Coinciding with our Texans TV 2009 season preview series with "Voice of the Texans" Marc Vandermeer, HoustonTexans.com takes a position-by-position look at the Texans in the days leading up to training camp. Our fifth position preview looks at the Texans' offensive line.
Key players: G Chester Pitts (112 consecutive starts), T Eric Winston (39 consecutive starts)
Additions: C Antoine Caldwell (third-round draft pick, Alabama), G Adrian Jones (free agent, Kansas City)
Subtractions: T Ephraim Salaam (free agency)
2008 breakdown: Despite having a rookie left tackle and two other new opening-day starters, the Texans' 2008 offensive line was arguably the best in team history. Working under zone blocking guru Alex Gibbs, the lineup of left tackle Duane Brown, left guard Chester Pitts, center Chris Myers, right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston started all 16 games together and served as the foundation for the third-best offense in the NFL.
The Texans improved from 22nd in 2007 to 13th in the league in rushing and from an average of 3.8 yards per carry to a franchise-record 4.3. The line helped rookie Steve Slaton run for a team-record 1,282 yards while allowing only 32 sacks, the second-lowest total in team history.
Brown, a rookie first-round pick, struggled in the early goings of the season. The Texans decided to rotate him with veteran Ephraim Salaam on every fourth series, a move that helped Brown stay fresh and improve throughout the season. The chemistry that the offensive line formed in 2008, which Winston has characterized as the linemen being able to "speak without speaking," should bode for even better things in 2009.
The big question:Can Brown become more consistent in year two?
When the Texans picked Brown 26th overall in the 2008 draft, they knew that he was a work in progress. Brown had played only one season at left tackle at Virginia Tech – his first three years were spent at tight end and right tackle. As expected, he went through some growing pains against James Harrison, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Joey Porter and Dwight Freeney in his first NFL games. But Brown started to improve after he began to rotate with Salaam in Week 7, and he lost 15 pounds this offseason to improve his agility.
"I think Duane Brown is the answer at left tackle," Vandermeer said. "Last year, he played very well, and he was relieved at times by Ephraim Salaam… but now Duane Brown's ready to take over full time, all the time. Look at the footwork, the athleticism, a former basketball player and tight end. Duane Brown can do the job at left tackle, and he's going to be here for a long time."
Camp battle to watch:Caldwell vs. Myers/Brisiel
This isn't so much a battle as an area of interest. Myers and Brisiel were excellent last year, and their starting jobs are safe. But the versatile Caldwell will provide valuable depth behind those two players. The Texans have discussed suiting up only seven linemen on gamedays, with Rashad Butler at swing tackle and Caldwell as the backup to all three interior linemen. For Gary Kubiak to feel comfortable with that idea, Caldwell will have to have a solid camp and preseason.
Like former Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans, Caldwell is an exceptionally smart player with natural leadership ability. Even though Myers and Brisiel are locked into the starting lineup, having a talent like Caldwell behind them will only push them to become better players.
Roster size (2009 vs. 2008):Heading into Week 1 of the 2008 season, the Texans had nine offensive linemen on the active roster: Brown, Pitts, Myers, Brisiel, Winston, Salaam, Butler, center Chris White and guard Kasey Studdard. Tackle Adam Stenavich was the lone offensive lineman on the practice squad.
In 2009, it very well may be the same number. With players like Butler and Caldwell, the Texans are developing solid young depth behind the starters in the event that injuries do occur. Players who will be competing for roster spots during camp include Studdard, White, tackle Cliff Washburn, Stenavich and Jones.
Final thought:After some embarrassing seasons from the offensive line in the early years of the franchise, a former weakness of the team has turned into a strength. Gibbs has assembled a collection of athletic, agile players that fit his system, and the average age of the Texans' starting linemen is just a shade above 26.
As the Texans continue to improve and get exposure around the league, some of the linemen will start to receive more recognition. Pitts is one of the league's ironmen and was named a Pro Bowl alternate last year. Winston is starting to earn well-deserved acclaim as one of the top right tackles in the league. If the Texans' offense repeats its success from 2008, those two players could be making their first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2010.