CAMP COUNTDOWN

Texans training camp preview: Defensive line

J.J. Watt has not been seen since getting helped off the field early last season. Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Texans are hoping they can return to their former defensive glory in 2018 under coordinator Romeo Crennel. That means they need to get back to being stout up front against the run and penetrating against the pass. Really, they need J.J. Watt back and healthy. They’ve got enough pieces around him to make a pretty good group. If healthy though, his intangibles can put them over the top.

So, let’s start with his situation. Watt is expected to be available at the start of camp and should avoid any injury designation. He is coming back from a tibial plateau fracture in his left leg after playing only five games in 2017. That comes after playing only three in 2016. He and the team are counting on a bounce back year.

He’s probably going to be on a snap count early in the season to make sure there are no lingering issues. It will be up to a group, mostly the same players on the team last season, to keep the defensive rotation solid. That group will be led by versatile playmaker Jadeveon Clowney.

He’s not just a defensive end out there. Last season he lined up all over the front seven and will do so again. He plays defensive end, outside linebacker, middle linebacker and even defensive tackle. Anywhere they think he can be disruptive he will play. Both he and the Texans are going to need that as he goes into his fifth and final year of his contract. A new deal isn’t done yet and if he doesn’t get one soon, he will use this season to leverage an even bigger payday in the spring.

Christian Covington is going to be the other anchor at defensive end. But he too will be returning from injury. He played in the first seven games last season before tearing his bicep and going on the disabled list. Before that he was a solid piece up front and I expect him to be so again, providing more flexibility to the line.

But competition will be fierce. Second year man Carlos Watkins is going to do everything he can to take a big leap in his development. If he can, the rotation at that position will be what it needs to be to stay fresh for a full 16 game schedule. But he’s going to be in a dogfight with the guy he was on the field with a lot last year, Joel Heath. Watkins and Heath should make this team easily, but nothing is guaranteed.

Like any good team, Watt, Covington, Watkins, and Heath aren’t the only defensive ends in camp. Rotation player Angelo Blackson is returning after getting in nine games in 2017 and former Houston Cougar Nick Thurman will be there as an undrafted free agent. They will have their shot to make the roster, but I see them being on the outside looking in.

On the inside, plugging up the middle at nose tackle once again is D.J. Reader. He’s had a great first two seasons in Houston and with a little help he can probably do even better this year. Reader is exactly what a nose tackle should be in the NFL. He can hold the point of attack and leverage himself well in the pass rush.

But after Reader’s injury, Brandon Dunn was the man who stepped up to fill his shoes. He returns this season to be a piece of the rotation. A solid group in the trenches might help the Texans be better than the 13th ranked run defense they were last year.

Rounding out this group are three guys hoping their long shot to make the team isn’t too long. Darius Kilgo and Marcus Hardison will be looking to make their second rosters since being drafted in 2015. Kilgo saw game action his rookie year in Denver but wasn’t an impact player. Hardison made the final roster for the Bengals in 2015 but was never active for a game.

The last nose tackle on the roster for camp is undrafted rookie Kingsley Opara from the University of Maryland. He’s an upside player who needs to develop more of his game as an inside pass rusher. He can benefit from some good coaching in camp and will be a candidate for the practice squad later.

All in all, this group can be a great asset for Houston. Getting back Watt and Covington can be the biggest difference in a defensive turnaround from one year to the next. It was just two years ago that they were the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL. A big part of that was a tough defensive line and the ability to get a great pass rush. If they are healthy expect big things all around for Romeo Crennel’s group.


 

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