For the fifth straight practice, the Houston Texans took their talents outdoors, back in pads for a spirited Sunday morning of rehearsal football. We are officially at the halfway point of the 14 allotted practices that the owners and players agreed to in this COVID-altered preseason, so the season opener is not imminent, but you can see it on the horizon.
Without question, the biggest story line for every NFL team is how each of them are handling the coronavirus. The Texans have been one of the shining examples around the league on how to keep the insidious bug out of their building, scoring a perfect "zero positive" score on all of the daily COVID testing going on with players and staff. It's been remarkable to watch up close. (Full disclosure — I am one of ten media members allowed at each practice, and I am COVID tested at the stadium every day.)
So knowing that COVID is the dark cloud lurking over all of this, let's look at the key storylines enveloping Texans camp as they head into their final seven practices before the start of the 2020 season in Kansas City against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. Here we go....
What's up with J.J. Watt?
For all the things occurring on the practice field at the Methodist Training Center, the question I get asked by colleagues who aren't at practice, or fans who I see around town — is J.J. Watt practicing, and if not, WHY NOT? The short answer is that, he is executing the plan on which he collaborated with Bill O'Brien and Jack Easterby to get ready for the season. Per O'Brien on Friday:
“He’s doing fine. He’s doing fine. He’s played a lot of football and he knows how to play football. What’s important for him and for us is that he’s in great condition and that he’s ready to go on September 10. His ramp up is different than anyone else’s, and I could say the same thing about Will Fuller (V) or Brandin Cooks. Everybody’s ramp up is a little bit unique. I think in this year – and I know that’s a really important part of your job, is to see who’s out there and all that, but I just wouldn’t read too much into that moving forward. I really wouldn’t.”
For what it's worth, Watt was back in pads with his teammates on Sunday morning, but worked out off to the side after participating in some warm up drills. The bottom line with Watt is that he feels fine physically, is moving very well, and everything they're doing with him is with a healthy 16-game season in mind.
Is it possible Bill O'Brien can win the DeAndre Hopkins trade?
Before we answer this, we have to establish the answer to this question — what exactly is the path for O'Brien to "win" one of the least popular trades in franchise history (hell, maybe LEAGUE history among all fan bases)? Well, David Johnson would have to be a Pro Bowl caliber back for the next two seasons of his deal. Next, Ross Blacklock, the rookie defensive tackle the Texans took with the 40th overall pick (acquired in the Hopkins trade) needs to become a plus-level player for this team. Finally, things need to go a little sideways with Hopkins in Arizona, either health-wise or contractually or in performance deterioration. So far, Johnson has looked very good in camp (CHECK!), Blacklock does not look overwhelmed as a rookie (semi-CHECK!), and Hopkins has been out with a hamstring injury that some of the local media in Arizona are interpreting as a passive-aggressive contract dispute (CHECK... that could become unchecked when Hopkins finishes with 100 catches this season). This is definitely giving us plenty to keep an eye on here and in Phoenix.
The defense has had a good camp so far
While Deshaun Watson has had a nice camp, and appears to be ready to lead this team to big things, he's been working in 11-on-11 MOST days without Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks. (Cooks was finally on the field for 11 on 11 drills on Sunday, and played REALLY well.) So with Watson playing with backup receivers, the defense has held fairly strong against the first team offense, and has excelled against the second unit, quarterbacked by A.J. McCarron. There's definitely a different energy level with very vocal Anthony Weaver now the defensive coordinator, replacing the more grandfatherly Romeo Crennel (who's still at practice, chipping in his thoughts). Among the players who have looked very good to great thus far — linebacker Zach Cunningham, safety Justin Reid, nose tackle Brandon Dunn, and cornerback Bradley Roby.
There is still contractual work to be done
A little over a week ago, John McClain of the Houston Chronicle tweeted this, somewhat out of the blue:
The Texans are hoping to sign Deshaun Watson and ILB Zach Cunningham to extensions before the season begins.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) August 15, 2020
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So naturally, the status of extensions for both players has been a big topic, to where O'Brien was asked about Cunningham's future this past week. Here's what O'Brien had to say about the fourth year linebacker:
“We want Zach on our team. We want Zach to be a Texan for a long time, no doubt about it. He’s just a really good player. He’s very instinctive. He’s got good speed. He can do a lot of different things within our scheme. He plays on special teams. He’s on the punt team. Really good guy. Same guy every day. We think that it would be great if he was with us for a long time.”
The salary cap is most likely going to go down in 2021, due to revenue shortfalls from fan attendance being reduced or eliminated altogether (in some places) in 2020 due to COVID-19, so that may affect the Texans' willingness to dish out big money extensions. My guess is that it affects Watson's potential extension not at all, but that Cunningham may have to play this season out, and that he could face a franchise tag in 2021.