The Texans will have two new starters on the right side of their offensive line, which has been one of the best in football over the last couple of seasons, in 2012.
Offensive line coach John Benton's group blocked for the NFL's leading passer (Matt Schaub) in 2009 and leading rusher (Arian Foster) in 2010. The Texans have set franchise rushing records in both of the past two seasons, ranking second in the league with 153.0 rushing yards per game in 2011 and leading the NFL with 32:41 average time of possession.
Gone this season are right tackle Eric Winston, a starter since 2006 who was released in March, and right guard Mike Brisiel, a starter since 2007 who left in free agency for the Oakland Raiders. The leading candidates to replace them are right tackle Rashad Butler and right guard Antoine Caldwell, but both veterans will face stiff competition for starting jobs in training camp.
Butler, the Texans' backup swing tackle from 2009-11, has been with the team since 2007. He started four games at left tackle in 2010. Caldwell, a third-round pick in 2009, has started 13 games at right guard. Butler will compete with Derek Newton, an athletic 2011 seventh-round pick out of Arkansas State. Caldwell will have to fend off rookie Brandon Brooks, a massive (6-5, 346) but nimble third-round pick from Miami (Ohio).
"Time will tell," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said during OTAs (organized team activities). "Gump's (Caldwell) gotta stay healthy, stay on the field. Butler's kind of been the same way. They will get pushed. I think Newton is way ahead of where he was last year, and this young guard (Brooks) has got a chance to be a heck of a player. It's going to be a very good competition. Those things don't normally sort themselves out until you put the pads on."
Eighth-year year center Chris Myers anchors the line. He made his first-career Pro Bowl in 2011, becoming the first Pro Bowl offensive lineman in team history, and has started 80 consecutive games. Ninth-year vet Wade Smith has started every game at left guard since signing with the Texans from the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010. Fifth-year left tackle Duane Brown earned 2011 second-team All-Pro honors from the Associated Press after allowing only 2.5 sacks.
"He's one of the guys who have had a great offseason, in my opinion, watching him practice," Kubiak said of Brown during OTAs. "Duane loves to play. He has a good time on the field. Duane can run; he's a heck of a specimen from that standpoint. He plays against the best players in the league rushing the quarterback. Once you get the confidence that you can play with those guys, the sky is the limit. I think that's where Duane is right now. He's got a chance to be a Pro Bowl player."
Among the players providing depth on the line are rookie center Ben Jones, a fourth-round pick who started 49 games at Georgia; guard Shelley Smith, a 2010 sixth-round pick who spent last season on injured reserve; and rookie tackle Nick Mondek, a sixth-round pick who played defensive tackle until his junior season in 2010.