Five observations on the Houston Texans, based on training camp practices of Aug. 6-7:
1. Ever heard of Derick Armstrong? That's what we figured. Even the most hard-core fans, at least outside the Houston city limits, have no idea about the identity of the Texans' second-year wide receiver. But watch Armstrong in camp and it's obvious that, while he is incredibly raw, he is also immensely talented. A former Arkansas-Monticello star, Armstrong makes, it seems, at least one jaw-dropping, acrobatic grab per practice. The onetime starter for the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders has size and speed, and the Houston defensive backs have taken to asking offensive coordinator Chris Palmer when he is going to get the guy on the field for extended snaps. But, ah, that's the problem and, in a rather circuitous way, it's the point of this convoluted exercise on Derick Armstrong, who played in nine games in 2003 and posted seven catches for 75 yards. The Texans have now surrounded quarterback David Carr with a very nice trio of wideouts, led by 2003 first-rounder Andre Johnson, who registered 66 catches for 976 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie.
In Johnson, third-year pro Jabar Gaffney and seventh-year veteran Corey Bradford, it's fair to say Houston has one of the league's best young threesomes. Gaffney was unfairly cast as a big-play performer when he came into the league, but is more an underneath receiver who should average about 12 yards per catch, and works nicely out of the slot. Bradford gets dogged a lot because of inconsistency, but the guy is a big-play threat on the outside. Sure, he's never posted more than 45 catches in a season, but he boasts a career average of 16.4 yards per grab, had a 19.2-yard norm in 2003, and has averaged 48.1 yards on his 10 touchdown catches with the Texans. Carr has to try to get the ball to Bradford more often. The big target is Johnson, the third overall player selected in the '03 draft, and an immensely talented player who is only going to get better. "The guy had 976 yards as a rookie and, if he just makes the normal jump that players usually experience in their second year, hey, how good is that?" said Palmer. Notable is that the Houston wide receivers add plenty of yards after the catch. Bradford averaged 9.9 yards after the catch in 2003 and Johnson led the AFC last season with 445 "YAC." The only element Johnson needs to overcome are his occasional lapses in concentration, which led to too many drops last year.
2. As both a coordinator and head coach, Dom Capers has always been a guy whose trademark 3-4 scheme has created plenty of sack opportunities. But the Texans recorded only 19 sacks in 2003, the second-lowest total in the league, the fewest ever for a Capers-designed defense, and 16 fewer than in Houston's maiden season. Clearly, you need some players in addition to the system, and the Texans have added some pieces that should help to reinvigorate the pass rush. General manager Charley Casserly moved back up into the first round to land a second pick in the opening stanza, having targeted linebacker Jason Babin, who notched 15 sacks in each of his last two seasons at Western Michigan. The Texans also grabbed underrated Rutgers defensive end Raheem Orr, who always seemed to play big in big games, and he also will move to linebacker in the 3-4 front. Babin is the key, having already moved into the starting lineup at left outside linebacker. He is the kind of hybrid player Capers favors at the position, and during Friday practices he flashed some natural pass rush skills. There were also times, however, when Babin found it difficult to disengage from the blocker. Houston desperately needs him to come through in a big way. The addition of Babin allows veteran Kailee Wong to move to the right outside spot, where he appears more comfortable. The six-year veteran was supposed to be a viable sack threat in 2003, but had only three sacks.
One late-round pick to watch: Sixth-round choice Charlie Anderson, another former college defensive end, from Mississippi, who fits more as a linebacker in the Houston scheme. Anderson certainly doesn't have the press clippings of Babin, or even Orr, but did a nice job Friday and Saturday, and is having a very nice camp. Anderson had only 12½ sacks in college, but has some natural twitch in getting off the ball. None of the guys on the roster is going to remind people of some of Capers' past sack threats, like Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon, but they're going to have to produce, and to dramatically increase the pressure on the quarterbacks, if the Houston defense is to improve. On the bright side, the return to health of Gary Walker and the free-agent addition of Robaire Smith from Tennessee should upgrade a defensive line forced to scramble last year because of injuries.
