CAMP COUNTDOWN

Texans training camp preview: Special teams

Will Fuller returned punts last season. Could he do it again? Photo by Edward Clarke

The most maligned group on the Texans for a while now is its special teams. Frequently ranked near the bottom of the league, it has been a sore spot for anyone watching. At this moment I will repeat the phrase that gets said every year, “It’s a new season and they will turn it around.” But that might be the case this year. After two seasons, special teams coach Larry Izzo and the Texans parted ways. Now it’s up to the new guy Brad Seely to turn things around.

It will start with improvement by returning kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn. He ended the year 20 of 25 on field goals with a long of 55 yards. That’s not the worst stat line a kicker can have; but getting his percentage closer to 100 when the distance is less than 40 yards should be the goal. He went 11 of 14 from that range, a 78 percent rate. I’m wondering why another kicker hasn’t been brought in compete. But we will just have to see how it goes as the pre-season progresses.

Long time punter Shane Lechler does have competition. University of Tennessee punter Trevor Daniel signed with the Texans after the draft and will be giving the old veteran a run for his money. OK, it’s a yawn. But whichever one has better distance, accuracy and hangtime will get the job.

The only exciting special teams competition will be whatever happens with the kick and punt return duties. Kick-off duties were handled by Tyler Ervin early last season until he was injured and Chris Thompson took over. Between the two of them they averaged only 21 yards a return. That’s a number that needs to be improved because the ball is now spotted on the 25-yard line for touchbacks. There might also be competition from newer players on the roster like rookie running back Terry Swanson. No matter what, there needs to be some improvement.

Punt returns had a more varied group handling the duties. Six different players returned at least three punts over the course of the season. It would be nice if that number could be cut in half. Will Fuller led the way with nine returns but before injury Ervin had eight. Thompson got in the mix with six returns and will likely be ready to try it again.

With the many players that can return punts it should be important to get just one person to handle it full-time. It doesn’t have to be the same person for kicks offs and punts, so focus should be on finding the right person for each one.

Another aspect that needs work is the coverage units. Free agent signee Johnson Bademosi was signed partially because of his prowess in this area. Getting the players downfield to limit returns for yardage can flip the field position in Houston’s favor. They had a lot of defensive series with their backs against the wall because coverage units allowed big returns. That might be a reason for all extra safeties, cornerbacks, and linebackers on the roster. Those guys know how to hit and are the right body type for special teams.

Coaching is going to be the game changer for this team in 2018. If they have hired another dud who can’t get the players on the right track, then life will be difficult for the offense and defense that plays after them. It’s a game of inches and kicking is how it gets done.

 

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Willson Contreras will not be replacing catcher Martin Maldonado. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

According to multiple reports, free agent catcher Willson Contreras is signing a 5-year, $87.5 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Contreras was the Astros top target in free agency and will have to pursue other possibilities with Contreras heading to St. Louis.

The Astros reportedly have interest in bringing Christian Vazquez back in what could be a timeshare with Martin Maldonado. Houston could be in the market to trade for A's catcher Sean Murphy, according to reports. Murphy is under team control until 2025, so he won't come cheap if the A's are willing to trade him in the division.

Houston could also look to the farm system for help. Former 1st round pick Korey Lee or Yainer Díaz could both be options this season as the team transitions away from Maldonado, who is in the final year of his contract.

Another Astro moves on

The Oakland A's reportedly signed former Astros DH and utility man Aledmys Diaz to a 2-year, $14 million contract on Wednesday.

Diaz hit .255/.313/.424 with 32 home runs in his four years with the club. Diaz had some big moments with the team, but dealt with his fair share of injuries. It seemed like Diaz's time with the team was coming to an end when he went 1-23 in the 2022 postseason.

Looking ahead

The Astros are rumored to have interest in several free agent outfielders. Andrew Benintendi, Brandon Nimmo, and Michael Conforto have all been mentioned as players on the club's radar.

Michael Brantley could also be an option to bring back, but the team won't have confirmation on the health of his shoulder for quite some time.



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