Cornerback Dunta Robinson is expected to be an integral part of the Texans' defense this season, but will he show up at training camp?
Texans training camp begins on July 31. Here are five things to watch for, from contract negotiations to position battles to the Texans' new-look defense:
1. Reporting for duty:Franchise cornerback Dunta Robinson and rookies Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin have yet to sign contracts. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end Owen Daniels had contract disputes with the Texans earlier this offseason, but both are under contract and can be fined if they miss any days of training camp. Rick Smith has a track record of signing every draft pick by the first day of camp, so the biggest question mark is unquestionably Robinson.
Robinson sat out the Texans' voluntary offseason workouts, OTAs and mini-camp. He didn't agree upon a long-term deal with the Texans by the July 15 deadline, so Robinson will have to sign the one-year franchise tender in order to play in Houston this season. Texans coach Gary Kubiak said this offseason that Robinson told him he can count on him and that he expects Robinson to be a big part of the Texans' defense this season.
An emotional sparkplug on the field, Robinson is the Texans' all-time interceptions leader with 13. After he returned from injury and joined the starting lineup last season, the Texans went 5-1 and were eighth in the league in points allowed per game. In Robinson's absence, Jacques Reeves and Fred Bennett would be the Texans' starting corners.
2. Running back shuffle:The Texans are in search of a reliable second option behind Steve Slaton, who set a franchise record with 1,282 rushing yards last season. Kubiak called Chris Brown and Ryan Moats options "2a and 2b" during OTAs, so they'll have first crack at those duties. Brown has the ideal size (6-3, 234) to complement Slaton and has been a productive pro when healthy, while Moats (5-8, 208) was capable in limited action as a reserve last season.
Undrafted rookies Arian Foster, a power runner, and Jeremiah Johnson, more of a scat back, also could throw their names into the mix with strong showings. Both had 1,000-yard seasons in college and will get plenty of looks in camp and the preseason.
3. New parts, new defense:Training camp will be the first time the Texans' defense practices in pads under Frank Bush, a first-time coordinator. Bush preaches an aggressive, attacking style and has said he wants to simplify things and have his players fly around to the football. It doesn't necessarily mean the Texans will blitz more, but the mentality of the defense will fundamentally change.
Bush's defense has several new parts that will have a chance to jell during camp. The Texans brought in new position coaches in Bill Kollar (defensive line) and David Gibbs (defensive backs) and beefed up their front seven with Cushing, Barwin and defensive end Antonio Smith. Cushing should help the Texans against the run, and Barwin and Smith should help to fill another glaring need – a pass rusher opposite Mario Williams.
4. Starting jobs on the line:Three starting positions on defense could be up for grabs during camp: weakside linebacker, nose tackle and strong safety.
Zac Diles and Xavier Adibi will compete for weakside linebacker duties, with Cato June also in the mix. Diles' health will be a big factor as he continues to make his way back from a leg injury that ended his 2008 season. Adibi has bulked up to 243 pounds this offseason after a solid rookie campaign. June is a former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl winner with the Colts.
At tackle, DelJuan Robinson took the majority of snaps as the starting nose tackle during OTAs with Travis Johnson sidelined by injuries. Johnson reportedly had surgery for a sports hernia a few weeks ago, and his health will be one of the biggest questions facing the Texans as the team enters camp.
At strong safety, Nick Ferguson and Dominique Barber traded reps with the first team during OTAs. Ferguson has a heavy leg-up in experience, while Barber showed promise as a rookie last season.
5. Breakthrough players:Players such as Jacoby Jones in 2007 and Steve Slaton and David Anderson in 2008 had buzz-worthy training camps and preseasons. It looks like rookie cornerback Glover Quin might follow suit in 2009. Quin was a ballhawk during OTAs, and the Texans have question marks at corner. Quin has the size, speed and strength to potentially be the Texans' nickel corner as a rookie.
Other breakthrough candidates: Barber and DelJuan Robinson, as mentioned above; defensive end Tim Bulman, a relentless worker coming off a four-sack season; and defensive tackle Frank Okam, who has shed about 30 pounds this offseason and has the size and athleticism to become an impact player if he finds a new spark under Kollar.