Training camp news and notes

Texans training camp report: David Johnson continues to impress

Photo Courtesy of the Houston Texans

The Houston Texans stood on the 40-yard line when Deshaun Watson received a snapped to initiate the play. With his eyes set on his target, Watson threw a 15-yard pass attempt to tight end, Darren Fells. Instead of making the completion, Watson's pass attempt fell short as safety A.J. Moore Jr. came away with the interception.

Moore's pick on Watson was the first of two interceptions by Houston's secondary. A few possessions later, cornerback Cornell Armstrong picked off A.J. McCarron's pass attempt to Keke Coutee in a similar fashion.

"I think it's hard because you don't want to throw interceptions, but you also want takeaways in the game," head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien said. "Again, at the end of the day the turnover-takeaway battle is a huge part of the game and I think it's going to be a huge part of the game early on here. Penalties, tackling and then turnovers and takeaways – your ability to take the ball away – those things are going to be huge. It was good to see our defense – they work hard at those drills and then it carried over ... today a couple of times."

The Houston's Training Center marked the Texans' return to practice for their third day of action in full pads. Wide receiver Kenny Stills and inside linebacker Dylan Cole made their first appearance in training camp, but noticeably missing from the group was star defensive end, J.J Watt. The five-time Pro-Bowler did not participate in any of the team's on-field practice, but Watt's absence was apart of O'Brien's new management plan for his seasoned veterans.

"J.J. has played a ton of football for us and at a very high level," says O'Brien. "He's on a different type of plan. I'm not sure how much you'll see him out there this week. He'll be out there eventually, but he's on a different type of plan just like a lot of other guys."

David Johnson continues to impress:

David Johnson recently told Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report that his personal goal in 2020 is to recapture his potential as a running back who is capable of recording 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiver yards on the season. Albeit Johnson has yet to live up to his 2016 All-Pro status, the Texans appear to have put the 28-year-old running back in a position to succeed.

Stepping in as the primary back, Johnson took part in several reps showcasing his productivity as a dual-threat option coming out of the backfield. Johnson had some quality plays rushing the ball for a few yards, but what stood out the most was his proficient hands as a receiver. He capitalized on four out of his five pass-catching plays coming out of the backfield — demonstrating the harmony of the Watson-to-Johnson collaboration.

Since the beginning of training camp on July 25, Johnson's new coaches and teammates have gushed at his expertise, and the Texans' endless offensive possibilities to attack with him on the field. Johnson has impressed nearly everyone through his first few weeks of training camp. Everyone, except for his new backfield-mate, Duke Johnson.

"Absolutely nothing," Duke said. "Everything I see from David, I kind of expect. We came out the same year, so I kind of knew what he was capable of. I watched him when he was in Arizona. I think what has surprised a lot of people is the way that he's able to move at the size he is and what a great receiver he is out of the backfield."

Steven Mitchell Jr. plays with starters:

Last season, wideout Steven Mitchell Jr. spent most of 2019 as a member of the Texans practice squad. The most amount of snaps he received took placed during Houston's season finale against the Titans. As a starter, Mitchell recorded 37 yards on five catches in 65 snaps — as the Texans fell 35-14 to their AFC South rivals.

Coming into camp, the possibility of Mitchell solidifying a placed on the Texans' 53-man roster seemed far-fetched — but the former undrafted free-agent is making a strong case.

Mitchell ran nearly all of his reps with the starters during the Texans' 11-on-11 situational drills, where he completed three receptions from Watson in the process. O'Brien credited Mitchell's reps to managing his primary receiving core, but was impressed by the development the USC prodigy showcased Monday morning.

"I really like Stevie. He works so hard. When you look at the GPS numbers, he can run all day. He works really hard. He made a couple good plays today, he had a touchdown catch today. I think he's gotten better every year here. I think he's really improved. Relative to his role, he does things on special teams, he does things on offense. He's always trying to improve and he's always embracing his role." says O'Brien.

Special teams rotation:

The Texans have a plethora of speed on their roster. So much so, special teams coordinator Tracy Smith mentioned that he feels comfortable using anyone from Will Fuller to Keke Coutee as Houston's primary returner. Perhaps Fuller maybe the latter given his offensive responsibilities, but Smith explored with a combination using of Coutee, DeAndre Carter and David Johnson.

From the looks of it, Carter and Coutee have reprised their role as the Texans' primary choice in both kick and punt returns — with Carter as the main option. Followed by Johnson, who only received reps with kicks.

"We have to take pride in it and I think we have a bunch of people who do that," Johnson said. "Once you establish a core group of special team players, it's up to that core group of people to lead the teams and believe that third phase of the game is really important. That's how you win football games and close football games at that."

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Framber Valdez injured his ring finger on Tuesday. Composite image by Jack Brame.

That sure escalated quickly. The news on Framber Valdez went from bad to vastly worse for the Astros with the fractured ring finger on his pitching hand concerning enough that season ending surgery is on the radar. Valdez is/was no sure thing to have been a first time quality full season starting pitcher, but seemed a decent bet after his maturity-driven albeit short season breakout 2020.

37-year-old Zack Greinke is the only member of the Astros' starting rotation to have thrown even 130 innings in a big league season. Greinke showed notable slippage in 2020. A by-product of the funky short season, or Father Time making a move? If Greinke further erodes, uh oh. It's all question marks behind him.

Lance McCullers got to the big leagues in 2015. Six years later McCullers has zero seasons under his belt in which he both pitched well and stayed healthy. If he hits that exacta in 2021 it's great for the Astros of course, greater for McCullers with free agency arriving at season's end. Particularly confounding with McCullers is that over his career he's been outstanding at Minute Maid Park, and basically sucked on the road. Career earned run average at MMP: 2.51. Career ERA everywhere else: 4.99. That's absurd. It's certainly not as if MMP is some great pitchers' park.

"Crafty" is typically applied to left-handed pitchers. Jose Urquidy seems a crafty right-hander. But since missing the 2017 season recovering from Tommy John surgery Urquidy has topped 100 innings worked once. Cristian Javier has some electric stuff and showed very well as a rookie. Javier has never thrown 115 innings in a professional season.

The odds are long against McCullers, Urquidy, and Javier all pitching well and staying healthy all season. Valdez didn't come close to making it to Opening Day. The best internal candidates to replace Framber (or anyone else) are Luis Garcia and the extremely-hyped thus far dud but still just 23 years old Forrest Whitley.

Woeful Rockets

It certainly isn't paying homage to James Harden that has the Rockets on a 13 game losing streak as they mercifully take their All-Star break. They're just that bad. Watching them is like watching a helpless fly tossed into a spider web game after game. Out of the break the Rockets play at Sacramento Thursday. The Kings are no good, but the Rockets are worse. A loss there all but guarantees matching the Houston Rockets' longest ever losing streak of 15 since the following night they play at Utah. If you care about them the Rockets are painful to watch. Hapless, helpless, hopeless. Their best shot at accelerating what might be a years long path back to relevance is to keep on stinking. The Rockets have the third worst record in the NBA. The three worst teams have equal chances at getting picks one through four in the draft. It's a 14 percent shot at number one, a 52 percent shot of being in the top four. The fourth worst team has a 48 percent chance of picking in the top four. If the Rockets are not in the top four, they lose their pick to Oklahoma City as a payoff of the awful Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade.

Watt signs with Cardinals

J.J. Watt could have least acknowledged "Of course the money the Cardinals offered had plenty to do with me picking them!" Off an 8-8 season in which they faded down the stretch the Cards have an interesting squad with some serious upside, especially if Kyler Murray makes a leap in his third season at quarterback. But no way are the Cardinals presently a first tier Super Bowl contender. We don't know for certain who Watt's other "finalists" were and what they offered. Seems a lock that none of them offered 23 million dollars guaranteed or two years 31 million total. Money is another scoreboard and J.J. is a huge winner on it. No one should ever blame a player for going for every dollar he can get. But Watt can't honestly say the best shot at a Super Bowl was his top priority then sign with a team which last had a winning season in 2015 and in Kliff Kingsbury has a guy who has accomplished nothing meaningful as a Head Coach at either Texas Tech or Arizona. Doesn't mean it can't happen in the desert, but there had to be better teams interested if a ring shot was of paramount importance.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Les Miles, what a slimeball. LSU, what a slimy institution in its handling of serial sexual misconduct in its football program

2. NBA All-Star Game Sunday. In 1993 more than 22 million people watched. Last year, 6.8 million. Not sure 5 mil watch Sunday.

3. Greatest ever NFL free agent signings: Bronze-Packers, Reggie White Silver-Buccaneers, Tom Brady Gold-Saints, Drew Brees

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