Texans-Cardinals, NFL Preseason Week 1: Five Players to Watch

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Depending on who you are, NFL preseason games can serve any number of purposes.

For some fans (and talk-show hosts who need five hours of radio content every weekday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.), they serve as a celebration that football has finally returned, that we survived the two weeks of the calendar year where there is only Astros baseball to discuss around the water cooler, and that we now have (another) reason to drink beer!

For other fans, they serve as an opportunity to remind everyone how "screwed over" they are for having to pay full boat ticket prices for a meaningless exhibition-caliber product (ignoring the fact that Texans fans have generally been paying for meaningless exhibitions by the time December rolls around almost every year since 2002).

The latter is usually followed by the complainer voluntarily scratching out a check AGAIN for season tickets, so let's not shed too many tears for the poor people who fail to understand capitalism and free-market concepts.

But I digress.

For players, the preseason can mean anything from a chance to tune up a few things to literally fighting for their NFL lives. For the Texans and the Cardinals this Saturday night, in the first competitive football outing of the Bill O'Brien era, let's home in briefly on Texans players to watch, with both categories represented:

5. Safety D.J. Swearinger In last season's preseason opener against the Vikings, in the first action of his rookie year, Swearinger tried to come up and make a big hit on Vikings running back Zach Line on a dump pass out of the backfield. On a play that merely needed a benign form tackle, Swearinger went for the explosive highlight play, overcommitted and missed, and Line (who will never be confused with Adrian Peterson) took it to the house for a 61-yard touchdown. That was a harbinger of things to come for Swearinger, who endured an up-and-down rookie year in 2013. One of the keys to this defense retaking its place among the league's elite, the maturation of Swearinger, his ability to know when to make a play and when to make a PLAY, will be a point of interest throughout the preseason.

4. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus When the depth chart was released on Wednesday, there weren't a ton of great talking points (I did manage to find seven of them), but the most discussed placement of any veteran player had to be former first-round pick Mercilus's being slotted second string behind rookie Jadeveon Clowney at outside linebacker, who hasn't practiced in about a week and will likely play little, if at all, Saturday. Mercilus is heading into a hugely important year for his future as it will be up to the Texans to decide whether or not to exercise his fifth-year option (a decent guaranteed pay day) after the 2014 season. He needs to find some consistency, especially considering he should be in one-on-one battles all season long with J.J. Watt and Clowney drawing double teams routinely. 3. Kicker Chris Boswell I'm on the record that my value pick for "undrafted free agent to make the team" (there are usually a few of them who do) is Boswell. The Rice product has been more consistent and accurate thus far during camp than shaky incumbent Randy Bullock, and the fifth-round pick that the previous regime invested in acquiring Bullock in 2012 (which felt at times last season like the main reason the previous staff was keeping him) matters not at all to this coaching staff. Plus, I want to see a close game so we can see Boswell do this...

2. Running back Alfred Blue One more add on the depth chart -- for some reason, Blue was listed way down on the list of running backs, seemingly somewhere between Ahman Green and Steve Slaton. Anyone who has watched training camp knows that Blue has looked like a beast at times and has been pretty proficient at picking up all aspects of the position that would allow him to be a "three down back" at some point for this team. My money is on Blue as Arian Foster's backup and a sleeper Foster "handcuff" for fantasy purposes.

1. Quarterback Case Keenum Earlier this week, in an interview with ESPN.com's Tania Ganguli, Bill O'Brien said the battle between Keenum and rookie Tom Savage for the backup role behind Ryan Fitzpatrick was very close, with Keenum slightly ahead:

"Right now I'd still say Case is a little bit ahead of Tom," O'Brien said. "I'd say Tom's improving. I think Tom's definitely improving. It's a battle, it's definitely a competitive battle, but Case is still slightly ahead of Tom."

Having seen Keenum battle inconsistency throughout camp, I think this is more damning for Keenum than it is high praise for the development of Savage. Assessing the position, Fitzpatrick is the obvious starter, and Savage has an obvious spot on the roster, whether it's as a second or third stringer. (Some Savage 101 here -- the Texans aren't cutting him even if he's awful because they used a fourth-round pick on him, and they're not putting him on the practice squad because he could get snagged by another team.) So Keenum, for practical purposes, isn't really competing with Savage. He's competing more with a) potential waiver wire quarterbacks from around the league and/or b) the value brought to the Texans by whoever the other candidates for the 53rd spot on the roster are, regardless of position.

Saturday, Keenum should get the most snaps of any of the quarterbacks. He needs to treat it like it's the Super Bowl.

Because for him, it might be.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.

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