at several spots. What’s the best match given the available offensive linemen, cornerbacks, outside linebackers, safeties and receivers? I’m going with a cornerback. Perhaps the price of Atlanta’s Brent Grimes comes down a little because he’s coming off a torn Achilles tendon. But he’s the type of confident coverage player who would make for a very solid one-two combination with Vontae Davis, and could solve the team’s issue at a spot where it was incredibly vulnerable last season. If the Colts had Grimes and Davis, could re-sign Jerraud Powers and/or Darius Butler and add a player or two in the draft, they could turn a 2012 weakness into a 2013 strength.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The new regime in Jacksonville has downplayed the concept of spending big in free agency. Given the high-dollar contract failures of the team with some veterans in recent years, that’s understandable. The solution, however, is not to shut down spending -- it’s to spend smarter. Someone who ranks as a virtual sure thing at a position of need could help this team. New England right tackle Sebastian Vollmer qualifies, provided his back doesn’t appear to be an issue going forward. He can help make room for running backs and protect a quarterback, and the Jaguars need to do far better at both.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans have pledged to rebuild the inside of their offensive line, and it should mean two guards to sandwich around center Fernando Velasco. One of those guards should be a veteran, and Buffalo free agent Andy Levitre fits the bill. He’s a durable player who’s never missed a game; he’s good, if not great, at everything; and his best football should still be ahead of him. Head coach Mike Munchak and offensive line coach Bruce Matthews haven’t given themselves enough to work with on the interior. With a talent like Levitre, the two Hall of Famers should really be able to help get peak production.

My plan for the Houston Texans

March, 7, 2013
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My plan for the Houston Texans as we approach the start of the 2013 NFL calendar year:

Finances: Cut wide receiver Kevin Walter, saving $2.5 million in cap space. Restructure the deal of wide receiver Andre Johnson, reducing his base salary from $10.5 million to $940,000 (giving him the rest now as a bonus), resulting in a salary cap savings of $7.17 million. Restructure the deal of cornerback Johnathan Joseph, reducing his base salary from $7.5 million to $940,000 (giving him the rest now as a bonus), resulting in a salary cap savings of $4.373 million. Extend defensive end Antonio Smith, reducing his 2013 base salary of $6 million and his cap charge of $9.5 million significantly.

Continuity: Re-sign safety Glover Quin. The Texans didn’t use the franchise tag on him but would face a tough hole to fill if they let him depart. He’s carved out a good role on this defense, and it would be mutually beneficial for him to stay. In addition to extending Smith and saving money, invest in inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who counts $4.643 against the cap in the final year of his initial deal and is due $3.143 million in base salary.

Turnover: Allow outside linebacker Connor Barwin to leave as a free agent if he gets a good deal. Although it would be nice to keep him, the team is equipped to move on without him and should be able to draft a player who can be the third guy at the position behind Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus. Brice McCain can be a nice nickel but should be replaceable if he finds an opportunity he prefers. Be done with nose tackle Shaun Cody.

Additions: Sign a free agent defensive tackle like Roy Miller from Tampa Bay. He’s a good run stopper who could replace Cody and be better in tandem with Earl Mitchell in Wade Phillips' 3-4 front, which allows for a smaller nose. Mike DeVito (New York Jets) could also work and wouldn’t have to transition to 3-4 thinking.

Draft: Swing big for a wide receiver who can line up opposite Johnson and pose a matchup threat. Perhaps Cal’s Keenan Allen or Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins fits the bill. Tavon Austin from West Virginia, who is smaller and quicker, could give the Texans the sort of weapon they don’t have. Use other early picks on inside linebacker, safety depth and corner/nickel depth. Emphasize linebacker with late picks, looking to boost special teams coverage and blocking.

Rolling Texans have causes for concern

November, 22, 2012
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J.J. WattAP Photo/Rick OsentoskiDefensive end J.J. Watt recorded three sacks on Thursday as the Texans improved to 10-1.
DETROIT -- They dragged their drained bodies around the visitor’s locker room at Ford Field, the cumulative effect of nearly 10 quarters of NFL football in five days showing itself.

The Houston Texans were smiling after their second consecutive overtime win, this one a 34-31 Thanksgiving Day thriller over the Lions.

Fortunately, they’re a nice group of guys.

Because they could have easily listened to some questions about their defensive struggles and gotten severely ticked off: “We just got to 10-1, we’re exhausted and you’re asking about struggles?!?”

