Given the laborious nature of the first preseason games of a given season, the team the Houston Texans field Friday night in the preseason opener against the Vikings will bear little resemblance to the team that is on the field in Week 1 of the regular season. But as the Vikings take to the field against the Texans, the players who see action Friday may be critical to Houston's 2013 success – a level of success they expect will lead them to New Jersey as the AFC representative in the Super Bowl.
The Texans had their share of growing pains as an expansion franchise due in no small part because Indianapolis and Peyton Manning were in the same division. It took Houston years to post a winning record – topping out at 8-8 twice. But as we enter the 2013 season, the Texans are the two-time defending AFC North champions and are the prohibitive favorite to make it three in a row this season.
Houston is essentially set at most of its key positions, but, as any fan knows, the NFL is a "Next Man Up" league in which injuries are almost inevitable and a team with championship aspirations is only as good as the second line on its depth chart. The Texans have as good a chance as any team in the AFC coming off a franchise-best 12-4 season in 2012, so their decisions as to who makes up the back half of the 53-man roster will be critical to their push for February football.
On the offensive side of the ball, even casual fans are aware of the Texans' key players – QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster, WR Andre Johnson and TE Owen Daniels. What is key for Houston is who will be the complementary players for those stars because each of them has missed time due to injuries over the last couple of seasons.
At quarterback, T.J. Yates made a positive splash in 2011 when Schaub missed the second half of the season with a Lisfranc injury, but last year he threw just 10 passes in mop-up duty. The battle that is shaping up is between Case Keenum and Stephen McGee for the No. 3 spot, which may come down to how they perform when they get their longest in-game look.
Foster won't play Friday because it has been a time-honored tradition for teams with bell cow running backs to give them sporadic duty in the preseason – just enough to shake off the rust. With Foster one of about 20 Texans on the sidelines, the battle will be on for how the pecking order shakes out behind him. The team will likely keep only four running backs on the roster. Ben Tate, who was projected to be the long-term starter in Houston before he was injured and opened the door for Foster, is set as the No. 2 back, and former Jaguar Greg Jones and Tyler Clutts are competing for replacing Vonta Leach as the team's fullback. With few roster spots available, undrafted rookies Cierre Wood, Dennis Johnson and Deji Karim will be trying to make an impression to make the roster.
The biggest preseason battle may end up being among the receivers. For years, the Texans have looked to have a receiver to complement Johnson and prevent defenses from constantly double-teaming him. They may have finally found the answer by investing a first-round draft pick in DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson. Like Johnson, he is a big receiver (6-4, 215) and has strong hands. If he develops quickly, he will be the best complementary receiver Johnson has ever had and, given that Johnson is in his 11th season, will be groomed to be his eventual replacement and No. 1 receiver in Houston. DeVier Posey was slated to be the No. 2 guy before the Texans drafted Hopkins, but he brings the speed element to the Houston offense with elite vertical speed. He's coming off a ruptured Achilles and will need to prove he's 100 percent, and that isn't likely to start Friday. Agile second-year man Keshawn Martin is dangerous in space and doubles as the Texans' primary return man. While his value to the special teams may limit his use on offense, his quickness is needed to offset the size and strength (but not elite speed) of Johnson and Hopkins. Third-year man Lestar Jean caught just six passes last year, so his spot on the roster is far from assured.
Daniels has the starting spot locked down, but, given his injury history, the competition for the No. 2 TE spot could be vital. Garrett Graham caught 28 passes last year and will be competing with seventh-round rookie Ryan Griffin. Both will be given the chance to compete in the preseason, but, barring injury, Daniels will be the primary tight end when the season starts.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Texans have one of the best lines in the league, but didn't rest on their laurels. J.J. Watt, Earl Mitchell and Antonio Smith are all elite at their jobs, but the Texans used three draft picks on the defensive line, drafting DT Chris Jones on the sixth round. Of the 12 defensive linemen on the roster, eight of them have three or fewer years of NFL experience, so the backup spots will be up for grabs.
As young as the defensive line is, linebacker is even younger. Houston has a whopping 14 linebackers on their training camp roster, of which nine have two or fewer years experience – including six rookies. The only drafted rookies – third-round Sam Montgomery and fourth-rounder Trevardo Williams – are the only guarantees to make the roster, but there are chances for young players with special teams acumen.
Houston is a team that, in many ways, reminds some of the elite teams of recent years. They started building the core of their team four or five years ago and, four years later, they have a veteran-laden team that is set at almost every starting position and they're using training camp and the preseason merely to add depth. With so many quality players with their roster spots locked down, the key to the preseason will be some difficult cuts the Texans will have to make. Much like the ill-fated Vikings in 2010, there were 40 players competing for four or five available roster spots. If nothing else, the Texans should be motivated in the second half of preseason games because a large group of young long shots will be fighting for their NFL lives. It's not going to be easy for the Vikings because the Texans are one of the NFL's elite teams and the competition for the few available roster spots will make the Texans a dangerous opening opponent for the Vikings.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Texans' youth will battle Vikings
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