It was an eventful Thursday at the Methodist Training Center.
The Texans practiced in full pads in the morning for the first time in their 2011 training camp. Three key players – Andre Johnson, DeMeco Ryans and Antonio Smith – sat out because they restructured their contracts with the team, making them ineligible to practice until the ratification of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The CBA was ratified by the NFL Players Association in the afternoon. That cleared the way for those three players – and the Texans' 12 free agents – to join their teammates on the practice field for a 30-minute walkthrough.
"We didn't know if we would have them back this afternoon or what," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "Things worked out good… We'll come back in shorts tomorrow, and hopefully I've got them all on the same page by the weekend."
Kubiak's task now is to catch up the Texans' free agents – including cornerback Johnathan Joseph, safety Danieal Manning, fullback Lawrence Vickers, running back Arian Foster, quarterback Matt Leinart and wide receiver Jacoby Jones – to the other 73 players on the roster.
"I think we're ready to do that," Kubiak said. "Those guys, I think they're in good shape. We'll see. I've got to evaluate them each day. We'll be able to do that now. Those guys are chomping at the bit. They want to play football."
That sentiment was echoed by just about every player who had to watch the first three days of practice from the sidelines.
"It was boring," Joseph said. "It's been a long time coming; seems like a whole year or two years since I've played any football with the lockout. Tomorrow, I'm just looking forward to it."
First-round draft pick J.J. Watt continued to turn heads in his first week of practice. The rookie defensive end from Wisconsin, who has been practicing with the first-team defense all week, blew by and charged through offensive linemen several times in one-on-one and team drills on Thursday.
"J.J. Watt is stepping up and being a starter right now," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "We didn't see that early. Usually, you don't step in and be a starter, but he's come in and really accepted the role. I look at what the other players look at, and they seem like they think he fits in well, as do I.
"It worked out that we had some guys that played last year (who) weren't able to practice and one of the starters from last year (Amobi Okoye) is in Chicago now, so it was an opportunity. Kube (Kubiak) says it a lot: 'Anytime you get an opportunity, then take advantage of it.' He's doing that."
Second-year linebacker Darryl Sharpton also made the most of his opportunities on Thursday.
"Sharpton really flashed at me today," Kubiak said. "DeMeco was out, so he got a chance to go in and run the defensive football team. Just watching him, I thought he did a hell of a job. Jason Allen had a very good day, and there are kind of new guys every day showing up. I liked the way Sharpton stepped in when he got a chance to run the football team."
Last year's first-round pick, cornerback Kareem Jackson, has been steadily improving in his second training camp. Kubiak at least partially attributed that to new defensive backs coach Vance Joseph.
"He's doing a good job," Kubiak said of Jackson. "He's all business, but he was all business last year. Kareem comes here every day to work. I think he's really taken to Vance. Our system that we're running is really what he ran in college. I think he feels very comfortable in it."
Safety Glover Quin also has enjoyed working with Joseph, a former NFL cornerback who coached in a 3-4 for six seasons in San Francisco.
"When you get a guy that knows exactly what his scheme is and a guy that knows how to help the players to make plays, it can only benefit the players if we all buy in," Quin said. "And I think that we're doing a great job of buying in, so we should be a whole lot better this year.
"With him bringing that excitement, that fun, that attitude to the game, to the practice field, to the meeting rooms, it makes the players relax a little bit but also be concentrating on what we're supposed to do. When you're relaxed and having fun, you'll automatically play better."
Inside linebacker Brian Cushing (knee) sat out of the full-speed morning practice for the fourth consecutive day.
"I watched him run today," Kubiak said. "I think he's better every day. He's not ready to come back out here quite yet, so we're being smart with him. Is that this weekend? Is it next week? I don't know. We'll see. We're day-to-day with that."
"It was good. Just sitting here, watching and learning and sitting in the classroom, it was like taking a test again, like the ACT or something. It was fun to get back out here."
-WR Jacoby Jones, on what it was like to get back on the field after waiting four days for the CBA to be ratified
"I'm a passionate football player. I love the game. I love the challenge. I love the fullback position, because it's a position to where it's going to make you either a man or a coward. One of the two. And so I'm going to be a man. I ain't never seen a coward, heard a coward. Coward's not in my vocabulary."
-FB Lawrence Vickers, on his playing style