Houston Texans inside linebacker Brian Cushing (56) is congratulated by teammates after an interception in the first quarter of their NFL Wild Card Round game at NRG Stadium on January 9, 2016 in Houston. Photo by Erik Williams/UPI | License Photo
Although the Houston Texans begin full training camp July 30 as the AFC South defending champions with 17 returning starters, third-year head coach Bill O'Brien knows there is a lot to accomplish before the season begins.
At the top of the to-do list is getting their tall and expensive young quarterback, Brock Osweiler, familiar with his new teammates, including three first-round draftees at wide receiver.
They are DeAndre Hopkins (2013 first rounder), who caught 111 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns last year; Jaelen Strong (2015 first rounder) and this year's No. 21 overall selection Will Fuller, a speed burner from Notre Dame. In the third round, the Texans added Braxton Miller, a converted quarterback from Ohio State whose athleticism was obvious this spring.
Osweiler, who stands 6-foot-7, took his Super Bowl ring and abandoned the Denver Broncos, where he had a chance to take over for retired legend Peyton Manning. But when the Broncos didn't impress Osweiler with their contract offers, the Texans made the most dramatic free-agent move of the year, signing him to a deal worth $72 million over four years with a $12 million signing bonus and $37 million guaranteed.
What isn't guaranteed is Osweiler's pedigree as an NFL starter. Still, along with the money, he already seized the opportunity to function as a leader by organizing extra passing sessions in Arizona with Texans receivers. So he will arrive at training camp with a lot of completions under his belt. He and Hopkins already have mutual admiration for their respective skills.
"I just throw it anywhere near Hop and he goes and gets it," Osweiler said during minicamp last month.
"It's just the timing and him knowing how we run our routes," Hopkins said. "Him knowing our strengths and weaknesses from each player, not just the top receivers out there, but everybody out there who threw with us in Arizona. We do extra stuff, stay and watch a little extra film. Do things when we're not supposed to be up here, to help."
At running back, the Texans signed free agent Lamar Miller (Miami Dolphins, $26 million, four years) to replace four-time 1,000 yards plus runner Arian Foster, who was all but stopped by injury last year and was released when he failed his physical. Ironically, Foster signed Monday (July 18) with Miami as the Dolphins are seeking a replacement for Miller.
Another significant free-agent acquisition was guard Jeff Allen (Chiefs, $28 million, four years), who will start on the right side, probably next to rookie center Nick Martin (Round 2, No. 50 overall out of Notre Dame).
No tale about the Texans would be complete without mentioning dominant defensive end J.J. Watt, so here is that.
And here is a closer look at the newcomers and key players and how they should factor into the Texans' 2016 team:
TRAINING CAMP SCHEDULE
SITE, LOCATION, ROOKIES, VETERANS
Houston Methodist Training Center, Houston, TX, 7/25, 7/30
2015 RECORD: 9-8
DIVISIONAL RECORD: 5-1
COACH: Bill O'Brien
3rd season as Texans/NFL head coach
18-15 overall; 0-1 postseason
17; 7 offense, 10 defense, kicker, punter
OFFSEASON STANDOUT: Inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney.
McKinney has made major strides this offseason at refining his pass coverage and pass-rushing skills. The true litmus test will be in the fall, but McKinney could take a big step forward this season in his second year as a starter. The Texans drafted him in the second round last year and McKinney got better and better as the season went on. The 6-foot-4, 246-pounder has 4.65 speed in the 40-yard dash and a 40 1/2-inch vertical leap.
The draft -- A closer look at the Texans' picks (6):
--Round 1/21 -- Will Fuller, WR, 6-0, 186, Notre Dame
The Texans needed speed to upgrade their wide receiver corps. Fuller has plenty of athleticism, running the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds. He can high-point the football. He was extremely productive for Notre Dame. Fuller is a tad undersized, but can go up and get the football and runs nice routes. Fuller was drafted to upgrade the team's speed and provide a deep threat. He should take pressure off Texans Pro-Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He does have a tendency to be a body catcher and drop too many passes. Fuller isn't currently projected as a starter, but is competing with Jaelen Strong for a starting role.
