It's Week 7 of the NFL season, and with most of the league having played six games, this is about as parity-ridden as the league has ever been. In the AFC alone, 14 of the 16 teams have either two, three or four wins. Only Kansas City at 5-1 and the hapless, winless 0-6 Cleveland Browns fall outside the curve.
The AFC South is a microcosm of this plague, with three teams, including the Houston Texans, tied atop the division at 3-3, and the Colts looking up at 2-4. Tiny incremental improvement in a few areas could be the difference between a team winning a division, or even getting a first round bye, and staying home for the postseason.
There are, of course, a few ways to effect change on a roster in-season. The trade deadline is a couple weeks away, and there are always street free agents that can be had. Then there are the players already on your roster who are out with injuries (or holdouts or PED suspensions) that almost function like free agent pickups if you've become functional without them.
The Texans have a few players who fit this category, guys who could be back in the next couple to several weeks who could have some level of impact. Let's examine five of those names and assess their situations, the likelihood they return TO THE TEXANS (key distinction) at full strength, and the potential impact they could have should they return:
KEVIN JOHNSON, CB
SITUATION: Johnson suffered a strained MCL in the second game of the season against the Bengals, making this the second year in a row that he will have missed significant time nursing injuries. Last season, his year came to an end after Week 6 with a broken foot. Bill O'Brien indicated on Monday that he expects Johnson to begin practicing next week after the bye. With Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson being somewhat up and down this season, and with the players behind them all guys they pulled from the street pretty much, the Texans desperately need Johnson back to upgrade the talent and depth of the secondary.
LIKELIHOOD (1 to 10): 9.5
IMPACT (1 to 10): 8.5
DYLAN COLE, ILB
SITUATION: Brian Cushing's absence has been no problem at all for this Texans defense, in large part because Cole and Zach Cunningham have been quick studies. Cole, specifically, has shown noticeable speed sideline to sideline and a knack for making plays. On his interception Sunday, he made a great play on a deep ball down the sidelines but then suffered a hamstring injury on the run back. Officially, the Texans are saying he has a Grade 2 hamstring pull, which reportedly takes up to four weeks to heal, and even when they heal, hammies are always tricky going forward.
LIKELIHOOD (1 to 10): 7.5
IMPACT (1 to 10): 7.5
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DUANE BROWN, OT
SITUATION: I don't know if anybody, maybe even Brown himself, thought his holdout would last this long, but here we are, six weeks into the season, and the only inkling we have that the holdout could end soon are a couple of random media mentions that Brown could report after the bye week. He needs to report in time to be on the roster for eight games in order to get credit for this season contractually. Obviously, a healthy, in-shape Duane Brown is a gigantic upgrade to Chris Clark at left tackle. Fully motivated, Brown's return is one that has a division-shaping impact.
LIKELIHOOD (1 to 10): 5.0
IMPACT (1 to 10): 10.0
BRIAN CUSHING, ILB
SITUATION: There are plenty of people who hope that the Texans release Cushing five minutes after he is eligible to come back from his ten-game PED suspension. If we are being honest, Cushing's best performances each Sunday occur when he screams at his teammates in his pregame speeches. Then the bell rings, and it's all downhill. I suppose, with Watt and Mercilus out, the team could use any dose of leadership out there, but between the lines, Cunningham and Cole have been an upgrade to Cushing.
LIKELIHOOD (1 to 10): 4.5
IMPACT (1 to 10): 3.5
SITUATION: We forget that Fiedorowicz only got to play a handful of snaps with Watson in the Jaguars game before getting concussed. Fiedorowicz was concussed badly enough to make a trip to injured reserve, and he would be eligible for return after Week Nine, but man, if concussions are bad enough to put a player on injured reserve, can we really forecast whether or not he will (or even should) come back? If he is feeling right, adding Fiedorowicz into this mix on offense tacks on another intriguing weapon.
LIKELIHOOD (1 to 10): 3.0
IMPACT (1 to 10): 7.0
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.