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Life After J.J.? Texans Training Camp Preview: D-Linemen

Continuing our training camp preview series, we examine a defense line void of J.J. Watt and loaded with talented-but-unaccomplished players

As the Houston Texans' training camp draws near, will dive into each position group looking at the sure things, battles to watch, and potential sleepers to keep an eye on as the summer progresses.

Today: Defensive linemen.

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Houston's defense will look almost unrecognizable from its 2020 unit come Week 1. Not only is newly appointed defensive coordinator Lovie Smith switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme, but the turnover of players on defense has been drastic, highlighted by the departure of J.J. Watt.

Replacing a talent like Watt will be exceptionally difficult, as much for what he brought to the locker room and meant to the fans as his playing ability. Because of this, it'll be down to multiple players to spread the workload and make up for his missing leadership. 

The most obvious name to start with is Shaq Lawson. Acquired in a trade this offseason in a deal that sent linebacker Benardrick McKinney to the Miami Dolphins, Lawson will likely take Watt's spot at defensive end. An accomplished pass rusher who has recorded 36 quarterback hits and 10.5 sacks over the last two seasons, he should be a solid fit for this scheme.

Opposite Lawson, however, is a question mark heading into camp. 

Charles Omenihu is probably seen as the favorite, but given how effective he has been when moved inside, Houston may need more of a pure edge rusher at the spot. Whitney Mercilus seems a solid bet given that his pass-rushing is arguably his strongest weapon. The long-time outside linebacker will need to move to find his role in this new scheme, and defensive end seems the safest bet to get the most from him. 

However, worth keeping in mind are Jonathan Greenard and Jacob Martin, both of whom have transitioned to defensive end this year in light of the scheme change. Both have the ability and potential to challenge for a starting spot.

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Former Denver Bronco DeMarcus Walker may also be an outside bet to start at defensive end.

On the interior, Houston has second-year defensive tackle Ross Blacklock who should be another to benefit from this change in scheme given that it'll allow him more freedom to attack. Alongside him, former Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins will be looking to return to his 2016-17 form with Brandon Dunn and Vincent Taylor both likely to push him for playing time.

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Most of the eventual backups have already been mentioned, given that there are so few clear-cut starters and so many potential options in their currently undefinable depth chart. Alongside the aforementioned players who could challenge for starting jobs, Derek Rivers, Jaleel Johnson, and Auzoyah Alufohai will all be in the mix. 

Houston also has sixth-round rookie Roy Lopez who is powerful and strong at the point of attack and has the potential to either work himself into a depth spot or otherwise on the practice squad.

Surprise Package

Question marks surround most players on this defense. So many of them come with potential or have shown ability in the past, but very few have been signed to long-term deals simply because nobody is a guarantee.

As such, there are a number of potential 'surprise packages,' one particularly worth watching is Blacklock.

His rookie year was a disappointment, but taking the typical run-stuffer role off of his plate and giving him the space to pressure the quarterback should work in his favor. 

CONTINUE READING: Rookie Starter? Texans Training Camp Preview: Wide Receivers