Greetings. My name is Stephanie Stradley (@StephStradley). I'm a Houston Texans fan, write about the Houston Texans for the Houston Chronicle Online, and have attended training camp regularly for many years.
My philosophy is that fans want to hear whatever truths can be found about the team--good, bad, certain and uncertain. For me, I like to explain what I know, the limitations of that knowledge and how I know it. Then you can draw your own conclusions.
Unlike most years, fans from all over can watch what is happening both at camp and behind closed doors while watching HBO Hard Knocks. I've been receiving a lot of questions about things they've watched, and I'd like to use this as a place to put the answers.
I'm also answering general training camp questions.
(Note: I'll be answering non-duplicate questions when I have time to respond and this conversation will show up on my the Houston Chronicle Texans blog. So your question won't show up immediately. Please ask away though).
First on football things. The number 1A flashiest takeaway from OTAs/minicamps was how good Brian Cushing looked. How well he moved. There isn't hitting then, but you know Cushing can hit a guy. But in a couple of practices, I saw him run downfield with a fast wide receiver, and he looked more like himself.
So I asked Bill O'Brien about him specifically, and really wasn't expecting much of an answer because usually he doesn't like to talk much about individuals over team, but this was his relatively effusive response:
"I really have a lot of respect for him. He and I have had a few talks over the last year, year and a half just making sure that he understands how I see his role in the defense and his role in this team. He’s a leader of this team. He’s taken to heart some of the things that he and I have talked about. He’s come back and had a hell of an offseason. He’s moving well. He made a play today out there in a two-minute drill on about a 20-yard pass where he got back in coverage and he tipped the ball away. That was a big play. It was good for me to see that. I think he felt good about making that play, but that’s an example of how far he’s come from the end of last year. I thought he was playing pretty well. I think he changed his training regime a little bit this offseason. I have very high expectations for Brian. He’s a good football player and really one of the leaders of our team."
Then we got Brian Cushing in and he told us how much better he feels, and how more comfortable he feels in the defense, and how he sorta lied to us before about how he was feeling:
"Yeah, yeah. If it’s not 100 percent, maybe it’s 98, 99, so I mean, I can say that up here and really mean it. I’ve said it before and really haven’t, so I’m telling you the truth right now. I feel great and just really excited to be back out there. Mentally the best I’ve been in a while because physically it’s the best I’ve been in a long, long time."
What "changed in his training regime?" Cushing said that he could actually prepare for the season like a football player instead of focusing most of his time just getting a functional knee back. Basic stuff.
Most camps that Cushing has been in since the beginning of his time with the Texans, he has been dealing with physical issues that they've held him out to prepare for the real season. I'm glad the second episode of Hard Knocks focused on him more, but even beyond what you can see, his mobility looks really good out there. If the defense gets the Cushing of old, boy that is some cherry on the top of it.
Personality-wise, if you are just dealing with him one-on-one, he is a thoughtful, quiet interview. When he is playing, he truly is a bit of a maniac. Personally, I like it because if you are going to be linebacker meathead, you might as well go all in, and be smart and funny about it.
Most coaches want nothing to do with Hard Knocks. They don't like distractions, and their days are long enough without having to have any part of their brains thinking about the camera.
And certainly, as someone from the Belichick tree who doesn't like players talking about individuals, it isn't something that he would naturally embrace at all. He is kind talking about the people working at Hard Knocks, but it is clear he doesn't like it.
But he also realizes that for the organization it is great exposure, and he is a smart team player on such things. He likely knows that for better-worse, Hard Knocks can help-hinder perceptions of coaches and teams.
The Hard Knocks people told me before the first episode that he would be the best head coach on the show since Rex. (slight praise, of course).
He's a smart guy. I'm sure he recognizes that there are smart ways to work with this stuff to try to make it a net positive for his team and himself personally.
I think it is great because there are many moments where you see him being very entertaining and funny that without Hard Knocks, most fans would not see up close.
That said, I understand that there are things that he has done to make sure that the focus of the show is on the team and not him personally. For example, I understand that not having a focus in the show on his son who has medical issues was intentional.
Coach O'Brien had a kickass speech to open up the series. One of the things he harps on is the lack of respect the Texans get in the media.
As someone who covers the team and is in touch with the fans down there, is this something people talk, or even care, about?
Well, the joke is always that when the Texans are "On The Clock" during the NFL draft, that is when the networks go to commercial. Generally, I think there is a view that something doesn't exist unless it happens near the northeast media markets.
That said, I think individually people have different views on that. Personally, I don't care one bit about it. "Lack of respect" blahblah is good to hype people up, but you get respect by winning and succeeding. Winning takes care of everything.
