AFC South: Houston Texans

J.J. Watt's contract situation is a new one for the league -- one for which a lot of the first-round picks from the 2011 season are the guinea pigs.

Watt
Watt
Today, our Field Yates reported the Texans have officially picked up Watt's fifth-year option. It was a no-brainer for the team, but a situation that takes a lot of power away from Watt. His option year should only be a temporary formality, on the way to the long-term extension Watt has earned.

That 2011 class signed four-year deals with fifth-year team options. That team option varies depending on where a player was taken in the draft. The way the numbers work for Watt, the 11th overall selection that year, could hurt his finances disproportionately. Watt's 2015 salary is currently scheduled to be $6.969 million. The option number for players selected 11th through 32nd is the average of the top 25 salaries at that player's position, with the exclusion of the top three salaries at that position. The top 10 have a much more favorable number -- they'd get the same value as a transition tag. The deadlines to pick up those options is May 3.

Watt's value to the Texans is much higher than the salary he'd get if he played the 2015 season on this option salary. In theory, the Texans could hang on to Watt through 2016 by using this option for 2015 and the franchise tag the next season.

But just because his contract now locks him into the 2015 season, doesn't mean he'll definitely play on this deal. As with some franchise tags, picking up Watt's option could serve as a placeholder while the team and his representatives work out an extension.

It would serve the Texans better to do that and create the harmony that would come with a long-term deal, rather than keeping him with contractual handcuffs.

Watt is still early in the trajectory of a defensive lineman's career, so the Texans would be paying for future performance, not past performance. He would not be easy to replace, having drawn disproportionate attention on every play he was part of last season, while still managing to affect offenses in a big way. He startled the league with his outrageously high sack and batted pass numbers during the 2012 season when he was named Defensive Player of the Year. Watt's instincts and motor on the field are outstanding.

Off the field, well, here's the latest.
A fairly consistent message has emerged across mock drafts about the direction the Texans want to go with the No. 1 overall pick.

Does it mean they will? The day when we find out for sure is slowly approaching.

Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest mock draftInsider, which accounts for Rounds 1 and 2, presents what I think might be a dream scenario for the Texans.


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On Thursday, before a showing of the movie "Draft Day," Houston Texans running back Arian Foster said he is healthy, has been working out for a couple months and will be available for organized team activities.

Foster
Foster
It's great that Foster is feeling well, having had back surgery in November. At this point, that's obviously better than the alternative. But the real test of his health will come much later.

After all, recall that Foster entered last year's OTAs in great shape. Former Texans coach Gary Kubiak said at the time it might have been the best shape he'd ever seen Foster.

What followed was a difficult season for Foster, physically speaking. He had a calf injury in May that caused him to start training camp on the physically unable to perform list. He missed the preseason, but played starting in Week 1 of the regular season. Then on Oct. 20, Foster suffered a hamstring injury during a pass play that left the Texans with only one -- a broken-ribbed Ben Tate -- running back that day.

So while it's great Foster's body has healed, the real tests for him will come later. They'll come when practices begin, and when, more importantly, games begin and Foster deals with the grueling nature of his position.
Texans punter/holder Shane Lechler has been doing his job a long time and lately he's seen more change than he'd like in the NFL.

Lechler
One such change will get a test run in the preseason this year -- moving the extra point back to increase the degree of difficulty.

"I’m not a big fan of messing with tradition at all," Lechler said earlier this week during Matt Schaub's charity golf tournament. "It will be interesting to see how it works. It’s one of those things, I think in my opinion, I think it’s gonna have to be supported by all the teams to make this change. Messing with tradition is just tough for me, I think."

The idea behind this change is that the extra point is not a particularly important play because it's too easy for kickers. And while Lechler doesn't agree with that, he does admit the change would add intrigue.

"I mean, it’s still gotta be a great snap, a hold and a kick," Lechler said. "It’s still all three things and I think, yeah, everybody, it seems to be a given every time you kick it, but all of a sudden there’s three or four a year that don’t make it and that’s a big difference in a ball game. Now, if you move it back, yeah, would it bring more interest in the two-point conversion? Of course. If you just go 50 percent you cover up for missed PATs. I think there would probably be more interest in it, but I just don’t like changing the game. I think we’re doing way too much of that right now."
Willie McGinest disagreed with the premise that the elephant position was a hybrid.

That's how it's often described -- a hybrid between a defensive end and outside linebacker. But McGinest, now an analyst for NFL Network, played the position with Romeo Crennel when Crennel was the defensive coordinator in New England.

Clowney
"You know what an elephant is?" McGinest said. "It’s a linebacker that’s a big linebacker. I played at 265. It’s a really big linebacker and the guy can play D-end too, but he’s an undersized defensive end. It’s kind of a tweener."

As we try to predict what the Texans' offensive and defensive schemes will look like, the elephant position has been a point of discussion, both because it's not often talked about in traditional defensive schemes and because of a report that if the Texans draft former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, it will be because they are convinced he can play the elephant position.

It's a position that requires the player to be able to put his hand on the ground and rush, and also to be able to drop back, which means understanding complicated coverages and deciphering offenses, depending on what kind of front the team is running. Different coaches use it in different ways. McGinest pointed to former Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' use of Demarcus Ware and later his use of Mario Williams.

Having done it himself out of college, McGinest knows exactly what it would take for Clowney to be able to make that transition. The physical differences won't be difficult, said McGinest, rather the mental challenges are much more significant.

McGinest could see it working, as long as Clowney puts in the time studying. But if the Texans take Clowney, he anticipates Crennel won't overload the rookie.

"It’s a pretty exotic defense that takes a lot of communication and a lot of adjusting to," McGinest said. "They’re not going to put him in a bad situation if he is their draft pick. They’re going to start him off like (San Francisco) started with Aldon Smith, hand in the dirt, rushing, going forward, adjusting to what he does best. As he starts to get more comfortable in the system they’ll start adding little adjustments at a time."

It will also help to have Mike Vrabel as his linebackers coach.

"Mike Vrabel is a guy who made that transition from Pittsburgh," McGinest said. "He had his hand in the dirt. ... He was more effective and became one of the best players because he can do so much. Our linebacker corps was interchangeable. Having Mike Vrabel as [Clowney's] outside linebacker coach can teach him and show him some of the things that [Vrabel] had to (learn). ...

"No disrespect to Clowney, but Vrabel’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever played (with), the transition for him was nothing for him. I don’t think Clowney’s on that level, but he does have a good teacher that can take him through the process."
With the first overall pick in this year's NFL draft, the Texans could take a quarterback. Whether they will, and which quarterback that would be if one is selected, is yet unknown.

ESPN's Todd McShay took a shot at projecting which player the Texans will take with his latest mock draft Insider -- and the player he chose is a spark plug.


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In his column Tuesday, our Dan Graziano began with the question this blog asks, only in affirmative fashion.

SportsNation

Are the Texans in a lousy spot in this years draft?

  •  
    27%
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    50%
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    23%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,273)

"The NFL draft is exactly one month away and, man, are the Houston Texans in a lousy spot," he writes.

He's not alone in that opinion and his rationale stems from his take on the quality of this year's quarterback crop. Graziano asserts that quarterback is, by far, the Texans' biggest need, and that there isn't an Andrew Luck in this year's draft.
"The quarterback class of 2014 is a collection of questions. Do you think you can turn a raw Blake Bortles into something special? Do you think Teddy Bridgewater is good enough to start right away? Can you get a Derek Carr or a Jimmy Garoppolo late in the first round or early in the second and expect to hit the lottery? And my goodness, what on earth do you make of Johnny Manziel?"

I present the question to you in poll form: Are the Texans in a bad spot?
Monday marked the start of the Texans' offseason program. At this point, the workouts are technically voluntary, and focus on a strength and conditioning program.

Things are changing under new strength coach Craig Fitzgerald's regime. There's a strip of turf in the weight room. The machines look different. The guy running the workouts is different. And the most interesting change we heard about in the aftermath of those first workouts was the introduction of a different kind of strength plan.

Mixed martial arts on Thursdays, quarterback T.J. Yates said.

"I’ve done some stuff outside the box type of stuff," center Chris Myers said. "But they’re having some new ways of training. As long as you approach it with an open mind, you’ll be alright."

It's not that MMA is a brand new form of football training. For a few years now, several NFL players have done offseason MMA training to keep their bodies in shape.

What is shows is a willingness to think creatively, something that might be shaping up to be a hallmark of this Texans staff.

"You can only lift the same weight and run the same runs so many times," punter Shane Lechler said. "It’ll be nice to do something different."

Change is good. Being open to what works is good. It might force some players out of their comfort zones, but that's a great way to grow.
By agreeing to terms with new running back Andre Brown today, the Texans have added another more veteran presence to a very young backfield behind starter Arian Foster.

Brown
Despite this signing, I could still see the Texans drafting a running back they hope will be Foster's backup. When it comes to running backs, the fewer miles, the better. But Brown, reportedly on a one-year minimum deal, gives them some pretty good starting experience.

I checked in with Dan Graziano, our Giants reporter, who said after the Giants cut Ahmad Bradshaw following the 2012 season, Brown went into camp as a co-starter with David Wilson. It was the result of some strong showings he had in relief of Bradshaw an injured Bradshaw during the 2012 season. Brown broke his leg late in the 2012 season.