They know, however, that while a championship-caliber team finds ways to win when it doesn’t play its best, it also can’t yield 458 yards like it did against Jacksonville or 525 yards like it did in Detroit and get where it’s planning to go.

“There are always going to be things to clean up,” said defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who sacked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford three times and knocked down two of his passes. “Obviously we haven’t played our best football these last two games. But like a great team, you find a way to win no matter the circumstances.”

Said cornerback Kareem Jackson: “Everybody on this team is relentless. We finish by any means necessary.”

The Texans’ pass defense has allowed the Jaguars’ Chad Henne 354 passing yards and four touchdowns and Stafford 441 yards and two touchdowns. Against 96 combined pass attempts, Houston recorded five sacks.

Halfway through the season, the Texans had one sack for every 11.4 pass attempts.

In their last three games, the Texans have one sack for every 28.5 pass attempts.

Watt boosted his season total to 14.5 sacks, but he said not to leave him off the list of guys who need to do more. That’s a new franchise record for quarterback takedowns.

“Hopefully I’ll keep breaking it and breaking it and breaking and breaking it,” he said. “Hopefully I’m not done.”

“We need to get to the quarterback more often,” said outside linebacker Brooks Reed, who left the game in the first half with a groin injury that his coach rated as a big concern and that will require an MRI on Friday. “Make the quarterback feel more pressure and it’ll help him throw bad balls, help out our secondary that way. That’s the best cure for pass defense, I think.

“The stats show it. We haven’t been getting to the quarterback enough.”

Making things worse against the Lions and their No. 1 pass offense was the hamstring injury to Johnathan Joseph.

The cornerback who would have followed receiver Calvin Johnson around didn’t play, and his replacement, Alan Ball, should never have drawn the job. After Johnson pulled in five catches for 103 yards and a touchdown against Ball, the Texans switched to Jackson as the primary defender for Johnson after intermission.

Jackson fared better, limiting Johnson to three receptions for 37 yards in the second half plus a long overtime.

“We knew we were going to give up some plays,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “Hopefully we don’t give up the real, real big plays. ... Everybody got a chance to figure out a way to help us win.”

Injuries beyond Joseph’s have contributed to the Texans' issues.

Nose tackle Shaun Cody and inside linebacker Tim Dobbins were also out. Reed and inside linebacker Bradie James (hamstring) didn’t finish.

That’s five starters missing by the end of the game, not counting linebacker Brian Cushing, who was lost for the season Oct. 8.

“Getting Shaun back [at Tennessee on Dec. 2], that should help us,” Kubiak said, referring to low numbers on the defensive line. “Now we’ve got a couple other issues we’ve got to work through. But we’ve got to keep plugging. Obviously we’ve got a lot of things to fix. But it’s nice to find a way to win.”

The other concern I can see with the Texans is their play against top-flight quarterbacks.

They beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos at Denver in Week 3 and they got creamed by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Week 6. Stafford is not in that class, but he's the third-best signal-caller they’ve faced.

Against that trio, Houston’s defense has allowed 10 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 100.1 while not managing a single interception.

Against the 11 other quarterbacks the Texans have faced in their eight other games, they’ve allowed nine touchdown passes and a passer rating of 42.5 while grabbing 11 interceptions.

Most teams are going to fare worse against the league’s better quarterbacks. But that much worse?

Unless things fall in a really fortuitous way for them, they’re bound to cross paths with Manning or Tom Brady -- or both -- in the AFC playoffs.

They’ll need to be better than they've been the past two weeks or against those top QBs.

“We understand we can always get better,” said left tackle Duane Brown, whose side of the ball has been picking up the slack. “But it’s not easy to get a win in this league. We’ve got 10 of them right now. We’ve very proud of that. We still have a lot of football to play, a lot of progress to make.”

DETROIT -- Thoughts on the Houston Texans' 34-31 overtime win over the Lions at Ford Field:

What it means: The Texans came from behind late again and pulled out an overtime win for the second week in a row, adding more fuel to a team-of-destiny feel. Houston is 10-1, and, no matter the results from around the rest of the conference, it will head into Week 13 with a two-game lead in the AFC race for home-field advantage in the playoffs. (Houston holds a head-to-head tiebreaker with Baltimore.)

What I liked: In a tense, tight game, Danieal Manning pulled the ball free from safety Brandon Pettigrew and Darryl Sharpton recovered it to end the first possession of overtime. The offense moved to position Shayne Graham for a 51-yard field goal attempt. But he missed wide left. Detroit got a 47-yard chance at a winning field goal, but Jason Hanson dinged the right upright. Houston then drove 49 yards in six plays to position Graham for a 32-yarder with 2:21 on the clock that won it.

What I also liked: More broadly, I liked the same things as I like in most Texans wins -- the resolve, the versatility, the ability to find the plays in the shape of the game in front of them that are needed to win it.

What I didn’t like: First and foremost, the rule that prevented a review of Justin Forsett’s 81-yard “touchdown run” where he appeared to be down. Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw his challenge flag. But scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and throwing the challenge flag actually negates the review possibility and earns a 15-yard penalty on the subsequent kickoff. Schwartz has to know that. But it’s still silly not to review the scoring play. The Texans got a huge break out of all of it.

What I also didn’t like: Plenty of pass defenses struggle with Calvin Johnson, but the coverage plans with corner Johnathan Joseph (hamstring) out were bad, and Megatron had a field day with eight catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. Houston did do better on him in the second half, after deciding Alan Ball wasn't up to trying to cover Johnson on his own. The original plan was a poor one. After benefiting from the non-review, the Texans pulled even at 24-all. Rather than seizing control, the Texans gave up a 23-yard run up the middle for a touchdown to Joique Bell and had to fight back to evened-up again to force overtime.

Injury issues: Joseph, inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, nose tackle Shaun Cody and running back Ben Tate didn’t play. Outside linebacker Brooks Reed (groin) and right tackle Derek Newton (right knee) left the game early, and inside linebacker Bradie James suffered a hamstring injury in the second half and didn’t finish. The Texans have a mini bye now and need it to heal up.

Inevitable? The Texans had not allowed a rushing touchdown all season. They allowed two in this game, a 2-yard run by Mikel Leshoure in the first quarter and Bell’s 23-yarder in the fourth.

What’s next: The Texans play at Tennessee on Dec. 2 and at New England on "Monday Night Football" on Dec. 10.

No Daniels for Texans in rain, wind

November, 11, 2012
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CHICAGO -- Weather’s going to be a big issue tonight at Soldier Field.

The rain outside the press box window is moving sideways and the flags on top of the stadium and a top the goal posts are screaming “It’s swirling.” Every time I look at them they are going different directions, and one end of the stadium is different than the other.

The Texans will be working without one of their top weapons, tight end Owen Daniels, who’s sidelined with a back injury. Garrett Graham is a capable replacement, but hardly as dynamic. Fullback James Casey, who’s really an H-back, has the best hands on the team and will likely be a factor in the passing game too.

Quarterback Matt Schaub, kicker Shayne Graham and punter Donnie Jones will all have issues with the wind, as will their Bear’s counterparts

The full list of inactives:

Texans
Bears


Heading into Monday night’s game at the New York Jets, we examined ways teams can try to attack the Houston Texans.

One of them was to try to run up the middle, to go after the combination of Shaun Cody or Earl Mitchell at nose tackle and Bradie James at inside linebacker.

Now that Brian Cushing is lost for the year with a torn ACL in his left knee, it looks like a strategy opposing offenses will try even more.

Cushing covers a lot of ground and has a knack for getting to the ball-carrier. Even with him in the lineup, the Texans gave up 140 rushing yards up the middle to Chris Johnson in Week 4 against the Titans. With Cushing out of the mix, other teams equipped to do so will spend time and effort trying to get a running back to the second level right up the gut, where James will be paired with Tim Dobbins for now. Mister Alexander and Jesse Nading are also options.

In a few weeks, Darryl Sharpton could be ready to come of the PUP list and make a contribution.

None of the three inside backers, of course, have Cushing’s skill set or instincts.

And as I wrote coming out of the game, he’s hardly one-dimensional -- offenses fear him as a rush threat and know he can run and cover.

The Texans have vulnerabilities they didn’t have 24 hours ago.

Next man up worked for them multiple times last season. Replacing Cushing is a different challenge still.

How best to take on the Texans

October, 7, 2012
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Cody & James & JacksonGetty ImagesHow should the Jets attack The Texans? Going after Kareem Jackson, Shaun Cody and Bradie James may be their best bet.
Even the best teams tend to have cracks.