Some years it is easy to indentify the best performing QB. This is not one of those years.
Both Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett have had up and down days. The biggest concerns are ones of streaky (in)accuracy. The biggest upside is that both of them look far better than anyone last year running the offense as it is meant to be run. This means that instead of almost a street ball where the football goes to the top two receivers, this year I think the ball will be distributed to more targets.
O'Brien basically conceded that in a question I asked him, and at least in camp and in the first preseason game, that looked to be the case.
Barring injury or a particularly outstanding performance in the preseason, I would guess that Brian Hoyer gets the job. Mostly because of experience and the guess that O'Brien trusts him more.
I discussed these issues more before camp, and I think pretty much most of the thoughts remain the same.
As for Tom Savage, it is hard to tell what his upside will be. So much of the NFL is opportunity, and with the best reps being split between Hoyer-Mallett, he doesn't get a ton of opportunity.
Because of his unusual college background, he is a bit of a developmental guy, but at least from practice he doesn't look like he is out of his element. He often has very good practice sessions where you wish you could watch him get more reps.
You can definitely see improvement from last year in his understanding of the system and where the ball is supposed to go.
Last year, at the beginning of OTAs, he was the only one of the quarterbacks who looked like he had a NFL arm. Definitely can sling it on deep throws. I would like to see him improve on short throws/more to the left side of field. And just thethings that a lot of quarterbacks have to work on transitioning from college to the pros.
Not sure if the Texans QB of the future is on this roster, but Savage has as good a shot as anyone. I'd like to see more of his play, but that likely won't happen 2015.
They discussed it in the first episode but I've heard that it was a choice not to follow him through the surgery process. Generally speaking, the Texans approach with most team matters is that they want the focus to be on those players who are the field, and not those who aren't. Both from a health privacy standpoint and from a competitive perspective.
I get that. If it doesn't help winning or accomplish any other team goal, they don't want people to be in their business.
Would you say that over the last 2 camps you've seen more focus on player development than you saw with Kubiak? I know it's only been a year, and we haven't seen 2nd year guys really play yet, but it already seems like we've seen growth from some players, and it definitely seems like OB has strong position coaches. (at least at LB and QB)
I think some of the differences of the Kubiak v O'Brien camps is a little overblown. Some of that is due to the restrictions under the CBA of what can be done each day in camp--you really have fewer differences between coaching staffs than before those changes. Both camps pretty high energy--little wasted time.
I think the most obvious change from Kubiak to O'Brien is the more technique focused work that Mike Vrabel brings to the linebacker group. I think his hands on work with the players and experience is good for their development.
(Also to clarify, I did not like much of the defensive staff pre-Wade Phillips years, and think the current staff does good work.)
In addition, the Texans were used to very good offensive line coaching during Kubiak years--very experienced coaches who brought different things to the table, teaching-wise. I think 2014 was a drop off--the offensive line coach was not the first choice for the staff--and was fired this last off season.
I've been told that the new coach, Mike Devlin is much better on technique and incorporating it within the scheme. That, the younger players in particular had a bit of a lost season with the old Oline coach, and the new coach should be better.
Of course, the quality of the assistant work is something that is seen over time. I am still waiting for improvement on special teams but it is hard to tell how much of that is coaching, and how much of it is roster and/or both.
I wish I had a good answer for you but so far I have my extreme unimpressed faced on with all of the options I've seen in practice and in the preseason.
If I were guessing, this will be an issue during the regular season as well, perhaps the biggest issue for special teams.
Not really pertaining to training camp but it will probably appear on Hard Knocks: The condition of the field at NRG was horrible against Denver..... Embarrassing. I was shocked when during halftime they addressed all the so-called "improvements" while totally neglecting the most obvious need! The Texans and the city of Houston should be ashamed.
I wish I had a good answer for that but I have nothing.
I care less about how it looks and more about how well it works for players and whether the field feels consistent throughout with no noticeable seams. Various players have said various things about it. Litigation and the threat of future litigation relating to the field likely results in very little public candor about the team's view of it and their future plans.
I'm very intrigued with this WR class. Best ever, even without Andre Johnson. They seem to have gotten bigger, faster, more explosive so your point taken about QB's spreading ball around to more targets spot on. Problem is cut downs, who makes roster & how many? I feel six deserve roster spot w/o Martin included so who now has inside track to make this Texans WR depth chart for 2015 season?
Thanks for all you do 😊
I am not as bullish on the wide receiver class as a whole as you. I am very wait and see because we don't have much of a track record to judge how this will work/not work.First on Andre Johnson. I get the rationale behind him not being a Texans player any more--money/cap/age/roster structure/scheme/his desire to play with a more skilled quarterback. Great aging vet players getting dumped is the most common story in the NFL.You can believe that point of view while also believing that replacing the production of his targets can be a challenge and the transition with teams often isn't seamless.Particularly for got-to-have-it, move-the-sticks, body-position throws. Texans fans are so spoiled in just those stupid possession throws that Johnson had plenty of--it is disturbing to see how many of those are dropped by lesser receivers.Great quarterbacks can often manage through these big changes but the Texans do not have that franchise QB. (Not trying to rub it in, just sayin. Brady-Manning-Brees for example, have had a parade of wide receivers they made better).Also, creating chemistry between quarterbacks-wide receiver is a transition that can take varying lengths.Ryan Fitzpatrick targeted Hopkins and Johnson a ton because if he threw it in their vicinity, it likely would get caught. Other wide receiver options were not as reliable. Johnson has been a reliable target for years, and Hopkins has developed into that.The only consistent oh-wow guy I see out of the wide receivers is DeAndre Hopkins. He looked like a dominant oh-wow WR from the first day his rookie year. He had to learn more of the pro-game, but his catch radius, body awareness skills were obvious.The rest of the wide receivers do not strike me as that sort of talent. As for tight end targets, I don't see a Gronk-type dominate athlete on the roster that would justify targets...I get nervous seeing Watt line up as TE on goal line, but he is more money than many options at the offensive skill positions.For large parts of his career, Andre Johnson had to succeed despite NFL defenses using exotic defenses to try to make the Texans win with other players. DeAndre Hopkins may be facing that unless the Brian Hoyer and the other targets make defenses respect them. Not having Arian Foster doesn't help with this.It doesn't matter how much athleticism or size wide receivers have if they can't consistently do the fundamental thing which is to catch the @#$% football. How well this group of targets do I don't have a good sense for yet. It is disturbing to me how often in just 7 on 7s in practice, there tends not to be a lot of throw-catch consistency.Too many errant throws/dropped balls. Part of that may be scheme transition things, but that has to be concerning.So in sum, I am very wait and see on this wide receiver group. It is an open question to see how much O'Brien's staff can system their way through these things.Based on your projections, how many above-average ability skill position players do the Texans have currently? I think the list begins and ends at DeAndre Hopkins right now. That isn't a novel thought, but until the rest of the guys play consistently and dominate, it is hard to project them to dominate.
Love your writing, just flows & full of information. I am by no means an expert all things Texans as you are (the best) but I would release two starters @ WR Keshawn Martin & DaMaris Johnson with Nate Washington & Chandler Worthy & not blink an eye.
Andre is replaced by Cecil Shorts who is only in his 5th year, underrated as all get out, coming into his prime & ready to help fill the void left by a Hall of Fame'er nearing end of his career.
The 4th WR gone that most of us would like to just forget ( DeVier Posey) never delivered promise as expected I'll take my chances with EZ who now has a year under his belt & looks like he knows his way around the field in this offense.
While there will inevitably be some drop off from Andre's Production last year (85 receptions 936 yards & 3 TD's) Cecil had a little more than half that (53 receptions 557 yards & 1 TD) Hopkins had already established himself (production wise) as Texans #1 WR (76 receptions 1210 yards & 6 TD's) in 2014. We could very well see DeAndre Hopkins become a top 10 WR in the league in only his 3rd season, just have to feed him a little more as others work their way into O'Brian's offense.
Alan Bonner returns, he was out all last season. Labhart is also in his second year as a Texan (though I'm not seeing him anything more at this point that practice squad material). If all that doesn't balance out into better depth across the board Texans 3rd round pick Jaelan Strong has that big NFL Bod & red zone target Texans have lacked, if he can grasp & develop coaching he receives. Plus Texans added Mumphrey in the 5th rd. who is a solid special teams guy with some physical & intelligence traits coveted on really good well balanced teams. Jayce Davis is a sleeper I would stash on the practice squad, like his size & hands.
In summary, long as Texans have existed, I've never been as encouraged going into a season about the WR group as a whole. While not as top heavy with a #1a & #1b they are solid through 5 for sure, but I'm going to say 6 depending on how you count Worthy against the roster as simply a Returner or WR/Ret? I would be interested to see your breakdown on who makes roster, practice squad or otherwise traded/released.
Thank you, Wesley.
This is the optimistic time of year for all fanbases. And I don't want to be a buzzkill. I'm just very wait and see on this given what I've seen in camp.
The Texans for years tried to find free agents/draft picks to get companions to Andre Johnson and didn't get a dynamic guy until they chose DeAndre Hopkins in the first round of a very good wide receiver draft.
