Texans training camp starts in less than 24 hours, with the first practice at the Methodist Training Center at 8 a.m. CT on Saturday, July 28.
There will be no shortage of storylines and position battles to monitor over the next six weeks, but here are five unsung Texans players to watch who could be in line for big seasons in 2012.
FB James Casey
Casey moved to fullback in 2011 after two seasons at tight end. An outstanding receiver with some of the best hands on the team, he will be the Texans' starting fullback again in 2012. He also enters training camp as the Texans' second tight end with the departure of Joel Dreessen in free agency to the Denver Broncos. The Texans will motion Casey all over the field to give the offense a variety of looks and keep defenses guessing. The fourth-year player out of Rice University was a mainstay at Reliant Stadium this offseason, doing extra workouts and film study even when the Texans were on break. He was consistently one of the first players to arrive and last ones to leave the stadium, preparing himself for what he hopes will be a “huge year.”
"He's kind of a unique player, really," Texans tight ends coach Brian Pariani said. "Very gifted athlete, very smart. You could put a lot of things on his plate, and that's what makes him an asset to this offense. He can do a lot of things offensively that most guys can't do. He does a great job in the run game, pass protection and making plays also. The thing that makes him versatile is that you can put him anywhere on the field and line him up as a fullback, as a halfback, as a tight end, as an H-back or as a wide receiver, and the defense doesn't know when we snap the ball where he's gonna line up."
RT Derek Newton
A 2011 seventh-round pick from Arkansas State, Newton was drafted as a raw athlete and a bit of a developmental project. He had much more experience as a pass blocker than run blocker at his school in the Sun Belt Conference, but he progressed quickly as a rookie and was the Texans' swing tackle by season's end because of an early season-ending injury to Rashad Butler. A nimble big man at 6-6, 307, Newton has progressed even further this offseason, to the point that he'll be a serious challenge to Butler for the starting right tackle job in 2012.
"Derek came to us as a rookie last year and progressed very well, particularly late in the season," offensive line coach John Benton said. "We're excited about what Derek's going to bring at some point. It still remains to be seen when he develops fully into that player, but we see him as a contributor one way or another this year, be it as a starter or be it as a swing tackle and short-yardage goal line tight end, even, possibly. But we're looking for him to be in the mix and be a vital contributor. He's a big man that has very good athleticism. He's (got) a very quick first step and almost a rare ability to bend and be flexible and win leverage, which is something he uses very well. Really feel like Derek's going to be a top-level player at some point if he keeps progressing like he is, and it's just a matter of time."
OLB Bryan Braman
Undrafted out of West Texas A&M in 2011, Braman stuck on the roster and emerged as the Texans' best special teams player by the end of his rookie season. He's famous for tackling Titans punt returner Marc Mariani head-first with no helmet in Week 17, but that was a small sample size of his contributions. Braman was consistently the first player down the field in kick coverage and routinely cleaned out would-be tacklers on returns. A gifted athlete, he also flashed pass-rushing ability last training camp and in the preseason, and he showed more of it this offseason. Now bulked up from 235 pounds to 250-plus, Braman has been moved from Will (weakside) to Sam (strongside) linebacker and could emerge as the backup to Brooks Reed in 2012 if he continues to develop.
"You need to be heads up on Bryan Braman, now," linebackers coach Reggie Herring said, unprompted, midway through a response to a question about first-round pick Whitney Mercilus earlier this offseason. "'Cuz Bryan Braman is in a developmental stage, but he's faster than all of 'em (the rest of the Texans' linebackers). He's faster than all of 'em, and has just as much athleticism as all of 'em. His developmental skills and knowledge of the game is a little bit behind as far as not playing at a big D-I school, but the skills and the tools are there, and we're also excited about him as well possibly contributing."
CB Brice McCain
Perhaps the Texans' fastest player, McCain was the nickel corner for the NFL's third-ranked passing defense in 2011. He locked down opposing players in the slot, earning the label of Houston's “Secret Superstar” this offseason from Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, McCain ranked first in coverage snaps per reception allowed (13.2), second in yards per coverage snap (0.76), eighth in coverage snaps per target (6.9) and second in NFL rating (48.5) among players with at least 150 snaps in the slot in 2011. A sixth-round draft pick in 2009, McCain has come a long way since a dreadful 2010 season and should only improve in his fourth year in the NFL and second year under defensive backs coach Vance Joseph.
"He's a guy who I'm proud of," Joseph said. "I put him in the same aspect as Kareem Jackson because when we came here, he was in the same mindset as Kareem: Kind of down on himself, not sure if he can play or not. But the guy's been resilient. He's worked hard. He's worked technique. He's got great, great physical tools with quickness and long speed and those things, so his problem was purely confidence and learning how to play the game. In my eyes, he's a starter. Your third corner, your nickel player, he played 65 percent of our reps last year. Especially if you're winning games, he's going to have a chance to play. So in my mind, he's a starter on this football team, and as far as a slot player in this league, he's one of the better ones."
FS Danieal Manning
Manning was a major free agent acquisition for the Texans last year, so he might not seem to qualify as "unsung." But if you listen to the way Texans coaches talk about him), it's clear he isn't being talked about enough. During OTAs, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips consistently tweeted that Manning was "all over the field." He called him a "tremendous" and "special" player who plays faster than every other safety in the NFL. Head coach Gary Kubiak called Manning a "leader" who is "100 miles an hour all the time." Defensive backs coach Vance Joseph said Manning is “gonna be a Pro Bowl player,” saying he's "off the charts" physically and now, after a full season and offseason in Phillips' system, is caught up mentally. Manning was one of about 25 veteran players to sit out the Texans' three-day mini-camp in June, but he still made it a point to go to every single practice and watch from the sidelines. He said he did it to give moral support to younger players as well as to get mental reps to help him further understand the defense.
"D-Man loves it," Joseph said. "He loves it. Football's his life. He wants to be the leader of the group, and he is. He wants to have a great year, man. He's into it, and it's so exciting to see him every day being so up on life and up on football, so it's going to be an exciting year for us. The offseason has made him a better player in all aspects, especially knowing what to do."