Arrive at the wrong matchup against an opponent equipped to exploit it, and a top team can lose even if it plays well.

The 4-0 Houston Texans are not invincible as they prepare for "Monday Night Football" at MetLife Stadium against the Jets.

The teams they’ve beaten are a combined 5-11. If the Texans dispatch the Jets, that combined record will be 7-14.

How should the Jets take aim at the Texans?

There are not a lot of obvious avenues, but here’s what I would try.

Attack the middle of the defense: No, the Jets don’t have a guy with the potential of Titans running back Chris Johnson. But Johnson got almost all of his 141 rushing yards last week between the tackles. The Texans showed a soft spot there.

Although the Texans like defensive tackle Shaun Cody, he’s probably the weakest part of their excellent defensive front. Inside linebacker Bradie James also doesn’t qualify as a strength.

Use formations and blocking schemes that give you a chance to isolate and go after those two guys.

“I think the NT position is weak and they might be susceptible to an interior power running game,” ESPN.com's Matt Williamson said. “I also think you want to do everything possible with personnel, formations and motion to get their OLBs in coverage-against whoever.”

I’d rather see the Texans in their base defense with James than in nickel with Brice McCain in the mix.

Test Kareem Jackson: The Texans' No. 2 cornerback has gotten a lot better. But he’s been a better zone defender than man defender in his time with the Texans.

He jumped a route and returned an interception of Matt Hasselbeck 63 yards for a touchdown last week. Make Jackson show he’s up for the task again.

The Jets may not have high-quality wide receivers without the injured Santonio Holmes, but they should scheme to get Jackson in man situations and test him.

“I know that Kareem Jackson has improved quite a bit this season, but he is the guy to target rather than Johnathan Joseph for sure,” Williamson said.

Don’t let Houston get an early lead: Houston has outscored opponents 31-8 in the first quarter, and once the Texans have the lead, they can really do some damage. They then can dedicate time to the run and work the play-action and the bootleg scheme that spins off of it.

“They rarely play from behind -- and I don’t think they are real adept at doing so,” Williamson said. “Getting up early is key.”

Fare well in these three departments and the Jets will have a chance. But they may not have the personnel or capacity to do it all.

“[The Texans] are a really tough team to play against,” Williamson said. “You know they want to run, so I think you dedicate your D to stopping that -- even at the expense of Andre Johnson maybe blowing up. I think you want Matt Schaub throwing the ball a ton…

“But overall, best of luck with all that.”
Among the questions about the Houston Texans' defense as the NFL season kicks off is this: After a great gain last year, will there be some regression?

Football Outsiders expects a drop off. They predict the Texans will be 15th in their defensive ratings.

The Texans begin to show us how they’ll be Sunday against Miami, and they will be at full strength.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Jerome Miron/US PresswireHouston coach Gary Kubiak said J.J. Watt has been "excellent" in practice heading into Sunday's season opener.
Three key players -- end J.J. Watt (elbow), inside linebacker Brian Cushing (ribs) and nose tackle Shaun Cody (back) -- played sparingly or not at all in the preseason.

They are good to go now, but may be kicking some rust off this week in preparations.

Watt was injured early and didn’t suit up for any of the four games. The Texans will monitor how much he plays.

“Well, I don’t want to say a play count, but there’s no reason for him to go out there and play 70 plays,” coach Gary Kubiak told Houston reporters Wednesday. “I think we know that. That’s on me and Wade [Phillips] and [defensive line coach] Bill [Kollar] to make sure. But watching practice, he’s been excellent. I watched one-on-ones today, he was excellent. He looks like J.J. I know he’s going to be battling us to take every play but I think it’s smart of us to make sure that we bring him along the right way.”

Cody and Cushing won’t necessarily have the same limitations. Cody missed three preseason games, Cushing two.

“Well they’re a little different; they did play some in the preseason, so I would say they’re a little further ahead from that standpoint,” Kubiak said. “We’re going to rotate Shaun anyway. Earl [Mitchell] has had a great preseason. Mister [Alexander] has had a great preseason; he’ll have to spell Cush some. I think we’re going to play a lot of people, regardless.

“This is the week where every team goes past a point they haven’t been to yet, as far as how many plays you play and the first team and that type of thing. We’re going to rotate players. We’re going to keep fresh guys on the field. We’ve got confidence in all of them.”

