Outlook: How long does it take to build a franchise into a playoff contender? When current Texans head coach Dom Capers was the head coach in Carolina it took two seasons to go 12-4 and win their division, but the Panthers used veterans to build their team and paid dearly for it in subsequent seasons. The Texans took a different approach, using young players and draft choices to stock their roster and it has taken longer. However, after going 4-12 in 2002, 5-11 in 2003 and 7-9 last year, it appears the Texans are on the verge of something special.
Capers is a defensive coach who leaves the other side of the ball to offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. Palmer could be under some pressure to produce this season and the key to that is keeping defenses off young signal-caller David Carr who has been sacked more times (140) in three seasons than any other quarterback in that same time period. Palmer has directed the Texans offense ever since they became a franchise and they improved to 19th in 2004 after finishing 32nd in 2002 and 31st in 2003. Rumors are that Palmer is ready to make Carr more mobile, using rollouts and formations designed for quick-hitting plays that will allow Carr to remain on his feet more and not worry so much about his blindside.
Defensively, the Texans will feature five new starters after the release of several veteran leaders, in the hopes that their replacements will add speed and athleticism to a unit that underachieved in 2004, ranking 22nd overall.
Quarterbacks: When he came into the league as the number-one overall pick in 2002, Carr was seen as an athletically gifted quarterback who was mature beyond his years. Now entering his fourth season in the league, Carr is at a crossroads. Is he the man to take the Texans to the next level or is he just an average quarterback who needs dynamic playmakers around him to be successful? The 2005 season will be a telling year.
Carr had a breakout season in 2004, posting career bests in completion percentage (61.2), yards (3,531) touchdowns (16) and rating (83.5). Also, for the first time, Carr passed for more touchdowns than interceptions (14).
Never great at reading coverages, Carr finally began to improve his reads and decision-making and was able to cut down on the costly interceptions that had plagued him in his first two seasons. Carr is unquestionably tough and a good leader and the hope is he improves enough to get this team over the hump and into the playoffs this season.
Backing up Carr will be veteran Tony Banks and youngster Dave Ragone. Ragone had an excellent season in NFL Europe, being named the most valuable offensive player of the league this past spring. Capers and Palmer plan on getting Ragone a lot of snaps during preseason to see how far he's progressed.
Running Backs: When he was taken in the fourth round of the 2003 draft, RB Domanick Davis wasn't seen as the starter of the future for the franchise, but in his rookie season, Davis started ten games and led the team in rushing with 1,031 yards and eight touchdowns.
Prior to last season, Davis got a little ahead of himself, predicting a 2,000 yard season. He fell well short of that total, but did manage to gobble up 1,188 yards and 13 touchdowns. However, his yards per attempt fell from 4.3 in 2003 to 3.9 last season. Davis runs well between the tackles, but lacks the speed to be a breakaway threat. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield, catching 68 passes for 588 yards and another touchdown.
One reason for Davis' lack of production was the emergence of Jonathan Wells as a legitimate playmaker behind him. Wells replaced Davis for the game against Oakland in September and managed to put up 105 yards against the Raiders. He is huge (6'1", 255) and can pound away with his size or hurt teams with his deceptive speed. This is a battle to watch during the preseason and into the regular season.
The addition of rookie RB Vernand Morency during the draft adds depth to the unit. Morency is an outside runner who needs to get better at running inside. He has a good forward lean, consistently getting positive yardage, but will need to work on his receiving skills at the pro level.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: This is an area the team has addressed repeatedly during their three seasons and they started to reap the benefits in 2004. Third-year WR Andre Johnson began to assert himself as a big-time playmaker in his second season, catching 79 passes for 1,145 yards and six touchdowns and going to the Pro Bowl.
Johnson is very strong, runs well after the catch and is an excellent blocker. He needs to work on his routes as he still rounds his breaks off a little, allowing corners to make up ground. The Texans like to use Johnson on short routes and then let him use his strength and running ability to make a play. If he can separate from corners better, he can improve on his 14.5 yards per catch average.
Opposite Johnson will be a battle between Corey Bradford and Jabar Gaffney. Gaffney is the more dynamic player, leading the team in yards per catch with a 15.4 yard average, catching 41 passes for 632 yards and two touchdowns. Gaffney isn't very strong, but improved his routes and his ability to read defenses.
Bradford, the elder statesman of the wide receiver corps, just keeps going along. His consistency sets him apart from the other wideouts as he regularly gets open when Carr is in trouble. He finished fifth on the team with 27 catches for 399 yards and three touchdowns.
