Wide Receivers Keke Coutee and Bruce Ellington will be competing, but that is not the biggest battle. Photo by Edward Clarke
The time has come for training camp to end and the preseason games to begin. All the practicing and studying will be used in a game situation; albeit against a simplified game plan. These games have no meaning other than player evaluation for coaches, but fringe players can earn a roster spot by giving it all they have and making a play when the opportunity arises.
With all that said, there are still a few positions where stiff competition is going to have a big impact on the team in the regular season. If you’re going to watch these preseason games, then the best way to enjoy them is to pay attention to how well the following players perform when the lights are on. It could go a long way toward helping the Texans stay competitive for the entire season.
1. Back-up running back
We all know Lamar Miller is going to be the starter, but with D’Onta Foreman’s return still a mystery the next man up is going to be important when the season begins. The obvious expectation is that Bill O’Brien will just use Alfred Blue because of his experience with the offense. But his four years haven’t really made him a shoo-in. Tyler Ervin is coming off an injury and Troymaine Pope didn’t light the world on fire in last year’s rookie season. That leaves the door wide open for this year’s rookies Lavon Coleman and Terry Swanson.
It’s those two that I think will have the best chance to win the back-up spot. Everyone else has game tape that isn’t very good. I will be fun to watch how they do, despite the likelihood they will be facing third and fourth string defenses. If they can stick to the fundamentals and break some plays open, they can push the veterans out the door.
2. Offensive tackle
A bone of contention last year, the offensive line is still not a reliable group heading into the preseason. Help was given to the interior, but it will be up to some lesser talents to protect Deshaun Watson on the edge. The expectation is for the left tackle position to be occupied by second-year pro Julie’n Davenport. At 6’7” 320, he’s a big athletic body who can occupy a lot of space. Free agent acquisition Seantrel Henderson will be competing on the right side against Kendall Lamm, with a chance for either one to seal the deal.
I can’t fully believe that Davenport is the clear choice at left tackle. If he struggles against a straight pass rush during the preseason there might be an opening for Henderson to slide to the left side while Davenport moves to the right. There’s also the possibility that a veteran gets cut from another team and shakes the whole thing up by signing in Houston.
This was another position in serious need of an overhaul in the offseason. The only significant addition was Aaron Colvin, a free agent signing from Jacksonville. He joins a position group led by aging veteran Jonathan Joseph and first round disappointment Kevin Johnson. The competition between these three guys for playing time is going to be intense. Joseph has lost a step, Johnson is often injured or getting beat, and Colvin has spent his career playing in the slot. The addition of safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Justin Reid will help the secondary overall, but the starting cornerback combination is going to define the pass defense when the season starts. Remember; they face Tom Brady, Odell Beckham Jr. and Andrew Luck early in the season. I would also be on the lookout for a veteran player on the market to join the team.
While these are the three biggest battles I will be watching, it will also be interesting to see what happens between Keke Coutee and Bruce Ellington for the No. 3 receiver. The other one to look out for is whether one of the two drafted tight ends, Jordan Akins or Jordan Thomas, earn some serious playing time over Ryan Griffin or Stephen Anderson.
Either way, there’s reason enough to watch Thursday night as Houston travels to Kansas City for the first preseason game and your first chance to see the players in action.
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Corbin Carroll just got a little more dangerous. Same for Bobby Witt Jr., Elly De La Cruz and the rest of baseball's fastest players.
Major League Baseball wants umpires to crack down on obstruction, and the commissioner's office outlined plans during a call with managers this week. MLB staff also will meet managers in person during spring training to go over enforcement.
The increased emphasis is only on the bases and not at home plate. The focus is on infielders who drop a knee or leg down in front of a bag while receiving a throw, acting as a deterrence for aggressive baserunning and creating an increased risk of injuries.
“I think with everything, they’re trying to make the game a little safer to avoid some unnecessary injuries," Phillies shortstop Trea Turner said Friday at the team's facility in Florida. “The intentions are always good. It comes down to how it affects the players and the games. I’m sure there will be plays where one team doesn’t like it or one team does.”
With more position players arriving at spring training every day, the topic likely will come up more and more as teams ramp up for the season.
“We'll touch on that. We'll show them some video of what’s good and what’s not,” Texas Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “You know, it’s going to be a little adjustment.”
Making obstruction a point of emphasis fits in with an ongoing effort by MLB to create more action. Obstruction calls are not reviewable, which could lead to some disgruntled players and managers as enforcement is stepped up, but it also means it won't create long replay deliberations.
A package of rule changes last season — including pitch clocks, bigger bases and limits on defensive shifts and pickoff attempts — had a dramatic effect. There were 3,503 stolen bases in the regular season, up from 2,486 in 2022 and the most since 1987.
MLB changed a different baserunning rule this offseason, widening the runner’s lane approaching first base to include a portion of fair territory. MLB also shortened the pitch clock with runners on base by two seconds to 18 and further reducing mound visits in an effort to speed games.
“Last year, you know, a lot of our preparation was around like, especially just the unknown of the clock and making sure like we’re really buttoned up on that," New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "These guys are so used to it in so many ways that sometimes I even forget.”
Increased enforcement could lead to more action on the basepaths. But a significant element of MLB's motivation is injury prevention.
Top players have hurt hands or wrists on headfirst slides into bases blocked by a fielder. White Sox slugger Luis Robert Jr. sprained his left wrist when he slid into Jonathan Schoop's lower left leg on a steal attempt during an August 2022 game against Detroit.
“It’s been happening for a while. It’s been getting out of control," Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “I know some of the players complained about it the last two years.”
While acknowledging his reputation as a significant offender, Phillies second baseman Bryson Stott didn't sound too worried about his play.
“We like to fight for outs at second base,” he said. "It’s never on purpose, blocking the base. For me, or someone covering second to the shortstop side, it’s a natural move for your knee to go down to reach the ball. It’s never intentional. I guess we’ll figure out how to maneuver around that.”