Said Watt: “It feels good. It feels good to have the defense at full strength, have the guys you’re familiar with, the guys you’re used to. We all know each other so well it’s fun and the defense really jells well.”

The expectation is that a defense that regularly swarmed quarterbacks last year will have a big day against rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

He’s certainly not expecting a team that’s regressing to the mean defensively.

“They don’t have as many exotic pressures and zone blitzes as you will see from other teams, but they’re really good at what they do,” Tannehill said in a conference call. “They believe [in] what they do and they’re crisp at it.

“So, it’s not a situation where they have so much in that they’re not good at it, or you’re going to catch them at something that they're not really comfortable with and do a whole lot. So they really trust, like I said earlier, in their players and they believe in their one-on-one matchups.”

Houston Texans cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
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Click here for the complete list of Houston Texans' roster moves.

Most significant move: Backup free safety Troy Nolan was a surprising cut, and won’t be on the market for very long. Shiloh Keo stuck. While he’s a willing special-teamer and can hit, he strikes me as too slow and I certainly wouldn’t want him on the field on defense. The Texans traded cornerback Sherrick McManis to the Chicago Bears for fullback Tyler Clutts, who’s expected to back up James Casey. The Texans are a tricky team at fullback, as the lead blocker is important in the zone-run scheme, but they use Casey, who’s more of an H-back with excellent hands. Clutts looks to be an upgrade from Moran Norris, who was cut. Clutts has pro experience, playing in the UFL, AFL and CFL.

Onward and upward: Nose tackle Hebron Fangupo was released, but he is surely a guy the Texans would like to sign to the practice squad, where they could nurture and develop him. Houston doesn't have great depth at the spot, which is generally shared by Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell. Antonio Smith shifts inside in the nickel package, when the outside linebackers creep forward and it’s basically a four- or five-man line. Undrafted out of BYU, Hebron is listed as 6-feet and 324 pounds -- more than 20 pounds more than the Texans’ heaviest lineman. While Wade Phillips is fine with smaller nose tackles, having a big one who can develop is a welcome change.

What’s next: John Beck is on the roster as a third quarterback a year after the Texans got a real feel for the importance of depth when they lost Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart inside two games. They like undrafted rookie Case Keenum, who was cut, as well; he could head for the practice squad. But how many snaps can the Texans get him during the week if he’s fourth in line? Generally, the backup and/or a veteran runs the scout team, so that work will be done by T.J. Yates or Beck. Whatever snaps Schaub doesn’t take in a practice week will go to Yates. Perhaps they feel OK about Andrew Gardner as their swing tackle now that Rashad Butler is lost for the season with a torn triceps, but they could be looking for a guy to provide tackle depth.

Three things: Texans at Saints

August, 25, 2012
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Three things to look for tonight as the Texans go against the Saints in their third preseason game of the summer tonight (8 ET) in New Orleans.

The three young receivers: Heading into the biggest preseason game, it seems Keshawn Martin, Lestar Jean and DeVier Posey rank in that order, but there is still a chance for some jockeying for roles and snaps. When they are on the field, any success they can have with quarterback Matt Schaub will help their cause. A good outing for Martin would likely solidify his standing, but Jean may be more explosive. Gary Kubiak can find roles for both at the start of the year if he feels they are worthy.

Rotating tackles: When Duane Brown became the Texans left tackle, the Texans eased him in his first few games by rotating him with veteran Ephraim Salaam. They are now at least considering doing the same with the two guys competing for the right tackle job now, veteran Rashad Butler and youngster Derek Newton. I wonder about the chemistry and rhythm such a platoon can get in the way of. But if one of them doesn’t distinguish himself, then they could both be in line for time in the season opener Sept. 9 against Miami.

Nose tackle: Shaun Cody (back) and Sunny Harris (done for the year with a torn triceps) won’t play, so Earl Mitchell and undrafted rookie Hebron Fangupo are the lone nose tackles available for the Texans. Ends Jared Crick and Tim Jamison are also rated by coaches as being able to play the nose in the Texans’ defense as well. The position isn’t generally part of the nickel package and barring an injury, it should be a problem. Also out on defense, inside linebacker Brian Cushing (ribs) isn’t with the team.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 16, 2012
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HOUSTON -- For a long time, the Texans were a popular pick to break through.

Coming off the season in which they finally did, they now rank as a favorite to repeat as AFC South champs.

But the tone in Houston hasn’t changed a bit.

