Here are five things to watch as the Texans (10-6 last season, 1st in AFC South) take on the Carolina Panthers (6-10, 3rd NFC South) in their preseason opener at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 11. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. CT.
1. First-team reps: The Texans' starters will be limited to 12-15 plays on Saturday, but it will be by no means insignificant.
For quarterback Matt Schaub, it will be his first game action since Nov. 13, when he suffered a season-ending Lisfranc injury at Tampa Bay. Assuming Andre Johnson plays, it will be the first time he and Schaub are in a game together since Oct. 2, Week 4 of last season. Schaub, Johnson and running back Arian Foster played in less than four full quarters together in 2011.
The Texans' defense will get a couple of series to exact a small measure of revenge on Cam Newton and the Panthers from last season, when Carolina snapped the Texans' franchise-record seven-game winning streak with a 28-13 victory at Reliant Stadium. In training camp, the Bulls on Parade have looked every bit in like the unit that finished second in the league in defense in 2011, and this will be their first chance to pick up where they left off last season.
2. Young WRs: Rookie fourth-round draft pick Keshawn Martin has emerged, for now, as the Texans' third wide receiver. He will likely see action with the starters on Saturday whether or not Andre Johnson is in the game.
Martin is listed on the Texans' unofficial depth chart as a second-team wide receiver behind Johnson. Veteran Bryant Johnson is listed on the second team behind Kevin Walter. Lestar Jean, a second-year pro, and DeVier Posey, a rookie third-round pick from Ohio State, are listed on the third team.
Martin seems to have separated from the pack so far in training camp, but Jean and Posey have had flashes and could make up ground with strong performances in the preseason. Jean was limited to one full preseason game last year, catching two passes for 51 yards, before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Posey has starter potential but missed 10 games at Ohio State last season due to suspensions.
Jeff Maehl, Trindon Holliday, Juaquin Iglesias and undrafted rookies Mario Louis and Jerrell Jackson are also vying for roster spots. Maehl and Holliday both had stints on the Texans' active roster last season.
3. Mercilus' debut: Saturday night will mark the professional debut of Whitney Mercilus, the Texans' first-round draft pick out of Illinois.
The 22-year-old rookie outside linebacker has been as advertised, wowing coaches and teammates this offseason with the pass-rushing prowess that helped him lead the NCAA with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2011. Mercilus is playing the Will position on the weakside as the backup Connor Barwin, which allows him to focus on rushing the passer as he transitions to the NFL.
If Mercilus continues to progress as expected, he will give the Texans a third edge rusher to complement Barwin and Reed, who combined for 21 sacks in the 2011 regular season and playoffs. The Texans lost franchise career sack leader Mario Williams in free agency to the Buffalo Bills this offseason, leaving a need for a third outside linebacker that Mercilus looks primed to fill.
Other young players to watch who have impressed in training camp include cornerback Brandon Harris, safety Eddie Pleasant, outside linebacker Bryan Braman, tight end Garrett Graham and running back Justin Forsett. Defensive end Tim Jamison will start for J.J. Watt, who's out with a dislocated elbow, while inside linebacker Mister Alexander could start for Brian Cushing, who was sick this week.
4. Position battles: Preseason games are where the Texans' position battles at right guard, right tackle and kicker will truly sort themselves out.
Antoine Caldwell is projected to start at right guard on Saturday. Rashad Butler should start at right tackle. Rookie guard Brandon Brooks and second-year tackle Derek Newton will be first off the bench behind the two veterans, and third-year guard Shelley Smith is also in the mix with Caldwell and Brooks. Texans head coach Gary Kubiak has said he would like to make a decision at both spots by the third week of the preseason.
"Our right side of our offensive line, those guys are going to play probably more than anybody, because we need to figure out who those starters are going to be," Kubiak said.
At kicker, rookie Randy Bullock and veteran Shayne Graham have been neck-and-neck this offseason. Bullock is the favorite to win the job, seeing as he was the first kicker ever drafted by the Texans and the first of four kickers drafted league-wide in 2012. But the question remains whether the Texans could opt for experience in Graham, a 12th-year veteran. Kubiak said he will alternate the players kick-for-kick during preseason games to give both as many chances as possible.
"We got a good battle going on there between two guys, and, hopefully, they both get some shots to do it," Kubiak said.
5. T.J.'s time: In a return to the state where he played his college ball, quarterback T.J. Yates will likely get the majority of the Texans' reps on Saturday. It will be a litmus test of sorts to see how much he has progressed in his second NFL offseason.
Yates, a 2011 fifth-round draft pick out of North Carolina, unexpectedly started seven games as a rookie last season after injuries to Schaub and Matt Leinart. He led the Texans to a comeback division-clinching victory at Cincinnati in Week 14 and to a victory in the team's first-ever playoff game against the Bengals in the Wild Card round. He also threw three interceptions and had a passer rating of 28.8 in the Texans' Divisional Round loss at Baltimore.
This offseason has provided more invaluable experience for Yates. Schaub sat out of OTAs (organized team activities), giving Yates three more weeks to practice as a starter. He also gets first-team reps each afternoon in training camp with Schaub being held out of the Texans' indoor practices.
Yates, 25, already has more experience than many NFL quarterbacks – including 31-year-old John Beck – get in their entire careers. As he settles into a backup role, every positive showing he has will leave the Texans feeling that much more confident in their safety net behind Schaub.