The Longshots

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June 8, 2004
The Longshots
by Warren DeLuca

One might guess that an expansion team would have ample opportunities for rookie free agents to make the team and contribute, but the Texans’ brief history does not include any rookie free agents who have made major impacts.

Of the players who have suited up for the Texans after originally signing as undrafted free agents (WR Atnaf Harris, TE Rashod Kent, C Jamal Powell, DE Jason Davis, DE Terrance Martin, ILB Jimmy McClain, OLB Shantee Orr, CB Rober’ Freeman, and LS Bryan Pittman), the greatest contribution has come from Pittman, the long snapper.

Here’s a look at this year’s class of undrafted rookie Texans, and their chances of making the team:

WR Kendrick Starling, San Jose State. Starling was an all-everything prospect at Marshall (Texas) High School, but academic shortcomings forced him to Navarro Junior College. He became a junior college All-American and rewrote the conference record book in his two seasons at Navarro, averaging over 20 yards per catch. Starling then signed with and enrolled at Marshall University, which makes one wonder if he realized that the school is in West Virginia, and not his northeast Texas hometown. Again he failed to qualify under NCAA rules, so he moved on to a California junior college (where he did not play football) and then transferred to San Jose State. He flashed his great talent at the I-A level, but, in part due to injury, did not put up big numbers. Starling also returned kickoffs at San Jose State. He is a vertical receiver who fits the Texans’ offense.

Andre Johnson, Corey Bradford, and Jabar Gaffney will take up three of the Texans’ receiver slots. They will probably keep only two more, with one going to J.J. Moses if he retains his job at the team’s primary return man. Derick Armstrong may have the inside track on one of the openings as the Texans like his athletic ability. Seventh rounder Sloan Thomas may be Starling’s chief competition, as the team may not want to keep two rookie receivers. Former Bengal third-round pick Ron Dugans and a host of NFL-Europe veterans Chris Taylor (Amsterdam, fifth in NFLE in receptions and receiving yards), Albert Johnson (Cologne, starter), “the other” Jermaine Lewis (Frankfurt, backup), Terry Charles (Scotland, injured reserve)) will also be in the competition.

C Andrew Martin, Northern Colorado. Martin comes from the same high school, Boulder Fairview, as Tony Boselli. He entered Division II Northern Colorado as a 180-pound walk-on tight end, then bulked up and moved to left tackle where he earned a starting job as a sophomore. Supposedly Martin managed to retain his agility as he put on weight, which should help him in pulling and getting out to block linebackers.

Starter Steve McKinney will occupy one of the center rosters spots, with Todd Washington, who can also contribute at guard, the favorite for the other. Guard Fred Weary could also get a look as a backup center. Martin and Jamal Powell will likely be on the outside looking in.

OG Brandon Evans, Houston. "Bubba" Evans got his shot with the Texans after a tryout during rookie camp when Chavis Smith of Tennessee failed his physical. A product of Spring’s Westfield High School, he played for McPherson College, an NAIA school in Kansas, for a year. Evans followed McPherson’s coach to Division II Wayne State in Detroit, then transferred again two years later to UH, where he had to sit out a season due to losing some academic credits in his moves. He started the final eight games of the 2003 season for the Cougars at right guard. Evans asked the NCAA for another year of eligibility but was denied.

Evans’ best chance at a roster spot is if Chester Pitts stays at tackle. If Pitts moves inside to left guard, then the roster would appear set at guard with starters Pitts and Zach Wiegert and reserves Milford Brown and Weary.

OT Ryan Bachman, Nebraska-Kearney. Like Seth Wand, Bachman is a tall (6’6”) offensive tackle from a Division II school in the Midwest. He began his college career as a defensive lineman, but started the last three years at left tackle. Pass blocking is his strong suit.

OT Brad Lekkerkerker, California-Davis. Lekkerkerker, lost his father to cancer at age nine and did not have the luxury of participating in organized sports. He did not play high school football as he needed to work on his family’s dairy farm instead. Five years after graduating from high school, he joined his younger brother on the Chaffey Community College football team and developed into a junior college All-American.

Some major programs recruited him out of the JUCO ranks, but under NCAA rules because he had briefly attended another junior college years earlier (but did not play football there), he would have only had one more year of eligibility if he had gone to a Division I-A school. His situation was similar in many ways to the one that resulted in Milford Brown entering the supplemental draft in 2002 instead of playing another season at Florida State. Ohio State petitioned the NCAA for another season on his behalf, but to no avail. Instead Lekkerkerker (rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) went to Cal-Davis, a Division II program that moved up to Division I-AA his senior year, and played right tackle. His brother is Cal-Davis’ left tackle. Brad has ideal size (6’7”, 330) and held his own in the East-West Shrine Game. At 26, he is old for a rookie, but in the era of free agency, that does not matter as much as it once did. The Texans gave him a $25,000 signing bonus, the most any upfront money given to any undrafted free agent this year.

