1. Battles on the front seven
Veteran Anthony Weaver and third-year man Earl Cochran are waging an intense battle to see who will be the No. 2 defensive end opposite Mario Williams, who established himself as one of the NFL's best at his position with a breakout season in 2007.
Weaver has made the most of his advantage in experience, especially when it comes to understanding blocking schemes. He has lost some of his fluidity and isn't much of a pass-rusher, but he remains strong against the run. Cochran isn't all that great of a pass-rusher, either, but the Texans' decision-makers love his aggressive nature and his ability to set a good tempo for the rest of the line.
The other front-seven job up for grabs is at strong-side linebacker. Second-year man Zac Diles and a pair of free-agent newcomers -- Kevin Bentley, from Seattle, and Chaun Thompson, from Cleveland -- have been competing hard since the start of camp.
Diles (6-foot-2) doesn't have ideal height, but he manages to slip free from blockers and shows good explosiveness. Bentley isn't a great athlete, but has considerable smarts and versatility. He could step in for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans if necessary. Thompson (6-2, 246 pounds) is larger than the other two, but not as fluid. He also has been slowed by a hamstring injury.
2. Molden breaking the starting lineup?
With Dunta Robinson expected to begin the season on the physically-unable-to-perform-list while recovering from knee and hamstring injuries, third-round draft pick Antwaun Molden has emerged as a leading candidate to fill the nickel cornerback job. In fact, Molden has performed so well in camp that he could push Jacques Reeves for the starting corner spot opposite Fred Bennett.
Molden has shown no problems making the significant competitive jump from Eastern Kentucky to the NFL. He is mature, has absorbed the Texans' defensive scheme quickly and has consistently used his relatively large frame (6-1, 196 pounds) and long arms to his advantage.
Derek Roberson, who was on the Texans' practice squad last year, also has been turning heads in practice. Although he is a bit undersized (5-10 and 184 pounds), he has made plays and shown a good bit of aggressiveness. In addition, Fred Bennett, another second-year man, looks to be stepping up his game after a disappointing rookie season.
3. Safety positions up for grabs?
Will Demps and C.C. Brown are listed as the starters at safety, but some younger players are making a push. General Manager Rick Smith is particularly impressed with Dominique Barber, a sixth-round draft pick from Minnesota.
"This kid understands football and he's fitting right in; (the NFL is) not too big for him," Smith said. "I'm excited to watch him, as we start to play some of these preseason games, so see if he can develop like we think he can."
4. Who's No. 2?
One of the most wide-open battles is for the No. 2 running back spot behind Ahman Green. The Texans acquired Chris Brown with the idea that he would fill the role, but a sore back caused him to miss some practice time. That opened the door for Steve Slaton, a third-round draft pick from West Virginia, to grab the attention of coaches with his terrific speed and versatility. The one area Slaton needs to improve if he is going to win the job is picking up blitzes.
Third-year man Chris Taylor has also been impressive after struggling a bit during offseason workouts. The Texans tried him at fullback, but have concluded that running back is his more natural position. Second-year man Darius Walker is having a strong camp as well.
5. Three's company at QB
The Texans have traditionally carried only two quarterbacks. But after Matt Schaub missed portions of last season with a shoulder injury and a concussion, the Texans are considering having a third quarterback behind him and Sage Rosenfels. The candidates are Shane Boyd and Alex Brink, a seventh-round draft pick from Washington State.
Boyd has an exceptionally strong passing arm, but neither he nor Brink has performed consistently well enough in camp practices to jump ahead. One will have to distinguish himself during preseason games to land the No. 3 job. Otherwise, the Texans will stick with their two-quarterback plan.
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