He had his most productive season in 2013 with the New York Giants, when Brown started eight games after coming off injured reserve. He was on injured reserve after breaking his leg again, in the same spot, during the Giants' final preseason game of 2013. Brown rushed 139 times for 492 yards, averaging 3.5 yards per carry last season. He scored three touchdowns during that span, two against Washington and one against Oakland.

Foster is the only running back making any kind of significant salary on the Texans' roster. Ray Graham, Dennis Johnson, Jonathan Grimes, Chad Spann and Toben Opurum are all on very inexpensive contracts.
Just two seasons ago, the AFC South was a running back's paradise.

Three of the highest-paid running backs in the league belonged to the Texans, Titans and Jaguars. Only one remains in the division: The Texans' Arian Foster.

Johnson
Former Jaguars star Maurice Jones-Drew signed with the Oakland Raiders in free agency and on Friday the Tennessee Titans released Chris Johnson. (We broke down the chances of each team isigning him; I rated the Texans as low.)

The AFC South is following a trend. It's not that the running game isn't important -- it is hugely important -- but individual running backs aren't as valuable to teams anymore. The free-agent market showed that: Former Texans running back Ben Tate received a miniscule $6.2 million over two years to be the Cleveland Browns' starter.

The reason? I checked in with a few coaches during the owners meetings last week.

"I don't think you can have just one," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "We were at our best when we had two and sometimes three. Way back when we had Derrick Ward with us we had three and all three contributed very much. I think you need to have depth, you need to have versatility... The best are the backs that you evaluate today all have to have someone that comes in the game. Going way back it may not have been as important as it is now. Today it is."

There was a time when running backs were stars -- Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell. That time is waning.

"It's probably the most punishing position on the field," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "You look at it as a position that you want to have a first-down runner, a change of pace runner, there's different body types and there's different skill sets.

"You've got to have a running back that can pass protect. ... He's very involved in pass protection. Very rarely do you see a true four-down alignment. He's got to be able to identify the defensive formation, who the line's going to take and who he's going to take. Defensive coordinators do such a great job of changing up who's rushing. He's got to be the guy that blocks the fifth or sixth rusher. Never really have an idea who it's going to be. I think it's gone to more of a committee position."

The AFC South held on longer than most, but this change is enveloping this division, too.
Seems like it just ended, doesn't it?

I bet it will feel that way for Houston Texans players, many of whom will be heading back to work starting Monday when the team's offseason program begins. They are among the teams allowed to start April 7 because of a new head coach.

The start of the offseason program is voluntary and Phase 1 means a strength and conditioning program as well as rehab. In the case of the Texans, players will be acclimating themselves to new strength coach Craig Fitzgerald's ways.

The second phase, which begins in Week 3 can include on-field individual instructions and can include team practices without live contact or team offense versus team defense drills. The Texans will hold a pre-draft minicamp during this phase from May 6 to May 8.

Phase 3 includes 10 days of organized team activities. The Texans will have theirs on May 27-29, June 2-4, June 9, 10, 12 and 13.

The mandatory portion of the Texans offseason program will take place from June 17-19 in their minicamp.
Mock drafts are all the rage, and in his first two ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. went with two different players for the Houston Texans. First, former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Then, former Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack.

They were two very different selections, one a high-profile star, the other a more unassuming pick whose talent is undeniable.


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One of new Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien's most consistent themes with his new team is the importance of the team above individuals.

That is why O'Brien's response when asked on "SportsCenter" about his dinner with South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney last night stood out to me.

"I think he’s a team guy," O'Brien said after South Carolina's pro day. "He talked a lot about his teammates. He talked a lot about how much he enjoyed being around the guys in the locker room playing games with them, practicing with them, lifting weights with them. I got the feeling this guy is a team guy."

That is big to O'Brien. He wants every player he has to be a team guy, not to focus on individual accomplishments and celebrations.

Clowney appeared later on the show and was asked what kinds of questions he gets asked.

"How much do you love the game and about your work ethic," Clowney said.

It's a line of questioning Clowney said he doesn't understand. O'Brien has said he has no questions about Clowney's work ethic, but some do.
 
J.J. Watt's Wisconsin Badgers are headed to the Final Four for the first time since 2000 and they did it with a thrilling win over No. 1-seed Arizona, where outside linebacker Brooks Reed went to school.

And Reed's paying for it now.


Watt hasn't shied away from ribbing those whose alma maters have fallen victim to their march to Jerry World.

When Wisconsin annihilated Baylor, Watt tweeted at noted Baylor fan John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:

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