NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps. Albert Breer details his visit with the Houston Texans. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
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Hot, humid and sticky Houston, where the Texans train at their normal practice facility in the shadows of Reliant Stadium. On this day, like most during training camp, coach Gary Kubiak has his team out and practicing at 8 a.m., a way to make practices more productive with the hot Texas sun not yet quite directly overhead. The team's walkthroughs typically have been in mid-to-late afternoon inside the team's air-conditioned practice bubble. And to acclimate the players to the conditions, through the first four days of camp, Kubiak would hold the final half-hour of practice in the bubble to cut down on the amount of time the players were outside. It's smart, in that it allows the coach to demand the fast pace of work he craves.
1. Arian Foster looks primed for a monster season. Again. The former NFL rushing champion looked agile, decisive and fast in practice, which isn't exactly news, other than to prove Foster's new five-year, $43.5 million deal hasn't led to complacency. Seeing him freeze defenders and glide through the line at practice illustrates why Houston feels its backfield is the best in football. (Apologies, Panthers). Ben Tate might be the league's best backup at the position, and the Texans think they have a find in Justin Forsett, the former Seahawk who could potentially provide a change-of-pace option to his more conventional teammates. Throw in undrafted free agent Jonathan Grimes, who's turned some heads early in camp, and it's hard to find a more impressive stable.
2. Andre Johnson is adjusting as he ages. It was kinda jarring to look at the Houston roster and see a "10" under the experience column next to Johnson's name, but this year will, in fact, give the 31-year-old dynamo a decade in the league. Johnson missed the final three games of the 2010 season, and injuries to both hamstrings cost him nine games last year. At the start of this year's camp, he went down hard on his hip, tweaked his groin, and the Texans put him on what they call a "pitch count." Johnson says the groin injury was "blown out of whack," and he's fine now. But he's also conscious of the nicks and bruises. "I think last year going through the injuries made me look at things differently. Before that, I was still doing my massages, going to the chiropractor, things like that. Now that I'm not 22 anymore, it's something I need to do more of. ... I'm doing stuff every day, making sure I'm working on different things, making sure all my muscles are firing. When I look back on it, I think it was a great learning experience, knowing the things you need to do to make sure your body is ready to go, so you don't have to experience that again."
3. Matt Schaub is back, too. And chomping at the bit. The Texans played it safe in the offseason, holding Schaub back through the spring as he rehabbed the fractured Lisfranc joint in his right foot. He says that's paying off now, in doctors saying that the injury won't recur. But the memories of missing last fall -- he was on the bench with a headset for games, since his foot couldn't bear weight -- won't die easy. "It was tough," he said, "right until I got back out in the huddle, first day of training camp." He's tried to make up for the time off the field by drilling fundamentals and sharpening up on the mental side of the game. But the overriding thing he's taken from the past 10 months is appreciation. "There are always things you can get better at. It's the little things, the details, the footwork drills," Schaub said. "But I think the biggest thing for me is it gave me the reminder to enjoy what we're doing and not take things for granted, because of how quickly it can get taken away from you."
4. Attitude is the next step for the Texans defense. I asked one Texans official where the next step will be taken defensively under Wade Phillips, and he responded, simply, "We're salty out there." Last year, the Texans skyrocketed from 30th to second in total defense. This year, it looks like they're starting to play the part of a group that knows it's elite. On the field, Phillips said consistency from week to week will be the key to those guys becoming as good as they think they can be. "We said, 'Hey, the last two games we played last year, the two playoff games, if we can get to that level, start out at that level and play through the season that way, we could be awfully good'," he explained. Ten of 11 starters are back. Yes, they lost Mario Williams. But they didn't have him for most of last year, anyway. Young guys like J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed seem poised to take the next step, and Phillips expects to be able to do more schematically with better knowledge of his own personnel and that personnel knowing his system better. Johnson told me in the past that he wouldn't watch the game when he and the offense came off the field. "I get up and watch our defense play now," Johnson said. "I'm excited to watch those guys play on Sunday." And they're excited to see what they're capable of.
