Here are five things to watch when the Texans take on the Minnesota Vikings in their preseason finale at Mall of America Field at the H.H.H. Metrodome in Minneapolis. Kickoff is on Thursday at 7 p.m. CT.
1. Toughest cuts: The Texans have to cut their roster from 80 to 53 players by Saturday at 5 p.m. CT. Thursday's game will be a showcase for young players and others who are fighting for roster spots, or who might be hoping just to put something on tape for other teams around the league. The Texans' starters and veteran contributors are not expected to play.
Head coach Gary Kubiak said this week that the hardest cuts the Texans will have to make will be at defensive back. The Texans currently have 14 DBs on the roster – seven cornerbacks and seven safeties. They had 10 DBs on opening day last season but could keep up to 12 this year.
It'd be surprising if cornerbacks Sherrick McManis and Brice McCain don't make the team after the way they've been repeatedly praised by Kubiak this preseason. Rookie cornerback Roc Carmichael has yet to play because of a shoulder injury, but the Texans just spent a fourth-round draft pick on him. He might make his debut on Thursday.
Safeties Shiloh Keo, Quintin Demps, Dominique Barber and Torri Williams are likely competing for one or two spots. Each of those players will get plenty of chances to make a case for himself on defense and special teams on Thursday.
2. Chance for Braman: Outside linebacker Bryan Braman was the talk of the town after the Texans' first preseason game. The buzz around the undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M has cooled considerably, but Thursday night will be his final opportunity to push for a roster spot.
Braman (6-5, 230) impressed coaches and teammates in training camp with his pass-rushing skills, relentless motor and sky-high intensity. He had a team-high six tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the preseason opener. He has the athleticism to make an impact on special teams – in high school, he ran the 100 meters in 11.1 seconds, posted a high jump of 6-9 and had a 21-foot long jump.
Braman's college career ended after he got into legal trouble and was suspended from West Texas A&M. The Texans signed him on the recommendation of defensive assistant Bobby King, Braman's defensive line coach at West Texas in 2009. If he sticks on the final roster, it'd likely be as the fifth outside linebacker behind Mario Williams, Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Jesse Nading.
3. New faces: Wide receiver Bryant Johnson and guard Andrew Gardner signed with the Texans on Tuesday. Two days later, both will make their Texans debuts.
"Johnson did practice (Tuesday)," Kubiak said. "He's a veteran guy. He came out the same year Andre (Johnson) did. He knows what's going on. It didn't take us long to catch him up a little bit… Gardner has played some ball… To walk on the field and have to line up in two days to play is very tough, but we'll see what happens."
Johnson (6-3, 215) was a first-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2003. He has started 74 games in eight seasons; the five other receivers competing for the Texans' fourth and/or fifth spots have combined to start zero. Johnson had at least 35 catches and 415 yards in each of his first seven seasons.
Gardner (6-6, 305) was a sixth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2009. He could be a sorely-needed source of depth at guard with Kasey Studdard and Shelley Smith out for the season and Antoine Caldwell dealing with a high-ankle sprain. The Texans might suit only seven offensive linemen on Thursday, so Gardner should get plenty of reps right out of the gate.
4. Fourth RB?: Could the Texans keep a fourth running back behind Arian Foster, Derrick Ward and Ben Tate? It'd be a departure from years past, but the uncertainty surrounding Foster's hamstring injury could cause them to think twice.
If cleared, Steve Slaton will make his 2011 debut Thursday after missing the first three games with a hamstring injury. Slaton's production has dipped in the last two years, but he led the AFC with 1,659 yards from scrimmage as a Texans rookie in 2008. He had 118 total yards at the Metrodome in Week 9 of the 2008 season.
Second-year back Chris Ogbonnaya also will have one last chance to shine. The Houston native ranks first on the team in carries (40), second in rushing yards (130), third in catches (6) and second in receiving yards (67) this preseason. Ogbonnaya has practice squad eligibility, as does fifth-stringer Javarris Williams.
5. Last hurrah for backup QBs: Backup quarterbacks Matt Leinart and T.J. Yates will handle all of the snaps in the Texans' preseason finale.
It's an important game for Leinart, who has limited time in the Texans' system after signing just before the start of last season. The Texans raved about the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner throughout training camp, but the results have been mixed through three preseason games. He's 23-of-42 (54.8%) overall for 216 yards, one touchdown and one interception with a 67.2 rating.
Leinart was sharp in the preseason opener, regressed in the second game but took a step forward in game three. It would no doubt give the Texans peace of mind if their No. 2 quarterback could end the preseason on a high note.
"It's a chance for him to play a lot," Kubiak said. "I still want to play T.J., too. He will play a lot, T. J. will play. Matt improved last week. I think we kind of slowed ourselves down with Matt last week and made sure we weren't asking him to do too much, and he played better and he practiced well (Tuesday), so we'll see."
This could be Yates' last chance to get extensive reps in the Texans' offense in 2011. If he makes the team as the third quarterback, he'll be running other teams' offenses on the scout team all season. A fifth-round pick from North Carolina, Yates is 7-of-13 for 104 yards with an 80.3 rating through three games.