NFL Preseason Week 1: Texans at Panthers — Four Things to Watch For

Tom Savage will start for the Texans, as he tries to hold off Deshaun Watson.
Tom Savage will start for the Texans, as he tries to hold off Deshaun Watson. Photo by Eric Sauseda
If there was one big takeaway (not involving Deshaun Watson) from my time in West Virginia observing the Houston Texans training camp last week, it was the level of physicality. Pretty much anything they did wearing pads that involved player combat — drills, 11-on-11, etc. — was executed with maximum pop, and they even had one day of padded 11-on-11 where the coaches allowed tackling.

You rarely saw this when they practiced in Houston, and that's likely an effect of the weather. In Houston, you're going against your opponent AND the heat. In West Virginia, the heat was a virtual non-factor. So we got some lively hitting!

Still, hitting your brothers gets boring after a while. You want to hit someone wearing an opposing uniform at some point, and the Texans finally get a chance to do that Wednesday in Charlotte, as they will take on the Carolina Panthers in the first preseason game of 2017.

Here are a few things to watch for Wednesday night...

4. J.J. Watt back in action
O'Brien said in his Saturday morning press conference that all the healthy players available would play, and he confirmed that group includes Watt. I would expect Watt to get one, MAYBE two series, at most. The key here is that they continue to handle him like a normal, veteran player in training camp and NOT like someone nursing a back injury. Mostly because he is not nursing a back injury, but also because if the back is wonky in game competition, we need to know in training camp, not in Week 1.

3. Wide receivers (not named DeAndre)
Wide receiver was already a position with very little experience and a ton of intrigue, and as harrowing as Will Fuller's injury makes an already thin depth chart, it will be fun to see a) how O'Brien uses the pieces available to him, and b) which players step up to snare the brass ring. I would expect we will see more of Braxton Miller, who's been highly productive throughout camp, on the outside, and maybe even Tyler Ervin working in some four WR sets on third down. Riley McCarron has shown up frequently throughout camp as a slot guy, and before injuring his groin, street free agent DeAndrew White was making a rapid ascension up the depth chart. My point is, outside of the top three guys (Hopkins, Miller, Strong), in Fuller's absence, there is a TON of opportunity here.

2. Offensive line
Any excitement over the young skill guys brought in this offseason — mainly, Watson and D'Onta Foreman — has to be tempered by acknowledging the gigantic, five-man question mark that is the offensive line. The starting five, sans training camp holdout Duane Brown, is (left to right) Chris Clark, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Nick Martin, Jeff Allen and Kendall Lamm. It probably says all you need to know that the one player who makes me feel the best out of those five (Martin) hasn't played a down of NFL football in his career. This will also be our first look at David Quessenberry against live NFL action since his rookie training camp in 2013. Gary Kubiak was the head coach back then. Long time.

1. Quarterback snap allocation
While Bill O'Brien has made clear that Tom Savage is the starter, just how "starter-ish" he is treated on Wednesday will give us an inkling as to how strong his hold on the job is. In the first preseason game, most regular starters get a series or two before giving way to the backup. If Savage goes longer than that, like into the second quarter, it could be an indication that O'Brien wants to see more from Savage. (It could also be an indication he just needs the snaps under center. Savage is not exactly a grizzled vet.) If I'm O'Brien, I find a way to play Savage most, if not all, of the first half, have Watson for most of the second half, and let Brandon Weeden mop up at the end. Make no mistake, though — Wednesday's game is all about Houston's quarterback battle.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast