HOUSTON -- In the sweltering heat, with 8 a.m. practice being the best option for creating a productive environment, the Houston Texans toil away.
"It's the dog days of camp at this point," general manager Rick Smith told me, before we both took a stab at cooling off.
Aside from the temperature, the Texans have little to worry about. A few nagging injuries, maybe, but who doesn't have those? No, the NFL's most low-key and under-the-radar winners are plugging along productively -- same as always.
In fact, the only controversy came a few days ago, when star defender J.J. Watt showed up with his elbow brace (ack!) again ... an elbow brace that helped him pile up 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections last season. Yup, all is well in Houston.
Here are five things I learned during my day at training camp:
1) Even when he's not on the field, Ed Reed makes a huge difference: Reed was the Texans' highest-profile free-agent signing, and having him miss time in camp with an injured hip -- on Monday, he told NFL Network's Deion Sanders that he's at 75-80 percent and wouldn't play if the season started today -- isn't ideal. Yet, Reed's contributions off the field have been just as notable as what he hasn't been able to do on it. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips told me that Reed has been invaluable in meetings, making suggestions and offering tips. Sometimes, Phillips will go, "OK, let's do it that way." While on the sideline at practice, Reed will holler to the youngsters about how a receiver is leaning or what a split means. Safety D.J. Swearinger -- one of two Texans rookies who might start in Year 1 -- has been the biggest beneficiary. When Reed does make it on the field, Phillips explained, the goal will be to take advantage of his uncanny instincts. "With Ed Reed, he's going to have the same assignment as the other free safeties have," Phillips said. "But he's going to have a little more latitude as far as what he does with it. So, that's the way we always approach it. Any time you get good players, you got to let them play. Got to try to utilize them."
2) The Texans like their rookies: Houston's main goal heading into April's draft was to find a complementary piece to veteran receiver Andre Johnson, a threat on the outside. Based on what has transpired thus far in camp, the Texans believe they've found that in first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins -- the other rookie with a good shot to start. The big, athletic Hopkins boasts a simple ability: He can catch. "Whether it's a one-handed grab where he comes out of the break or a contested catch or something, he continues to show that he has a chance to really help us this year," Smith told me. Hopkins has also learned from Johnson. The story told to me was that one day, Hopkins saw Johnson in the hot tub before practice and asked him if he did that every day. Johnson said he did. And since then? Hopkins hasn't missed a day yet. "Obviously, when we talk about DeAndre," Smith said, "you're going to have some rookie experiences, and he has to go through them at the position. But just from an athletic standpoint, he makes plays every day." As for Swearinger, he simply carries himself like a veteran. "He's got such savvy and instincts," Smith said, "and awareness, and he's tough. It's showing up in the pads." Perhaps Houston can withstand the wait for Reed to return. Of course, Swearinger likely will find his way on the field regardless of Reed's status. Looking for two more players ready to burst onto the scene? How about receiver Keshawn Martin, who is making a big second-year leap, and rookie tight end Ryan Griffin from Connecticut.
3) In Houston, Matt Schaub is the man: Nationally, there are still questions about the starting quarterback. Locally -- and especially among team personnel -- there are not. The Texans believe Schaub is the guy to lead them to the next step after making progress toward that goal each year. It's why they found him help in Hopkins, while also solidifying his offensive line. Much like Joe Flacco before he won the Super Bowl, however, Schaub must accomplish something if he wants to gain respect. "He just has to continue doing what he's done," Smith said. "He's got to play better in those critical situations, and he knows that. He's a great leader for our football team; our guys believe in him. We just gotta keep grinding." Having running back Arian Foster fully healthy would make life a bit easier, though his calf and back injuries have given the team time to look at Foster's backups, including undrafted Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson. After coming out of nowhere to impress, Johnson is a player to watch.
4) J.J. Watt's elbow brace merits a big, fat "meh": The fact that Watt's elbow is back in the brace that helped him become Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 isn't a concern, not to me and not to the Texans. Watt is a bit annoyed -- he'd like to shed it, but that's not realistic. What is realistic is that Watt is primed to build on last season's heroics, with Phillips putting his stamp on the 2012 contributions. "Nobody's ever had a better year than he had last year," Phillips told me. "This is my 37th year. I remember a lot of them. Nobody's had a year like he had. Tackles for loss, tipped balls, almost the most sacks ever, almost the most tackles behind the line, most hits on a quarterback -- it was phenomenal. He's going to make all the plays. He's going to be a star player for a while. He works at it and he's gifted and knows when to go inside or around the block and make the play, when to rush the passer and get to the quarterback, when to pull up and knock the ball down. He's got some innate qualities that most guys don't have. He looks great in practice." Helping Watt on the line: quick and unheralded nose tackle Earl Mitchell, who is coming on strong, and veteran Antonio Smith. That's a formidable group.
5) Brian Cushing is ready -- now: Cushing is being eased back onto the practice field as he continues his rehab from an ACL injury, but this isn't a bad sign. Just the opposite. It shows how valuable he is. Of course, this became abundantly clear after he went down last season, judging by how much the defense suffered in his absence. Once Cushing shows he's back to being his old self on the field, the Texans will attempt to reach an agreement on a long-term extension with him. (He's on the last year of his rookie contract.) A source who sees Cushing regularly told me this: "He's ready now. He has no soreness, he accelerates, he can run." In other words, he's primed for a big comeback. The best way for Phillips to tell is to watch Cushing move on the field -- and clearly, he likes what he's seen. "He looks good," Phillips said. "You can tell he can still really run. That's the first thing you look for." And adding Joe Mays to the linebacker group should pay dividends in terms of depth; it's rare to find a player that good so late in free agency. With Cushing, Mays, Tim Dobbins and Darryl Sharpton in the fold, the Texans should be able to withstand an injury.