HOUSTON -- As the Houston Texans prepare for July 27's start of training camp, all eyes will be on the new staff. General manager Nick Caserio, head coach David Culley and their guys will be under the microscope to see if this Frankenstein-like offseason could transform into something positive come Week 17.
Expectations are low. But battles are still battles.
So, which training camp duels will provide the most intrigue and competition as that rebuilding process commences? Multiple options exist, actually, the most compelling of which will be at linebacker.
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For the first time since 2013, Lovie Smith will integrate the 4-3 as the team's base defense. Smith also is expected primarily implement a "Tampa 2" coverage formation, meaning Houston will be playing with two deep safeties splitting the field.
This means each linebacker will need to be on point, with lots of room underneath to cover. Despite those increased responsibilities, as of now only one player seems to have cemented a starting job for Week 1.
Zach Cunningham returns to Houston after leading the NFL in tackles (164) in 2020. The 26-year-old arguably is the team's best defender and played up to par in both coverage and the run game.
The question is, where will Smith play him? Although Cunningham's time at Vanderbilt was spent in the 4-3, that was four years ago. Based on how he took snaps with former starter Benardrick McKinney during OTAs, it's expected he will either played the weak-side or remain in the middle.
Former Washington Football Team's Kevin Pierre-Louis could be next to start following his rejuvenation in D.C. Last season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 5 cover linebacker.
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Pierre-Louis was also one of two defensive players to receive a multi-year deal this offseason from Caserio. Considering his productivity in defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's unit in Washington, he likely projects better as a "WILL " linebacker.
The spot in the base could be interchangeable due to the need of a Nickel defense. The strong-side linebacker is required to be adept playing the run, but also have the ability to make plays in open space.
Christian Kirksey, who joins Houston from the Green Bay Packers, might be the most reliable tackler outside of Cunningham. Prior to his season-ending injury, he tallied 77 total tackles.
In two of his six seasons with the Cleveland Browns, Kirksey recorded 100-plus stops. He also has experience playing more of an edge, pass-rushing role.
Houston also will take a look at other names for playing time. Joe Thomas arrives from the Dallas Cowboys, where he was a standout depth piece and special-teams player. Kamu Grugier-Hill is regarded for his coverage ability. The Texans also traded up in the fifth-round to add TCU's Garret Wallow.
Wallow, who finished second in the Big 12 with tackles (82), started his time with the Horned Frogs as a safety before converting to middle linebacker. Does Houston think he can work on the edge right away?
Smith's formations will rely on the linebackers to be a vital part of the game plan. All three spots are expected to be interchangeable, meaning the best guys will remain on the field for the majority of snaps.
"They need to be able to learn all three of the linebacking positions and you’ve got to be able to think to do that," Texans' linebackers coach Miles Smith said last month.
Linebacker isn't Houston's flashiest position, but it might be the deepest. That should make for a fascinating training camp worth watching.
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