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Old 07-28-2004   #1
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Default CNNSI picks Texans last in division..

CNNSI article
In year one, the goal for the Texans organization was to simply be competitive, so the 412 record was reason for celebration. Last year, the 511 record demonstrated steady improvement.

This year, though, the learning curve jumps dramatically. The Texans' biggest question mark will be how they handle the pressure -- most of which will be coming from within their own locker room.

Words like "competitive" and "improvement" are no longer good enough. Year three brings "expectations."

"There's a sense of urgency in the locker room, and with the coaching staff," says strong safety Eric Brown. "It's time."

While it may be a while before anyone determines when the playoffs are in Houston's path, continued improvement seems inevitable. No longer the new kid on the block, the Texans won five games not because opponents took the expansion team lightly, but because the Texans fought and scrapped and somehow pieced together victories.

Three of their losses came by a total of nine points, and they had a fourth-quarter lead in each of them. And much of the season was played with injuries among the veteran leaders.

Three of their best players -- Seth Payne, Gary Walker and Aaron Glenn -- are now healthy. The young leadership has another season under its belt. And some key offseason acquisitions give opponents a reason to fear the Texans this year.

After an iron man rookie season in which he played every down despite absorbing a serious pounding, David Carr took some lumps in Year 2. He missed four games due to injuries and was sidelined for parts of another two.

With an offensive line that struggled early, Carr helped some opposing defensive players pad their stats, throwing 13 interceptions in his 11 starts. However, Carr completed 167-of-295 passes for 2,013 yards with nine touchdowns. He showed his versatility with 151 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 27 attempts (5.6 avg.). His completion percentage improved to 56.5 percent.

Veteran Tony Banks remains the Texans' backup. He came off the bench to lead Houston to one victory but suffered a season-ending broken hand against Atlanta.

Running Backs
One of the brightest spots for Houston was the emergence of fourth-round draft pick Domanick Davis, who the Texans had earlier tagged as a third-down back. Expected to be a weakness, the running game became the Texans' strength after Davis grabbed the starting spot from Stacey Mack in Week 6. Davis won NFL Rookie of the Year honors as he rushed for 1,031 yards and caught 47 passes for 351 yards.

With second-year back Tony Hollings now recovered from ACL surgery, made Mack expendable.

Another bright spot from the 2003 draft was first-round pick Andre Johnson, who emerged as the Texans' leader with 66 catches for 976 yards and four touchdowns. While Johnson was inconsistent at times, and had more drops than the team would have liked, he showed the athletic ability that made him the Texans' favorite on draft day. Expectations will continue to run high.

Johnson, however, needs help. Corey Bradford added four touchdowns and some spectacular plays for the highlight reel, but he caught only 24 balls all season. The Texans are looking for more production this year from Jabar Gaffney, who was inconsistent most of the season.

Billy Miller will be competing with Bennie Joppru at tight end. Joppru spent most of his rookie season last year on injured reserve.

Offensive Linemen
One glaring statistic demonstrates the difference in the Texans' offensive line from Year 1 to Year 2 -- sacks. Carr was sacked a league-high 76 times in 2002. Texans' quarterbacks were only sacked 36 times last year -- a 52.6 percent reduction. Clearly, Davis was the other beneficiary of the improved line, helping him put together his 1,000-yard season.

The Texans added Zach Wiegert, Greg Randall and Todd Washington during last year's free-agent period, but they jumped right into the free-agent pool again this year to acquire Dolphins tackle Todd Wade. Wade will replace Randall, who was an unrestricted free agent.

Otherwise, the Texans expect the lineup to remain much the same, with Steve McKinney in the center, flanked by Wiegert at right guard, Wade at right tackle, Washington at left guard and Chester Pitts at left tackle.

Defensive Linemen
This was the area with the greatest turbulence last year due to injuries and the patchwork that ensued. The Texans expect a much-improved defensive line this fall. Playing most of the season without Payne, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2, and Walker, who missed 12 games with injuries, the Texans used seven different starters on the line. Corey Sears, the Texans' top backup, was also injured and played at far less than 100 percent most of the season.

The Texans acquired Robaire Smith from the Titans in the offseason. A tackle in Tennessee, Smith will slide over to end and replace Jerry DeLoach in the Texans' 3-4 defense. DeLoach was re-signed to provide depth.

Right outside linebacker was one of the weaker spots last year. Five different players received a look. With the addition of first-round pick Jason Babin, who could start at left outside linebacker, the Texans may experiment with moving veteran Kailee Wong from the left to right. The Texans traded four picks to move up in the draft to get Babin, so they expect him to play a significant role quickly. Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman own the other two positions, making this one of the Texans' strengths. Second-year player Antwan Peek will be Babin's biggest competition for that final starting spot.

Defensive Backs
The Texans used four of their nine draft picks to address the secondary, where upgrading the free safety position is of utmost importance. The addition of first-round pick Dunta Robinson should allow the Texans to move veteran Marcus Coleman from cornerback to free safety. Houston expects Robinson to move into the starting lineup at right cornerback right away. Pro Bowler Aaron Glenn returns from injury to the left cornerback spot. Kenny Wright, who got five starts last year due to injuries, will provide depth off the bench. Veteran Eric Brown is solid at strong safety.

Kris Brown had another solid season, continuing to improve his numbers. He finished 18-for-22 on field-goal attempts and was 100 percent on extra points. He has kicked three game-winners thus far for the Texans. Both he and punter Chad Stanley finished above average in the league.

The Texans struggled in the return game, though J.J. Moses was an improvement. Still, the Texans are looking for more speed and hope to find that in sixth-round draft pick Vontez Duff, who earned a spot in the Notre Dame record books in 2002, becoming the first ever to score on interception, kickoff and punt returns in the same season.

Final Analysis
The Texans managed five wins last season and had several near-misses despite finishing near the bottom of the league in total defense and pass defense. Therefore, it was little surprise that the Texans focused their offseason activity -- both in the free-agent market and the draft -- on the defensive side of the ball.

Offensively, Houston believes it has its three key playmakers in place -- Carr, Johnson and Davis. Now, this young trio just needs more seasoning.

Reaching the postseason in year three is unlikely, but Houston is clearly a team on the way up. The Texans are probably the fourth-best team in the four-team AFC South, but a last-place finish could still produce seven wins.
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