Of all the teams in the NFL, the Houston Texans are arguably the most top-heavy with a bevy of superstars coupled with a lack of overall depth. With minimal separation in many areas of the depth chart, it’s going to be the month leading up to the season which decides who seizes a job.
There are a handful of storylines and position battles to monitor as we head into the preseason. For one, the offensive line taking shape is what everyone is watching. There are several young running backs battling it out for a roster spot. Additionally, with Jadeveon Clowney‘s 2019 fate uncertain, a pass rusher needs to step up in support.
Which youngster emerges as RB3?
This is the position battle I’m looking forward to covering through the next couple of months. Alfred Blue‘s departure to division rival Jacksonville leaves 177 touches on the table. Lamar Miller isn’t a workhorse by any means at this point; his workload has decreased in each season since he arrived in Houston. D’Onta Foreman enters a make-or-break year and while hopes are high, I remain skeptical of his potential impact.
Youth and new flavors will be injected into the Texans’ stable this season. Aside from D’Onta Foreman’s 46.5 touches per year over his two seasons, that’s something Houston’s backfield hasn’t seen in a number of years. Between the vacated touches from Blue, Miller’s depleting workload and the unsettled Foreman, whoever claims the RB3 slot should have a significant role in the offense.
Vying for that spot on the depth chart are two undrafted free agents, a player claimed off waivers prior to last season and a former Indianapolis Colt. Signed following the 2019 NFL Draft, Karan Higdon and Damarea Crockett are the most intriguing of the group. Higdon enjoyed a storied career at Michigan and is my favorite to make the roster.
Buddy Howell was claimed from the Miami Dolphins before Week 1 last year. While he didn’t tote the rock once and was a primary special teams contributor, he’s expected to be given a chance to prove himself. Then there’s Josh Ferguson, whose pass-catching prowess could ultimately give him the upper hand the Texans are in desperate need of a third-down back. He caught 168 passes in college at Illinois.
It’s going to be a treat watching these guys battle it out in the preseason. Each guy brings something different to the table as more variety will be added into the backfield. Whoever makes the big plays and seizes the opportunity will land themselves a viable role in the offense.
Clarity on the offensive line
For an offensive line that allowed the most sacks in the league last season, it’s no surprise the competition for starting jobs is wide open. At this point, the only guaranteed starting job is Nick Martin. It remains to be seen who will conquer the offensive tackle positions, although first-round pick Tytus Howard is the odds on favorite to snag one based on draft capital. Both guard spots are wide open as well.
Following their selection of Howard, former general manager Brian Gaine continued to attempt to patch the offensive line. Max Scharping was the second-round pick and while he played tackle at Northern Illinois, he projects better at guard in the NFL, where he also has experience. Martinas Rankin enters his second season with high expectations. As a rookie, he appeared in all 16 games, starting just four. He is one of my prime breakout candidates this season and has the talent to emerge in a starting role.
Last year’s starters Senio Kelemete and Zach Fulton were in the starting lineup for a combined 27 games in 2018. But, the Texans are surely looking to upgrade if they don’t earn back their top slots on the depth chart. Rankin and Scharping will vie for the spots and Greg Mancz will likely see some spot duty there. Julie’n Davenport started 15 games last season but allowed the most pressures in the NFL. Then free-agent signing Matt Kalil is also in the mix along with Sentral Henderson at the tackle spots as they challenge Howard and Davenport.
However you slice it, Houston’s offensive line will remain among the league’s worst in 2019. Houston likes to rotate linemen which prohibited rapport within the unit. Given the current state of the offensive line, they will likely field numerous combinations again this season. However, the key at this point should be building continuity between the young core in hopes they develop into a formidable front.
Rotational pass rusher
The Houston Texans suffered a big blow when Duke Ejiofor tore his Achilles, which landed him on injured reserve. With Jadeveon Clowney’s contract dispute ongoing and the threat of him not suiting up in 2019, rushing the passer could prove to be the detriment of Houston’s defense. It is time for someone else to step up.
That guy may be Davin Bellamy by default as Houston lacks pure pass rushers aside from Clowney, Ejiofor and Whitney Mercilus. Bellamy spent all of last season on the practice squad after joining the team as an undrafted free agent. He was a vital piece to Georgia’s National Championship appearance two seasons ago. There is little competition pushing him at the moment, but there is one player who could give him a run for his money.
One of my favorite UDFAs to make the final roster is Akron’s Jamal Davis, who boasts an impressive athletic profile with elite speed, agility, and length at the position. While understandably raw as a pass rusher coming out of college, if he shows even the slightest bit of development in that department, he’ll make a lot of noise in August.
While free agency is a long way in the rearview mirror and the market is depleted, the Texans could benefit from bringing in a remaining free agent at this position. Whether it’s former Titan Derrick Morgan or Nick Perry, adding a veteran as a rotational pass rusher could boost the defensive production. If Bellamy or Davis don’t emerge, the Texans may field the worst pass-rushing unit in the AFC South.
Aside from the offensive line, edge rusher is the biggest weakness on this team, unless Clowney signs prior to the season. Looking ahead to the 2020 NFL Draft, the Texans very well could address that area in the first round. Reliant on their draft position, guys like Chase Young and A.J. Epenesa would be enticing options.
Jonathan Valencia is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the AFC South. You can follow him on Twitter @JonValenciaBF.