It's deep in July and it doesn't feel like anyone should be talking about football, but thank the sports gods, training camp opens today for the Houston Texans down at Reliant Stadium. The real action begins Friday with the first workouts, but just seeing players and coaches getting back into the swing of it is a blessing for sports fans who have had to wait out the heat of the summer with only the dreadful Astros as company.
As the local team gets in gear -- with preseason game #1 only two weeks away -- it's a good time to ask a few key questions about the team. There will be more than enough discussion as camp progresses. Every sports radio station in town will be balls to the wall with coverage as will the vast majority of media outlets. But, here are a few thoughts I had as camp gets started.
How badly is JJ Watt going to maul the league this year? Watt had one of the greatest seasons of all time for a defensive lineman last year, but don't expect him to duplicate those numbers. That doesn't mean he won't be the same dominant beast he has been, but it is just difficult to sustain that level of intensity for a long period of time. I fully expect him to be one of the best in the league again, but I don't expect the numbers to be that high. If they are, or God help the rest of the NFL, better, he could already make an argument for being one of the best defensive tackles ever.
How will Arian Foster's load last year impact his running and will Ben Tate stay healthy? Foster carried the ball a league high 351 times last year. With an unstable offensive line, it brought his average way down. No one wants Foster carrying the ball like that again. Historically, players with that many carries tend to have a falloff the next season. It appears Tate is healthy for training camp, which will be key for giving Foster rest. If Tate can return to the form of 2011, the Texans will have a formidable running game once again.
Will Ed Reed be ready for the season and how will rookie D.J. Swearinger respond if not? Reed's unexpected hip surgery made Texans fans grimace, but I don't think any of us believe he will suddenly return what he was four or five years ago. Still, his veteran leadership and his ball hawking skills will be good for the Texans if he can get on the field. My money is he will given his history of toughness. Swearinger is a hard-hitting rookie who could make an impact, but secondary is one place where rookies can be exposed, so limiting his time on the field while still giving him some experience will be important.
Who will get most of the reps at inside linebacker with Brian Cushing? For now, I think that will be Daryl Sharpton, but he has been unable to remain healthy for an entire season since drafted. Tim Dobbins is a serviceable backup, but the depth at ILB is thin. The experiment of moving Brooks Reed is exactly that, an experiment. Don't expect him to play big minutes at the position. But because the Texans play so much nickel and dime coverage, it will somewhat mitigate the depth at ILB. Still, any injuries will be a concern and Cushing needs to return to pre-injury form if the defense expects to be dominant.
What the hell is going on with the right side of the offensive line? Last year was basically a disaster. Rotating players in an out, particularly on a zone blocking offensive line that thrives on continuity, was a nightmare and the running game suffered even if pass protection wasn't terrible. Coaches must settle on a rotation in training camp and stick with it. It appears guard Ben Jones has the ability to be the every-down guard they need, but they will need to figure out if Derek Newton is ready to take the reigns as right tackle, or will they turn it over to the veteran Ryan Harris, especially now that rookie Brennan Williams is on the PUP list.
Is DeAndre Hopkins as good as everyone thinks he is? He might actually be. Thus far, coaches have raved and insiders have said he could ultimately be the most productive wide receiver of this draft class. He has fantastic hands, is great around the goal line and runs smooth routes. Wide receivers can have an impact as rookies and it appears "Nuke" Hopkins might be an example.
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Will Brooks Reed bounce back from a down year and will Whitney Mercilus become a sack machine? The decision to keep Reed on the outside will ultimately be a good one. Reed struggled last year getting to the quarterback, but some of that can be attributed to the fact that Watt beat everyone routinely. Both Reed and Mercilus have a chance to make for a fearsome pass rush, particularly with the speed of Mercilus, but there is a long way to go. My guess is that one of them emerges as a second sack threat to Watt. If I had to put my money on it, I'd put it on Mercilus because of his combination of size and speed, but I expect Brooks to have a more productive year this year than last as well.
Where can the Texans not afford injury besides quarterback? This might be the first year in a while they could afford to lose Andre Johnson, but any loss of one of the key contributors -- Watt, Cushing, Duane Brown, Foster, Johnson or JJ Joseph -- would be serious trouble for the Texans. Despite the loss of Cushing, the Texans remained relatively healthy last year. For a deep run in the playoffs, they will need to repeat that success.
Can the Texans beat the Patriots? They can and they will. Meeting the Patriots in Reliant Stadium -- a Patriots team with real question marks on offense -- will be like beating the Ravens last year. It is a burden they must lift and I expect them to do that.
Why am I not asking any questions about Matt Schaub...until now? Schaub is what he is, which is to say he is an average quarterback with below average arm strength and above average accuracy. He is never going to be Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. But, he can manage the game, he can make quality throws and he CAN lead a team to the Super Bowl. The key will be whether or not he is able to make plays in big games. He has had time to gain valuable big game experience, so I fully expect him to be better in those situations. Will he suddenly turn into Payton Manning? No, but that doesn't mean the Texans can't win with him at the helm. He just has to prove it.