Postcard from camp: Texans
Matt Schaub's recovery will play a part in whether he gets an extension this year
The team is taking it easy on Andre Johnson after leg injuries have plagued him
Rookie Whitney Mercilus has been impressive, but will play a pass rush only role
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about Texans camp in Houston, which he visited on Aug. 6. Read all of our postcards here.
At Reliant Stadium, where the Texans have conducted training camp in each of their 11 seasons of franchise existence. I had not visited a Houston camp since reporting day of year one (2002) under then-head coach Dom Capers, but not much has changed in 10 years. Houston has a practice bubble and a complex of fields across the street from Reliant, and a crosswalk bridge connects the whole operation, making it all very convenient. The Texans were outside in the muggy Houston heat for an early morning practice on Monday, but then repaired to their climate-controlled bubble (praise be!) for their afternoon walkthrough session. In Houston in August, it's both the heat and the humidity. There's no escaping either one for long.
1. It's a big season for Matt Schaub in Houston, and everybody here knows it. Schaub is in the final year of his contract, and while the Texans greatly respect and value their starting quarterback as he enters his sixth season in town, he also needs to prove he can stay healthy and productive after missing the last six games of the regular season and two more in the playoffs with a fractured foot. There's still a chance Schaub and the team will strike a deal on an extension before Houston's Week 1 opener against visiting Miami, thereby easing some of the pressure on him in 2012, but my sense is that's not the most likely scenario.
Schaub has made it clear he wants to remain a Texan and finish his career here, and the club is eager for the marriage to continue as well. Were it not for his ill-timed injury last season, Schaub might already have a long-term deal done. But the Texans did find out what they have in third-team rookie quarterback T.J. Yates after Schaub and backup Matt Leinart both went down in November, and Yates looks promising. A healthy and productive Schaub will be re-signed and have his long-term future assured. But if he can't stay on the field this year, all bets are off. So far in camp, after a rusty first week of work, Schaub looks sharp again and his foot is completely healed. But stay tuned.
2. After seeing Andre Johnson miss 12 games over the past two seasons with leg injuries, the Texans are going to be smart this month with him. Houston's all-world receiver lost nine games due to a couple of lingering hamstring issues in 2011, and just sat out a week of training camp practices with a groin pull. No wonder the Texans put him on a 20-play count in his first practice back on Monday, hoping to ease him back into the swing of things. Houston can't get where it's hoping to go this year if its best player is on the sideline watching more than playing, as he was last season.
I stood next to Texans general manager Rick Smith on the sideline Monday morning for a bit, and it didn't take long for his mood to brighten when Johnson flashed some of his trademark form and hauled in a bomb from Schaub. "Man, it's good to see No. 80 out there again,'' Smith said, to no one in particular. "We need that.'' Johnson probably won't be allowed to play in Houston's preseason opener at Carolina Saturday night, and after he missed the Texans' OTA and minicamp sessions following arthroscopic knee surgery, you can understand the air of caution that prevails regarding his health. Once a receiver's legs start to go, his game usually goes with it.
3. The Texans will ask first-round pick Whitney Mercilus to concentrate like a laser on just one part of his game this season: Providing disruptive heat off the edge from his new rush-linebacker position. Houston will use the former Illinois defensive end as its designated sacker in his rookie year, a logical passing-down-only role for a player who led the nation in sacks (16) as a junior in 2011. Think Aldon Smith's rookie-season role in San Francisco for a handy comparison. Both Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and GM Smith believe Mercilus has a chance to be special in terms of his pass rush burst, but with Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin starting at outside linebacker, they only need him to show up this year in the sub-packages, helping replace the edge rush Houston lost when Mario Williams took his sacking talents to Buffalo in free agency.
"He's looked good,'' Phillips told me. "We don't have a lot of pressure on him, but there is some pressure on him because we want him to play this year, like [top picks] Brooks Reed and J.J. [(Watt] did last year. We expect him to come in and play at a high level. He was thinking too much early on, but he's kind of caught on now. He's got everything, plus he's smart, has a lot of pride, wants to win, and wants to do really well. He's going to be a good player.''
Randy Bullock, kicker. The Texans are the second team I've visited in less than a week who might roll the dice and go with a rookie kicker from Texas this season (like Baltimore). Houston wanted to re-sign veteran Neil Rackers, who set a team scoring record last year, but he somewhat curiously signed with Washington for the same minimum deal the Texans were offering. That prompted Houston to spend a fifth-round pick on Bullock, making him the first kicker taken in this year's draft and the first kicker drafted in Texans history. He played at Texas A&M, the alma mater of Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, so that probably doesn't hurt his chances of sticking.
In reality, you don't spend a fifth-rounder on a kicker unless you're in it for the long haul with him, so Bullock should beat out journeyman Shayne Graham for the job. Bullock had a strong showing in OTAs, but he has scuffled some and missed a few kicks in camp early on and is now dealing with a slight groin pull. Obviously his performance in the preseason games could determine his fate. But even with Super Bowl hopes, Houston seems willing to live with the rookie this year, believing it will benefit from that patience over the course of what the club hopes is at least a four- or five-year window of playoff contention. To some degree, it seems up to veteran Texans special teams coach Joe Marciano to make this gamble pay off in 2012.
Bradie James, inside linebacker. Though several veteran Texans on both sides of the ball told me how stunning it was to learn of the March trade of inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans to the Eagles, almost as many players mentioned how deftly James has helped fill the leadership void left by Ryans' unexpected departure. The 10th-year veteran and long-time Cowboy obviously knows Wade Phillips' 3-4 defensive system like the back of his hand dating from their time together in Dallas, and his presence inside next to Cushing should help Houston's impressive group of linebackers once again be the strength of the defense.
James was signed to a bargain basement one-year deal at $890,000, but he's being counted on as a major contributor this season, and plenty of Texans sources believe he'll even be an upgrade over Ryans, who wasn't an ideal fit in the 3-4 and was slowed by last year's recovery from his 2010 Achilles' tear.
The NFL always loves a new winner, and Houston will finally get its turn in the national spotlight after its long quest to claim the AFC South title culminated with last year's breakthrough season. The Texans have five national games this season, including two on Sunday night, two on Monday night and a Thanksgiving Day date in Detroit. But it's a challenging big-stage slate, because Houston is home for only one of those games -- Week 6 on Sunday night against Green Bay. Tough road games await in Week 3 in Denver, Week 5 at the Jets, Week 10 in Chicago, Week 12 in Detroit and Week 14 in New England.
The biggest home game is easy to spot. The Texans get their revenge match with visiting Baltimore in Week 7, after the Ravens narrowly knocked them out of the AFC playoffs in the divisional round last season. The Week 9 return of ex-Texan Mario Williams (and the Buffalo Bills) to Houston should be fun as well.