With about 7 weeks to go until training camp begins, we start our preview of each positions strengths, weaknesses, and potential camp battles with the offensive line. Over the last several years the Texans offensive line has been one of the best lines in the league. During that time the Texans have had remarkable continuity across the line with the same 5 guys playing pretty much every game together; especially in a zone system, that's crucial. Last season, only Mike Brisiel missed time and hemissed just 3 games. The season before, Eric Winston, Wade Smith, and Chris Myers started all 16 games; Duane Brown started in 12 games because of a suspension. Going into this season with Brisiel in Oakland and Winston in Kansas City, they have questions to answer and two new starters to work in. A solid offensive line is always important, but with Matt Schaub coming back from a foot injury and his mobility an issue; the play of the new lineman will make or break this offense.
The Left Side - Chris Myers and Wade Smith have started every game over the last two seasons, and Duane Brown missed only 4 games back in 2010. Last season Myers was named to the Pro-Bowl and Brownmade second team All-Pro after only giving up 2.5 sacks all season. Duane Brown in particular is on the verge of cementing his name as one of the best lineman in the game today. Kubiak believes Brown, who was a Pro-Bowl snub last season as an alternate, should make the team this year if he continues to play at this level.
Duane can run; he’s a heck of a specimen from that standpoint. He plays against the best players in the league rushing the quarterback. Once you get the confidence that you can play with those guys, the sky is the limit. I think that’s where Duane is right now. He’s got a chance to be a Pro Bowl player.
Wade Smith doesn't get much publicity, but for offensive lineman; that can be a good thing. Not much was expected when the Texans signed Wade Smith from the Chiefs, but he's done an amazing job. Overall this trio protects Schaub, opens up holes for Foster, and you almost never hear the refs call their name.
Right Tackle - Eric Winston was a good player, but I think his talent and value was exaggerated when the Texans cut him. He did an ok job, but he wasn't great and him never making a Pro-Bowl wasn't a snub. Winston got abused by speed rushers like Cameron Wake and his likely replacement Rashad Butler, has longer arms and is arguably more athletic. Butler was forced into duty back in 2010 when Duane Brown was suspended for 4 games and did a pretty good job at left tackle. He's not a great player, but this scheme doesn't require five 1st round picks to be successful. Of last year's starting lineman, only Duane Brown was a 1st round pick. Winston and Smith were 3rd round picks, Chris Myers in the 6th round, and Mike Brisiel was undrafted. I'm assuming Butler will be the starter, but Kubiak has been impressed by Derek Newton, the 2nd year tackle out of Arkansas State. Newton, who was drafted in the 7th round, has apparently impressed the coaches physically, but because of the program he came from, will need time to learn the game from the mental aspect. Kubiak told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:
He can run. He’s very strong. He came from a program where he didn’t have a great football background, knowledge-wise. That’s not his fault. He’s catching up, so he’s learning NFL-wise, film-wise — all the fronts he’s got to see. When that gets automatic for him, there’s no doubt in my mind he’s got a chance to be a starter.
I'd be shocked if Butler wasn't the starter week 1 vs. Miami, but Newton has potential. Even as a rookie 7th-rounder Newton was used last year in goaline situations as a blocker at the tight end position. At age 29, Butler isn't a young player and not the future at the right tackle position; the Texans hope that Newton is that player.
Right Guard - The presumptive starter at this point is Antoine Caldwell, and that has me worried. The first issue with Caldwell is his inability to stay healthy, but even when he is on field, he hasn't played very well. When Caldwell was forced into action after Mike Brisiel broke his leg last season, he was terrible in pass protection and basically a turnstile. He was a little better in the run game, but in my opinion was still only average at best. My hope is that 3rd round pick Brandon Brooks from Miami (OH) will prove capable of being the starter at right guard during training camp. Right now Brooks is facing the question of him being too big for the zone blocking scheme. Don't be fooled by his physical appearance, Brooks may look a lot bigger than the Texans typical lineman, but the guy can move. The Texans spent a 3rd round pick on him, Kubiak believes in Brooks ability to play in this scheme:
...he’s very capable of doing that, so like I’ve said before, he may not look like some of the guys we’ve played with before, but he’s just as athletic, so he’s done a good job. He’s worked with the first group some, so he’sbeen exposed to (playing) with the first group and we’ll see how he responds once we get to camp.
I trust the Texans ability to find relatively unknown guys, coach them up, and plug them into the offensive line because they've done it before. Chris Myers (6th round pick by Miami) and Mike Brisiel (undrafted) weren't exactly household names, and the Texans turned them into very good players, but I'm still very worried about this position.
Potential Camp Battles:
Rashad Butler vs. Derek Newton - Butler has more experience and played well when asked to start before, so I expect him to start the season as the starter at right tackle. Newton is still learning the game and has to get to the point where he's able to react to what he sees and doesn't have to think about it. That could take another year or two, but in the short-term he'll make a good swing tackle and extra lineman in goaline packages.
Antoine Caldwell vs. Brandon Brooks vs. Ben Jones - Right guard is easily the position most up for grabs along the offensive line. Caldwell has been often injured, often ineffective, and is only the assumed starter at this point because he's a veteran and knows the system. Brooks (3rd round pick) is the challenger with the best chance at unseating Caldwell, but I believe Ben Jones (4th round pick) who was a center in college, will also be considered in the camp battle.
You don't get better by losing quality starters; that can't be argued. However, the Texans scheme is very friendly to being able to plug in journeyman and get quality play, as recent history has shown us. The group may take a step backwards, but I think that's only from the best offensive line in football, to maybe the 5th best offensive line; still quality by any standard.