When the Texans turned in their card one month ago and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced Houston was selecting Andre Johnson, the Miami wide receiver was all smiles.
And he wasn't the only one.
Sure, count Texans general manger Charley Casserly, head coach Dom Capers and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer among the grinning that afternoon. After all, Johnson was the fast, physical wideout they had targeted all along. But away from the cameras, Houston's current one-two receiver punch flashed a few smirks as well.
Why? Johnson provides competition for Corey Bradford and Jabar Gaffney. In fact, he could very well take one of their starting jobs away as a rookie. But let's face it, wide receivers want the ball and the addition of Johnson suddenly gives the Texans a potent trio at wide receiver. And that should means more touches for all three.
"One of the things we want to try and do as we build this team is become strong in certain areas," Casserly said. "And now I think we're strong at receiver. We can line up with our receivers and go out there and present matchup problems for people we play."
The Texans were predictably unproductive in the passing game last season, ranking 32nd in the league. Houston trotted out a rookie quarterback in David Carr that possessed a cannon arm. But a depleted offensive line and an anemic rushing attack offered Carr precious little opportunity to showcase that arm and give his receivers a chance to showcase their skills.
There were flashes, to be sure. Bradford electrified southeast Texas with a 65-yard touchdown haul to lift the Texans over the Cowboys in their season opener. He caught two touchdown passes each in games at Philadelphia and Cleveland. Bradford's average per catch hovered at 20 yards, pacing the AFC in the first half of the season.
But after the game against the Browns, an ankle injury started to slow Bradford. And, truth be told, opposing defenses started keying on him.
"Corey got off to a very good start last season," Capers said. "In his first eight games, he made numerous big plays for us but then developed the bone spur in his ankle and that affected his performance the second half of the season. But he's had that operated on we're anticipating him coming back full strength."
After hauling in 26 passes for 497 yards and five scores the first eight games of the season, Bradford caught just 19 passes for 200 yards and one touchdown in the season's second half.
Gaffney struggled early, as have other Florida wide receivers at the pro level, including Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green and Ike Hilliard. Most college teams played zone against Steve Spurrier's Gators, living in fear of getting burned deep. Hence, Gaffney didn't have to worry about strong corners making life difficult for him at the line of scrimmage.
As a Texan, however, Gaffney had trouble disengaging at the point of attack to get open. But Carr started looking for Gaffney more as the season progressed and he finished with a respectable 41 receptions for 483 yards and one touchdown. It was learning on the fly all fall and Capers thinks that will help Gaffney come this season. Plus, a full off-season in the Texans' weight room can't hurt.
"You have to remember Jabar played an awful lot as a rookie." Capers said. "I think he'll really benefit from all that playing time this year."
Enter Johnson, who also expects to see plenty of playing time as a rookie. Johnson presents an intriguing combination of size and speed that should serve him well early at the pro level should he feel overloaded at any point. And Johnson should also pay dividends when Carr hands the ball off.
"We think Andre is a rare talent with his height, weight and speed," Capers said. "He's young and he will continue to improve because of his work ethic and attitude. He will give David another big target.
"But Andre will also give us a physical presence in the run game because of his ability to block. He's going to be 25, 30 pounds bigger than most of the DBs he's going against."
So can the addition of one player really upgrade a position that much? Absolutely. Not only will Johnson lift the competition level in practice, his presence gives the Texans options they didn't have in 2002.
If Johnson starts, teams won't be able to double-team Bradford like they did last year. Their speed ensures both of those guys are deep threats. Gaffney can shift to the slot, where he might be more comfortable. Suddenly, when the Texans go three-wide, the opposition must account for three legitimate receivers. Give Carr enough time and he'll find one of them.
"I think we have a lot of options this year, which is nice," Carr said. "It's something that we really didn't have last year, we had what we had and we had to go with it.
"But this year, we can really put four wide receivers on the field and put two tight ends and two wide receivers on the field and do an I-formation. We can do a lot of things now and it's nice to have. We've got a little diversity and it's something that an offense always wants to have."
Johnson says count him in.
<span>"I just feel something deep down inside that this is the place for me," Johnson said. "Talking to David made things a lot better and I'm just excited to be here.<span> </span>I just want to come in and help as much as possible."</span>