The Houston Texans have their deepest, most talented roster in team history this season, but there are still plenty of things to watch for this preseason. The starters won't play much on Saturday night, probably two series at most, so the young players and backups will have their opportunity to prove that they not only deserve to make the roster, but receive significant playing time. Over the next two games the starters will get the bulk of the playing time, so Saturday's game vs. the Carolina Panthers is their best opportunity to prove their worth.
Kickoff for the Texans 2012 season is finally here, so settle in, get ready; here are the five most important players to watch for Saturday night.
1. Keshawn Martin - The rookie 4th round pick out of Michigan State is the best hope for Texans fans who were begging the team to add talent and depth to the receiver position. Martin has been impressive over the last two weeks of training camp and looks poised to be the Texans slot receiver this upcoming season. Martin will see some time split out wide in the Carolina game with Andre Johnson not expected to play much, if at all (I'd prefer not at all), but I'm most interested in his snaps as the slot receiver and in the return game. The scouting report on Martin coming out of college was that he had quick feet and was elusive in open space. He's caught everything in practice so far, if he proves he can get open and separate at this level; he'll be a huge asset for the Texans.
2. Matt Schaub - The game vs. Carolina will be Matt Schaub's first game action since November 7th when his 2011 season ended after suffering a lisfranc injury at Tampa Bay. In fact, with the time Andre Johnson and Arian Foster also missed, Schaub only played about one games worth of minutes with his star weapons last season. Schaub didn't look as accurate as I'm used to seeing from him in some of their practices I observed, but I chalk that up in large part to rust. He needs time and reps to work himself back into shape and find his rhythm, especially with his new targets; that process starts vs. Carolina.
3. (Tie) Brandon Brooks and Derek Newton - The Texans lost both starters on the right side of their line in the off-season, so offensive line depth is a concern going into this season; especially with an injury prone quarterback. Rashad Butler and Antoine Caldwell, who have both started for the Texans over the last two seasons, are expected to be the starters. Rookie Brandon Brooks and second year player Derek Newton have both looked good so far in training camp and I like their potential as the future of the right side of the Texans offensive line. My guess is Brooks and Newton will play at least a quarter and a half Saturday night after the starters go out and T.J. Yates is under center. Even if neither Brooks or Newton starts this season, I want to know that they're capable of filling in if necessary with the Texans recent string of injury problems.
4. Whitney Mercilus - The Texans first round pick out of Illinois will be in the Brooks Reed role from early last season, and will probably be used at multiple positions. His primary position for the future will be at outside linebacker, but expect to see Mercilus line up with his hand on the ground at end, and at middle linebacker depending on the packages Wade Philips decides to use this season. The Texans probably will keep the defense pretty vanilla Saturday as to not give anything away for the regular season, so the main thing I want to see from Mercilus on Saturday night is his ability to beat his man when blocked one on one. If all goes well and everyone stays healthy this season he may not see a ton of playing time, but I'd like to see what type of potential he has for 2013 in case Connor Barwin leaves in free-agency.
5. T.J. Yates - The second year player out of North Carolina should get a lot of playing time vs. Carolina and this is an important time in his progression. The Texans need to see Yates play well and show signs of improvement to feel confident he can make plays for them if forced into duty again. These pre-season games are also important for Yates to prove he's worthy of being their starter if the Texans aren't able to re-sign Matt Schaub next off-season. Yates is athletic and has a strong arm, but he needs to show improvement in his accuracy and his decision making. If Yates is able to make quick, correct decisions with where to go with the ball, the Texans offensive system, one of the best in the league, will make him look good.
*Bonus* Randy Bullock - The Texans insist that there is an open position battle at kicker this pre-season, I don't buy it, but it's worth following. Kubiak has said the plan is to split and alternate kicks with Shayne Graham and rookie Randy Bullock like they did in 2010 with Kris Brown and Neil Rackers. Unless Bullock is a train wreck, I can't see him losing this so called battle. Bullock was the first kicker drafted this year, and the first ever by the Texans; I don't think they spent a 5th round pick on him, to cut him.