Hard Knocks 2015: Houston Texans Stars and Storylines

Cue the music…

Who else is pumped for the JJ Watt Show on HBO?

Since 2001, HBO has made the month of August significantly more interesting with impeccable footage and access from NFL camps all over the league. Each Tuesday evening, viewers are drawn by marquee players, foul-mouthed coaches, rookie hazing, and the annual heartbreak of roster cuts…or the relief of a fringe guy making the roster.

This (pre)season, the cameras will follow arguably the biggest star in the NFL today, JJ Watt, and a handful of players and coaches with ties to the biggest story looming over the league (regarding the New England Patriots). Let’s take a look at who will likely be getting air-time and the storylines that will keep you interested…

We already know about the scrimmage fight between the Texans and Washington.

But of course, there’s more.

1. JJ Watt

Denver Broncos v Houston Texans

In his first 4 seasons, Watt is a 3-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro, twice defensive player of the year, and easily the best player in Texans blue. On top of his 57 career sacks he’s already recorded, Watt scored 4 touchdowns last year…3 on offense.

JJ Watt Td

With the success on the field comes the fame off of it. The former Wisconsin Badger has quickly become a big celebrity. When he’s not playing security for the Zac Brown Band, he’s off meeting his boyhood crushes, Britney Spears and Jennifer Aniston, and becoming best buds with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yes, we all envy Watt’s life and it will be fun getting a closer look at it for the next 4 weeks. Apparently he gets caught offsides for the first time tomorrow night and he doesn’t take it well. Just shake, err, Nae Nae (?) it off, JJ.

JJ Watt Nae Nae

2. Head Coach Bill O’Brien

Bill O'Brien

There is a lot of intrigue around the Texans 2nd year head coach. Bill O’Brien joined the Texans after two seasons as the head coach that followed Joe Paterno and the Penn State scandal. Before then, he was Tom Brady’s offensive coordinator and a 5 year assistant for Bill Belicheck. He also has a bit of a red ass and doesn’t seem to be afraid to mix it up with his players, as footage from his Patriots days shows…

Viewers will learn quickly that O’Brien isn’t too shy to drop a barrage of F-bombs. His forceful and driven demeanor are credited for the Texans improving their win total by 7 games from 2013 to 2014. You also can imagine he may have a few stories from his tenures at Penn State and New England.

Might be worth noting that O’Brien’s playing experience only goes as far as playing defensive-end and linebacker at Brown University till 1992.

3. The Battle of Former Brady Backups

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This is a familiar setting for Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, as they both took snaps under center for the Patriots in 2011. This time the stakes are higher as they compete to become starting quarterback of the 2015 Texans. A week into camp, neither quarterback has a leg up on the other yet. Hoyer started camp getting reps with the first team, likely because he had more starting experience with Cleveland. Mallett is better acquainted with the offense having come over in a trade from New England a year ago.

A position battle that important should provide solid drama featuring two younger quarterbacks who have a history with each other, but also have a history backing up one of the league’s all-time greats in Tom Brady. The other angle, unfortunately, would be their insight on how they and Brady like their footballs prepared.

4. The Arian Foster Thing

Arian Foster Hard Knocks

Arian Foster has been a force for the Texans offense since taking over the starter spot in 2010. The 4-time pro bowler is also one of the more entertaining characters in football, as well as one of the most outspoken. Unfortunately having to to miss 4-6 weeks to a groin injury, it’s unclear how much air-time Foster will get compared to back up running back Alfred Blue. His recent proclamation as an atheist and want to spread that message could be talking point for him when the HBO mics are on. I always stick to the “Big Fish” rule, but whatever.

Foster gif

5. Filling Andre Johnson’s Shoes

DeAndre Hopkins

It’s going to be weird not seeing Andre Johnson line up for the Texans this season. The 12-year vet and 7-time pro bowler ranks 2nd among all active receivers in catches with 1,012, all with Houston. Johnson took his talents to Indianapolis in the off-season, but that’s why they drafted DeAndre Hopkins…to prepare for life After-Andre.

DeAndre Hopkins gif

The former Clemson star took a big leap to #1 receiver status in his second pro season, catching 76 passes for 1,210 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’ll be lining up on the opposite end of the field from former Jacksonville receiver and D-III college player Cecil Shorts III. Shorts may have a better story than Hopkins, but it will be interesting to see them in action.

6. Clowney Comeback

Jadeveon Clowney

The #1 overall pick from a year ago only played four games for the Texans last year, and made just 5 tackles. After a second knee surgery in December, Jadeveon Clowney has been rehabbing and targeting an August 17th return date before the season starts. Can’t blame Texans fans for being frustrated, especially when Clowney sat out a chunk of his last season in college to avoid further injury before the draft. Other news surrounding Clowney has to do with his father being arrested and denied bond after an attempted murder recently…so there’s that.

Hopefully Clowney can get back to football on focus on blowing up running backs and quarterbacks like he did at South Carolina.

