We're used to seeing some open competition for starting jobs on the Texans roster, but I can't remember a year where there were so many worthy players fighting for those spots. There are seven main starting gigs up for grabs: running back, the three spots in the middle of the offensive line, strongside linebacker while Brian Cushing is suspended, the cornerback opposite of Glover Quin, and kicker. I'll throw in a few sleeper picks I like to possibly spring an upset as well. Lets take a look at the competitions and handicap things for the start of camp, shall we?
RUNNING BACK: Arian Foster vs. Steve Slaton vs. Ben Tate
Arian Foster is, in my mind, the safe choice to be carrying the load for the Texans at the beginning of the season. He's the only back on the roster that had success in the NFL last year, and Gary Kubiak is, if anything, loyal. He proved that last year by his usage of players with the surname "Brown." Because of these two factors, as well as Foster being named starter going in to training camp, I think it'd take an injury or a massive explosion by one of the other two backs to unseat him as starter to begin the season.
Of course, I'm sure we'll see plenty of the other backs on the roster as well, no matter who the starter is. I think the safe money is on Ben Tate eventually usurping Foster sometime around mid-season. As much as I'm pulling for Steve Slaton, I just can't give him the benefit of the doubt on playing time until he's actually on the field. Neck surgery is a scary thing, and his peripheral vision could be at risk. I'm staying away from him until we see him in a preseason game.
ODDS: Foster (3:1), Tate (8:1), Slaton (15:1).
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE: Antoine Caldwell vs. Kasey Studdard vs. Wade Smith vs. Chris Myers vs. Mike Brisiel vs. Chris White vs. Shelley Smith
I think you can eliminate Shelley Smith and White right off the bat. White is a solid backup guard, but he's not in the same league as the guards he'll be competing with. Shelley just doesn't have enough experience to crack this list yet, and I think he'll probably be stashed on the practice squad for this year.
Quotes are the most telling things in this battle, to me:
"(G Kasey) Studdard and (C Antoine) Caldwell didn't do anything not to line up as a starter when we start, so that won't change. I think (G) Wade Smith is obviously going to push (C) Chris (Myers) and both of them. I thought (G Mike) Brisiel, when he's healthy, he missed a little time in OTA's but when he's healthy, I think he plays as good as anybody so he's going to be a big part of the mix."
- Gary Kubiak, June 16, 2010. Last mini-camp.
When you signed with the Texans in March, was your mindset that you were going to be a starter?
"Definitely. I wouldn't have put myself in a situation where I feel like I wasn't going to be a starter, so that's pretty much it. All the different places that I was deciding on going to, they were all situations where I was going to be a starter. If it wasn't a situation like that, I wouldn't have considered it."
- Q&A with Wade Smith, July 2, 2010.
To me, this reads like they're going into training camp with Studdard at left guard, Caldwell at right guard, and Smith at center. I would give Studdard the highest odds to be a starter next year, despite how poorly I thought he played, because he started more games than Caldwell last year and has the attitude the Texans love. I wouldn't be altogether surprised if anyone ends up starting or benched, but I think Smith is going to be in the lineup. He's the only one listed as a G/C on the roster, and of course, money talks. Ultimately, I think they'd be best with Caldwell at left guard, Smith at center, and a healthy Brisiel at right guard. But I'd bet on Studdard-Smith-Caldwell.
ODDS: Studdard (3:1), Caldwell (4:1), W.Smith (6:1), Myers (8:1), Brisiel (12:1), White (30:1), S.Smith (50:1)
STRONGSIDE LINEBACKER: Danny Clark vs. Xavier Adibi vs. Darryl Sharpton
John McClain recently tweeted that he thought this was Adibi's job to lose. I'm not so sure. For one thing, while he was technically the linebacker with the fourth-most snaps last year, he was essentially buried and only got on the field 31 times. Secondly, if the Texans were comfortable enough with him to hand him the job unchallenged, they would have never signed Clark in the offseason.
At any rate, Adibi wasn't exactly a plus run defender coming out of Virginia Tech, and Clark spent most of the year as a two-down linebacker with the Giants. I think the plan will probably be to platoon the two of them. Clark on run downs, Adibi on passing downs and Sharpton on the bench should something happen to either of them. This, of course, technically makes Clark the starter. I wouldn't completely rule out Sharpton as the starter either, but I haven't seen enough of him to really judge how well he'd do. I think he's got some walls to climb to get there anyway.
ODDS: Clark (3:1), Adibi (9:1), Sharpton (15:1)
CORNERBACK: Kareem Jackson vs. Jacques Reeves vs. Brice McCain vs. Fred Bennett vs. Antuwan Molden
Barring injury or holdout, I'd be absolutely shocked to see anyone but Jackson to win this job. As I said with the interior linemen, the quotes don't lie:
Jackson, drafted 20th overall out of Alabama, lined up as a starter beginning with the Texans' first practice this offseason and met the team's expectations as a polished, NFL-ready player.
"(He) has been exceptional," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "He's everything we thought he would be, well-coached coming from Nick (Saban) at Alabama. He has been a starter since the day he got off the plane here in Houston, and he will be a big-time contributor... He's been excellent."
- Position Preview: Cornerback
The deeper question is: who plays nickelback? The Texans coaches seem to see Jacques Reeves as a fairly fungible commodity despite his decent play last season. McCain had some success as a rookie, although he's too slight of build to hold up as a starter in my opinion. You very well could see Antuwan Molden rise up and take this one. He's in his third year, he's shown a lot early in OTA's and he always had the talent to be a success. As for Fred Bennett, I think that bridge has been crossed, then burned. I'd be shocked if he were on the team as training camp ends.
ODDS: Jackson (2:1), McCain (8:1), Reeves (10:1), Molden (20:1), Bennett (30:1)
KICKER: Kris Brown vs. Neil Rackers
To repeat what I've been saying Ad Nauseam on the subject all offseason, studies have shown that field goal percentage is essentially random from year-to-year. What it comes down to with these guys is that they have extremely similar career numbers. Rackers is a little more accurate and has some higher highs, but Brown has been better from deeper on the field lately. Both of them have fairly average kickoff distance. Both of them missed some pressure kicks last year, Rackers' happened in the playoffs when the Cardinals could have iced the Packers in regulation rather than overtime.
To be honest, I don't really think it matters who wins the job. And that's a good thing, because I have absolutely no idea who will win it. Kubiak is very loyal, which makes up the natural talent edge that I would give to Rackers, slightly. I guess I'd call Rackers a very slight favorite.
ODDS: Rackers (3:2), Brown (3:1)
Earl Mitchell has a chance to unseat Amobi Okoye on the inside if Okoye doesn't show vast improvement. I'm still not fully sold on Owen Daniels opening the year as the tight end, and I won't be until he's on the field showing that he's healthy. Eugene Wilson is the starter coming into camp, but Dominique Barber might be the better option for the Texans. Lastly, as good as Antonio Smith was last year, it wouldn't be a total shocker if second-year man Connor Barwin usurped his role. He didn't play the run well last season, but he's shown the pass rushing skills to start in the NFL already.