The start of football season should be an exciting time. We've made it through an abject failure of an NBA season, navigated the hot, football-less summer months (with some help, admittedly, from the Astros), and arrived at training camp with so much change — GOOD, FUN CHANGE — with the Texans that this should be a glorious time, one when we're pondering the opportunities in front of us for the 2016 season.
And yet, right now, all we can ponder is a slew of question marks and minor desperation. Consider for a moment the answer to the question "Who are the most important players on the Houston Texans?" If we make it an even dozen, I'd say it's some permutation of these names — J.J. Watt, Brock Osweiler, DeAndre Hopkins, Duane Brown, Jadeveon Clowney, Brian Cushing, Johnathan Joseph, Will Fuller, Lamar Miller, Nick Martin, Andre Hal and Whitney Mercilus.
Those are some fun names, representing plenty of accolades and potential. That said, the only totally "clean" names on there are Hopkins and...well, just Hopkins. Every other name on that list has some sort of question mark (dirt!) attached to it, either medical, experiential or performance-related.
As training camp begins, let's try to answer five burning questions about the Houston Texans while including the 11 guys not-named-Hopkins in our conjecture and analysis below. Here we go...
5. Can Larry Izzo rebuild special teams?
By every measurement, the Texans' special teams were atrocious last season, ceding field position to the opposition, especially during the horrific 2-5 start, through a combination of poor kick coverage and a nonexistent return game. Izzo, a Woodlands native and Rice grad, not to mention a Super Bowl champion in New England, will bring the white hot fury of a thousand suns to units that need a solid kick in the ass. One position battle to watch — incumbent kicker Nick Novak versus undrafted rookie Ka'imi Fairbairn.
4. Will we find out exactly why the Texans did nothing to address tight end?
The two tight ends who played most of last season for the Texans — Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz — combined for 37 catches for the whole season (or a solid five games for Rob Gronkowski, if that helps you). Fiedorowicz, in particular, has been a major disappointment two seasons into a career in which he was a high third-round pick. Oddly, the one position the Texans did nothing to address in the draft or free agency was tight end, which leads us to believe they see something in Fiedorowicz and Griffin that most of us don't. It'd be nice if whatever-those-qualities-are showed up sometime in camp.
3. Can the two rookies from Notre Dame adapt and adjust quickly?
As someone who watched every snap that Fuller and Martin played in college, I feel somewhat uniquely qualified (and, admittedly, probably a tinge biased) to assess their potential to reach expectations for the coming season. Martin should be your starter at center from day one, and you should be able to pencil him in for the next ten years. (NOTE: For the next four years, Martin will make in total about what Ben Jones got for a signing bonus from Tennessee. Huge contractual win for Rick Smith.) As for Fuller, the knock on him has been a propensity to drop the ball a little more frequently than your average first-round receiver; however, to hear some analyze his play, you'd think Fuller had coasters with five cocktail weenies hanging off of them for hands. What I know about Fuller — along with Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate, he was the most reliable big play threat at Notre Dame over the past 20 years.
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2. Who will take up the slack with no J.J. Watt?
The short answer is "An army of cyborgs shooting lasers from their eyes couldn't take up the slack for J.J. Watt," and the actual answer is "Who the hell knows?" Defensive end will be a somewhat frightening audition of young guys (Devon Still, Christian Covington, Jeoffrey Pagan, etc.) looking to lock up the spot opposite Watt to start the season (or whenever Watt comes back). Beyond that, the impact void must be filled, in sizable part, by Clowney, who has no choice but to begin playing like a first overall pick.
SIDEBAR: Aside from Clowney and the question "Will he ever scratch his potential?" here are the questions surrounding the other Texans defensive players on that "Most Important" list:
J.J. WATT: Does a battle droid really have disks to herniate?
BRIAN CUSHING: Is this the year his knees get back to 2012 form?
JOHNATHAN JOSEPH: Can he stay as healthy as he did in 2015, let alone play at that level again in his early thirties?
ANDRE HAL: Is he the future at safety, or just the best of some very limited options in 2016?
WHITNEY MERCILUS: Was last season for real?
1. Is this Brock Osweiler's team?
It's his team insomuch as he will be the starter, but all the buzz and flowery reports we've been hearing about his leadership (Hey, did you hear that he organized the team workouts!) need to translate into production once the pads go on. It won't help that his offensive line has its left tackle on the PUP list, and a rookie center, not to mention a new right guard and a historically underperforming left guard. He's also dealing with a brand-new starting running back ("Can Lamar Miller carry the load of a front line back?" would be the question about Miller) and two rookies among the top five receivers. Other than that, what is there to worry about?
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.