After a year that saw them consistently being hailed by fans and media as being in the discussion as the best offensive line in the NFL last season, Houston ran into a problem that good teams have during the offseason; other teams want your players.
Add to that the cap difficulties that years of finishing with selections in the top half of the NFL Draft can bring you, and some tough decisions needed to be made. Just like that, 40% of the Texans dominant offensive line from 2011 will be playing elsewhere in 2012.
Mike Brisiel got a large multi-year offer from the Oakland Raiders that Houston congratulated him for and let him go. Media favorite Eric Winston, whom the team stated they didn’t want to insult with a cut in pay, was given his walking papers prior to the draft and he was quickly scooped up by the Kansas City Chiefs.
There was a real threat that they were going to lose pro bowl center Chris Myers, too, as he was being wooed by several interested teams, but Houston decided that they wanted to keep the “quarterback” of their offensive line in Battle Red for the immediate future.
So losing your starting right tackle and right guard has to be a concern for a unit that was as controlling as it has been the past couple of seasons that has seen running back Arian Foster rush for 2,840 yards on his way to becoming a league sensation. Even if you ask him, he owes a great deal of that to those two guys who will be playing elsewhere when the season kicks off in just over a month.
To combat the losses, Houston did draft offensive line help, but expect their in-house depth to step up and try to fill the voids left by Brisiel and Winston. Rashad Butler, who missed most of 2011 with an elbow injury that landed him on the injured reserve, will get a crack in camp at stepping in at right tackle. He will be competing against 2011 seventh round selection Derek Newton, who is getting rave reviews the first week of training camp. Butler seems to have the inside track for the time being, but Newton is definitely going to make him earn it.
For the guard position next to whomever wins the right tackle spot, Houston is hoping that former third round pick Antoine Caldwell can finally fulfill his potential and win the job. Being the odd man out in a numbers game, combined with being hampered by nagging injuries, Caldwell hasn’t capitalized on his few chances thus far. But, like Butler, the job isn’t going to be handed to him. The zone blocking scheme takes a good while to learn, but rumor has it that Gary Kubiak really likes what he sees out of Brandon Brooks, who the team took in the third round of this year’s draft.
Brooks is quite a different specimen than what Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison usually like to employ in this scheme. First off, he’s a load, standing at 6’5″ and weighing in at a stout 340 pounds. But his athleticism for a guy his size is rare and he carries it well. However, his chances that he breaks camp as the starter is low. But he is definitely in the near future plans for this team and don’t be surprised to see him pushing Caldwell for his job.
The team also drafted Ben Jones out of Georgia, who can play guard, but is likely their backup center for 2012. Expect him to learn from Chris Myers and possibly be the heir apparent in a couple of years.
So the big question is if this version of the reconstructed Texans offensive line can repeat the success of the past two years. Even the most optimistic Texans fan will take a moment to think before giving any quick answers. Yes, it’s all about the scheme, but it is a complicated scheme. Not everyone can grasp it and it requires getting your nose in a playbook quite often.
For all of the criticisms Eric Winston got from Texans fans last year, what he lacked in pass protection sometimes was largely made up for in run blocking. Watch some of the film last year on some of Foster’s biggest runs. Ben Tate, too. They almost always came on his side of the field. It’s a bigger loss than some are acknowledging, but I still think it is a loss that can be made up for. I believe that Butler can be a suitable fill in for a year while Newton gets another year learning the scheme.
There will be bumps in the road and you may see more 4 yard gains instead of 7 or 8 for Tate and Foster, but does this cripple their chances of being a contender in the AFC this year? Not even close.
Now their wide receiver situation….that’s a different conversation all together.