Other than this year’s Patriots juggernaut, no team in the league is void of some sort of question surrounding its upcoming annual performance. Take a look at the teams in the division.
Can Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota stay healthy and is he really as good as everyone makes him out to be?
Will Andrew Luck resume throwing such that he can be ready for the Colts’ opening game of the season?
What Blake Bortles will the Jacksonville Jaguars see in 2017 at quarterback?
That’s just at the quarterback position alone, so I thought it might be interesting to ask a question about each position on the Texans. Here are my ‘Ultimate 11’ training camp questions, by position, heading to the Greenbrier.
11. Interior defensive line - What role does Carlos Watkins play as a rookie?
The Texans made Watkins, former roommate/teammate of Texans defensive lineman D.J. Reader at Clemson, the team’s fourth-round selection. Watkins was one of the best interior rushers that I studied in this past draft. He finished the season with 10.5 sacks, including two against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl CFP semifinal win. He can certainly play on the first two downs as well, so he could be a valuable piece on the interior. That said, Joel Heath, Christian Covington and Reader performed well over the last half of the year. So, where does Watkins fit? Even if he doesn’t get a ton of playing time early in the season, it’s quite evident in this league that interior linemen (on either side of the ball) depth is hugely important for the back half of the season.
10. Wide receivers - Is Tyler Ervin a receiver or a running back?
I like that this could be a question because opponents won’t really know how to game-plan for Ervin. He showed during OTAs/minicamp that he could really do either and that opens up the playbook for him to do any number of things. So, the answer is yes. Read the question again and answer yes. You’ll get it (he can do both).
9. Cornerback - Is there enough depth at cornerback?
Heading into the 2016 season, we all talked about the depth at the cornerback position and how impressive that group was. Then, Kevin Johnson got hurt. Later in the season, Charles James was released. A.J. Bouye stepped into the starting void more than admirably and then moved on to Jacksonville. Yes, Johnson returns and Treston Decoud was drafted in the fifth round, but Johnson must remain healthy and Decoud must get up to speed quickly. Keep an eye on Robert Nelson as the key to the depth at cornerback. If Johnson is healthy, Decoud is capable of contributing and Nelson continues his ascent from OTAs/minicamp, this won’t be a question at all.
8. Interior offensive line - If there are ANY issues at guard, what happens?
Xavier Su’a-Filo and Jeff Allen can be a strong guard combination for this team and any concern about that position can be minimized. Su’a-Filo is excellent in the run game and late in the season, his pass protection improved mightily. Allen, now healthy and in better shape, can be a masher at guard. But, both of them have dealt with injuries and the sort in the past. If either one of them can’t go, for some reason, is it as easy as saying Greg Mancz moves right in? I’d have no problem with that transition, as I thought Mancz played well last season as the team’s starting center.
7. Inside linebacker - If Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney stay healthy for the season, what should be our realistic expectations for second round selection Zach Cunningham?
This one is equal parts tough to answer, yet reassuring, all at once. What I mean is that it’s not completely clear what role Cunningham can fill immediately if both starting ILBs are healthy and playing as expected. He should find a way on the field because of his ability to run and cover, if nothing else, but Cushing and McKinney do so much in this defense, it’s hard to imagine them coming off the field much at all. The other side of the argument is that there’s a young, aggressive and intelligent speed demon that should be ready, if anything unfortunate happens to Cushing or McKinney. Keep in mind, on the first play of the first game last year, Cushing, after a tremendous training camp, hurt his knee which cost him a few games.
6. Quarterback - What if Tom Savage is completely healthy and stays that way?
No one is blind to the quarterback situation here in Houston, but heading into training camp, Savage is the starter and may have been the starter earlier in his career had he not gotten injured each of the past three seasons. If he can stay healthy, is he ‘The Man’ for this offense? He showed last year that he can certainly be the guy to lead this offense, but now he has to take that to a much higher level.
5. Running Back - Can Alfred Blue or D’Onta Foreman spell Lamar Miller enough to keep him fresh for a whole season?
This question can branch out into a number of different elements. Can either of those two line up on the field at the same time as Miller? Will they allow Miller to be more of a receiving threat in this offense? How often can they be used and the Texans offense NOT experience any drop off at the position? One question just turned into four. Sorry about that.
4. Safety - Will there be any moves to bolster this position?
Two years ago, the Texans brought in Quintin Demps three weeks into training camp and it paid off for both parties. There are a number of candidates at the safety position, but there are still question marks, especially for a few guys that were injured or missed a majority of time last year - Kurtis Drummond, Lonnie Ballentine and K.J. Dillon. If those guys are all healthy, is that enough depth to strengthen the position alongside Andre Hal and Corey Moore?
3. Edge - After Whitney Mercilus, is there enough depth at outside linebacker?
Before answering, consider the fact that the Texans have been in sub-package personnel a significant amount of the time. As such, the Texans have three guys that can all play on the edge, at a minimum - Mercilus, Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. But, John, what about in the base defense? Clowney can always bump out to OLB if needed, but again, how much are the Texans in base defense? Now, that all said, there’s depth opportunities available at outside linebacker. When healthy, Brennan Scarlett made plays out on the edge and undrafted Eric Lee showed potential as a rookie on the practice squad. All in all, I don’t fret the depth at this position. If something happens to Mercilus, though, I might sweat a lot.
2. Tight end - Can either rookie make enough noise to push for a roster spot?
C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin combined for 104 catches and finished second and third respectively in receptions in 2016. Stephen Anderson has been the prototype F-tight end for this offense and could improve on his 10-reception total in 2017 after a tremendous offseason. So, is there a spot for either Evan Baylis or Zach Conque? Presumably not, but solid training camp performances could give them options on the practice squad, it nothing else.
1. Tackle - Who starts at right tackle?
I mean, it’s the one question that I get more than any other, so why not address it, right? There are a bunch of options - experienced veterans, on-the-rise prospects and a rookie in a pear tree. The work at the Greenbrier will go a long way in determining whether Kendall Lamm can secure his first starting position or whether guys like Chris Clark or Breno Giacomini can use their experience to nail that spot down or Julien Davenport is ready for the NFL earlier than anyone expects. Let’s get to the Greenbrier and figure it all out, alright?
The Houston Texans roster in photos. (Updated 9/17/2019)