3. Beyond the need for an improved pass rush, as noted above, there are a lot of keys for the Houston secondary as it attempts to improve from its No. 31 ranking statistically of a year ago. After eight seasons at cornerback, Marcus Coleman will move to free safety, a position he has not played since college. First-rounder Dunta Robinson, the 10th overall choice in this year's draft, slides into Coleman's spot on the right corner. And DeMarcus Faggins, who was just days away from being released in 2003 before Coleman was suspended for one game and the Texans were forced to keep him, has to demonstrate he will solidify the nickel spot the same way he did a year ago. So far, all three of the key components seem to be fitting well together, and the secondary has looked much better in camp. Coleman had a career-best seven interceptions in 2003, nearly one-third of his career total, and the aggressiveness he always demonstrated at cornerback should project well to safety. He looked comfortable directing the defensive backfield in both of Friday's practices and doesn't appear hesitant at all. Robinson was essentially named a starter the day he was drafted and the former South Carolina star seems up to the task. He is certainly a bright player, which was displayed in the Friday afternoon session when he made a terrific read on a Dolphins bootleg-action play and covered Miami wideout Kendall Newson all the way across the field. Robinson appears more quick than fast, but looked to possess nice makeup speed, and seems to move very fluidly to the ball. "There's so much to learn," he said, "but cornerback is still about using your instincts, too, and I think I'm a pretty aware player." Kenny Wright, the nickel corner for much of this expansion franchise's first two seasons, is still fighting back from knee surgery, and that should permit Faggins to retain the sub job, which isn't a bad thing. The former sixth-round pick was a revelation over the second half of the season, when he notched 12 pass deflections. He got three passes defensed versus Buffalo in extended playing time and then, in the season finale and his first NFL start, he limited Indianapolis star Marvin Harrison to two catches for 34 yards. Faggins actually lines up at right corner in the nickel alignment, allowing Robinson to slide into the slot. He knocked down three passes in the Friday sessions and showed nice burst to balls thrown in front of him and good recovery skills on deep passes up the boundary.
4. This is clearly the best corps of running backs the Texans have ever had in camp. Second-year tailback Domanick Davis, who rushed for 1,031 yards despite starting just 10 games as a rookie, seems determined to show that 2003 was no fluke. Tony Hollings, on whom the Texans invested a second-round pick in last summer's supplemental draft, appears to be rounding into form now that he is two seasons removed from college knee surgery. Hollings shows flashes of having regained the burst and "long speed" that marked his brief career at Georgia Tech. He's not as much of a downhill runner as Davis, but showed some toughness during a Thursday morning team drill, when he used an in-close forearm shiver to jolt an approaching Miami defender as the two neared the sideline. If he is healthy again, Hollings could be a very nice complement to Davis. Keep an eye on first-year tailback Jason Anderson, a former South Dakota player who was signed in January and allocated to the NFL Europe League. Anderson is a pretty intriguing guy, a player the coaches claim is the fastest on the team, and a runner who has done some good things in camp. At fullback, the Texans have finally developed a very good player, after struggling for two years to fill the spot with a solid player. Three-year veteran Moran Norris, who was claimed on waivers from New Orleans in 2002, has gotten rave reviews. The 254-pound Norris has grown into a terrific lead-blocker and he is the kind of selfless player you want at the position. His receiving skills still need some further development, but that will come.
5. In general, this is the most talented roster the Texans have assembled in their three-year history. That probably won't translate into a playoff spot in 2004, and might not even be enough to lift the Texans out of the division cellar. The AFC South is very competitive, with Indianapolis and Tennessee still the powers, and Jacksonville a chic pick by many pundits to be one of NFL's surprise teams in 2004. Privately, team officials still fret over a lack of depth at several positions, but feel the Texans can approach the .500 mark, and then perhaps challenge for a postseason berth in 2005. Those seem to be fairly realistic expectations. It is a franchise that has stayed the course and followed general manager Charley Casserly's blueprint, and eventually will be rewarded for doing so.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.