If Wand claims the starting left tackle job and Pitts moves to guard, Wand and Todd Wade could be the only “pure” tackles that the Texans keep on the roster. Guards Pitts and Wiegert should be capable of backing up the left and right tackle spots, respectively. The other competition with Bachman and Lekkerkerker for the tackle positions is Garrick Jones, Curry Dawson, and Elliott Silvers. Jones and Dawson spent parts of the 2003 season on the Texans’ practice squad and roster. Silvers started at right guard for Cologne of NFL-Europe.

Lekkerkerker’s bonus shows that the Texans believe that he can make the team, but it does not ensure him of a spot. Last year, the Texans gave David Pruce, considered the best offensive tackle to have played in NFL-Europe that year, the biggest bonus ever paid to a free agent from that league. Pruce did not make the Texans’ regular season roster.

NT Ifo Pili, Brigham Young. Pili grew up in Samoa and moved to Utah during high school. He took two years off from school and football in the middle of his college career to go on a Mormon mission. Pili started two seasons at defensive tackle before taking over the starting nose tackle job when the Cougars switched to a three-man line in 2003. He is known as a mature player (probably because due to redshirting and his mission, seven years have passed since he started college) who played his senior season as a graduate student and is married with two children. Pili is a widebody who can eat blocks and stuff the run, but is not going to generate much of a pass rush. That weakness should not be too great of a negative since the Texans typically do not use a nose tackle on passing downs anyway.

Dom Capers has said that Jerry Deloach, who has started every game in franchise history at end, would be the team’s first option on the nose if starter Seth Payne is not able to return from injury as he is expected to do. Deloach’s versatility means that the Texans should not need to keep more than one nose tackle besides Payne, so Pili would have to beat out both Junior Ioane and Jeremy Slechta. Ioane is another swingman who started four games at end last year but also contributes in the middle. Pili has a size advantage on Slechta but cannot match the veteran’s quickness and motor.

DE D.J. Renteria, New Mexico. Renteria is from Roswell, New Mexico, so he could be the target of some “alien autopsy”-inspired hazing during training camp. A standout high school linebacker, he played several D-line positions in various fronts during college. Renteria prepared for the draft with trainer Danny Arnold in Houston and now weighs about 295 pounds, ten pounds heavier than his New Mexico playing weight. That is still on the light side when compared with the Texans’ other defensive linemen, but Renteria is very strong, can take on blockers, and plays hard.

With Gary Walker and Robaire Smith set as the starting ends and Deloach and Corey Sears filling out the rotation, there does not appear to be any room on the roster for Renteria. If the Texans were to make room for or need another end, he would have to pass two former undrafted free agents, Terrance Martin and Jason Davis, on the depth chart.

OLB Phil Smith, Miami of Ohio. Smith signed with the Texans on June 1, after a short stint with the Ravens. In 14 games his senior season, Smith was credited with 74 tackles (including 51 solo and 23 for loss), 9.5 sacks (second most in the Mid-American Conference, behind Jason Babin), nine quarterback hurries, six pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, and a blocked kick. Smith, a tweener, started three years at left end in the Redhawks’ 4-3 defense after beginning his redshirt freshman year at linebacker when that position was depleted by injuries.

Smith joins a host of young outside linebackers vying for what will likely be at most only one roster opening. Kailee Wong, Antwan Peek, and Babin have three of the spots locked up. Based upon his pre-injury 2003 performance, Shantee Orr appears to be the favorite for the last spot, leaving Smith, draftees Charlie Anderson and Raheem Orr, and first-year player Anthony Dunn between a rock and a hard place.

The NFL has expanded the size of each team’s practice squad this year, which is great news for the rookies discussed here. The practice squad is the closest thing that the NFL has to an in-season minor league. As the name implies, practice squad players may participate in practices but not games. The practice squad can give a young player an extended tryout and an opportunity to fill a roster spot if an opening occurs.

Practice squads are open to players who have not been credited with a year of NFL experience. This includes both rookies and other players who have not been on an NFL roster or injured reserve list for at least six games in a single season. A player may not be a practice squader for more than two seasons.

Practice squad players will make at least $4,350 per week in 2004, which is nothing to sneeze at but less than half of the minimum weekly salary of a rookie on the roster. They do not accrue NFL experience (towards free agency, higher minimum salaries, or other benefits). A practice squad player is free to sign with any other team at any time as long as the team places him on its roster, not its practice squad.

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