July 7, 2003 Standing Pat
by Bob Hulsey
If you were to think about an NFL team that was projected to return 19 of the 24 starters they had from the previous year, with no more than two draft choices expected to compete for a starting job, you’d probably picture a strong, steady franchise like the Oakland Raiders or the Pittsburgh Steelers. But it’s the Houston Texans I’m talking about. Coming off a 4-12 record, they’re expected to take roughly the same lineup into battle as the year before.
I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but it looks like there will be few starting jobs up for grabs when Camp Capers starts later this month in the Bayou City. Improvement and consistency will be the mantra. There won’t be a lot of new faces to learn.
The defense is rock steady. There’s no need to change Pro Bowlers Gary Walker and Aaron Glenn, nor linebacker Jamie Sharper. They are the three-pronged studs that keep the "D" standing straight. Walker will again be teamed with Seth Payne on the defensive line and, while Jerry DeLoach did little to distinguish himself at defensive end, he projects to line up there again this year. DeLoach must beat out fellow returnee Corey Sears for playing time but nobody else other than a true dark horse is expected to compete for his job.
Sharper joins Jay Foreman and Kailee Wong as 3-4 linebackers. The only question seems to be the ROLB spot where ex-Saint Charlie Clemons will get the first look. Converted DEs Patrick Chukwurah and Erik Flowers may figure into the mix along with third-round speed rusher Antwan Peek.
The secondary looks no different with Marcus Coleman joining Glenn at cornerback and the tandem of Eric Brown and Matt Stevens manning the safeties. A challenge may arise at the safety spot, either from last year’s fifth-rounder Ramon Walker or free agent Traveras Tillman. Brown and Stevens both have their weaknesses but no better alternative exists on the roster.
Kicking chores should continue to be handled by placekicker Kris Brown and punter Chad Stanley. Both performed well even though the lackluster offense made their jobs more difficult.
Whatever changes you see in the 2003 Texans will likely be on the offense, which surely doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s struggles. Most of the faces won’t be new here either but it’s hoped that many of the rookies will blossom in their second seasons. That includes, of course, QB David Carr who has bulked up as if he was going to be a stand-in for The Incredible Hulk. Getting sacked a league-record 76 times might be behind the added muscle but receivers who had trouble with his bullets last year hope it didn’t add anything to his Ryanesque fastball. Yikes.
Corey Bradford and Jabar Gaffney will be back as the two primary wideouts but one of them is just marking time until first-round pick Andre "The Quiet Man" Johnson takes over. Johnson must first be signed, learn the playbook and learn how to beat the savvy DBs around the league but then watch him become the new big-play man on offense. Johnson and tight end Bennie Joppru, Houston’s second-round choice, are the only draftees with a realistic chance to start by season’s end. Joppru will probably be worked into the lineup gradually while returnee Billy Miller starts.
Stacey Mack comes to town from Jacksonville with a one-year contract and a hunger to start. Last year’s tandem of James Allen and Jonathan Wells are back but Mack the Knife is the one expected to add life to a weak running game. Jarrod Baxter returns at fullback.
So the big change, as you might have expected, will be on the offensive wall where center Steve McKinney appears to be the only set piece to the puzzle. Chester Pitts and free agent signee Zach Weigert will fit in somewhere, either as the two tackles or as right tackle and left guard respectively.
The key to the line, in more ways than one, is LT Tony Boselli who sat out all last year with a bad shoulder and will try again to anchor the offensive line this year. While technically a "new" starter, Boselli has been here since the beginning. He’s in a make-or-break situation for his career.
The last line spot looks to be the best competition in camp. Returning Texans Fred Weary and Ryan Schau will battle it out along with rookie Milford Brown and ex-Patriot Greg Randall. Since several of these players have been tried in multiple positions, expect a lot of lineup juggling this summer while Capers looks for the right combination.
With Jermaine Lewis gone, the kick return job is open. Avion Black, who had one runback for a touchdown last season, has the inside track with fourth-round choice Dominick Davis another option.
There will be some good battles going on for backup positions but, for such a young organization, it’s surprising to see that the starting crew is pretty much set before camp opens. The only other expansion team to see so little turnover going into their second season was the Carolina Panthers, who were also coached by Dom Capers. But the Panthers were coming off a 7-9 season and were loaded with veterans. The Texans are an experienced bunch on one side of the ball but the offense is young and can’t point to a lot of NFL success, individually or collectively.
With a schedule considered tougher than their inaugural season, early predictions have the Texans winning four-to-six games this year. If so, one has to question just a little bit why the Texans are staying the course in so many positions. You’d expect DeLoach, Stevens and Baxter, at the very least, to have to fight for their jobs but each seems reasonably safe. Much of the draft help seemed geared towards depth rather than finding new starters for this season. Other than the signings of Mack, Clemons and Weigert, the free agent market was pretty quiet too – and none of them look like long-term solutions.
None of this is to say that the Texans won’t be better than they were last year. The overworked defense looked better than their 16th in the league ranking from last season so they won’t need to be that much better than before. It’s the young offense that must prove that the rookie jitters are behind them and that they are ready to click more dependably than they did in 2002. To accomplish that, the line will have to protect Carr better and give the backs holes to run through.
It will be hard to believe, though, that almost the same lineup as last year’s won’t wind up with roughly the same results. I wouldn’t expect any major breakthroughs and a sub-.500 record in 2003 is almost a guarantee.
The aw-gee newness of last year’s camp will be replaced this season with a routine that looks pretty similar to your typical veteran NFL summer. Don’t get too bored though. There’s always somebody who comes out of nowhere to win a job. I just have no idea right now who that could possibly be.
Bob Hulsey never liked summer camp what with the ants, mosquitoes, cheap beds, bad food and lack of privacy. Maybe if they had "computer camps" when he was young, he’d feel differently.
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