Saturday night at NRG Stadium was one of those nights where you had to remind yourself that the NFL's preseason comes with a massive warning label — objects in front of you (like a playoff berth, a division title, and especially a deep playoff run) may be closer than they actually appear.
So with that said, amidst a preseason where the greatest player in franchise history is recovering from out-of-nowhere back surgery and where the offensive line has issues popping up practically daily, on Saturday night, the Texans checked off the two biggest boxes on their team's to-do list for Week 2 of the preseason in a 16-9 win over the New Orleans Saints:
- See Brock Osweiler experience comfort and competence
- See Jadeveon Clowney do things that a number one overall pick should be doing
Check, and check.
Overall, it was a good night, not just for Osweiler and Clowney, but for others as well. Let's dig into the good and the bad, the winners and losers, NOW...
4. Brock Osweiler
I'll admit, maybe I was a tad conservative in what I thought Bill O'Brien and George Goosey would ask Brock Osweiler to do on Saturday. I figured behind a makeshift offensive line, they'd keep the game plan safe and not put their quarterback in harm's way. I should have known that there is nothing about O'Brien (or much of the NFL, for that matter) that views the world through a "makeshift" prism. NEXT MAN UP! While four of the five offensive lineman were not forecasted starters, they're Texans, and that's good enough for O'Brien to run his playbook. And I'm glad he did, because we got to see Osweiler make all sorts of throws in going 12 for 19 for 124 yards, including a gorgeous 19-yard touchdown pass to rookie Will Fuller. Hey, speaking of Fuller...
3. Will Fuller
Fuller's debut against the 49ers last weekend was your normal pedestrian rookie stuff (one catch, four yards, a couple decent blocks on the edge). However, Saturday gave you plenty of glimpses into why the Texans traded a pick to make sure they were in position to draft the Notre Dame speedster in the first round. He led the team with four catches for 73 yards and that touchdown catch, but did it in a way that should help educate people on what exactly he is as a wideout. Just because he ran a 4.3 second 40-yard dash at the combine, people seem to want to paint him with the "Ted Ginn/one trick pony" brush. You should know from watching on Saturday that Fuller is not only a burner, but a very, very good technical wide receiver, in terms of route running and creating space. Also, his hands (everyone's hair trigger criticism of his game) work just fine.
2. Dak Prescott (again)
A timeout for a non-Texans winner — for the second straight week, Prescott was THE quarterback story of the preseason. After a scintillating night against the Rams in his preseason debut, the rookie fourth round pick out of Mississippi State followed that up Friday night with an even better outing against the Dolphins, completing 12 of 15 for 199 yards, a near perfect 156.4 passer rating, and generating 34 points on six drives. After Cowboys backup QB Kellen Moore went down with a season-ending injury a couple weeks ago, the Cowboys were thought to be top of market for a veteran backup. Prescott is likely saving them the trouble. Also, here is where I try and make the world forget that I wanted the Texans to take Johnny Manziel with the first pick of the 2014 draft, by touting my clairvoyance on Prescott in 2016... watch and learn...
Conner Cook, but I hate him. Where Texans are picking, I’d take Dak Prescott in 2nd. https://t.co/iZ6byrM0WX— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 2, 2016
1. Jadeveon Clowney
Ok, if this whole "feeling really, cautiously giddy over Clowney" thing feels weird, I get it. On Saturday night, Clowney made a few plays that showed up on the stat sheet (namely, a 14-yard sack of Drew Brees) and numerous "hidden" plays that did not. And I mean, SEVERAL "hidden" plays. He was very good. When Clowney wasn't drawing double teams to free up teammates, he was drawing holding penalties (and a couple "no calls" he got screwed on). Now, I will temper the joy with the fact that much of the work in the second and third quarters was done against the Saints' backups, so you don't know if this is like a monster WWE wrestler beating up on jabronis in squash matches (like Braun Stroman with dreadlocks), before he goes and gets pinned against frontline players in the regular season (or next week against Arizona), but let's enjoy this moment. This is the first time we've felt really good about the Clowney selection since... when? Probably Week 2 of the 2014 preseason against Atlanta?
