Training camp is now underway in West Virginia. It seems distant but first wave of cuts will be here before you know it. With rookies, veterans and free agents all trying to prove they have what it takes to make it in the NFL, no job is safe as the Houston Texans look to head to Minneapolis and the Super Bowl this season.
Only 53 men will suit up once the Jacksonville Jaguars comes to town on Sept. 10. With 90 players entering camp, that means a lot of disappointed talent.
We looked at the offense yesterday. Today is time for the defense and special teams.
Defensive Line (6): J.J. Watt, DJ Reader, Jadeveon Clowney, Carlos Watkins, Christian Covington, Joel Heath
This is somewhat an easy group to round out, but at the same time, we should see some interesting battles this offseason.
JJ Watt might be coming off back surgery and shouldn’t be rushed back into play anytime soon. Still, he’s the face of the Texans franchise and is going to start in the Lone Star State until he decides he’s ready to retire. Jadaveon Clowney broke out last season as the third year star collected six sacks, 12 tackles for losses and was credited with 41 total pressures according to Pro Football Focus. He’ll split time as a defensive end and outside linebacker, but should see up to 90 percent of all snaps next season.
DJ Reader did an excellent job in minimal snaps last season behind Vince Wilfolk. With 22 tackles and zero missed tackles, Reader was a strong force up the middle and hard to stop from the zero and one technique. His college roommate — and close friend — now will step into his role last season as Watkins looks to make a name for himself on the line. While playing a 3- technique in college, the former Clemson Tiger has the same types of skills as Reader.
Christian Covington has experience as both a 3- and 5-technique in the NFL. His ability to play inside and out should justify him a roster spot. Joel Heath did minimal work in just 277 snaps, but his experience should earn him a roster spot if nothing else but a backup plan thanks to injuries.
Outside Linebacker (4): Whitney Mercilus, Brennan Scarlett, Sio Moore, Tony Washington
The Texans main goal next off season should be signing a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker to run alongside Mercilus for years to come. While there’s talent on the roster, there’s minimal production outside of No. 59.
It’s well known that the Texans Wire believes that 2017 is Mercilus’s year to become one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL. He’ll be a lock to start at the left side outside linebacker and add pressure to the quarterback. Brennan Scarlett should get firsthand experience at working outside backer when Clowney is lined up in a three point stance. While he might have looked abysmal in pass rushing plays, Scarlett showed enough promise in coverage and against the run to be an effective part-time defender, especially in pass coverage schemes.
Sio Moore had a great start out in Oakland but rapidly declined during his second season and during his time out in Indianapolis. Still, with experience as a blitzer and decent size, Moore should make the roster for special teams. The same could be said with Tony Washington, at least with his special teams ability.
Inside Linebacker (4): Brian Cushing, Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, Dylan Cole
Fact: the Houston Texans have thought of life after Brian Cushing when they drafted top five linebacker prospect Zach Cunningham in the second. Another fact; the all-time Texans tackling leader will at least suit up one more season for the Texans at NRG Stadium.
Although injured probed, Cushing has been a dominant run-stopper up the middle and leader of the Texans stout defense for the past four years. In just eight games last year, Cushing collected 63 tackles and was effective in stopping the run between the “A” and “B” gaps. His running mate, Benardrick McKinney, might have been the breakout the player in all the AFC last season with over 100 tackles and 12 tackles for losses. Their chemistry and strength against the run should lead them into starting roles this season.
Cunningham is certainly the future of the Texans defense and could be the future trend for 3-4 teams looking for a linebacker. While excellent as a run stopper up the middle, it’s Cunningham’s abilities to play in coverage and eliminate short routes that make him a special linebacker. He’ll need to add some weight and get used to NFL speed, but the 2016 SEC Defensive Player of the Year should be taking over as the new leader of the Texans defense no later than next season.
Dylan Cole is the feel good story for the Texans this season. With over 300 tackles and back to back 100+ tackle seasons at Missouri State, Cole’s work ethic, versatile playing style and special teams ability should allow him to at least make the roster, if not compete for snaps behind Cushing this season.
Cornerback (6): Kareem Jackson, Johnathan Joseph, Kevin Johnson, Robert Nelson, Treston Decoud, Denzel Rice
The Texans could have made this problem easier if the team resigned A.J. Bouye. However, with one of 2016’s breakout players now in Jacksonville, it’ll be interesting to see which cornerbacks are going to make the final roster.
Johnathan Joseph is in a contract year and the team would be foolish just give away millions. Even at 33 years old, Joseph is an excellent off-ball cornerback who works well in zone coverage.
One of the main reasons the Texans felt comfortable letting Bouye walk was thanks to the return of Kevin Johnson. While he’s had a bit of a strange NFL start, Johnson does have qualities and showed promise both on the inside and outside to break out in his third season.
Kareem Jackson might not be as strong on the outside as he was to begin his career, but his speed and hard hitting playing style should justify a spot for him in the slot against quicker receivers this season if nothing else. Robert Nelson has shown huge strides over the course of last season and OTA’s to earn a roster spot. Many consider this former practice squad player to be a breakout candidate in 2017 and become the next Bouye of Houston’s defense.
The final two spots will be tricky. Treston Decoud is a current fifth round pick, so cutting him seems unlikely. Still, DeCoud’s game doesn’t resonate as a cornerback and his long, lanky frame might only register him as a special teams player. With the sixth cornerback in the air, Denzel Rice gets his chance. He has the most experience of the camp bodies.
Safety (5): Andre Hal, Corey Moore, Eddie Pleasant, KJ Dillon, Kurtis Drummond
Much like the cornerback group, the safety position will be hard to pinpoint moving into 2017. While Quintin Demps was built more like a free safety, his box cover skills allowed him to lead all defensive backs in interceptions last season. With his departure to Chicago, a new spot opens up for a practice squad member to finally make the cut.
Andre Hal should be the starting free safety to open the season. After Demps, Hal saw the most snaps last season in coverage (648) according to Pro Football Focus. While Hal is a rangy safety and can play deep, he does struggle in the open field against the run (four missed tackles in 2016). Still, his ability to play over the top and experience should make him a starter.
Strong safety is where it could be a three man race at this point. Corey Moore offers the most playing experience but took a majority of all his snaps from the free safety position. Eddie Pleasant has done an above average job in a dime formation role, but his limited snaps as a true safety might cost him playing time. K.J. Dillon has the most experience playing strong safety as a two-year starter in college, but his fifth round status and limited playing time due to injury last year could jeopardize his playing time early in 2017. Still, all three will be on the starting roster.
On to the final spot now. Kurtis Drummond has been nothing more than a scout team player, but his 12 career interceptions at Michigan State and speed could earn him time as a special teams player. Lonnie Ballentine might have more playing time, but was horrific in 2015 against the pass and could be headed out the door. Unless the Texans sign a player during training camp like Aaron Williams, Drummond might finally make the Texans roster in his third season.
Special Teams (4): K Nick Novack, P Shane Lechler, LS Jonathan Weeks, Return Tyler Ervin
Let’s get down to the point; the Texans are pretty much set at special teams. While few players stand out among the NFL, their unit is strong enough for O’Brien and staff to overlook them heading into the season.
Nick Novak hit 85 percent of his field goals last season and made half of his kicks past 50 yards. While Kai Forbath could battle him, 85 percent is a strong number for a team who might rely on kicks to send them deep into the playoffs.
Shane Lechler is one of the best punters to ever play the game, a justifiably earned his new contract. Jonathan Weeks a strong long snapper, making 100% of his snaps on target last season. Even though Ervin isn’t under the running backs group, if he can have a strong offseason he’ll stick as the return specialist.