Training Camp Digest: Week 1

Training Camp Digest is a series of quick-hit observations about the Houston Texans as they make their way through training camp. These observations are mostly made from publicly-available material, as I do not have a camp pass. I do converse with reporters who have been inside the bubble, but I mostly will use this piece to opine on my own and without inside knowledge.

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Two-back sets: One of the hottest topics of the first couple of days of training camp was the potential of using two RB-sets more now that David Johnson and Duke Johnson both provide versatility. I don’t want to dismiss the idea of this completely out of hand, because I do think that having three separate players that are running threats in the backfield can be, at the very least, a tendency-changer for the Texans. I do think the propaganda has gotten ahead of the likelihood that it becomes something more than a 3-5% play that they put on film to make other teams prepare for it.

Think about it this way: there are four things a player can do on any one down: pass, run, catch, or block. Duke Johnson and David Johnson are not exactly devastating blockers to deal with. Thus, when you put them in the backfield together, whatever you design is ultimately based on misdirection. The very best backfield players in the NFL can threaten to do three of those things well. I don’t think any of those players are on this Houston roster at the moment. (Maybe, maybe, Cullen Gillaspia can do that. Certainly not proven.)

But the more you condense a formation, the less horizontal space you can attack. I think opposing defensive coordinators will happily treat Duke Johnson as someone who gets countered with a safety or nickelback rather than a linebacker. At that point, you’re in a “matchup” league, as O’Brien likes to call it. Could it create some of those matchups you like to see? Sure. But short of running the single-wing I think the versatility aspect of this is perhaps a little overrated. The most likely way it plays out to me is that “two running back” formations have one of the backs out wide.

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The ascension of Jordan Thomas: So much of what happens behind closed doors in training camp is essentially made unreportable by the team. So one of the things that I think should raise alarm bells for you is when a reporter asks a coach about a specific player at practice. In this case: Jordan Thomas.

I think Thomas has always had enough of the eye of the coaching staff to say that he’s earned playing time. He got buried last year because of an unfair injury situation where the team aggravated it playing him in the fourth preseason game to try to make up for lost reps. Because Jordan Akins was playing as well as he was as the second tight end, I think it was a tough situation to integrate Thomas once he came off the injured list at midseason. I do believe Thomas has NFL talent, which he showed in his rookie season, and wouldn’t be surprised at all if he had a bigger role this year.

If it does happen, I’m hopeful it is at Fells’ expense, because as much as I enjoy Fells, he is the exact kind of player that sneakily drains cap space that could be used more efficiently on better players … particularly as the Covid-19 salary cap impacts of next season seem likely to make middle-class players expendable.

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Unicorn Prayer and Duke Ejiofor: Forgive me for this rant, but there is absolutely nothing cheaper in the NFL landscape than fan excitement about a player who has to overcome history to be good. For one, those players often have a collegiate record or fanbase that leans towards accentuating the positive. For another, there’s nothing risked in being optimistic. I certainly am not going to chase you down and keep you honest on your positive Gareon Conley opinion — I don’t care about it. But it’s a lot easier to be negative about someone else’s sports opinions when they aren’t overwhelmingly positive.

The truth of NFL coverage is that most people have a hard time remembering anything more than snapshots. Because our audience tends to be as big as the number of casual fans to be, it’s hard to work with more than that. Showing every player’s sacks for a season will get traction. Showing 10 plays where a run defender gets defeated is something that a) nobody watches and b) nobody talks about. I’ve tried. We are a highlights society. In that society, the most important thing in my eyes are the people who actually go through and watch all they can, bring you their consensus, and let the results speak. I can pick through five plays of anybody’s all-22 and show them, at the very worst, holding their own. You can punctuate that with something like “Cornell Armstrong can be a great off-cover defender,” and get people excited. Can does all the lifting, but the people are already convinced.

Duke Ejiofor fell to the sixth round because he had concussion issues. He got hurt again last year. Lots of players make the NFL and get hurt — it’s a big jump in athletic competition. Many players don’t come back from a torn Achilles at all. He made it back to camp, and this time has torn his ACL. He has one sack in his career on 158 defensive snaps. I’m not telling you that his NFL career is done. I’m not telling you that you’re not allowed to be excited about his 2018 snaps. But from any sort of objective, 30,000-foot view, this isn’t a guy you do more than monitor and hope for. That was the case before training camp, too. I can go along and drag out 10s of Tweets I’ve received from people amounting to “why are you ignoring Duke Ejiofor?!?” This was always a more likely scenario than him hitting it big. Obviously, I’m pulling for him. I want him to succeed. But this is the exact situation that couldn’t have been more designed in a lab for people to yell at me. Those people never take any accountability when they’re wrong. It’s astroturfed optimism.

Keep your eyes on Kahale Warring, because if he doesn’t start impressing in practice, he’s about to become the next guy I get yelled at for ignoring.

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Don’t sleep on John Reid getting early playing time: When I did my breakdown of Reid earlier this offseason, I was impressed by the quality of player he was and — reading more about him — impressed by his approach to the game. Everybody continues to be quite optimistic about him, and I think the quote from Anthony Weaver says it all:

Specific praise like that catches my eye. That’s not the sort of generic “please don’t ask me about this player” template answer you get. Then when you get into the circumstances, you see the case for playing time gets a little higher. Conley and Roby are the two corners everyone seems to think will start. Lonnie Johnson is getting “moving to safety” buzz. There’s not a clear player better than Reid who is playing nickel.

Then you mix this in with the same organization that dropped Aaron Colvin from starting slot to the street after Week 1 last year, and four games in a row against objectively good teams to start the season, and I think you’ve built a situation that Reid will likely step in to sooner rather than later. Vernon Hargreaves is not a clean projection at slot corner. If Roby isn’t moving inside to bring Lonnie Johnson outside, I think a battle with the interior players on this roster could go quite favorably for Reid.

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Contracts:

I’m for them! We know that Deshaun Watson is going to get paid. Restructures from the front office (Angelo Blackson) are likely aimed at trying to get that done in a hurry.

I think Zach Cunningham has been a pretty good middle linebacker in the Benardrick McKinney tonesetter role, last year was a breakout. He’s not the best coverage linebacker in the business despite his physical gifts and, 2,500+ snaps into his career, probably never will be. The big question will be what is a fair value for Cunningham, and I think that’s one where his agents will likely see him as someone who deserves around $13-$15 million a season with $20-25 million in guarantees. That keeps him below Bobby Wagner and C.J. Mosley, but comfortably into the tier of recent signees like Shaq Thompson, Myles Jack, Jaylon Smith, and Cory Littleton.

Is he compromising down from that? I don’t know. I think I would personally value him closer to like $10-$11 million a season and $16-$17 million guaranteed — i.e. what McKinney got. But there’s probably a comfortable middle ground there that will still work with next year’s cap.

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