TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW

Cody Stoots: The best and worst position groups for the Texans

Will Fuller needs to by dynamic for the Texans. Photo by Edward Clarke

The Texans head to West Virginia this week to start their away portion of training camp. As training camp starts the Texans have a few position groups they can rely on and a couple of position groups they are going to need to get a lot better in the coming weeks. 

Best offensive position group: Wide receivers

The Texans boast one of the best pass catchers in football in DeAndre Hopkins but outside of him, the team has a lot of maybe mixed with some hope. Maybe Will Fuller will stay healthy and be the dynamic gamebreaker the team has to have to succeed. He was amazing with Deshaun Watson at quarterback finding the end zone frequently. He has to show up more consistently but the talent is there. Bruce Ellington got to the team in the middle of camp but still turned in his most impressive year as a pro. It wasn't spectacular; he totaled just 330 yards in 11 games, but with the team committing to him in the offseason and some stability on offense Ellington maybe can be a veteran piece for the offense.

The hope comes in the form of Keke Coutee and Braxton Miller. Coutee is a rookie but his skills are the first true slot presence the team has had in Bill O'Brien's tenure. Miller has been a project for a while. The current front office didn't invest in him but if there is anything there this would be the time to show it. He has psychical gifts but there is no more learning curve for his position change. This is his fourth year playing wideout and training camp is now or never. 

Worst offensive position group: Running backs and offensive lineman

The Texans may have one of the worst running back groups in football. Let me first explain why the offensive line isn't here solo. There is at least some investment in some players who have had a semblance of success in the opportunities they had. Plenty of Saints fans and media lamented the potential loss created by the Texans signing Senio Kelemete and his versatility is an asset as a potential backup and maybe starter should someone falter. Zach Fulton will hopefully not be Jeff Allen 2.0 as he came over from the Chiefs on a similar deal after having a similar amount of success. Greg Mancz and Nick Martin provide playing experience and depth at center. The tackle situation is a disaster with Seantrell Henderson who hasn't played much in the NFL between injuries and suspensions and Julién Davenport has played very little. 

The running backs to me is a bigger disaster than the offensive line. Yes, they produced some results last year that had them as a middle of the road team but how much did Deshaun Watson and his mobility help? If he isn't used as a runner as much can the middle of the road results be produced again? I don't believe so. This concern all goes away if D'Onta Foreman is inexplicably ready to play right away after his season-ending injury last year. Without him though the running back room is one of the more unimpressive in football. Lamar Miller just came off one of his worst seasons as a pro. Alfred Blue was unimpressive last season. Tyler Ervin isn't really a running back. The rest of the young players have a very limited track record. Without Foreman, this is the worst position group on the team. 

Best defensive position group: Linebacker

It might be cheating to put all the linebackers together AND include Jadeveon Clowney, but, this is the strength of the defense. There is proven success and potential at every linebacker spot. Clowney and Whitney Mercilus provide plenty of pass rush while Benadrick McKinney and his new contract patrol the middle. Zach Cunningham and Dylan Cole provide solid talent with McKinney inside. The spot opposite Clowney is the "weak" portion but there are some interesting candidates to start opposite him. Brennan Scarlett has been with the team for a few years while rookie Duke Ejiofor could push for time. There are very few questions at this position.

Worst defensive position group: Cornerback

This was a position of concern before Kareem Jackson and Treston Decoud moved to safety. Johnathan Joseph is back again but coming off a rough year for him. He had zero interceptions outside of the Cleveland game and finished the year with just nine passes defended. Kevin Johnson has failed to stay healthy and took a step back last year. Aaron Colvin is new to the team and it seems could start the year without a defined position. He could end up being the best cornerback in this group. Johnson Bademosi is the special teams ace. The rest of the candidates for the last one or two spots are Dee Virgin who had a little success in the preseason last year and a couple of rookies from San Jose State in Jermaine Kelly and Andre Chachere. If Joseph doesn't have one last veteran resurgance and Kevin Johnson doesn't bounce back this group will have a tough time. 

