*Here are five things to watch when the Texans hit the practice fields Saturday for the start of training camp.
1. Slot spot- Head coach Bill O'Brien and wide receiver Wes Welker both arrived in New England in 2007. O'Brien was an assistant that year, while Welker would pile up 112 catches for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns. O'Brien saw firsthand how integral the slot receiver position was to an offense, and will likely place an emphasis on it in Houston.
Keshawn Martin came the closest to filling that role the last couple of seasons here, but this offense is different. Look for veteran Mike Thomas and second-year pass catcher Alan Bonner to compete at that spot as well.
Whoever rises to the top of that group has a chance to be a major impact on the offense in 2014 and beyond.
2. Kicker battle- Randy Bullock is the incumbent, with a career field goal percentage of 74.3
percent. He made all 26 extra point attempts in 2013, and was 13-of-22 from field goal attempts of 40 yards or more.
Last August, he wasn't challenged in training camp. This year, however, rookie free agent Chris Boswell from Rice University will try to unseat the third-year kicker. Boswell gained a lot of notoriety in 2013 with his unorthodox onside kick that the Owls recovered late in a game against Houston. Boswell kicked at the Senior Bowl and connected on 65 of 88 field goal attempts in his career. He also drilled 14 field goal attempts from 50-plus yards, and three from 55 yards or more.
Special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky will get a better look at them during camp and in the preseason games.
3. Savage vs Keenum- Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter, and Keenum is the backup. But the team
used the first pick of the fourth round on Pitt quarterback Tom Savage. He was fourth on the depth chart during OTA's and minicamp, but moved up a spot when the Texans dealt signal-caller T.J. Yates to Atlanta for inside linebacker Akeem Dent.
How many reps Savage gets, and how many snaps in the four preseason contests will be a good gauge on how rapidly he's digesting the playbook and speed of the NFL game.
For Keenum, who started eight games last autumn, this July and August are somewhat similar to last year, when he battled Yates for the backup spot. The NCAA's all-time passing yardage leader repeatedly said how enthused he is with the new playbook and the opportunity in front of him, and spent the last month or so throwing with the receivers, tight ends and running backs during sessions at his alma mater, Houston.
4. Inside linebackers- Brian Cushing was lost to a knee injury in the Week 7 defeat at Kansas City,
and yesterday was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. But if he passes a physical, he can hit the practice field immediately.
He's joined by Dent, as well as Justin Tuggle, who was a bright spot on special teams last season. Jeff Tarpinian and Mike Mohamed are also veterans in the mix, and free agent rookie Max Bullough turned some heads in May and June.
Without Cushing on the field, Tuggle took a lot of reps with the first team during that time, and had to call the plays. He also said he's spent a great deal of time picking linebackers coach Mike Vrabel's brain during the day, and his former NFL-standout father Jesse Tuggle's at night.
Brooks Reed, who's played outside linebacker his first three years in the NFL, also saw some time inside during OTAs and minicamp. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said Reed is a "value" to the defense because of his ability to contribute both inside and outside.
5. Clowney progress- The first pick in the draft went through rookie minicamp and the bulk of OTAs
before undergoing surgery for a sports hernia. He's been rehabbing in Houston and said late in minicamp that there wasn't a definite timetable on his return.
But he wasn't listed on Monday's PUP list, while fellow rookie Louis Nix, III was. That likely means the healing process and rehab have gone well enough to allow Clowney to hit the practice field on Saturday morning when camp begins. Whether or not he's actually in a helmet with his teammates, or taking part in conditioning work on a side field with trainers will be a question answered on Saturday.
Regardless, he'll rejoin the practices at some point during camp. His switch from defensive end as a South Carolina Gamecock to outside linebacker as a professional will be fascinating to observe.