--Round 2/50 -- Nick Martin, C, 6-4, 299, Notre Dame.
The brother of Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Zack Martin, Nick Martin is a polished technician. He should immediately provide a boost to the interior blocking. Martin is tough and strong and more of a zone blocker than anything else. He's not the heftiest lineman, but is mobile with good feet. Martin is slated to compete with free-agent center Tony Bergstrom, but it would be somewhat surprising if Martin isn't starting quickly.
--Round 3/85 - Braxton Miller, WR, 6-1, 201, Ohio State
A converted quarterback and former Big Ten Conference Player of the Year, Miller is fast and big. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds. Miller has good moves, but still needs polish at his new position. He has a good understanding of the game as a former quarterback. Miller has overcome a bad shoulder injury that required two surgeries. He should play in the slot for the Texans, but can also compete outside. He could help the team on returns, too.
--Round 4/119 -- Tyler Ervin, RB, 5-10, 197, San Jose State
Ervin had two fumbles in 371 touches last season. He's shifty, smart and versatile. Ervin has return skills. He's durable and elusive. Ervin should be an ideal third-down presence and return man. The Texans don't have to overuse Ervin given that they have veteran running back Lamar Miller as their primary ball-carrier. Ervin injured his quadriceps and was sidelined for the majority of spring practices, so his development has been halted at least until training camp.
--Round 5/159 - K.J. Dillon, S, 6-0, 210, West Virginia
Tough, hard-nosed center fielder with speed. Overcame dehydration episode that hospitalized him. Has type 1 diabetes, but it's under control. Dillon has good size, range and tackling skills. Dillon was overshadowed by teammate Karl Joseph, the Oakland Raiders' first-round draft pick, throughout his career. Dillon has his own skill set, though. Dillon is projected as a backup at this point.
--Round 5/166 - D.J. Reader, NT, 6-3, 333, Clemson
Big, space-eating two-technique nose tackle will be groomed behind veteran Vince Wilfork. Left team for personal reasons as he dealt with his father's death from kidney failure, taking a leave of absence. Reader says he's completed grieving process and is committed to football. Reader is a big, stout run-stopper. He has some pass-rushing ability, but is mostly there to stack blockers and keep the linebackers clean. Reader should be able to help the Texans down the road, but has some things to learn. He could gain a lot of knowledge behind Wilfork, a five-time Pro-Bowl selection. Reader is part of the defensive line rotation and should be active on game days.
--CB Antonio Allen: Former Jets starter was sidelined last season with torn Achilles tendon, but is healthy now and could play a lot.
--G Jeff Allen: Gritty replacement for Brandon Brooks; known for strength and playing through pain.
--C/G Tony Bergstrom: Former Raiders starter was initially projected to start at center, but may have trouble holding off rookie Nick Martin.
--RB Lamar Miller: Speed back has some power to lower the boom on tacklers; should be capable replacement for Arian Foster.
--QB Brock Osweiler: Texans' $72 million man has classic size, big arm as he takes over for Brian Hoyer as new starting quarterback.
--DE Devon Still: Former Bengals draft pick has the size and strength Texans are looking for from a 3-4 defensive end.
KEY LOSS: G Brandon Brooks (14/14)*
--The Texans will probably miss having the bulk and power of Brooks in the lineup. The athletic 6-4, 330-pounder signed a five-year, $40 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles.
--DE Jared Crick (16/16), RB Arian Foster (0/0), TE Garrett Graham (8/2), QB Brian Hoyer (11/9), C Ben Jones (16/16), S Rahim Moore (7/6), CB Darryl Morris (12/0), RB Chris Polk (15/2), ILB Justin Tuggle (11/2), WR Nate Washington (14/14), QB T.J. Yates (4/2)*
Total games played/started lost: 128/83
*Number in parentheses is games played/games started in 2015
-- Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. TSX's network of NFL insiders provided information for this report.