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Good news for Jose Altuve. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

One never knows how things will play out but of the known General Manager candidates, Jim Crane nailed it in hiring Dana Brown out of the Atlanta Braves' organization where he was Vice President of Scouting. The 55-year-old Brown's scouting and development pedigree is stellar. The Braves have been a talent-producing machine in recent years. Obviously all the credit isn't Brown's but his four years with the Braves preceded by a productive pipeline he was part of in Toronto speak highly of him. Not that it was or should have been the guiding principle to Crane's decision-making, but the Astros now have the only African-American General Manager in Major League Baseball (Ken Williams is Executive Vice President of the Chicago White Sox).

Brad Ausmus is a super-smart guy, but if had he gotten the GM gig it would have been in large part because he was teammate besties with Jeff Bagwell. While “It's not what you know it's who you know” plays a role in many, many hires, it would have been a poor rationale for tabbing Ausmus. Maybe Ausmus would have done a great job. Maybe Brown does a lousy job. Brown was the much more strongly credentialed candidate. While Bagwell has moved way up Crane's confidante list, Brown played college baseball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall.

Speaking of Halls…

If I could tell you as absolute fact that exactly two members of the 2023 Houston Astros will someday make the Baseball Hall of Fame, who are you picking? Jose Altuve isn’t a lock just yet but he is obvious pick number one. So for the second spot are you going with Alex Bregman or Yordan Alvarez? We’ll get back to this a couple of paragraphs down.

As was basically a given, former Astro (and Phillie, Met, Red Sox, and Brave) Billy Wagner was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, but as I suggested last week the voting returns were very favorable toward Wagner making the Hall next year, or if not next year in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association ballot for the Class of 2025. “Wags” in the Class of ’24 is looking good. Wagner jumped from 51 percent to 68 percent “put him in” votes. The only guy this year to get the necessary 75 percent for election is worthy third baseman Scott Rolen. Two years ago Rolen got 53 percent of the votes needed, last year 63 percent, before getting the call to Cooperstown with 76.5 percent this year. Wagner going from 51 to 68 to 75-plus looks likely. Of course it’s not as if Wagner can pad his case with a good 2023 season, but this is how the process works. The other ballot returnee well positioned to make it next year is former Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. Unlike this year there’s a sure-fire first time ballot guy going in next year. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will undoubtedly wear a Texas Rangers cap on his plaque.

As expected Carlos Beltran didn’t come close to election in his first year of eligibility, but drawing 46 percent of the votes sets him up well to eventually get the Cooperstown call. Beltran was a fabulous player and his Hall credentials are solid. However, no one reasonable would argue that Carlos Beltran was as good or better than Barry Bonds. In his first year of eligibility back in 2013 Bonds garnered 36 percent of the vote. There has been some turnover in the voter pool over the last decade, but it's clear that Beltran’s central role in the Astros’ sign stealing scheme was not held against him to the extent that PED use (actual and/or suspected) was held against Bonds and Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. And Sammy Sosa. And Manny Ramirez. And others. Foremost right now that’s encouraging for Beltran, but it’s also encouraging down the line for fellow Astros of 2017-18.

What does this mean for Jose Altuve?

If Jose Altuve retired today (perish the thought!) he’d have a good case for the Hall. He had superstar seasons in 2016, 2017, and 2022, and has five other seasons that while not in the realm of his three best certainly rate as excellent. If you judge a player by his five best seasons, there aren’t 10 second basemen in the history of the sport who’d rank ahead of Altuve. Among those who clearly would: Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Among those four only Morgan played more recently than 1937. Then there’s a group of arguable guys like Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and yes Craig Biggio. Altuve has had the prime of a Hall of Famer. What sort of final numbers will he accrue? In late May or early June he should reach the 2000 hit plateau. How many more prime years does Altuve have left before inevitable decline? His career batting average is .307. Four years ago it was .316. Will Altuve retire a .300 hitter?

Bregman or Alvarez? Bregman gets extra points for being an everyday third baseman as opposed to a left fielder-designated hitter, but by age alone Yordan is the better play. Bregman turns 29 on opening day this year. Yordan doesn’t turn 26 until late June. When Bregman was 25 (2019 season) he put up a season more valuable than Alvarez’s tremendous 2022. In the three years since Bregman hasn’t approached that level, though his big second half last season could be a springboard back to that stratosphere. Yordan is in that stratosphere and figures to stay there for a while if his health holds up.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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