Sean Pendergast

Four Biggest Training Camp Questions for the Houston Texans

If Rex Burkhead is the leading rusher again in 2022, it won't be a great season.
If Rex Burkhead is the leading rusher again in 2022, it won't be a great season. Photo by Jack Gorman
More talent and less drama, those are the overriding themes of the Houston Texans' 2022 training camp, in which we get the first outdoor training camp practice of the Lovie Smith Era this morning. The increased talent level is largely due to the incoming rookie class, which includes two first round picks — CB Derek Stingley, Jr. and OL Kenyon Green.

The dwindling drama level coincides with the March departure of quarterback (and 24-time civil lawsuit plaintiff) Deshaun Watson. I will miss Watson's escapability from the pocket and his rocket of a right arm. I will not miss the crash courses in civil law and Watson's occasional surliness as he watched practice along with the rest of us on the sidelines last summer.
While the amount of talent and drama have experienced huge quantitative swings, the number of sheer questions surrounding this team remains the same. In short, there are a ton of them. Here are the four biggest questions I am wondering as the thermometer climbs toward 100 degrees for what feels like the 1,507th consecutive day:

What does it feel like to have Davis Mills as "The Guy"?
This might be the biggest single shift from the 2021 training camp to the camp stating today. I was at every Mills practice snap of his rookie season training camp, and let me tell you, it was hideous. Mills should have come with a warning label. He was awful for the first couple weeks of camp. However, a funny thing happened throughout camp, and carried over into the season. Mills started noticeably minimizing the repetition of mistakes. Oh, he still made mistakes, but the grasping of his failures was very evident. It will be fun to watch Mills operate as the unquestioned starter, and see if there is any change in his demeanor. The Texans will need a big leap from Mills, if they are to exceed expectations in 2022.

Who totes the rock as the lead running back?
Last season's Texans backfield  was the most abysmal season I've ever watched from a stable of NFL running backs. How bad was it? Until the last few weeks of the season, Mark Ingram, who was traded to the Saints in Week 7, was still the Texans' leading rusher with 294 yards on the season. How bad was it? Rex Burkhead was this team's leading rusher, barely eclipsing 400 yards on the season. How bad was it? David Johnson was on the team. This backfield still has Burkhead, but hopefully in a backup role. The safer bets to sit atop the depth chart heading into the season are free agent Marlon Mack (32 carries over the last two years in Indy) and rookie Dameon Pierce, who averaged over five yards a carry at Florida last season.

What does a Lovie Smith training camp feel like?
For all of his amateur-hour goofiness in 2021, I will say that former head coach David Culley ran a pretty tight training camp. Put it this way — the pace of practice and amount of work that got done seemed to far exceed a Bill O'Brien-led camp. I would expect Lovie Smith to function similarly. After all, he WAS the defensive coordinator last season. One noteworthy change, considering we are in the midst of a record setting heat wave, is that practice begins promptly at 8 a.m. every day and ends at 10 a.m., before it starts to feel like the surface of the sun. That should keep everyone — players, coaches, media, everyone — much fresher as the dog days of August roll on.

Which rookies make the biggest impact?
Well, we can cross one rookie off this list, with the sad news that second round WR John Metchie III will miss the season with a very curable form of leukemia. He is hopefully coming back in 2023, but that is undoubtedly a blow to the offense. I would suspect at least three rookies — first round picks Derek Stingley and Kenyon Green, along with second round safety Jalen Pitre — are favorites to start at their respective positions, and Pierce could be the starter at running back by midseason. If I had to pick one rookie to garner accolades for the upcoming season, it would be Pitre, who has a nose for the football, and in Smith's defense, will be a big candidate for some game changing turnovers throughout the season.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts the morning drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the pre-game and post game shows for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast