Texans head coach Bill O'Brien announced Monday that Brian Hoyer will be the team's starting quarterback when the regular season opens at NRG Stadium on Sept. 13 against the Chiefs. That settles Houston's biggest unknown, but what about other position battles and issues facing the team? We're going inside preseason Week 2, a 14-10 loss to Denver, to look at other position battles, our thoughts on choosing Hoyer, and some items tangentially related to fantasy football.
Quarterback: Neither Hoyer nor Ryan Mallett did much Saturday to separate one from the other, but O'Brien needed to decide this week, ahead of preseason Week 3 to let the starter develop a rapport with the first-team offense in preparation for Kansas City when the regular season commences. The coach mentioned Hoyer's consistency since offseason training activities and his composure when events don't go according to plan. With Arian Foster (groin) unavailable for multiple weeks, the Texans lose reliable production from the running game – production that can mask inferior quarterback play. Just look at last year's team with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm for proof of that. I think the decision came down to which of the two guys can help move the chains when the running game isn't happening. Hoyer's better at ad-libbing, making plays with his legs, and the more accurate passer.
Running Back: Houston's ground game has averaged 3.1 yards per carry in two preseason games. Against the Broncos, the entire offense was lacking, so we're not going to hyperventilate about Alfred Blue gaining just 10 yards on four carries. He's still their man come opening week. Jonathan Grimes had some nice runs with the first-team offense and caught two of his three targets. He remains the top backup, but Chris Polk continued to challenge. He led the running backs in touches (seven carries, six targets). If they season were to start now, those three would be on the roster along with fullback Jay Prosch. That leaves 2015 seventh-round draft pick Kenny Hilliard needing to make some noise in the final two weeks of preseason. He finished with three yards on seven carries against Denver and is now 0-for-3 when attempting to convert 3rd-and-sort situations. The short-yardage situation was his strength at LSU.
Wide Receiver: The top three are set. DeAndre Hopkins, Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts are locks. Hopkins has played three series in the first two preseason games. He's itching to play more and we expect that to happen this coming week against New Orleans. The Texans opened with a three-wide set last week, featuring Washington at wideout and Shorts in the slot. Washington had his first targets of the preseason last week while Shorts did not have a ball thrown his way. It's unclear how much they'll use the three-wide sets – the Texans ran a lot of two-tight end sets last season – so we're still waiting to see who emerges as the real No. 2 opposite Hopkins. A fourth roster spot will likely go to 2015 third-round draft pick Jaelen Strong, though we don't presume he'll be fourth in line for playing time. He's had some drops in practice and is lost at times – the same thing can be said about Hopkins during his rookie 2013 season – but the draft-pick investment should get him a spot. If the Texans are keeping five wideouts, the final spot will go to someone that can return kicks, too. Several guys are in the mix, including holdovers Keshawn Martin, Damaris Johnson and Alan Bonner and newcomers Keith Mumphrey and Chandler Worthy. If the Texans aren't comfortable with giving Strong a big role, instead of keeping another young guy (Mumphrey, Worthy, Bonner), they may opt to keep one of the veterans (Martin or Johnson).
Tight Ends: Houston's tight ends were once again a feature in the passing game. After getting nine targets out of 27 passing attempts against the Broncos, the group has been targeted 15 times in 56 attempts through two games. The position that averaged three targets per game last year is averaging 7.5 in preseason. Garrett Graham, who was targeted three times Saturday and six times in the first two games while playing limited snaps, is expected to be the leading target. Prior to last year's disappointing season, Graham had 49 catches and five touchdowns in 13 games in 2013… Ryan Griffin made his preseason debut against the Broncos after missing preseason Week 1 with a leg injury. The former UConn Husky is second on the depth chart. He's a pass-catcher first, a blocker second. In two-tight end sets, you're likely to see C.J. Fiedorowicz on the field along with Graham or Griffin… a player we're watching is Khari Lee, an undrafted free agent out of Bowie State. He's had four catches during the first two preseason games and is making some good plays in practice.
Special Teams: Randy Bullock made both kicks that were required of him, converting an extra-point and a 32-yard field goal… the return game was once again a battle among three young wide receivers: Bonner, Worthy and Mumphrey. Worthy had gained no yards on two punt returns and had a muff, but recovered his own fumble. Mumphrey showed some nifty work on a 12-yard punt return. As we alluded to earlier, if one of these guys makes the team, it will be as a returner first and a receiver second.
Defense: The Texans rested J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork and Jonathan Joseph last week and were once again without Jadeveon Clowney, who is recovering from knee surgery. That's some talent missing, but the defense as a whole was good in preseason Week 2. In four series against Peyton Manning, the Houston defense held the Broncos to 67 yards, including two three-and-out drives… first-round draft pick Kevin Johnson has received a significant number of snaps in the first two weeks. He made a nice play on the opening drive of the game, recognizing the play early and jarring the ball loose from Demaryius Thomas for an incomplete pass on third down… reserve linebacker Kourtnei Brown turned in the biggest highlight of the night, returning a pick 69 yards for a touchdown. Brown had two sacks in preseason Week 1… cornerback Charles James, a star in the second episode of "Hard Knocks" on HBO, led Houston with five tackles and made two exquisite plays on special teams. His work on special teams alone will win him a roster spot… the starting strong safety position is still unsettled. Andre Hal, a converted cornerback, and Eddie Pleasant are the main competitors. Each has started a game… nose tackle Christian Covington, a sixth-round pick out Rice University in Houston, is getting ample playing time while Wilfork sits, including stints in the sub-package with the first-team defense. He has a motor and, obviously as a graduate of Rice, has intelligence.
Miscellany: The Texans worked on their short-yardage situations during practice last week after failing to score on six cracks from the 1-yard-line in preseason Week 1 against San Francisco, but never got within scent of the goal line against Denver. The offense was rebuffed on its only rushing attempt on 3rd-and-short. If the running game isn't working, that'll be a problem. O'Brien said he wants to lean toward being a running team, which is code language that he's not confident his quarterbacks can carry them.