After an enjoyable morning of practice in a Houston steam bath on Thursday, the New Orleans Saints and the Houston Texans turn their collective attention to Saturday night, the first game of the 2016 season (preseason, actually) inside NRG Stadium.
If you haven't been paying attention, there are a ton of storylines going on with the Texans. The only thing close to salacious, though, is Jadeveon Clowney's little side trip to the Golden Nugget last Friday while the rest of the team was in San Francisco, and even that was just a picture surfacing of him rolling dice. The rest of the storylines are largely injury-related with a few position battles sprinkled in.
In short, between J.J. Watt, Duane Brown, Derek Newton, Nick Martin and Clowney, if Hard Knocks were here THIS preseason, they'd be spending half the show in the trainer's room.
We have a few things to keep an eye on this Saturday night, when the Saints and Texans play an actual football game. If you're going to the game, here are some things to watch to keep your interest....
4. Kicker position battle
One position battle that has flown somewhat under the radar is the competition to be the starting placekicker for the team. Nick Novak is the incumbent, but he's on a very cuttable deal. Rookie Ka'imi Fairbairn is more than just a camp body, with a big, but somewhat erratic leg. At practice on Thursday, Novak seemed to steer control of the job his way as he made all but one kick, with Fairbairn badly missing three kicks. Fairborn's calling card is his leg strength, so oddly enough, his chances of making the team may come down to how Larry Izzo and Bill O'Brien feel about the coverage units. If they're at all shaky, then Fairbairn booming touchbacks through the back of the end zone on kickoffs may be preferable to pooch kicks that allow the coverage teams to run down and pin the opponent deep. In other words, the worse the coverage teams, the better the chance of Fairbairn sticking. I've had Fairbairn winning the job in my first two 53-man roster predictions, but may change that, depending on how Saturday goes. It's definitely worth watching, as O'Brien showed last season, he's not afraid to cut a kicker. (Hi, Randy Bullock!)
3. Play selection for Brock Osweiler
With three-fifths of the forecasted starting offensive line — Brown, Newton, Martin — likely out for the Saints' game, certainly we will get a look at the depth on the offensive line and at some aspiring back-end-of-the-roster and practice squad guys. The potential downside to the makeshift starting five on the o-line is that we may get another dosage of Brock Osweiler throwing quick hitters like he did in the San Francisco preseason game last weekend. I won't say that there's NO reason to have Osweiler dropping back and throwing downfield. I mean, there IS a reason — they need to get this offense built quickly! However, preserving Osweiler's health is a better reason to play it conservatively and not put him too much in harm's way. I would like to see just one deep ball to Will Fuller...can we do that, O'Brien? One? Please?
2. RB overload
The offensive backfield is one of a few position groups where we are destined to see some interesting cuts when it comes time to get to 53 men on the roster. The locks to make the roster are Lamar Miller and Tyler Ervin (Ervin because he was drafted, not because he's been killing it in practice — he's actually been kind of shaky of late). From there, it's anyone's guess how the rest plays out. Alfred Blue is the least exciting of the group, but the coaches trust his underwhelming skill set. Jonathan Grimes is a lunch pail the coaches like, but seemingly less than they like Blue. Akeem Hunt is a pure speed guy who may be a little too much like Ervin, in the end. The unexpected X-factor in this group has been the camp and first preseason game of Kenny Hilliard, last year's seventh-round pick out of LSU. He's clearly taken the offseason seriously, and looks in good shape with tons more juice than...well, than Alfred Blue. The loser in this crowded backfield could ultimately be fullback Jay Prosch, who only plays about 15 percent of the snaps and doesn't do anything exceptionally well. I could see the Texans furthering the extinction of the fullback position as a means to keep a potential weapon.
1. Clowney Time
Look, there's no sugarcoating it — Jadeveon Clowney is an insanely important player for the Houston Texans this season, especially if J.J. Watt misses any time to begin the campaign. Clowney's being merely available (which he has largely not been his first two seasons) is not enough either. The conversation about him HAS to progress past everyone being relieved that he's actually on the field. I mean...he needs to make some goddamn plays. So if and when Clowney plays on Saturday, the game will be considered a success for him only if he's done something impactful, not merely finished the game with his knee feeling good, or with him ready to actually be at practice the following week. Seriously, screw "staying healthy" as a goal. Make a play, man.
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.
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