Adding depth to the wideout corps will be rookie Jerome Mathis and Derick Armstrong, who had a solid 2004 season as the fourth receiver.
At tight end the Texans haven't had a player who could block and be a receiving threat that can stretch the middle-seam. Veteran Mark Bruener is an excellent blocker, but he won't scare teams in the middle of the field.
Billy Miller is the receiver of the group of tight ends, catching 17 passes for 178 yards and one touchdown. He lacks ideal bulk, but he gets good leverage and is an adequate blocker. They like to use him as an H-Back/Tight End hybrid, sending him in motion to free him up against man coverage.
Offensive Line: A lot of people were surprised the Texans only used one draft choice on an offensive lineman. Their need at this position, a unit that has struggled ever since the team's inception three years ago, should have dictated at least a day one selection, but the team did't address this unit until the 5th round when they selected C Drew Hodgdon.
The Texans tried diligently during free agency to acquire St. Louis Rams franchise LT Orlando Pace, but they couldn't reach an agreement with the Rams and thus lost out on their best chance to upgrade the unit.
At LT will be Seth Wand, who struggled in 2004 to remain consistent. He has decent athleticism, but isn't quick enough on his setup and lacks the arm length to keep ends off the quarterback. LG Chester Pitts is the most versatile of the linemen, able to play four of the five spots along the line. If Wand struggles, Pitts could move outside and play tackle, something he did in 2002 and 2003.
The right side of the line is set, with RG Zach Wiegert and RT Todd Wade. Both are solid run-blockers and the Texans like to run behind them most of the time.
In the pivot is seven-year veteran Steve McKinney. He has good size and is a sound technician. He makes all the line calls and takes good angles on his blocks.
Veteran T Victor Riley was added in the offseason to provide depth. He lacks the feet to be a great pass-blocker but he excels in run-blocking. The Texans are hoping Riley can push for the starting job at right tackle, but at the very least he will add an experienced backup on the outside. Hodgdon, Fred Weary and Todd Washington also provide depth at the inside spots.
Defensive Line: The Texans are one of the few teams in the NFL who play a true 3-4 defense. In this alignment, the ends are not expected to pressure the passer as much as they are counted on the play the run well and hold the point of attack. To that end, the Texans have two huge defensive ends in Gary Walker and Robaire Smith.
Smith had a solid season posting 52 tackles, two sacks and nine passes batted down. He uses his 330 pounds to hold strong at the point, sheds blockers and splits double-teams well. Walker has had trouble staying healthy over the course of his career, but played well last season contributing 30 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. He is very good against the run and a relentless pass rusher. One thing Smith and Walker both provide is versatility, as both can move inside when needed.
At nose tackle is Seth Payne who, in his first season of recovery from an ACL injury, had a solid season on the inside. Payne posted 51 tackles and two sacks last season and was stout against the run. He collapses the pocket and fights off blockers well. He will split time with rookie DT Travis Johnson during the season. Johnson is excellent against the run and occupies blockers well, but he isn't much of a pass-rusher. Johnson could be the steal of the draft if he stays motivated – something that was a problem for him in college at times.
Corey Sears and Junior Ioane are the backups at end, but both played very little last year.
Linebackers: This is a young and athletic unit, but losing a consistent veteran like Jamie Sharper as a cap-casualty will hurt more than the Texans would like to admit. Sharper led the team in tackles every season he was with the team and was the emotional leader of the defense as well. Replacing him will be former Miami Dolphins LB Morlon Greenwood, who was signed in free agency.
Greenwood has been a starter ever since he entered the league, posting 100 tackles for the first time last season. Greenwood hasn't shown the consistency needed to be the equivalent of Sharper, but he has a nice blend of speed, strength and athleticism that will allow him to make some extraordinary plays with the stop unit. He is good in coverage, but the team may opt to use him in blitzing situations and drop someone else into coverage.
Six-year veteran Kailee Wong is expected to make the move inside after having a solid season on the outside in 2004. He started all 16 games and finished fourth on the team with 71 tackles, six sacks, one forced fumble and 14 passes defensed. He doesn't excel in one area, but he is solid at everything he is asked to do. He tends to over-pursue and isn't a superior tackler, but he will be counted on to be the leader of a very athletic unit.
Zeke Moreno, a fifth-year player who was signed during free agency, will also get a chance to show what he can do during training camp on the inside. He did little to distinguish himself as a playmaker in San Diego during his first four seasons and it remains to be seen whether he can be the type of player in the middle this defense demands. He will be an excellent addition to the special teams while adding depth to the linebacker corps.
