Nothing screams training camp more than a good ‘ol fashioned training camp position battle. Every team throughout the league has them during July/August - some it didn’t see coming, some are front and center from the day the players report to camp.
The Texans have their share starting right at the top with the quarterback position. Let’s delve further into the top five position battles at training camp...minus the quarterback competition. There’s really no other camp competition that compares to that one, so let’s take it out and put in on a special shelf all by itself. The rest? Here we go.
5. 3rd corner in sub packages
Prior to free agency, cornerback appeared to be a priority heading into the off-season and the draft. That priority listing changed when Jackson re-signed to kick off free agency. Then, the Texans drafted Kevin Johnson in the first round and followed that selection up with extending Johnathan Joseph. No longer was corner a priority; it was a logjam. But, the question remained, who would be the third corner alongside Joseph and Jackson?
Let’s throw in A.J. Bouye, Darryl Morris and Jumal Rolle, all three of which had interceptions last season as fill-in starters or that third corner on the field. That’s two bona fide starters, Jackson and Joseph, a duo that has started the past four seasons together, a first round selection and three veterans with designs on not giving up any playing time to a rookie. 2014 practice squad member Charles James isn’t about to back down from a competition. So, let’s do the math...five legitimate candidates (Bouye, Morris, Rolle, Johnson and James) for one highly important sub-package personnel spot. Let the competition commence!
4. Interior offensive lineman depth
With Ben Jones moving over to center and Xavier Su’a-Filo sliding into the left guard spot, the starting offensive line seems to be set, but people have asked me numerous times, who’ll back them up?
It’s truly one of the hardest questions to answer. Cody White is returning after missing the entire 2014 season and he could play either center or guard. James Ferentz spent the season on practice squad after impressing the staff with his tenacity and understanding of the offense. After that, it’s a bunch of rookie free agents. Former Auburn product Chad Slade played a ton of snaps at guard in the SEC in his career, while center Greg Mancz was one of the best players in the MAC in 2014. There are seemingly a number of different candidates to be the swing tackle behind Derek Newton and Duane Brown, but only a handful guys, on paper, that seem to fit behind the three interior starters.
I think that we’ll see some a variety of combinations during the first few practices to get the right mix, depth-wise in the middle.
3. Punt returner
Since Jacoby Jones left Houston for Baltimore in 2012, the Texans haven’t gotten a ton out of the punt return game. Now, let me be clear, returning punts is so far from being just about the returner, but he’s just the most visible foil. WR Keshawn Martin averaged 6.2 yards per punt return, 24th in the league last year, and it was clear talking to head coach Bill O’Brien this off-season that significant improvement is warranted from this special teams unit.
So, Martin is in the mix. Who else? Damaris Johnson returned punts last year after arriving just prior to the Washington game. Rookie Chandler Worthy from Troy can scoot. Keith Mumphery caught punts during minicamp and OTAs. There may be, ultimately, five or six guys competing for this one key spot. This competition really won’t heat up until the first pre-season game, I’d imagine, but at least, we’ll see Saturday this battle start to heat up.
2. Inside linebacker next to Brian Cushing
Throughout the 2014 season, the inside linebacker position was seemingly a revolving door. Brian Cushing took the majority of the snaps, while Justin Tuggle, Mike Mohamed and Akeem Dent all took turns in the spot next to Cushing. Each one had quality moments throughout the 2014 season and will battle to be the permanent starter.
Throw in 2nd round rookie Benardrick McKinney and we’ve got a good ‘ol showdown at the NRG Corral. Oh, did I forget to mention former Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough and Jeff Tarpinian? Well, hey, why not? The whole crew’s here. But, which one will it be?
Mohamed is a wizard on third down. McKinney is a thumper against the run and improving in pass coverage, yet a rookie. Dent was magnificent on first and second down once he stepped into the starting lineup. Bullough has seemingly slimmed down to be an all-around inside linebacker. A mashup of all six would make the Pro Bowl, but once the pads go on, only one can take the reins next to Cushing.
1. 2nd wide receiver/slot receiver
There’s been no bigger talking point in the off-season than who would be the Texans’ 2nd receiving option opposite DeAndre Hopkins. The off-season brought a bunch of suitors to the party and, in the process, completely revamped the receiver meeting room. Two free agent signees (Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington), two draft picks (Jaelen Strong and Keith Mumphery) and two roster holdovers (Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson) all have eyes for that spot and why not?
There’s no clear cut favorite and each provides a different skill set from the other, so what separates one from the other won’t be clear until the pigskin flies on Saturday.