Training camp has begun. Because of COVID-19, this camp, and nothing about the 2020 season will be like what's happened in the past. In this article, we'll focus strictly on football matters, as a separate piece about the pandemic-related issues to keep in mind could also be penned.
The Texans are scheduled to have their first padded practice on August 14. That would've been their preseason opener at Minnesota, but the four-game exhibition slate was wiped out a week or so ago.
In no particular order, here are five things to watch when the Texans hit the fields at the Houston Methodist Training Center.
1) Pass rushers - Defensive end J.J. Watt has rung up 96 sacks in 112 career games. He'll be back healthy for 2020, and will likely pick up where he left off before a pectoral injury derailed his 2019 campaign. His presence up front will lift the rest of the defense around him. But the other pass rush components must improve over last season, and their appear to be a number of players with that capability.
Veteran outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus started last fall with a bang: through the first seven games, he had 5.5 sacks. In all seven of those contests, he had at least a sack, an interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery. When Watt went down, opposing defenses were able to shift attention to Mercilus, and his playmaking numbers dropped.
That's why seeing production from the group of Brennan Scarlett, Jacob Martin, Duke Ejiofor, Charles Omenihu and Jonathan Greenard will be important for the defense, and the success of the team in 2020.
The trio of Martin, Ejiofor and Omenihu enter their second seasons on the field as Texans. Martin came to town via trade right before Week 1, Ejiofor missed the year with an Achilles injury, and Omenihu was a rookie. They've each shown tantalizing flashes when they've been on the field. Between the three of them, they have a combined 10.5 career sacks. That number should, and needs, to rise in 2020.
2) Rookies - Houston drafted just five players in 2020. Defensive lineman Ross Blacklock came to town at 40th overall after a college career at TCU. Greenard led the SEC in sacks last year at Florida, after transferring in from Louisville.
That duo will likely push for playing time in the defensive front.
Getting production out of fellow rookie draftees like offensive lineman Charlie Heck, cornerback John Reid and receiver Isaiah Coulter will be a big bonus.
General manager and head coach Bill O'Brien said veteran know-how will be at a premium this year. If the rookies are able to make impacts after a curtailed offseason program, it would provide the Texans a boost.
3) New pass-catchers - The receiving corps was overhauled this spring. DeAndre Hopkins is in Arizona, and the Texans now have new faces out wide in Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb. The former has blazing speed, familiarity with this offensive system after spending time in New England, and during a four year span from 2015-18, averaged 1,149 yards per season and 15 yards per catch.
Cobb, meanwhile, is coming off a year in Dallas where he averaged 15.1 yards per catch. The veteran should be a reliable option for Deshaun Watson as a slot receiver.
4) Returning receivers - As exciting as the new faces are, getting a healthy Will Fuller, V back for 2020 would be outstanding. When he's on the field, the offense hums. He played in 11 games last year, but missed time with hamstring and groin issues. If he's beyond that, he's a true number one receiver with elite speed.
Kenny Stills wasn't in town long before he was asked to produce last year, but he answered the call. In his Texans debut, he caught a go-ahead touchdown pass at New Orleans with less than a minute remaining in the game. He wound up with four touchdown catches and a 14.0 yards per catch average. He too, has excellent deep speed, and gives the Texans many options in the passing game.
DeAndre Carter, Keke Coutee and Steven Mitchell are also key names to keep an eye on throughout camp.
5) Secondary mixing and matching - For the first time since 2010, the Texans will be without Johnathan Joseph. The veteran corner is now a Titan, and defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver will mix-and-match from a group of Bradley Roby, Gareon Conley, Lonnie Johnson, Jr, Vernon Hargreaves and Reid, among others out on the edge.
At safety, Justin Reid returns, and does so with healthy shoulders. He gutted out the entire season last year with the injuries, and still turned in a fine season. He's excited about what the 2020 campaign brings, and he'll have new names like Eric Murray and Michael Thomas joining him.
A.J. Moore and Jonathan Owens could push for playing time as well, and are names to remember.