Steady coach Gary Kubiak’s talked about starting from zero again, and though salary cap issues and free agency dented them a bit, this confident team knows it will need to show some grit to build off of last year’s experience.

“The window is open,” said quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed the team’s final six games and the playoffs after suffering a serious foot injury. “We have the talent, we have the people, we’ve got to go out and do it. It’s the next link in the chain…

“We’ve got the right mindset to keep everyone focused. If we see someone not focusing on the next job, we make sure he gets it right.”

Camp carried a confident vibe and the team was fortunate to dodge long-term issues when receiver Andre Johnson (groin) and defensive end J.J. Watt (elbow) suffered injuries.

There’s been some Super Bowl-or-bust talk, and this season will present the Texans with a chance to measure themselves against the teams they could see in the AFC playoff bracket: New England, Baltimore and Denver.

If the right side of the offensive line was not being replaced and if Schaub was a little bit more of a sure thing, they’d be a popular pick to represent the AFC in New Orleans.

Even with those issues, it doesn’t take much imagination to see them there.

THREE HOT ISSUES

The offensive line: The franchise’s zone-blocking scheme is really what the whole franchise is built on, and last year’s offensive line was among the league’s very best, producing the NFL’s No. 2 rush offense.

Right tackle Eric Winston was let go to save some serious salary cap money and right guard Mike Brisiel left for Oakland when the Raiders offered an above-market deal. The favorites to replace them, Antoine Caldwell and Rashad Butler, have significant time in the system, and everyone seems to think it can be a seamless transition.

Rookie Brandon Brooks, a third-round pick, brings uncommon size and could challenge Caldwell. Derek Newton, a seventh-rounder from a year ago, is on Butler’s heels. They won’t both win, but one could.

The Texans did allow 33 sacks, ranking 20th in sacks per pass play. There is room for improvement there no matter who's playing.

The receivers: Johnson dealt with separate injuries to each hamstring last season, then needed offseason knee surgery, then lost camp time to a groin strain. If he’s on the field, the team has enough at receiver to supplement him. If he’s not, then it’s a question.

[+] EnlargeHouston's Andre Johnson
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREThe Texans need Andre Johnson on the field for the rest of their receiving corps to be effective.
Kevin Walter is a fine No. 2 if Johnson is on the other side of the field, which allows Walter to run precise, shorter routes and throw quality blocks. If Johnson’s out, Walter isn’t as dynamic, and the three youngsters vying for the third spot become more important. Keshawn Martin's had the best camp to this point, but DeVier Posey and Lestar Jean are also in the mix.

Johnson missed nine games in 2011. The Texans couldn’t really rely on Jacoby Jones week-to-week (and released him in the offseason). With tight end Owen Daniels and running back Arian Foster playing big pass-catching roles, they still did fine.

Coverage: Johnathan Joseph is an excellent corner who will be asked to track the top wideouts on the other teams. The list will likely include Demaryius Thomas, Kenny Britt, Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson, Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith, Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Reggie Wayne and Percy Harvin.

The combination of their quality pass rush, Joseph’s good work and some help may often get the job done.

But on the other side, Kareem Jackson has been more comfortable in zone coverage than man, and had a security blanket platoon system in place with Jason Allen. Allen’s now in Cincinnati, and early indications suggested the new veteran, Alan Ball, won’t be as much of a help.

There is good depth in the secondary. Brice McCain is a solid nickel and Brandon Harris is an improving backup for him. Troy Nolan is a capable third safety after Glover Quin and Danieal Manning.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

This team has firepower and star power, which make it tough for plan for, tough to stop and difficult to move against.

Johnson and Foster rank in the top three in the NFL at their positions and Daniels remains a very effective weapon. The defense is loaded with stars who’ve produced: Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin, Joseph, Brooks Reed and Watt. The third outside linebacker, Whitney Mercilus, is a first-round pick.

There isn’t a bad egg or an out-of-control ego on the list.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Outside of the division, the Texans road games are at Denver, at the Jets, at Chicago, at Detroit, at New England. I don’t think the Jets are going to rate as one of the league’s best teams, but those other four may well be in the top 10.

I don’t think expectations are going to be a problem. But a year ago they played 13 of 16 games at noon CT and just once outside of Sunday. This time they’ve got four night games and a Thanksgiving Day game, and four of those five are away from home.

That’s a different deal that could prove a test.