Clowney smash

7. Another Former Patriot

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There are a few more former Patriots who should make this season of Hard Knocks interesting. Super Bowl champion and 5-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork comes over to Houston after earning another ring, and turning 33. An old defensive teammate of Wilfork’s, Mike Vrabel, coaches linebackers with the Texans as well. …Oddly, I’m way more interested in what Vince does on the basketball court than the football field, thanks to this sneak peak.

“Modern Day Michael Jordan”…Wonder what Michael has to say about that.

‘Hard Knocks’ premieres at 10 PM ET/ 9 CT tonight, August 11th. Join me in Tweeting along to the episode LIVE or we can talk about it on Facebook

Chicago Bears: Marshall Out, McPhee In. Now What?

Ryan Pace has made his first personnel moves to kick off his tenure as Chicago Bears GM.

It began with the trade of Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets for a 5th round pick.

Brandon Marshall vs. Vikes

In just 3 seasons with the Bears, Marshall ranked 11th for receiving yards (3,524) in Bears history, tied for 5th in touchdowns (31) and 8th in receptions (279). However, following an injury plagued 2014 season and accumulating off-field issues, Pace and new head coach felt it best to part ways with the former pro bowl receiver. The reception of this move has been polarizing among the team’s fan base, but the bottom line is that the Bears received compensation for an almost 31 year old wide receiver (Birthday – March 23rd) coming off multiple injuries and declining athleticism that they planned on releasing anyway. Marshall has also openly voiced how football is more of a platform than a passion, so at least he won’t have to fly cross country to record his weekly Showtime appearance. 5th round picks are no slouches either…unless you consider Carl Nicks, Richard Sherman, or Kam Chancellor as such.

The second big move came today as the Baltimore Sun reported that the Bears and OLB/DE Pernell McPhee have agreed to a 5-year/$40 million deal with $16 million guaranteed…also a 5th round pick.

Pernell McPhee

McPhee isn’t as sexy a name as Julius Peppers was when Lovie Smith rang his doorbell at midnight of the 2010 Free Agency start. McPhee’s skill set and versatility are VERY sexy though. Just 26 years old, McPhee is a pure pass rusher with experience as a defensive end and outside linebacker in Baltimore’s 3-4 system. He has also played end in a 40 front. McPhee has dealt with injuries to both his knees, but played in every game during the past 2 seasons. He recorded 7.5 sacks in 2014 while spelling for pro bowler Terrell Suggs, who was nursing an achilles injury.

The McPhee signing does 3 things:

1. It provides flexibility in the draft. The Bears needed an edge rusher and now they have one. A proven one. They put themselves in a position where they don’t have to draft a “need” but instead the best available player with 7th overall pick. That could be Alabama WR Amari Cooper. Bears could use another top-end pass catching talent. It could be Clemson’s DE/OLB Vic Beasley. You can’t have enough weapons to go after the quarterback on the field.

2. It gives new Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio options in his unpredictable defense. McPhee has played every technique on the defensive line. He has stood up to rush the edge. He’ll even rush from the middle on 3rd down from a “chaos” look that you see with multiple 3-4 schemes. And chaos is good…That also opens things up for Fangio to assign positions to unknowns currently on the roster like Willie Young, Jared Allen, and Lamarr Houston.

3. It sets the tone for the type of players the Bears are looking for. The defense is in dyer need of a makeover. Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, both Chicago Bears all-timers, are on the outs due to age and recent injury history. The average age for defensive starters was 29 while more than half were 30+ years old. The 26 year old McPhee adds youth, but also has a recent Super Bowl ring as part of his resume from 2012. There are other free agents with winning experience who would also fit the needs of the Bears roster.

What’s Next? 

The new NFL year and free agency officially begins today at 3:00 PM CT. Teams had already struck deals with high target players over the weekend.

DT Ndamukong Suh to Miami (6 years $114 million, $60 million guaranteed)

S Devin McCourty stays with New England (5 years $47.5 million, $28.5 million guaranteed)

WR Randall Cobb stays with Green Bay (4 years $40 million, $17 million guaranteed)

WR Jeremy Maclin to Kansas City (Total and years aren’t confirmed, suspected $11 million per year)

TE Julius Thomas to Jacksonville (Expected multi-year deal, $9 million per year)

C Rodney Hudson to Oakland (5 years $44.5 million, guaranteed money hasn’t been confirmed)

Note: Guaranteed money is key with NFL contracts. Rarely does anyone make their entire contract total.

So let’s look at the Bears’ needs and the targets to address them.

Defensive Line

While McPhee can be plugged in as a 5 technique DE, and one would assume Lamarr Houston would fit at the other side, the Bears still need a space eater in the middle to play nose tackle.

Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton – Former Broncos NT under Fox, stellar run defender. Interest from Raiders, Colts, Washington, and the Bears

Dan Williams – Cardinals DT who didn’t get enough playing time. Ranked 8th vs the run by Pro Football Focus. Interest from Giants, Lions, and Washington

Corey Peters – Falcons DT and 5 year veteran. Rebounded well after achilles injury.

Kenrick Ellis – Jets NT. Great 2 down run stopper.

Vince Wilfork – Patriots NT, 5-time pro bowler and proven winner with plenty and knowledge to share. Devin McCourty is trying hard to get him back.

Wilfork GIF

Inside Linebackers

In Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, there are two ILBs…one being the “Mike” (middle) linebacker and the other being the “Jack” backer who lines up weak side of the line. Opponents’ run games will be funneled inside for the most part and while the NT eats up space and OL, the ILBs will be responsible for finishing the plays tackling.

Bruce Carter – Cowboys LB who filled carried a lot of weight with Sean Lee out. Aggressive and uber-athletic. Would be a huge steal away from the Packers who are targeting him.

Brandon Spikes – Former Bills defensive captain yet was treated like a 2 down defender under Jim Schwartz. While he may be on back end of career, provides the violent thump a Fangio LB needs.

Mason Foster – Buccaneers LB who doesn’t fit in Lovie’s Cover 2, but is better built to take on anything funneled to the middle. Bears already linked to Foster.

Nate Irving – Broncos LB that Fox is obviously familiar with but coming off a knee injury. Still in high demand and being pursued by Cardinals. Powerful and prototype for 3-4 ILB.

Nate Irving INT

Cornerbacks

While the Bears do have Kyle Fuller and former pro bowler Tim Jennings, they weren’t all that great with them after the first month. Health reasons have proven you can’t have too many, and Jennings may be better suited for the nickel as he gets older.

Davon House – Packers CB expected not to return, well versed in Fangio’s system as the he was DC for Dom Capers previously. Excelled as slot defensive back last season.

Perrish Cox – 49ers CB who has off-field issues but obviously experienced with Fangio. Great instincts in coverage and reading receivers hips. Doesn’t allow much spacing.

Darrelle Revis – Obviously a big fish to catch in a small pond, but come on…Revis Island.

Darrelle Revis

Safeties

A glaring need for years with the Bears defense, the Bears already missed out on my first choice, Devin McCourty. Don’t necessarily need a playmaker but someone who is at least dependable.

Rahim Moore – Another former Fox defender who was very solid in 2014. Not as flashy as Earl Thomas but fits the “dependable” mold that would make the Bears comfortable.

Antrel Rolle – Giants safety that Bears are linked to. Very vocal about being reunited with University of Miami teammates Andre Johnson and Wilfork. Wouldn’t necessarily rule that out for Bears.

Da’Norris Searcy – Bills safety with run-stop and coverage skills. Young and wasn’t really an every down player, but certainly looked the part.

Mike Adams – Colts safety who does a solid job. Older player but could fit for a year or two and get it done.

Mike Adams

Wide Receiver

Obviously there’s an opening for another split out receiver after the Marshall trade. As mentioned earlier, drafting one is a likely possibility but why not add someone with experience. The preference for the Bears would be a speedster, somebody who can take the top off a defense. They didn’t have that guy last season and it made the Jay Cutler led offense predictable. Marshall and Alshon Jeffery weren’t burning past anybody for a much needed deep threat. But anyone with dependable hands would also do…before the draft.

Torrey Smith – Ravens receiver who has proven to be a risk/reward option for the past few years. Has dropping issues but can certainly stretch the field though and compliment Jeffery well.

Andre Johnson – Very similar career as Marshall production-wise, without the baggage. Doesn’t fit the burner mold but super dependable route runner. I’d blame his lack of touchdowns on his quarterbacks more than him.

Michael Crabtree – Former Heisman candidate that has shown promise but hasn’t met the ridiculous standards we all set for him. Change in scenery and pairing with Jeffery and Martellus Bennett could help him breakout.

Michael Crabtree

Running Backs

The Bears do have Matt Forte, but it wouldn’t be outrageous to start looking beyond the pro bowl “everything” back. Forte will be in the last year of his deal and at the very least will need a backup this season. Bears look to be very run-heavy this coming season, so a 2-back system would be beneficial to not go overkill with Forte touches.

Ryan Matthews – Chargers RB that has had difficulty staying on the field, but solid power runner when given opportunities. Not sure how much Matthews will garner on the market, but would make a great compliment to Forte and can make it an audition to take over after his contract is up.

CJ Spiller – Very similar situation to Matthews in terms of injury history and needing an audition, but a much better pass catcher and versatile offensive weapon. Spiller is also no stranger to the 2 back system.

Knowshon Moreno – Another back with injury history that could also be affordable because of that. Made his money with Dolphins after playing in Adam Gase’s RB-by-committe system and obviously familiar with Fox.

Knowshon Moreno

Of course there are more needs and other options the Bears could go with. Feel free to recommend your suggestions and follow along the Free Agency action with me on Twitter