If you're a player trying to make a final impression in an NFL training camp, time is winding down, and it is REALLY winding down if you're a member of the Houston Texans or Kansas City Chiefs. With those two teams slated to battle in the 2020 season opener for the NFL, they've been conducting their respective training camps with a schedule that is three days ahead of the rest of the league.
As a result, the Texans plan on trimming their roster from 80 players down to 53 (and eventually adding a 16 player practice squad) on Thursday afternoon, two days before the deadline for the rest of the league to do so. It's been an odd training camp, to say the least, with COVID-19 test results the most important statistic in each camp. More important than 40 yard dash times, yards per carry, or QB rating.
Put simply, if the coronavirus starts to rip through NFL locker rooms, football fans have a problem on their (well, OUR, let's be real) hands. For now, the NFL has done an astoundingly good job at keeping COVID-19 out of the building. So let's look at winners and losers for the Texans with 12 of the 14 allotted practices in the books. Here we go...
4. Opening night intrigue
Before we get to actual football observations, we must acknowledge the not-so-subtle elephant in the room regarding all sporting events these days — the possibility that it could get cancelled, for virtually any reason. In this case "it" is the NFL season opener, and the reason it COULD be cancelled (non-COVID category) would be if the NFL players were planning a demonstration like their NBA and MLB brethren, and walking out on games to protest racial inequality. When asked about the possibility, Bill O'Brien had this to say on Saturday morning:
“We’ve had some good discussions. I would say anything’s possible. I think that, just speaking for the Houston Texans, I’m really proud of these guys that are on our team. We have a lot of really good veteran guys that are really passionate about football, really passionate about what’s going on in the world. The thing that really strikes me – as a coach, you’re always in a rush, right? You want to make sure everything is going well. You’re thinking about the next day, the next play, the next three plays from now. But these players, they’re not in a rush – our players. Our players are really thoughtful. They want to think about things. They don’t want to rush to make any decisions on anything. It’s just been really enlightening for me. Today in the squad meeting, we had a good squad meeting. We’ll see how it goes. I wouldn’t be able to make any predictions. I just know our team is going to practice today and our team, we feel good about where we’re at after the scrimmage and we’re just going to keep plugging away.”
If I had to guess, the extra couple weeks leading up to the opener gives the NFL owners time to work with the players to make sure the game gets onto the field, and that they continue to make best efforts to satisfy the players' request for action in the face of social injustice. But, honestly, it is purely a guess. The year 2020 has taught me not bank on anything.
3. DeAndre Carter
OK, onto actual football. The Texans made great effort this offseason to improve the depth of their receiving corps with capable veterans. Adding Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb to go with Will Fuller and Kenny Stills ensures that this is a deeper group. (Whether it's overall BETTER, given DeAndre Hopkins is now gone, is up for debate.) This would seemingly put a squeeze on younger guys, lower on the depth chart. To that end, Carter has really stepped up his game in camp, making several catches in 11-on-11 drills, and showing consistency as a returner. O'Brien likes the way Carter works, and he's done nothing but help solidify his spot on the team. We will see if it's enough to make the 53-man roster.
2. Jacob Martin
When he was asked to name three defensive players who have stood out in camp, defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver immediately named Martin, who begins his second season with the Texans after coming over in the Jadeveon Clowney trade a year ago to the day. Martin was used primarily as a speed rusher off the edge on obvious passing downs last year, so his goal this offseason was to add weight so he could stay on the field on first or second down. He appears to have done that, and he's made a positive impression in camp. It would be a real coup for Bill O'Brien if somehow he got a starting caliber edge rusher out of the deal for Clowney, given how lopsided that trade looked the day it was made.
1. Speed on offense
Of all the things I am most excited and intrigued by coming out of Texans camp, it's how this offense will look differently post-Hopkins Era. Say what you will about the underwhelming package Bill O'Brien may have gotten for one of the top three or four wide receivers in football, but there is no doubt that the Texans are a speedier and, in my opinion, more dangerous offense. The combination of elite deep speed (and short to medium route running) with the pairing of Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks, the savvy slot skills of Randall Cobb, and Duke and David Johnson catching the ball out of the backfield is awfully tasty, especially with a top five quarterback pulling the trigger. The pressure is on new play caller Tim Kelly to make this all work.
4. A.J. McCarron
The pressure is also on the Texans' offensive line to keep Deshaun Watson upright and healthy. That pressure is always there, but it is especially relevant this coming season, because if the A.J. McCarron that I saw on a daily basis in training camp is the version we are getting this coming season, my confidence is level is flatlined that he can win a game for this team. McCarron didn't have a single good practice from what I watched, and even worse, had several turnovers in 11-on-11 drills. Stay healthy, Deshaun! PLEASE!
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3. Gareon Conley
One of the other pieces that, for all intents and purposes, is considered part of the Clowney trade, is cornerback Gareon Conley, who the Texans received in a trade with the Raiders for the third round pick that came over for Clowney. Conley is a former first round pick who played some decent football for the Texans over the second half of last season, but unfortunately, he came into camp this year having had foot surgery, and then he missed a few days of practice. Since returning, he's been running almost exclusively with the second unit on defense. Lonnie Johnson has clearly passed Conley in the CB pecking order. Rough camp for a guy heading into a contract year.
2. Cullen Gillaspia
Gillaspia was a nice surprise a year ago as a seventh round pick out of Texas A&M, providing capable snaps on special teams and occasional spot work as a fullback. (If you'll recall, Gillaspia had the block that sprung Deshaun Watson on his 20-yard TD run in the playoff win over Buffalo.) Unfortunately, for Gillaspia, he sustained some sort of leg injury in the first padded practice a few weeks ago, and has been in T-shirt and shorts every day at practice since then. I don't think Gillaspia is in any danger of getting cut, but I'd be shocked if he didn't start the season on injured reserve, with the chance to get rough back within a few weeks (under the 2020 IR rules, which have been significantly loosened up due to the presence of COVID-19).
1. Keke Coutee
What goes up for DeAndre Carter, almost by definition, means bad things for Coutee. It's really a direct one-on-one battle between these two for the kick returner/backup slot WR spot, and not only has Carter looked good in camp (as we mentioned above), but Coutee missed about a half dozen or so practices with a stress fracture in his foot. He's been back on the field the last couple days, but like Giallspia, Coutee could be a candidate for a short IR stint to start the year, while the Texans buy themselves a little more time to let the "Carter vs Coutee" play out into the early part of the regular season.