To get you fully prepared for the unofficial start of the NFL season, we’re ranking every team from worst to first in the weeks leading up to the opening of training camps.
Every day we’ll be previewing two teams, one from each conference, analyzing them from top to bottom and giving you all you need to know to be an informed fan. What’s the major storyline heading into camp? What’s the key training camp battle to watch? Who’s the young guy to watch? Is there any hope?
Today’s two teams: the Houston Texans and the San Francisco 49ers.
No. 8: HOUSTON TEXANS
Training Camp Site: Methodist Training Center, Houston
Training Camp Start Date: July 27
BetOnline.com Preseason Super Bowl Odds: 11-1
What I Like About You: A healthy Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub, a terrible AFC South and the burden of having never gotten to the playoffs finally off of their shoulders.
What I Don’t Like About You: Mario Williams, Eric Winston and DeMeco Ryans are playing elsewhere and the Texans aren’t sneaking up on anybody this time.
Burning Question: Can these guys stay healthy? If Schaub, Johnson, Foster and the young and mighty 3-4 defense that Wade Phillips is coaching all stay on the field, the Texans will be very tough to beat. However, last year both Schaub and Johnson went down and missed significant action and their backups, though admirable enough, didn’t quite bring the same production. This team is talented and hungry. But the Texans can’t afford the same injury bug that stung them a season ago.
Key Training Camp Battle to Watch: No. 3 receiver. Lestar Jean vs. DeVier Posey vs. Jeff Maehl vs. Keshawn Martin vs. Juaquin Iglesias: In other words, who? Johnson’s an All-Pro and Kevin Walter’s a reliable 31-year-old complementary guy, but the rest of the Houston wideouts are a bunch of giant question marks. Jean, Posey, Maehl and Martin have zero career catches. Don’t be shocked if a veteran wideout — the list of available ones is surprisingly long — joins this open competition.
The New Veteran in Town: Bradie James, inside linebacker: Though he’s the bigger household name, DeMeco Ryans might not be as valuable a player in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme as James. A former workhorse for Phillips in Dallas, James is a 31-year-old, 3-4 ILB specialist with a lot to prove. Discarded by the Cowboys, he’ll be looking to show everyone he’s still got plenty of game left. He joins a wildly entertaining and skilled linebacker corps that already included Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin and the versatile Darryl Sharpton. Rookie Whitney Mercilus could be nasty, too.
The Young Gun To Watch: Connor Barwin, outside linebacker: Barwin made the leap last year and could be even better in his fourth year. A lot of guys are said to have a “nonstop motor” in pre-draft analysis, only to show they a motor that stops quite often. Barwin’s doesn’t. The guy’s all over the place, usually in the right position, on every play. Last season he racked up 11.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He’s a fearless pursuer of the quarterback with a knack for the big play. Brooks Reed and Brian Cushing may get all the headlines in that group of linebackers, but Barwin could end up being the biggest pass rushing star of them all.
Schrager Prediction: I picked the Texans to win the AFC South a season ago and they took care of business and made me look halfway decent (of course, it’s a lot easier when Peyton Manning unexpectedly misses the entire year with a neck injury). This year it’ll be no surprise when they win the AFC South. That’s when, not if. Anything less than a division title and a first-round playoff bye will be considered a failure.
Final Prediction: 1st place, AFC South
No. 5: SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Training Camp Site: Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Center, Santa Clara, Calif.
Training Camp Start Date: July 26
Preseason BetOnline.com Super Bowl Odds: 9-1
What I Like About You: The 2011 season’s No. 1 defense returns all 11 starters, added multiple dynamic playmakers at receiver and running back and has a coach that just about every single player raves about.
What I Don’t Like About You: There’s very little that I don’t like about this team, but Alex Smith isn’t Peyton Manning. That said, he played damn well in last year’s playoff win over the Saints. This team and the fans believe he’s the guy. Finally.
Burning Question: Could all these new personalities in the locker room backfire? Randy Moss hasn’t always been the model teammate. Brandon Jacobs hasn’t always been so chipper and positive. Perrish Cox hasn’t exactly stayed out of the police blotter. The 49ers added a lot of new faces and an interesting mix of personalities this offseason. They’re all talented. But can they buy in to the selfless (and faceless) 49ers approach to football that worked so well in 2011?
Training Camp Battle to Watch: No. 3 cornerback. Perrish Cox vs. Chris Culliver: You know your defense is loaded when the biggest training camp battle to watch is at the nickel cornerback position. Cox, formerly of the Broncos, brings tremendous cover skills and good hands. He also brings a résumé filled with trouble off the field. Culliver, meanwhile, had his moments of greatness last season. But he struggled toward the end of the year. They’ll both make the team. That’s not the issue. It’s who will get in on those third-down passing situations.
The New Veteran in Town: Randy Moss,wide receiver. Everything out of Niners camp about Moss has been glowing. He’s setting a good example, he’s running his routes to perfection, and he’s flat-out dominating in practice. I chatted with Brandon Jacobs last week and he said “Every one of his sentences starts with ‘Just wait’…” If Moss is the Moss of old — the one who broke the single-season touchdown reception record in 2007 — this team could be lethal both on offense and defense.
The Young Gun to Watch: Aldon Smith, outside linebacker: Smith found himself in the headlines for the wrong reasons earlier this month, with a DUI arrest and reports that he was stabbed at a party. That matter is expected to be resolved and Smith should be ready to go for training camp. A bit of a surprise top-10 pick last April, Smith burst on to the scene with a 14-sack season. He’s already gotten the respect of the best pass rushers in the game. “Oh, Aldon Smith? He’s very good. Very, very good,” DeMarcus Ware told me a few weeks back. The 49ers are absolutely loaded on defense, but Smith could end up being the best of the entire bunch.
Schrager Prediction: This is a fantastic football team. Well-coached, disciplined and deep at just about every position, the Niners are rock solid from top to bottom. They were a few special team miscues away from the Super Bowl a year ago and they only got better this offseason. The schedule’s difficult, but the 49ers should be just fine. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this squad is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February in New Orleans. Even with Alex Smith as the quarterback.