Where is the pass rush besides Mario Williams?The Texans didn't sit back and hope their defense could improve on the 25 sacks it registered in 2008. Free-agent addition Antonio Smith will be a nice complement to Williams on early downs. In passing situations, Smith will move inside next to Amobi Okoye to form a disruptive combination. Connor Barwin will come off the edge, and expect fellow rookie Brian Cushing to do some blitzing, too. Hiring Bill Kollar to coach the defensive line might be as critical as any player addition the Texans made. Kollar will get after his players and, in turn, they will get after the quarterback. Williams had 12 sacks last season and should improve on that number under Kollar, and the other pass rushers should deliver enough to push the team's total closer to 35.
Is it too early to panic after a second straight 8-8 season?Texans owner Robert McNair is growing tired of never having a winning season, much less making the playoffs. When he says things like he will be disappointed if the team doesn't make the postseason, it could be construed to mean coach Gary Kubiak is in trouble. That might be a mistake. Kubiak has developed Houston's offense into the No. 3 unit in the league. He has made changes on his defensive staff, and there are five potential new starters on defense. The Texans had to open with three games on the road last season. They lost all three and gave up 99 points. But Houston finished the season strong, going 5-1, and is poised for a winning 2009. Instead of hitting the panic button, hopefully the team will stabilize the situation.
Is there enough depth on the roster?Sooner or later, roster depth becomes the critical factor over the course of a 16-game season. The preseason will give the Texans an opportunity to see what their backups can do since they receive most of the playing time. The trade of backup Sage Rosenfels to Minnesota could be criticized, but signing Rex Grossman and Dan Orlovsky adds security if starting QB Matt Schaub is hurt again. The running backs situation isn't so sure should Steve Slaton go down, so it's worth watching during the preseason. Offensive line guru Alex Gibbs has enough players trained to handle injuries. No one can replace WR Andre Johnson or TE Owen Daniels in the passing game, but there is adequate competition for reserve spots. Keep an eye on rookie James Casey as a hybrid player and maybe the emergence of Jacoby Jones. There are some concerns about the depth in the secondary, especially with Colts QB Peyton Manning in the division, so keep an eye on the back four.
Looking for strength on the weakside
There could be a showdown between starting center Chris Myers and third-round draft pick Antoine Caldwell, but the competition to watch is at weakside linebacker. Xavier Adibi made five starts last season before he was hurt, and he will be challenged by Cato June, a six-year veteran with 73 starts, 498 tackles and 12 interceptions in his career. June looks like a good complement to middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and rookie strongside linebacker Brian Cushing because he can cover slot receivers and chase down running backs.
DT Travis JohnsonJohnson was a first-round pick in 2005, but he hasn't lived up to expectations with just two career sacks. Houston brought in Shaun Cody, who has a better motor and more production in less starts, during the offseason to compete with Johnson.
DE Connor BarwinFirst-round draft pick Brian Cushing will be a starter from Day 1 and should play well. However, the key to Houston improving its defense will be how well second-round pick Connor Barwin performs. Barwin needs to be a factor rushing the passer in third-down situations. He should never be double teamed with Mario Williams on the field.
RB Steve SlatonThe Texans didn't add an impact running back during the offseason, so Slaton will be one of the few true featured backs in the league. He was a real find for fantasy owners in his rookie season and will come off the board in the first or second round in countless 2009 drafts.