The NFL returned to Houston in 2002, and while the fans enjoyed a sparkling new stadium and a defensive unit worthy of the Lone Star State, there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement generated on the offensive side of the ball. So the Texans spent the offseason in search of points.
First, they lured Fred Taylor’s former backup, Stacey Mack, away from Jacksonville with a one-year deal and an opportunity to be the feature back. Then, they spent six of their top seven draft picks on offensive players, including wide receiver Andre Johnson with the third overall pick and tight end Bennie Joppru in the second round. And finally, the club took several steps to ensure that quarterback David Carr, sacked a record 76 times in his rookie season, would spend more time upright in 2003 by signing guard Zach Wiegert, tackle Greg Randall, and center Todd Washington.
Mack will upgrade a ground game that finished 31st in the NFL in rushing yards and dead-dog last in the league with a paltry 3.2 yards-per-carry average. He’ll also benefit from the retooled offensive line, which may finally include Tony Boselli, who missed all of last season with shoulder problems.
The playmaking Johnson will remove at least some of the pressure from Corey Bradford, who started hot last season but soon wilted under constant double-coverage when no other Texans wideout stepped up to offer Carr an alternative. He’ll move immediately into the starting lineup alongside Bradford and add another weapon to Carr’s arsenal.
Joppru will join Jabari Holloway and Justin Swift to push incumbent tight end Billy Miller for playing time. Miller had a breakout kind of season in 2002, but the converted wideout isn’t much of a blocker, which could cost him a few snaps.
The Texans also added some insurance for Carr, the first overall pick in last year’s draft, by snagging Louisville’s Dave Ragone and former Michigan Wolverine (and current light-hitting Yankee third base prospect) Drew Henson in the draft. Neither is expected to see much meaningful playing time, but it’s good talent to have on hand just in case Carr is forced to absorb another 76 sacks.
Position Battles: In Ragone and Henson, the Texans have an interesting bullpen they hope they’ll never have to use. Henson is still chasing his baseball dreams, leaving Ragone to battle Tony Banks and Mike Quinn for caddy duties. Should be scintillating.
Mack should have little difficulty beating out last year’s backfield combo platter of Jonathan Wells and James Allen, though there’s a chance Allen will see some duty as a third-down back. And it’s entirely possible the Texans will keep only one of them around to back up Mack, which could lead to an interesting preseason.
The Texans didn’t spend the third overall pick on Johnson so he could play third receiver on what was the worst passing offense in the NFL last year. Johnson will bump Jabar Gaffney to third wideout, but Gaffney probably won’t have to worry about slipping further down the depth chart behind the likes of JaJuan Dawson, Frank Murphy, and Avion Black.
The most compelling camp battle will pit Miller, who caught 51 balls for 613 yards last season, against the athletic Joppru, who is a better blocker but may be better suited for H-back duties. And don’t discount Holloway, the former Notre Dame star who impressed the Texans staff during minicamp and is a stellar run blocker.
Keep an Eye On: Any significant improvements in the fantasy fortunes of Carr, Mack, Johnson, and the remainder of the Texans reside on the shoulders of the rebuilt offensive line—and specifically, on the rebuilt left shoulder of Boselli.
Houston’s first pick in the expansion draft has yet to play a snap for the Texans. However, he has participated fully in minicamp workouts and demonstrated he still has the footwork of an All Pro offensive tackle. Whether his shoulder can stand up to the rigors of pushing around 300-pound defensive linemen for four months remains to be seen.
Even without a healthy Boselli, the Texans made enough moves to upgrade their offensive line that the unit will be an improvement over last season. However, the presence of Boselli in the lineup would turn Mack into a solid sleeper fantasy back capable of matching the numbers Allen and Wells combined for last season: 1,048 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.
Fewer sacks and the addition of the speedy Johnson should also allow the Texans to open up the offense more, even though that’s not really the style of head coach Dom Capers. The mere presence of a downfield threat such as Johnson creates numerous options for Carr, from one fewer defender in the box to stop Mack to a wide-open middle of the field in which to find Bradford, Miller, or Joppru.
The Texans’ offense can’t get much worse than it was in year one. And with Boselli as the key, the pieces are in place for it to be significantly better in 2003.
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