4. Alfred Blue
I'll be doing my latest version of the 53-man roster prediction for tomorrow in this space, and I'll give you one spoiler right now — for the first time this preseason, my 53 won't include Blue. Truth be told, if it were MY 53-man roster (as opposed to a prediction of what I think Bill O'Brien will decide), Blue wouldn't have been on ANY version. Blue seems like a swell fella, but other than being a swell fella, I don't think there's anything he does particularly well football-wise. I mean, I guess if you really need 3.2 yards per carry, he's your guy, but they have far more dynamic pieces in camp now, including a revamped and slimmed down Kenny Hilliard (unexpected!). So now Blue is injured as well, and hasn't played in either of the two preseason games, while other guys are getting a chance to show what they can do. Who knows, I may be wrong (and given the odd affection this staff has for Blue, I probably will be), but I don't think Blue should make this team. This team is beyond having to give a guy carries because he doesn't fumble and guarantees you two yards when two yards are available (but also gets you three yards when seven are available). Bye bye, Blue.
3. Offensive line continuity
Unless you're on some really good drugs (and if you are, SHARE, PLEASE!), you remember what a nightmare the health of the offensive line was during the first seven games last season (2-5 start, just to refresh, for you druggies), a horrific revolving door that saw six different starting combinations, if memory serves. Well, brace yourself for more of that to start this season. Last season, the line seemed to solidify when O'Brien decided to finally sink or swim with Xavier Su'a-Filo at left guard and keep the same combo the balance of the season (until Duane Brown tore his quad in Week 17). Saturday night, ironically, the only 2015 starter to start the game was Su'a-Filo. Tackles Brown and Derek Newton are both still recovering from injuries, center Nick Martin's sprained ankle is a real problem, and right guard Jeff Allen had to leave at the last minute due to a death in the family. The silver lining is this team has way more playmakers on offense at the skill positions this season, which may be a sufficient masking agent for what will likely be very uneven offensive line play.
2. Geno Smith
We interrupt this Texans analysis for another thank-you prayer that O'Brien didn't take Christian Hackenburg in the draft and roll with him going forward — so for the second straight preseason game, second round pick and massive reclamation project (if it's possible to apply that label to a 21-year-old rookie) Christian Hackenburg played exactly zero snaps for the New York Jets. This is apparently a really big deal to some folks out there, but I think those folks are missing the bigger picture. Hackenburg is a rookie second-round pick. He is making the team. Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who played things very coy by muttering "coach's decision" when asked about Hackenburg being nailed to the bench, needs to figure out which of Bryce Petty and Geno Smith is making the team — hence, all the snaps for Petty and Smith. For what it's worth, Petty landed a gigantic right cross on Smith (figurative right cross, as opposed to the actual right cross by I.K. Enemkpali that broke Smith's jaw last year), going 16 of 26 for 242 yards and two touchdown passes. Smith was 6 of 13 for 47 yards with a pick.
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1. Some very competent Texans wide receiver
While earlier I tipped my hand as to how I will survey the running back position in my 53-man roster prediction, I will not do the same at the equally intriguing wide receiver position, except to say that there will be a talented player or two that gets cut. The locks at the position are pretty obvious — DeAndre Hopkins, Fuller, Braxton Miller, and Jaelen Strong. The next two names were both part of the rotation all last season — Cecil Shorts and Keith Mumphrey. The narrative on Shorts goes like this: "Well, this is a young group, so you need a Cecil Shorts for his experience," but honestly, do you? Shorts may very well just be a better player than Mumphrey, in which case, he should make the team, but he had a bad drop on Saturday against the Saints, and Mumphrey made a couple catches, including a chain mover on third down. One of those guys is likely getting cut.
After that, the next few names — Josh Lenz, Wendell Williams, Tevin Jones, Quenton Bundrage — have all had moments in camp and/or in preseason games, but likely are either practice squad guys or pickups for other teams. One thing that could help a guy like Williams would be some big plays in the return game, but the coaching staff sure seems hellbent on making Tyler Ervin that guy. The rookie got the lion's share of returns in both punt and kickoff return on Saturday, and didn't really do much with the chance.
The Arizona Cardinals come to town next Sunday afternoon for the highly important third preseason game, in which we should see the starters for most of the afternoon. Things are about to get really interesting over the next ten days.
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.