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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Jordan Pun

4 Texans position battles to watch against the Saints

The Houston Texans welcome their first opponent of 2022, albeit in a preseason capacity, when they host the New Orleans Saints Aug. 13 at NRG Stadium.

As preseason wins, losses have no real bearing, Smith has been vocal about wanting to see his Texans compete.

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“Any time they keep score, you want to win, but that’s not the total focus,” Smith told reporters Aug. 7 at Houston Methodist Training Center. “So, what I want to see in the game is how guys finish and it’s more about the individual play before we collectively put the team together. So that’s what I can’t wait to see. We are going to try to give as many guys an opportunity to play as possible.”

Houston bolsters a unique roster as they endure their rebuild, one that may be lacking in star power but has competition at numerous positions. Facing off against the Saints offers many players an opportunity to make a name for themselves and claim a starting role.

Which positions are up for grabs?

Free safety

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Throughout training camp, Houston has rotated numerous defensive backs at their starting free safety position. On the first unofficial depth chart, fourth-year pro, Jonathan Owens had his name penciled in as the starter and he will be fending off veterans Terrence Brooks and Eric Murray.This position battle is noteworthy because it is arguably the weakest link in an otherwise enticing secondary. The group is headlined by first-round cornerback Derek Stingley, second-round safety Jalen Pitre and proven veteran cornerbacks such as Steven Nelson, Desmond King, and Tavierre Thomas.

With outside cornerback, nickel, and strong safety likely set, free safety is the final piece. In Smith’s defensive scheme that preaches turnovers, a ball-hawking safety provides immense value.

Owens is fairly unproven due to a lack of opportunity, having only started two games in his career. They were an impressive two games though, as he tallied 12 tackles, one interception, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery.

Owens’ ball-hawking potential as he picked off Justin Herbert in Houston’s Week 16 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers. Showing that this production can become a consistent achievement will be Owens’ goal for preseason.

The other free safety options are less enticing for a rebuilding team who is searching for uncovered gems. The world knows what Brooks and Murray bring to the table and starting either one of them would be conceding to playing a below average starter with no upside.

Defensive end

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Continuing on the defensive side of the ball, another position group that needs to be nailed down is the defensive end rotation. General manager Nick Caserio was wise to bring in a staple of proven veteran pass rushers to help boost a Texans defense that was 30th in pressures and 28th in sacks in 2021.

Third-year Jonathan Greenard had an impressive 8.0-sack season in just 12 games and he should hold down one defensive end role, but cannot do the job alone.

While Smith has preached dressing eight guys on game day, allowing him to rotate his D-line and keep everyone fresh, the starting defensive end opposite Greenard must set the tone early in the game.

Former Buffalo Bills Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison have the best shot at to fulfill this role due to the consistency of their resumes and familiarity with Houston’s new defensive line coach, Jacques Cesaire, who was formerly with Buffalo in 2020 and 2021.

In the past three seasons, both veterans have shown they can still get into the backfield and effect the quarterback, with Hughes garnering more pressures and Addison more sacks, per SIS DataHub.

It’s interesting to note that Hughes has been a starter in this time period, whereas Addison has accepted and excelled in a backup role — perhaps the same pattern will continue in Houston.

Ultimately, the starting role will be awarded to the better player and that achievement will be influenced by which player can perform better on the field. Keep an eye on how fast Hughes and Addison are firing off the snap and who’s living in the backfield more often.

Running back

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Transitioning to the offensive side of the ball, a position battle that will attract attention is in the backfield. Marlon Mack was brought over from the Indianapolis Colts and has been playing with the first-team offense, but is he the most talented back on the team?

There is no arguing Mack’s total resume, boasting a 908-yard and nine-touchdown season in 2018 and a 1,091 yard and eight-touchdown season in 2019. His past two seasons have been derailed by an Achilles injury — the most devastating and career-altering injury for a RB to endure.

Over the past few years, Houston has not had good luck with bringing in veterans who were coming off injuries or past their prime — David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay, and Mark Ingram are prime examples. Can Mack buck the trend?

The former South Florida product may not need to be depended on for long, as Houston’s fourth-round pick from the Florida Gators, Dameon Pierce, has been making heads turn at camp.

It’s rare for a mid-round rookie to unseat a proven veteran by week one, but a dominant preseason could force offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s hand, sooner than he expected.

Left guard

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

A clear hole on Houston’s offensive line has appeared at left guard. First-round pick Kenyon Green was expected to man this position and provide a mauling mentality to boost Houston’s league-worst rushing offense.

However, after having surgery on his knee following his final season at Texas A&M, Green has been working into game shape, progressing with caution in training camp, and dealing with another undisclosed injury.

As Houston’s priorities fall on the future, not the present, Green has been afforded patience and was not listed as a starter on the unofficial depth chart. Instead, sixth-year veteran, Justin McCray had that honor.

Entering his second season with the Texans, the hope is that McCray performs better than he did in 2021. Expected to provide versatile depth, McCray ended up starting eight games and had 19 “blown blocks” and a 3.7% “blown block percentage”, according to SIS DataHub.

Until Green is a full-go and has comfortably made the NFL transition, McCray is in the lead to start at left guard. A potential challenger to watch out for is 2019 second-round pick, Max Scharping. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, it is Scharping’s last chance to prove he belongs and can be a consistent NFL player.

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