|The Texans might look for competition for RT Rashad Butler in the draft. (US Presswire)|
The New England Patriots represented the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The Houston Texans, when healthy, might have been the AFC's best team in 2011. But the Texans suffered a lot of big injuries, the most damaging being the Lisfranc injury quarterback Matt Schaub suffered to end his season in the 10th game.
Rookie T.J. Yates played well in spots in his place, but he isn't in the same class as Schaub.
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The Texans return a big part of the roster that won the AFC South title, but the big question moving forward is Schaub's health.
"He's doing well," Texans coach Gary Kukiak said this week about Schaub. "He's doing great. He's playing golf, so he's fine. I think once we get to OTAs, he'll do everything. I'll probably keep him out of a team [drills] environment, just to be safe, for those 10 days. He's fine. He'll be ready to go."
If he is, the Texans are the favorites again in the AFC South.
QB: Schaub has developed into a solid NFL passer. He isn't a top-five quarterback, but you could make a case he's top 10. Schaub is good at throwing on the move, which makes him perfect for the team's style of offense. In 10 games, he threw 15 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Yates is now the primary backup. He did some good things when he took over last season, completing 61.2 percent of his passes. He had a rough go in the team's playoff loss to the Ravens, but is more than capable of running the show for a three-game spurt.
RB: The Texans are one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL, led by Arian Foster. He had a second consecutive big season and is the perfect cutback runner for Houston's zone-blocking scheme. He ran for 1,224 yards but missed three starts because of injury. Backup Ben Tate ran for 942 yards and averaged 5.4 per carry to 4.4 for Foster. The Texans have a great 1-2 punch. The fullback will be James Casey, a converted tight end. He is a good football player, just not the typical bruising blocker, although he's good enough.
WR: In Andre Johnson, the Texans have the best receiver in the league when he's healthy. But he was limited to seven starts last season because of injuries. The Houston offense doesn't have a real downfield threat when he's not on the field. The other starter is Kevin Walter, a steady player who isn't a great speed option. He caught 39 passes last season. Jacoby Jones is the third receiver. He had 31 catches. Look for the Texans to try and add a receiver in the draft, maybe even early. Johnson needs help.
TE: Owen Daniels came back from a major knee injury he suffered in 2010 to lead the team in catches with 54. He had just three touchdown catches, and was clearly hurt by the loss of Schaub. He did start 16 games, which was a good sign. Backup tight end Joel Dreessen signed with the Denver Broncos, which leaves a void. Garrett Graham, who had one catch last season, is now listed as the backup. Casey can also play tight end.
OL: There will be change on the line with the Texans opting to release right tackle Eric Winston for cap reasons. That leaves a big hole. Rashad Butler, who spent last season on injured reserve, is listed as the starter now, although the Texans might address that in the draft. Left tackle Duane Brown is coming off his best season and established himself as one of the best left tackles in the game. The Texans did the smart thing and re-signed center Chris Myers, who fits perfectly in their system. He played to a Pro Bowl level last season. The Texans did lose right guard Mike Briesel to the Raiders, so Antoine Caldwell, who has started at times, will move into that spot. The left guard is Wade Smith, who didn't play as well in 2011 as he did the year before. There isn't a lot of experience behind the five starters, so that could be an issue.
DL: The move to the 3-4 front last season proved to be a good thing for the line. The addition of rookie first-round pick J.J. Watt was the key. By the end of the season, he was a force as a down end. Antonio Smith played well at the other end spot. He had 6½ sacks to lead the linemen. Nose tackle Shaun Cody is getting up in years, but he is a solid player. Earl Mitchell is a more powerful backup. The top backup at end is Tim Jamison.
LB: The Texans lost outside linebacker Mario Williams to the Bills in free agency. They could afford to lose him because they like Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin on the outside. There will be change inside after the trade of DeMeco Ryans to the Eagles. Ryans didn't fit as well with the move to the 3-4. Daryl Sharpton will take over in that role for now. But expect competition. Brian Cushing, the starter next to him, is one of the best inside linebackers in the league. The backups lack a lot of experience. But second-year players Mister Alexander and Bryan Braman showed up on special teams last season.
DB: The Texans did the smart thing and used a secondary of four players who had previously started games at corner. That meant the safeties were good in coverage. Glover Quin did a nice job at strong safety and Danieal Manning was good at free safety. They both have range. Troy Nolan is a capable backup who started three games when Manning was hurt. Johnathan Joseph had a good first season with the team, earning a Pro Bowl berth, after signing as a free agent. Kareem Jackson made some progress on the other side, but he was picked on a lot. He needs to play better. Jason Allen, who was the nickel corner, signed with Cincinnati. Brice McCain and Brandon Harris, a rookie last season, needs to show more to push for time.