5. Kubiak is in command here. This Texans operation is smooth and fast-moving. The practice I attended was over in 105 minutes. At one point, Kubiak said to rookie quarterback Case Keenum, "Everything you do, do it a little quicker." That message seemed to be received by the whole team. And at two different points in practice, Kubiak called the whole team in -- like a coach would at the end of practice -- just to explain what they were going to try and accomplish in the next period. He addressed them again when the session was over. The point seems to be clear communication, to make every play and portion of practice count, and not waste anyone's time. Pretty interesting to watch, especially with a veteran team that's very clearly in win-now mode carrying Kubiak's plans out.
THE NEW GUYS
Brandon Brooks: The outsized third-rounder might have seemed a funny fit for the Texans' zone-blocking scheme, and he was called out at minicamp by Kubiak for needing to cut weight. But in the early parts of camp, he's impressed. Houston needs help on the right side of its line. Brooks could well be the answer to the guard part of that equation.
Keshawn Martin: Martin sticks out among the other Texans receivers in size. Or lack thereof. He doesn't measure up to the rangy pair of Johnson and Kevin Walter, but he's quick, elusive, and the fourth-rounder has outplayed his old Big Ten rival DeVier Posey, whom Houston took in the third round. Martin could well wind up being the primary slot guy for the Texans' potent offense.
Whitney Mercilus: In San Diego, Phillips birthed the "Charger" package, which put edge rushers Shawne Merriman, Steve Foley and Shaun Phillips on the field together. He did the same in Dallas, with the "Cowboy" package boasting DeMarcus Ware, Greg Ellis and Anthony Spencer. Early signs are that he'll be able to do the same this year, with Mercilus juicing up a pass rush led by Reed and Connor Barwin.
Two years after washing out in Dallas, Phillips seems to be in his element as a coordinator in Houston, so much so that last January he pulled out of an interview for the Tampa Bay job. And you couldn't have had a better picture of that Wednesday, with his 88-year-old dad Bum out on the steamy practice field, proudly wearing a gigantic old Houston Oilers belt buckle with his name burned on it. Wade Phillips was smiling ear-to-ear when he said, "You grow up, your dad's you're hero. Then, your high school coach is your hero. Then your college coach is your hero. And the guy you work for for 10 years is your hero. For me, it's all the same guy."
1. Former first-round pick Kareem Jackson has been a major disappointment to this point in his career, but Johnson indicated the ex-Alabama star "is improving a whole lot." Giving Johnathan Joseph a capable bookend at corner could make the Texans defense scary.
2. J.J. Watt couldn't practice Wednesday. So how did he spend the time, with his left elbow dislocated? Try this: Catching balls one-handed off the JUGS machine with his right arm. Let's just say you could tell he used to be a tight end.
3. The Texans were just another team that wasn't shy about contact in the camp practice I attended. No, they didn't do Oklahomas, like the Bengals did. They didn't go live on the quarterback, like the Jets did on Tebow. But they were hitting. And that, this summer, has most certainly been a commonality of many of the places I hit.
It's no secret around here. The Texans expect to be good. They were 10-6 last year, won a playoff game and gave Baltimore all it could handle -- in a stadium the Ravens hadn't lost in all year -- in the divisional playoffs. And they did it without Schaub down the stretch, without Johnson for a good chunk of the season, and having to replace Williams on the fly. Simple logic says this is a team that should be a juggernaut in 2012, and that's an assessment the players don't disagree with. "I think just going through what we went through last year as a team, that boosted our confidence," Johnson said. "I think it really showed what type of team we had, and we found out about some other players that we really didn't know about. That's what makes this year, the expectation level so high, not just from us but also the fans around here. And it's up to us now to get it done." There's plenty of reason to believe that these guys are, indeed, capable of getting it done.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer