As Texans coach Dom Capers walked off the field late last month after his team's first full-squad practice, all the excitement over a talent-rich expansion draft and a bountiful college draft that brought in a strong-armed quarterback was far in the rearview mirror "My gosh," Capers said, "I am so glad we don't have to line up and play today."
Houston should be competitive in the AFC South, in part because the Texans' three division rivals (the Colts, Jaguars and Titans) are in some stage of rebuilding. Only three of Houston's 16 games this year are against teams that made the playoffs in 2001. But more than that, the Texans, if healthy, have respectable players at important positions. Left tackle Tony Boselli and right tackle Ryan Young form a strong tandem to protect the first pick in the draft, Fresno State quarterback David Carr. Cornerback Aaron Glenn (formerly with the Jets) is a solid NFL starter. Two borderline Pro Bowl linebackers, Jamie Sharper ( Ravens) and Kailee Wong (Vikings), will be playmakers. Wideouts Corey Bradford ( Packers), Jabar Gaffney (a second-round draft pick from Florida) and Jermaine Lewis ( Ravens) give Houston a better set of receivers than any of the last three expansion teams—Carolina and Jacksonville in 1995, Cleveland in 1999—fielded in year one.
But in a division stacked with excellent passers, the Texans have no stud pass rusher, and if expansion history is any indicator, their secondary will likely get torched. Stocking a new team is more difficult these days, and the Texans simply couldn't address all of their needs. Unlike the Panthers, who in 1995 and '96 were able to sign free agents like linebackers Lamar Lathon and Kevin Greene because the league was still learning the ins and outs of free agency, Houston has had very little to choose from in the market. Instead the Texans built their base in the expansion draft, which was chock-full of expensive players from teams in salary-cap hell. "We were fortunate because Baltimore, the Jets and Jacksonville had cap problems," says Capers. "We decided if we waited until free agency to stock our roster, we would be bidding against 31 teams for guys who weren't as good as the guys we could get in the expansion draft. We concentrated on players who we felt would be here for at least three years, because we figured it was in that third year that we hoped to be a really good team."
Houston paid a pretty price to build its roster. The Texans stand $6.6 million under the 2002 cap of $71.2 million, but their rookie pool is expected to eat up all but $250,000 of that. Houston had better hope that players like Glenn ($8 million cap number) and former Jaguars defensive tackle Gary Walker ($5.3 million) earn their money. Capers, though, knows he's in for a long ride. "I think you can put together a winning team quickly today in the NFL," he says. "I'm not sure you can build a Super Bowl team quickly." That's particularly true with the free-agent pool dried up. The bottom line: Carr had better be the genuine item. And Houston had better continue to draft well.