It's Wednesday, and the Houston Texans have a day off from practice, with a full scrimmage looming inside NRG Stadium on Thursday night (Laura permitting). The first nine practices have had some spirited banging around, as much as you can have in practices that don't allow full-on tackling.
Battles for spots on the Texans' 53-man roster have been shaping up over the last week or so. Examining the roster at a very granular level, it's difficult to find a starting role on this team that isn't locked in already (or at least close to it). The first string appears to be set, but some of the backup roles are most definitely up for grabs. Here are five that I'm watching right now, and will be watching extremely closely tomorrow night, along with my view of who the leaders in the clubhouse are to take home NFL pay:
THIRD TIGHT END — JORDAN THOMAS vs KAHALE WARRING
The year 2019 was most assuredly a time that BOTH of these guys would like to forget, as Thomas came in out of shape and dealt with injuries all year. Warring got banged up in training camp, was the object of low key derision from O'Brien in press conferences, and spent his rookie year on Injured Reserve. Thus far in camp, it's gone like this — Thomas took a big lead early, showing up in tremendous shape and making athletic plays on the ball during the first few practices. Meanwhile, Warring was in shorts and tee shirts for three of the first four practices. However, Warring closed the gap yesterday with two acrobatic touchdown catches form Deshaun Watson. I could see a scenario where both wind up making the team.
KICK RETURNER/BACKUP SLOT WR — DeANDRE CARTER vs KEKE COUTEE
Like Thomas and Warring, Coutee had a rough 2019. What started as a training camp last season where Coutee was thought to be a difference making weapon in the slot, ended as a season where Coutee was routinely scratched from the lineup. Injuries were an issue again, but knowledge of the playbook was an inexcusable concern, with Coutee in his second year in O'Brien's playbook. Meanwhile, Carter was, frankly, just steadier than Coutee, although he made some mistakes in the return game that seem to get overlooked by some covering the team in conceding the return job to Carter in 2020, most notably the backbreaking fumble on a kickoff return in the playoff loss to Kansas City. Whoever wins this battle will also be a backup in the slot to Randall Cobb, so upside at receiver must factor in. The problem for Coutee is again health, as he's missed a handful of the padded practices (presumably with some sort of injury, since he was full go the first few practices), and Carter has been very consistent in the return game and catching the football in Coutee's absence.
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BACKUP WIDE RECEIVER — CHAD HANSEN vs STEVIE MITCHELL vs ISAIAH COULTER
With Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks getting practically no reps in 11-on-11 drills, it's opened up snaps WITH DESHAUN WATSON at quarterback for some guys who wouldn't otherwise get reps with the starting signal caller. Early on, Hansen was making big strides, and Mitchell has made plays throughout camp (a couple of touchdowns in 11-on-11 drills). Add the fifth round rookie Coulter into the mix, a young player who may have the best combination of physical traits of all these guys, and who's been impressive in 1-on-1 drills during camp, and it shapes up as an interesting battle for a roster spot. I was cautiously going with Hansen at the outset of camp, but the team has invested a fifth round pick in Coulter, and he has not looked overwhelmed. There's a chance NONE of these guys make the team if the Texans choose to go with five receivers — Fuller, Cooks, Cobb, Stills, and whoever wins the Coutee/Carter battle.
THIRD RUNNING BACK — BUDDY HOWELL vs KARAN HIGDON
The Johnson Brothers (not related, full disclosure), Duke and David, have a virtual monopoly on the carries and catches out of the backfield, but there will need to be depth on this team at that position, for obvious reasons — namely, it's the NFL, and injuries happen. Right now, the two backs getting most of the non-Johnson work have been career special teamer Buddy Howell, whose running back resume in the NFL basically consists of an eyebrow raising 84-yard performance against the Lions last year in the preseason. His main competition, second year RB Karan Higdon, had one of the roughest practices an individual player has had all camp, when he fumbled and was stopped twice at the goal line in 11-on-11 goal line drills in the second outdoor practice last week. O'Brien has said as recently as Sunday that the third RB job is Howell's to lose, and he will likely make this team because of his special teams prowess. There is also a chance that Texans find a veteran RB in late free agency or after roster trim downs. (However, with COVID protocols, it does make it far more cumbersome on-boarding guys from outside of the organization.)
FINAL DEFENSIVE LINE SPOT — CARLOS WATKINS vs ALBERT HUGGINS vs P.J. HALL
On the defensive side of the ball, it's hard to find any real hardcore position battles. For a defense that was 27th in DVOA last season, it appears that a lot of the spots are spoken for, and honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about that. Nevertheless, the defensive line locks right now are J.J. Watt, Brandon Dunn, Angelo Blackson, Charles Omenihu, and rookie Ross Blacklock. Typically, teams carry six defensive linemen (although the Texans broke camp in 2018 with seven). Right now, the battle for that last spot appears to be between Watkins (final year of his rookie deal, making some plays in camp), Albert Huggins (UDFA with the Texans last year, back this year), and P.J. Hall (former 2nd round pick of the Raiders in 2017, signed off the street last week). Hall needs to get his weight down before the Texans put him on the field (per O'Brien), and Hall was finally in uniform for the first time on Sunday. The other two guys are getting actual reps right now. I'll go with Watkins based on the past three seasons of experience with defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver, his position coach for his whole career.