So, that they haven't been very successful in the past at that, doesn't preclude success in the future with a different coach, system, more personnel guys, etc.
That said, there is nothing I've seen in camp that makes me go wow, that guy is a hoover that catches everything thrown in his general direction, Hopkins excepted. Because it doesn't matter what someone's measurables are if they can't consistently catch the ball.
Nate Washington, by my eyes, has been the best combination of consistency and athleticism out of the rest of the group. Which makes sense because he is an experienced guy.
But others may see things differently, and it is good to have varying opinions because we all have different life experiences that inform our views.
The good news is that we are both making predictions. And that they end up playing real games so we get to see for sure. And the NFL is the best reality programming in the world.
As a related topic given some of the candidates for this are WRs, I have some concerns for kick and punt returner. I think that may end up being another adventure again, and not in a good way.
Philosophically, I like when the backup players are players who I think could be NFL starters if they were given opportunities. Kind of like Eric Winston as a rookie, who stood out when he was playing backup in the preseason, and once he got his opportunity, took advantage of it.
And though I think positional flexibility is important given limited roster sizes, sometimes it risks jack-of-all-trades, masters-of-none, particularly given the roles on the line.
Good news first. I like the starters at tackle. They need to be wrapped in bubble wrap because I do not like the options backing them up.
There are a number of guys on this line who are very unproven at the positions they are playing. I think Ben Jones will be good at his natural position center, but we won't know until real games go. Center is the glue for the offense, has to be relied on every game, and you don't know durability until you see it consistently every game.
His backup, James Ferentz is physically not what you would want in a future starter, and both risk being overpowered at the line.
The injury to Xavier Su'a-Filo is tough. It means he is not getting work he needs now personally, and with the Oline group as a whole. It expose Jeff Adams at guard, who positionally is game to play guard but is more of a tackle.
Last year was kind of a lost year for XSF because he came in late because of when he was allowed under the rules to come in for camp after graduating, and technically the coaching wasn't good for offensive line rookies.
Backups at guard are then obviously A Concern.
I know that nationally, sports talk wise, QB competitions are more flashy, but to me, Oline is going to make or break the Texans offense. Doesn't matter how well everyone knows the offense if there is a weak link there.
(New England over the years did amazing things with their long time assistant coach/Oline coach Dante Scarnecchia. Quick release QB + line working together did some magic things, even when they didn't have the top quality players on the line).
Not sure we will have a good sense of this in the preseason because the Texans starters haven't played much.
Do EZ or Labhart really have a chance of making the final 53?
With his limited reps thus far at practice, will Clowney really have any chance of playing in the opener?
Can you name any non-starter who has a chance of making the roster that hasn't been a special teams standout?
Have you noticed any coach or player trying to mentally censor themselves due to the abundance of Hard Knocks crew?
1. Sometimes the end of the WR roster doesn't become obvious until the end of the preseason. Sometimes it is a question of who survives camp not injured. Think both are longshots because unless they can do return duties well, they are relatively expendable.
2. Yes. That's what coach said. Not likely complicated stuff but working him in. That is what the Texans have been saying publicly all along, and the timetable I heard privately was possible health-wise when he was first operated on.
3. None really come to mind. Once again, it is a surviving camp healthy thing, and then assessing numbers at each position. Sometimes a guy can be having a good camp, but if the numbers are hurting at a different position spot, or they acquire a guy dropped from another team, he gets cut/put on practice squad.
4. Hard to say that because I'm not in their minds. But given the number of cameras that are everywhere, it is hard not to be conscious of them. I think there was a bit more fighting and jibber jabber talk than usual. Cushing will do that when he is miked for sure.
Stephanie, a lot has been made about the QB competition and now the selection of Hoyer as the starter. In your opinion was it truly a 50/50 equal competition? Some fans think it was Hoyer's job to lose. Personally, I think by consistent, OB weighed decision making more than anything else. We the fans only see the throws, plays etc. but we don't know what the reads/decisions the QBs make. What are your thoughts?
What Bill O'Brien has consistently said is that he will do whatever is best for the team. He has maintained throughout that it was a real competition, and neither one of the QBs really stood out in practice. I can see personality/mental makeup wise why you might go with Brian Hoyer--seems like more of a starting QB personality type. Experience a plus factor too.
"Missing his alarm" right after the announcement on 3rd game of the season prep week doesn't tend to help Ryan Mallett's case much, does it?
What doesn't make one lick of sense to me is to on one hand praise Bill O'Brien as a quarterback guru, but then also saying that he should have picked this other guy. For better or worse, he gets the responsibility for the outcome.
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