Texans have talent on offense

With plenty of talented young players things are looking up in Houston.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:50 AM ET
By Jim Carley | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

The biggest excitement in the offseason was the selection of two promising defensive standouts -- CB Dunta Robinson of South Carolina and OLB Jason Babin of Western Michigan -- in the first round of the draft, picks made with the intention of shoring up an ailing defense. Both were anointed as starters on draft day.

The biggest free-agent signings were ORT Todd Wade, TE Mark Bruener and DL Robaire Smith. All three should make big impacts in their areas. But perhaps the most significant, if quiet, change on the team came when Joe Pendry was brought in as OL coach.

Head coach Dom Capers' former offensive coordinator at Carolina, Pendry has switched the line to a zone-blocking scheme, and the Texans privately are having difficulty containing their enthusiasm over the prospects of this revamped and redirected unit.

Quarterbacks: David Carr's road to improvement last season hit some bumps when he missed five starts with injuries. Still, his completion percentage was up slightly from 52.5 as a rookie to 56.6 last year; his QB rating improved marginally (62.8-69.5). The Texans, however, have seen marked progress in preseason and believe he will make big strides this year. Carr is becoming a better leader and starting to spread the ball around amongst receivers. While he was hurt, Tony Banks showed how strong the Texans' backup spot is by leading the team to wins over Atlanta and NFC champion Carolina and pushing Super Bowl champion New England to overtime before losing. Banks had career bests for QB rating (84.3) and completion percentage (59.8) before breaking his hand in the 12th game. The third quarterback, Dave Ragone, started two games after that and struggled. He has not looked any better in training camp this season. Grade: B-plus.

Running backs: Health is the biggest concern at this position. NFL Rookie of the Year Domanick Davis, who was so surprising in rushing for 1,031 yards while starting the last 10 games, is the clear-cut starter. But Davis, a fourth-round draft pick who was No. 4 on the depth chart entering last season, has missed much of training camp with a sprained ankle. His backup, Tony Hollings, looked good before bruising his ribs in the second preseason game. Hollings also has a fumbling problem, which has coaches very concerned. Jonathan Wells has had his best training camp but also has been slowed by a sore knee. Davis returned the last week of training camp, and if he's healthy, the running game is in good shape. FBs Moran Norris and Jarrod Baxter are punishing blockers who accept their roles of rarely touching the ball. Grade: B-plus.

Receivers: The Texans believe WR Andre Johnson is poised to become one of the league's elite receivers. He led all AFC rookies in catches (66) and yards (976) and was a finalist for Offensive Rookie of the Year. On the other side, Corey Bradford has big-play ability - his 19.2 yards-per-catch average was tops in the AFC among players with 20 or more receptions. Entering training camp, backup Jabar Gaffney complained that Carr didn't spread the passes around better, but he seemed happier after seeing more passes in camp. Derick Armstrong had a solid training camp and will see increased playing time, but the depth is questionable. Billy Miller has been the tight end when the Texans were in passing situations and Jabari Holloway the run blocker. But free-agent addition Bruener might consolidate the position. The 10-year veteran has seemed to have new life and had an impressive training camp. Whoever plays, the TE position is in very good shape. Grade: B-minus.

Offensive linemen: This might be the area of the team that improves most. It made leaps and bounds from Year One to Year Two, when it cut down from an NFL-record 76 sacks allowed to only 36 last year. This season, with Pendry coaching them to zone-block and two significant personnel changes, the line could be greatly improved. The best personnel move was bringing in Wade from Miami and installing him at right tackle. Then last spring the Texans moved Seth Wand, the third-round draft pick in 2003 from tiny Northwest Missouri State, into the starting OLT spot, and he has been better than they could have hoped. That allowed the team to move two-year starter Chester Pitts, who was probably always out of position, to the OLG spot. With veterans Steve McKinney at center and Zach Wiegert at right guard, the team has its best front five ever and some respectable depth in Milford Brown, Todd Washington and Fred Weary. The Texans are quietly hoping for great things from this line. Grade: B.

Defensive linemen: Health is the biggest concern here. Pro Bowl DE Gary Walker missed all but four games last season because of toe and shoulder injuries, and veteran NT Seth Payne missed 14 games after having knee surgery. Both are back and insist they are healthy, although Walker had a groin injury late in camp and Payne, who had two follow-up "procedures" on his knee during the offseason, has been brought along very slowly, as the team only hopes to have him completely ready for the opener. But Smith came in from Tennessee and has looked solid in his move to end. Jerry DeLoach, who has started all 32 of the Texans' games and had more than 100 total tackles in each of the team's two seasons, has been forced to the second team. Thus, the Texans feel good about their depth here, including DE Junior Ioane and Corey Sears, both of whom played extensively last season. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: The Texans feel ILB Jamie Sharper was the most underrated defender in the league last year after he led the NFL in tackles and had no post-season honors to show for it. He's back to bolster the inside along with Jay Foreman, who had 180 tackles. But the OLB duo could see the biggest improvement on the defense as veteran Kailee Wong has moved from the LOLB spot to right outside linebacker, and Babin has taken over on the left. Babin is quick and intense, and while he still has a lot to learn, the Texans believe he is future Pro Bowl material. Capers says Babin reminds him of former Pro Bowler Kevin Greene, whom Capers coached in Pittsburgh. And Antwan Peek, who missed five games with injury as a rookie, has looked good enough on the other side that Wong has been seeing some time at the inside spot opposite Sharper. Grade: B.

Defensive backs: One of the league's best cornerbacks, Aaron Glenn, made his third Pro Bowl in Houston's first season in 2002, but a nagging groin injury limited him to only 11 games last year. He's healthy and has looked superb in training camp. Marcus Coleman had been picked on, playing the other corner much of the last two seasons. But the Texans took Robinson with their first pick in April and immediately pronounced Robinson the starter opposite Glenn. They moved Coleman, who had a career-high seven interceptions last year, to free safety, where his size (6-2, 206) and athleticism might be more suited. That could solve two problems for the Texans, who have always had concerns at free safety, as Coleman has taken to the position well. Robinson is still learning and will make many mistakes, but his great catch-up speed will probably keep him in the starting lineup while he completes the education. SS Eric Brown still is one of the league's most feared hitters. Backup CBs Kenny Wright, Jason Bells and Demarcus Faggins, who has come a long way from last season, and S Marlon McCree provide quality depth. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams: PK Kris Brown and P Chad Stanley are top-quality kickers. Both are solid and steady. Brown hit 18-of-22 (.818) of his field goals and all 27 PATs. Stanley averaged 41.5 yards a punt and downed 36 inside the 20, best in the league. But the return game is still not where the Texans would like it, and they were still unsettled at those positions as they left training camp. Incumbent J.J. Moses and rookie Vontez Duff had not been spectacular, and the Texans were still looking for a big-play maker. Grade: C.

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