The survivability of an NFL roster from year to year is a dicey proportion, even for good teams around the league. For a variety of reasons — injuries, non guaranteed contracts, impulsive general managers, to name a few — teams tend to churn at least a third of their roster from year to year. Again, GOOD teams do this.
By most any measurement the last couple seasons, the Houston Texans have been a good football team. Not a title contender, not great, but good. When you win double digit games and win your division two years in a row, you are generally among the upper third of the 32 football teams in the league. The Texans were one of eight teams still standing in the divisional round last year. (NOTE: We all want them to go further in the postseason. Nobody wants them to go further than THEY do. The players, the coaches, everyone who works for the team. I just say this because I know what you're thinking.)
So if we can agree the Texans are a decent ball club, consider this — of the 22 players that started the 2017 season opener, four remain with the team. Of the 22 players that started the 2018 season opener, just eight remain. That is major churn over a two and three year window. My point is that nailing down a 53 man roster prediction a week into training camp is much harder than it sounds. There are a lot of new faces, and a lot of old faces that must prove themselves all over again.
So with the preamble out of the way, here is my first crack at a prediction for the 53 man roster that will take the field in Kansas City on Thursday night, September 10. We start, as always, with the locks to make the team:
QUARTERBACK (2): Deshaun Watson, A.J. McCarron
About as easy a position as there is to predict. Not much to say here. The only question is whether Watson gets his new contract extension before the season.
RUNNING BACK (2): David Johnson, Duke Johnson
This is a fun pairing of backs. Two guys who can really hurt opponents in the passing game, two guys that O'Brien says are "three down backs," two guys that have looked really good in camp so far.
TIGHT END (2): Darren Fells, Jordan Akins
Fells was a revelation last season, and earned himself a raise. Akins made some plays, but needs to be more consistent. As a former third round pick, it would be nice to see him put it all together this season. The speed on the outside should open somethings up for him.
WIDE RECEIVER (4): Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, Kenny Stills
The Four Horsemen of Speed, they just need to stay healthy. The only question here, other than health, is whether the team flips Stills for a draft pick before the season, and fills in the back end of the depth chart with a couple of the young receivers that have impressed in camp. More on that in a moment.
OFFENSIVE LINE (7): Laremy Tunsil, Max Scharping, Nick Martin, Zach Fulton, Tytus Howard, Senio Kelemete, Greg Mancz
The five starters are the only stone cold locks for the roster, but the backups are likely pretty solidified, as well. Again, stay tuned for a moment.
DEFENSIVE LINE (5): J.J. Watt, Brandon Dunn, Angelo Blackson, Charles Omenihu, Ross Blacklock
A solid mix of veterans and youth, of twitch pass rushers and stout run stoppers, of, well, J.J. Watt and everyone else. I like this group, and I'm glad Anthony Weaver is still developing them (along with coordinator duties).
LINEBACKER (6): Bernardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, Whitney Mercilus, Brennan Scarlett, Jacob Martin, Jonathan Greenard
By the time they're done paying Zach Cunningham, which may be happening soon, the Texans could have three of their top dozen or so highest paid players in their linebacking corps. Not sure how I feel about that.
CORNERBACK (5): Bradley Roby, Garen Conley, Lonnie Johnson, John Reid, Keion Crossen
When the Texans ended the 2018 season, they had one of the worst offensive lines and worst cornerback units in football. They've nearly flipped both of them over in barely over a year. A lot of pedigree in this group, two former first round picks and a second. Got to get the production to match.
SAFETY (4): Justin Reid, Eric Murray, A.J. Moore, Michael Thomas
Justin Reid is the key to this defense — he is healthy, he is the unquestioned leader of the secondary, and he is ready to make a big Year 2 to Year 3 leap. You heard me!
SPECIALISTS (3): Jon Weeks, Brad Anger, Ka'imi Fairbairn
There is literally no competition in camp for any of these three guys. Injury would be the only thing that changes this part of the dance card.
OK, here is the tally of locks to make the team:
OFFENSE (17): QB 2, RB 2, TE 2, WR 4, OL 7
DEFENSE (20): DL 5, LB 6, CB 5, S 4
SPECIALISTS (3): LS, P, K
So we need 13 more players. Before we get to that, I have to say that I am a little surprised by how many locks there are to make it on a defense that was 27th in DVOA last season, especially considering the only newbies are the three rookies (Blacklock, Greenard, Reid), Murray, and Thomas. I don't know what to make of that, other than J.J. Watt better play 16 games.
OK, let's go shopping for the final 15 spots. I don't think they will carry a third quarterback on the 53 man roster, given the increased size of the practice squad, and increased flexibility with calling practice squad guys up to the main roster (and sending them down). They do need another running back or two, though, so let's resume things there....
41. Cullen Gillaspia, FB
42. Buddy Howell, RB
43. Peter Kalambayi, LB
44. Jaylem Watkins, S
45. Cornell Armstrong, CB
These five I would put in the same category as roster locks like Thomas and Crossen, who are on the team largely for their special teams prowess. The position is just a label, although Gillaspia (who's been dealing with some sort of leg injury suffered in the first practice of the camp) could be an intriguing wrinkle if he gets some snaps at fullback.
46. Jordan Thomas, TE
Last season, Thomas came in out of shape and was anon factor all season. This year, he appears to have taken the offseason seriously, and he has flashed really well these first few practices.
47. Chad Hansen, WR
Hansen is the "out of the blue" name in this roster prediction. O'Brien has mentioned him specifically after each practice for his performance. Hansen and Stevie Mitchell have had plenty of opportunities in 11-on-11 drills as O'Brien continues to handle Fuller and Cooks with care. Isaiah Coulter begins his rookie season on the practice squad.
48. Roderick Johnson, T
49. Charlie Heck, T
These two are pretty close to locks, but I'm not comfortable putting them there yet.
50. Carlos Watkins, DL
Watkins is in the final year of his rookie deal, and has done some good things in camp so far.
Now we are down to the last three spots. Let's go with these three....
51. Kahale Warring, TE
Warring was in uniform for the first practice, then off for the next two. He was on injured reserve last season, his rookie year, but the overall package this third round pick offers is too tantalizing to let him go. He may be a practice squad candidate.
52. Keke Coutee, WR/KR
Coutee makes it over DeAndre Carter on the strength of his higher ceiling as a receiver, and his ability to return kicks at, at least, Carter's level.
53. P.J. Hall, DL
The former second round pick of the Raiders makes the roster, assuming he gets in shape, on the likelihood that Anthony Weaver might help him reach his full potential.
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