[+] EnlargeHouston's Johnathan Joseph
AP Photo/Pat SullivanJohnathan Joseph is getting more comfortable with the Texans.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Joseph is far more outspoken on the field than he was last year. It’s a testament to his comfort level and confidence. That people on both sides of the ball listen shows how respected he is.
  • Defenses and nickelbacks won’t be able to come into a game against the Texans anticipating one particular receiver in the slot. Different plays, different motions and different matchups will mean Walter, Johnson and Martin all get looks there.
  • Something will really have to go wrong for Justin Forsett not to be the third running back behind Foster and Ben Tate. He’s really shifty and Forsett could easily be part of a committee elsewhere. In a red zone period I watched him catch a short pass in the flat, slam on the brakes and allow Reed to fly past, then accelerate to the end zone.
  • Brooks, the rookie guard, impressed me. He can really hold his ground, and while speed gave him problems a few times, he’s mature beyond his years. I think he’s got a real shot at nudging Caldwell out of the right guard spot.
  • I’d like to see the Texans throw to James Casey more. He’s not really a fullback, though he is capable of doing what they ask and need. He’s got great hands and can make more plays that he gets called for him.
  • It’s hard to envision Trindon Holliday holding up based on his history and size. If he can, and he can master ball security, he’ll be a nice weapon as a returner. If being able to contribute as a receiver in a pinch is a requirement of the job, I can’t see it. Defensive backs will relish a chance to muscle a 5-foot-5 player at the line, rendering his speed largely irrelevant on any route that involves timing -- and don’t they all?
  • Houston gets enough out of the Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell defensive tackle combination. But it still seems like one of maybe only two spots in the base defense where the Texans could actually benefit from an upgrade.
  • There are not a lot of depth questions on this roster, and it’s a team that saw the value of quality depth last season, over and over. Inside linebacker’s an issue with Darryl Sharpton (hip) out. Cushing is close to indispensible. Left tackle Duane Brown is a guy the team might struggle without. But the Texans have won minus Schaub and without Johnson, and can win without Foster. The defensive line wouldn’t be the same minus Watt (out for the preseason with an elbow injury) or Antonio Smith. That said, what would the reaction have been last year at this time if we hypothesized Mario Williams would miss all but five games?
  • Rookie kicker Randy Bullock has plenty of leg. Considering they picked him in the fifth round, he’d have to fall flat on his face the rest of the way for the team to choose Shayne Graham over him, right?
With J.J. Watt rehabbing the after-effects of a dislocated elbow, the Houston Texans will see just how deep they are at defensive end.

Tim Jamison moves into Watt’s spot and coach Gary Kubiak pointed to “Sunny” -- nose tackle Ra’Shon Harris -- as a versatile guy who can play a lot of spots as the Texans sort through things. Kubiak said the team expects the team will add one player to fill out the roster.

The team expects Watt will be back in place in time for the season opener Sept. 9 against Miami.

“Timmy (Jamison) is a grinder,” Kubiak said. “He’s a hard worker, plays with a lot of effort. He gave us a lot of time last year, and now he gets the chance to act like a starter, so we’ll see how he handles it.”

Watt played 77.37 percent of the team’s snaps at end last season, Antonio Smith played 71.59 percent and Jamison played 33 percent.

Kubiak did not mention rookie Jared Crick, who recently suffered a slight neck injury. He’s a fourth-round draft pick out of Nebraska.

As the Texans turn to their nickel package without Watt, they could also leave Smith outside rather than shifting him inside, looking to a nose tackle -- Harris, Shaun Cody or even Earl Mitchell -- to stay on the field inside.

Watt was a great presence last year, a tone-setter with his non-stop motor who was part of a group that swarmed the passer and did well to get his hands up to be an obstacle to quarterbacks when they did get throws off.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

What’s hidden on the Houston Texans? Not very much.

They’ve got blue chippers at running back, receiver, center, left guard and tight end if Owen Daniels is healthy. A healthy Matt Schaub is a proven quarterback in the system. On the defensive side, they’ve got a loaded, swarming front and quality defensive backs.

I don’t want to turn to special teams, as it’s an area where I don’t feel great about them, with unknowns in the return game and, probably, a rookie kicker in Randy Bullock.

Help.

One group I don’t expect great things from is the defensive tackles. So they win by default. Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell were sufficient last year, thanks largely to all the playmakers around them. In their second year playing as less-than-mammoth nose tackles in Wade Phillips’ system, they can be better. Undrafted rookie Hebron Fangupo from Brigham Young is intriguingly thick. At 324 pounds, he’s listed at 23 pounds heavier than Cody, who’s bigger than Mitchell.

What I'd do if I ran the Texans

February, 28, 2012
2/28/12
5:48
PM ET
The money isn’t mine. I’m not certain about what you can afford and what the market will pay when free agency opens on March 13. I’m not positive about your plans and schemes.

But I’ve got a good sense of your team. We've looked at your free agents.

And here’s what I’d try to do with your major issues:

1. Make one, big solid offer to defensive end Mario Williams. Very soon. Tell him it’s the best you are going to be able to do now or later. Expect him not to take it. Prepare for life without him and the crushing reviews you’ll get when he goes to a place like Seattle or, worse, Jacksonville, and wreaks some havoc as a pass rusher. Take solace that he’s overpaid by his new team and will ultimately mess up its cap. Plan to draft a outside linebacker to be third in a rotation with Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed.

2. Free up money with the following moves: Cut receiver Jacoby Jones (due a $3 million base salary) and reserve quarterback Matt Leinart (due a $1.75 million base). Make it clear while you’d like to keep them on your team, you cannot pay inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans ($5.9 million), receiver Kevin Walter ($3.5 million base) or defensive tackle Shaun Cody ($2 million) the base salaries they are scheduled to make. Ryans is a good player and a great locker room guy. But he played 58 percent of the Texans' defensive snaps last season. He can't make that money for that time on the field.

3. Do what you need to do to hold on to running back Arian Foster, but realize you have control. He’s a restricted free agent. A team trying to lure him away with an offer sheet would have to give up a first-rounder for him, and as great as he is, a first round pick is a high price for a running back. I think you can be a little risky here in terms of not worrying about outsiders. An offer sheet could be front-loaded and hard to match straight up. Hopefully if he’s offered one, he’ll share the numbers because he likes you and you’ve give him an equivalent deal shaped differently to get him to steer clear of signing the sheet. With or without outside influence, you should be able to give him a deal he’ll like that has a smaller 2012 cap number than the franchise tag of nearly $8 million.

4. Find a way to lock up center Chris Myers and don’t worry about guard Mike Brisiel, who's not the same caliber and won't cost nearly as much, unless he can be had for cheap. While you’d like to keep both, Myers is a better player, who's more valuable and has a better injury history. He’s also more of a the leader of the group. You need him long-term to keep that great running game going. Antoine Caldwell can take over at right guard without major drop off. There is no obvious replacement for Myers on the roster, so they’d have to find one if you let him go.
HOUSTON -- Arrived at Texans practice about halfway through. I thought I’d start out with some straight observational sharing.

1) I watched the offensive and defensive line one-on-ones from a tough angle.
And the highlight for me: Brooks Reed vs. Eric Winston. Reed quickly got inside Winston on the first snap. Then he did it again though he had to go wider. And against Newton, he got steered out real wide, wide enough that he probably couldn’t have recovered to make a play.

Reed’s clearly super-fast off the edge. (Sidenote: He’s got relatively skinny legs. Calves anyway.) On the second snap against Winston, I wondered if he went wide enough that even a clean run might take him too long to get to the quarterback, allowing for the ball to come out. Still, forcing a quick pass with such pressure is a victory.

2) Brian Cushing, who’s been out of action for most of camp as he recovered from knee surgery, was part of team drills. In the very first snap of 11 vs. 11 work I saw, he edged up to the line and weaved his way through the middle very quickly and cleanly, slicing through the line in a way he would have had a pretty good shot at Matt Schaub in a live situation.

3) Schaub found Kevin Walter with a bomb up the right side that fell incomplete only because Kareem Jackson had a handful of Walter’s jersey to prevent him from catching up to it. Jackson made no real effort to hide the foul or recover from it.

4) Owen Daniels slipped open against what had to be a busted coverage for a big play. Reed let him go near the line of scrimmage and Glover Quin wasn’t in range. The culprit is likely unidentified.

5) Trindon Holliday had a nice little catch-and-run, but limped back and found a trainer.

6) Sherrick McManis intercepted Matt Leinart.

7) When I talked to the sidelined Ben Tate after the practice, he indicated that Steve Slaton now has a hamstring issue as well.

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