At one outside spot will be a battle between DaShon Polk and Antwan Peek. Peek is listed as the starter, but Polk was more productive last season. Polk registered 30 tackles and one sack, while Peek had just 13 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and one interception. Peek is considered the best pass-rusher on the team and he'll have every opportunity to establish himself as the outright starter during the preseason.
Second-year LB Jason Babin enjoyed a solid rookie season, his first at the outside linebacker position. He started all 16 games and registered 63 tackles, four sacks and five passes defensed. Babin is shorter than you would like in a pass-rusher, but he has excellent athletic ability and is relentless. He needs to improve his lower-body strength; that would allow him to be better against the run.
Charlie Anderson, D.D. Acholonu and Troy Evans all add depth to the unit, but their main contributions are on special teams.
Defensive Backs: One of the most difficult positions to play as a rookie is at cornerback, but Dunta Robinson made it look easy. Robinson, the 10th overall selection in the 2004 draft, finished second on the team with 88 tackles, led the team with six interceptions and 19 passes defensed, while also contributing three sacks and finishing second in the defensive rookie of the year voting behind New York Jets LB Jonathan Vilma.
Robinson has excellent speed, good ball-hawking skills and outstanding reactions when the ball is in the air. He, like all young corners, needs to improve on his abilities to recognize routes and also needs to work on his strength. If he doesn't have a sophomore slump, the Texans could be looking at a perennial Pro Bowler for the next decade.
Last year the team struggled to find a compliment to Robinson on the other side. So the Texans went out and traded for former Oakland Raiders CB Phillip Buchanon in the hopes of acquiring that much needed playmaker. Buchanon has struggled with injuries during his first three seasons in the league, but he is a threat at both corner and on special teams as a returner. Buchanon is an excellent athlete, but he isn't very consistent, which is what led the Raiders to trade him.
Fourth-year pro Demarcus Faggins is the nickel corner and he is a player to keep an eye on during the early part of the season. He is considered a rising star in the secondary and if Buchanon struggles, Faggins could easily step in as the starter. In limited action, Faggins posted 39 tackles, nine passes defensed and three interceptions including one for a touchdown.
Lewis Sanders (6'1", 210), who was signed during free agency, adds size to the corner position and at the very least he is a solid fourth cornerback.
FS Marcus Coleman is the leader of the deep patrol and he is a physical presence in the secondary. Coleman missed the final month of the season with a shoulder injury, but still managed to record 80 tackles, nine passes defensed and two interceptions including one that he returned 102 yards for a touchdown.
Another starter the Texans gleaned from the 2004 draft, SS Glenn Earl started nine of the 12 games he was available for and established himself as a player to keep an eye on. He still needs to work on his coverage skills, but there is no denying his tackling and hitting abilities. He posted 66 tackles and one pass defensed as a rookie.
While the Texans are deep at the corner spot, the safety spot is dangerously thin behind the two starters. Ramon Walker missed the entire 2004 season with a knee-injury and it remains to be seen if he can be the player the team expected him to be last season. Rookie C.C. Brown was taken in the draft because he is a versatile player who can play both safety spots and has good ball skills. Brown and Walker will both be key contributors on special teams as well.
Special Teams: Both K Kris Brown and P Chad Stanley struggled with injuries last season. It is hoped that both have recovered and that both will regain their consistency in 2005.
Brown, one of the more consistent kickers in the NFL with a lifetime 76.3% average, made only 17 of 24 attempts (70.8%). He also struggled through one four game stretch where he missed at least one field goal attempt per game. He struggles to get good depth on his kickoffs, but the team expects to have better coverage units this season with improved depth.
Stanley doesn't have a big leg, but he is ultra-accurate, leading the league by dropping 91 punts inside the 20 over the last three years.
The return units are in very good hands with Buchanon on punt returns and Mathis and WR Reggie Swinton on kickoffs. Buchanon is a threat every time he touches the ball as a punt returner. Swinton has recorded four touchdowns on returns (two on punts, two on kickoffs) and boasts a 24 yard return average on kickoffs.
Final Prediction: Capers has built this team with young players and a few choice veterans and he has some definite playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Carr is a good leader and with improved decision-making, he should be able to lead this team to at least eight wins. With some luck and an improved offensive line, the Texans could even sneak out nine or ten wins and challenge for a playoff spot.
In the end, the reality is that Texans play in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. Indianapolis and Jacksonville are the class on the AFC South and it will be hard for the Texans to break through against those two teams.
They must hope for one of the two to falter and take advantage of that opportunity, otherwise they will spend another postseason at home.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.
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