Head coach Gary Kubiak said defensive tackle Amobi Okoye was the most improved player of OTAs.
Head coach Gary Kubiak likes to compare OTAs to a pro version of college spring football. The players go through abbreviated play installs. The coaches begin to get their roster in shape for training camp. And both parties show a glimpse of what's to come in 2008.
For the most part, Kubiak liked what he saw in 13 OTA practices, but expects the team to make huge strides during training camp.
"We got a great deal done," Kubiak said. "Now, I think we need to separate from each other for a little while, but they need to keep working. We know what's ahead of us and we've got to get ready to do it."
Here are the top five lessons learned from the Texans' Organized Team Activities:
1. Kubiak, Smith mean business. Head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith made it clear during OTAs that they won't allow a lack of progress and they're going to lose patience with players with injury problems.
On the last day of camp, they cut quarterback Quinn Gray and offensive tackle Jordan Black for those very reasons.
Gray, who spent five seasons in Jacksonville, was signed to a one-year contract and pegged to be the third quarterback behind Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels. But Gray struggled to lose weight and fit into the team's offensive system.
"We decided on the number we want to take, and it just felt like at this point he did not have a good chance of making it," Smith said of Gray. "So we wanted to give him the opportunity to make it with another team."
Black signed with the Texans as a free agent in 2007 after spending the first four years of his career with Kansas City, but saw very little action last season. He came into OTAs behind tackles Eric Winston, Duane Brown, Ephraim Salaam and Rashad Butler, and sat out a majority of the practices with minor injuries.
The Texans cut rookie wide receiver Ryan Grice-Mullen and safety Curome Cox on Friday. They have to cut three more players by the start of camp to get their roster down to 80.
"You guys know the 80-limit roster is the rule in this league, and I'm sure there is going to be more (cuts) here in the next three weeks." Kubiak said. "We still have to get down some more."
2. Spencer still not ready. In mini-camp, the Texans decided to move Charles Spencer to guard and see how he faired in individual drills. Spencer, who has not played since he broke his left leg in 2006, did not get to show the coaches much of anything because the team's trainers did not clear him to participate in primary drills during OTAs.
Texans officials now must decide how likely it is that Spencer will be able to catch on to the team's new zone blocking scheme and help the team this season.
"We've got a lot of conversations to have between now and training camp," Smith said. "His rehab process has gone slow, and we had hoped that it would have been a little bit better at this point and so from a lot of standpoints, that's a little disappointing. But we're going to continue to be patient with Charles and give him every opportunity that we can to make it back."
The zone scheme being installed by assistant head coach Alex Gibbs requires linemen to be quick and agile and strong enough to cut block. Right now, that's a tall order for Spencer to fill.
"It is frustrating for him," Kubiak said. "I had a long talk with him in my office the other day. When you are a kid that knows you could have been a starting left tackle in this league for a long, long time and you have this happen to you, it's just a tough pill to swallow.
"I told him, 'The good Lord's got a plan for all of us. Just keep working.' And he's a great kid, a good man. Things will work out some how, some way. So we just have to figure out where we go from here."
Spencer believes he will be back on the field and in the starting lineup in 2008.
"I'm looking to be one of those top guys on this team, and I'm working that way," Spencer said. "I can't wait to get there.
"I'm getting close. I'm real close. I'm still working out the little kinks. I'm getting real close, and I'm excited to be getting ready for camp."
3. O-line has depth. Even if Spencer is unable to contribute, the Texans will have plenty of able bodies on the offensive line. Left tackle Duane Brown continues to improve working with the first team. Going against Mario Williams, who looked dominant during OTAs, is preparing him to face the best defensive ends in the league
"He handled it great," Kubiak said of Brown. "You look at the first day he came out here, it was a rude awakening and he was able to compose himself even as quickly as the next practice and improve, and so he's got the right temperament. This kid's a tough-minded kid."
Competing with Brown will be 11th-year pro Ephraim Salaam, who played some of the best football of his career last year.
At guard, Mike Brisiel and Kasey Studdard have been taking reps with the first team. Studdard, a second-year pro who played sparingly last season, stepped in when Chester Pitts was nursing a sore shoulder and impressed coaches.
"If you looked at the depth chart when we got started here a few weeks ago, he was in for one heck of a battle and all of a sudden he's been our starting guard for the last four practices and just gets better every minute he's on the field," Kubiak said. "I think players emerge because of situations like that, but it's up to them once they get an opportunity to play well enough that you can't take them off the field.
"Kasey Studdard probably had 200-some reps at guard in the ... three practices that Chester has missed. So we're going to be a better football team when Kasey Studdard's a better player."
Brisiel earned a starting position when starter Fred Weary fractured his tibia and fibula last season, and it doesn't look like Brisiel wants to let go of his first-team spot.
"He's playing like a starter," Kubiak said. "He got a chance last year. He played extremely well. He's doing that every day out here. So it's going to be a tough job for somebody to get back from him."
4. Texans committed to improving pass rush. The Texans have been looking for a pass rusher opposite defensive end Mario Williams since the offseason began. Their search has not ended.
With defensive end Anthony Weaver still dealing with a sore knee, utility lineman Tim Bulman has played some with the first team as a nickel rusher. He could be the surprise player of training camp.
"He's done a lot of pass rushing with the first group in nickel and those type of things," Kubiak said. "He's a guy that's earning his keep. He's done a very good job."
The Texans are still talking with former Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, who has made a name for himself as an edge rusher. The 10th-year pro visited the Texans the first week of June and is reported to be healthy.
"I talked to Kennard (McGuire, Colvin's agent)," Smith said after OTAs concluded. "I've stayed in contact with him, and so we will continue to explore that option and see if it's something that we can come to an agreement on."
Last season, Colvin was limited by a foot injury and registered one interception and just four sacks in 10 starts for the AFC Champions. In two healthy seasons with New England, he led the team with 8.5 sacks in 2006 and with 7.0 sacks in 2005.
5. Okoye wins most improved. Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye is the first to say that he hit the rookie wall last season. He recorded four sacks in the first five games and finished the season with 5.5 sacks and 23 tackles.
During OTAs, Okoye played like he could run through walls. The second-year pro worked on his speed and strength during the offseason and proved to be much faster off the ball at the line of scrimmage.
The Texans will call on Okoye next season to be a run stopper and pass rusher, and the defensive tackle looked more comfortable in both roles.
"I want to knock on wood, but in all honesty, this camp, I think he's the most improved player," Kubiak said. "He's a pretty dang good player to begin with, but what you saw take place here over the course of the last three weeks, you saw a guy go from still having some of his rookie habits, they went away in one week and we haven't noticed them in the last two.
"It tells me he's growing up. He's becoming better. He's becoming a pro. And if that happens, we're going to be a better football team. I've been very impressed with the player he's become through OTAs."
Kubiak said Okoye's progress between year one and year two of his NFL career was similar to that of Williams.
"But the thing that is very comparable right away is the maturity, I guess I should say, and how he's handling himself right now," Kubiak said. "There's not a lot of distractions going on. He's just playing ball and he's got his mind in the right place, and I think that those are good things."