Leading up to the regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 11, we'll be profiling each position group on the 2011 Texans. Each article will contain excerpts from the 2011 Houston Texans Yearbook, the team's official season preview magazine that is on sale now at the Go Texan Store at Reliant Stadium and online right here**.
Lineup: LT Duane Brown (starter), LG Wade Smith (starter), C Chris Myers (starter), RG Mike Brisiel (starter), RT Eric Winston (starter), T Rashad Butler, G Antoine Caldwell, G Thomas Austin, T Derek Newton
New additions: Newton (draft pick), Austin (free agent)
Departures: Kasey Studdard (injured reserve), Shelley Smith (injured reserve)
The Texans return their entire starting offensive line from 2010, along with key backups Butler and Caldwell.
Myers, Wade Smith and Winston started all 16 games for the Texans in 2010. Brown started 12 games, with Butler starting four when Brown served a four-game suspension. Brisiel started the majority of games at right guard before suffering a season-ending calf injury in Week 14, at which point he was replaced by Caldwell.
Butler re-signed in July, giving the Texans vital depth behind Brown and Winston. A sixth-year pro, Butler helped the Texans go 2-2 in Brown's absence last season. Caldwell, a third-round pick from Alabama in 2009, has started 10 games in his first two seasons. He suffered a high-ankle sprain in the preseason but is expected to be available in Week 1.
The Texans' line helped Arian Foster lead the league in rushing in 2010, one year after they helped Matt Schaub lead the league in passing. The Texans had a franchise-record 2,042 total rushing yards last season and averaged 4.83 yards per carry, shattering the previous team record of 4.27 set in 2008.
"The chemistry's real good," offensive line coach John Benton said during the offseason. "I think (the linemen) showed even going back to training camp last year that they were pretty committed to making sure they did everything to make this thing go. Wade Smith coming in from the free agent deal was a very, very positive addition."
Depth on the offensive line became a concern for the Texans in the preseason. Their top three backup guards – Caldwell, Studdard and Shelley Smith – all suffered ankle injuries, and Studdard and Smith were placed on injured reserve. The Texans signed Austin, a second-year undrafted free agent who spent last season on the Patriots' practice squad. They also kept Newton, a raw but athletic tackle from Arkansas State whom they drafted in the seventh round.
OL coach John Benton on Winston: "Eric's a very intelligent player. He's played a lot of football. I think he's played every snap for us for the last four years and most of the fifth year. His experience is really starting to show. He's very dependable. He's a player you can count on time and again – run, pass. He's probably one of the better protection right tackles in the league, and I think he's made some good strides in terms of his run-blocking. He's very athletic, but more than anything, Eric's very technically sound. He works hard at it. He constantly is refining his skills. Eric's got relatively marginal arm length for a tackle, but as a tribute to him, he overcomes that with very, very good technique, particularly in protection. He refines his skill, places his hands well, is always in good position, those types of things. He always keeps the advantage, as we say in our room."
Benton on Brisiel: "Mike's maybe one of our most consistent players time and time again. He's battled some injuries at times but always seems to come through when you need him in terms of taking care of his assignment. Works very hard at the game, works very hard during the week so that he's a very positive performer. Really had a very good year leading up to his injury last year, and we expect the same thing starting off this year. He's just very, very consistent. He ended up grading out as one of our top players, at or near the top, really every week he played, in all facets of the game. There's no one area that sticks out, but he's very sound in all areas. Very productive player."
Benton on Myers: "Chris, I thought, had his best year since coming to us last year. He really was a big difference particularly in how well we ran the ball, but overall just did an outstanding job with the play calls and handling things up front. The center's kind of the captain of the group, and he handled that very well along with being a very positive performer and taking care of his assignments. He's a very intelligent player. One thing you look for in centers is his first step out of his stance, and he is so quick with his first step. He's able to win a block a lot of times before the defender even has time to react, which is a key, key element in a zone scheme. I think in a lot of ways, it starts with the center being able to handle a front-side shade. If the center can reach the front-side shade, you're usually going to run the ball fairly well in a zone scheme, and there aren't many who can do that consistently. Chris is really one of the better in the league at that."
Benton on Wade Smith: "Wade was a very positive addition to us last season. He's got a little nasty attitude to him. He's a physical player and very, very competitive. And not only did his play help us improve, but his attitude helped us improve. He's played a lot of football on several other teams coming in here and has played virtually every spot on the offensive line. Many people might not know it, but he actually was our backup left tackle when Duane (Brown) had to serve a suspension. I believe he has started an NFL game at every position on the offensive line, so it gives us some freedom if something were to happen. But I tell you what, he handled that left guard position so well it'd be very hard for me to move him out of there unless we absolutely had to at some point."
Benton on Brown: "After a rough start with the suspension and some other things, I thought Duane at about midseason really turned it on and finished the second half of the season at the top of our group in terms of performance. Really played well the last half of the season, and he's so athletic and able to do so many things and he's still a young left tackle, just pushing the envelope in terms of his technique. Those things are starting to come together right now, and I think it's a very exciting time for Duane. Duane's really got a chance to move into the upper tier of tackles in the league. He's rare in terms of combining explosive strength with quickness and his ability to run. With our zone scheme, you need some initial quickness and burst as much as just being a fluid athlete with good, long length, and he really brings that to the table. Duane could probably play guard as well as he plays tackle because of that."