Jan 5, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans running back Arian Foster (23) rushes during the third quarter of the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Top 15 Most Important Houston Texans Players

Time feels like it’s going pretty slow at this point in the offseason, but wouldn’t you know it, there’s only seven days left until the Texans open up training camp, which means only one thing: let the battles for roster spots soon begin.

In truth though, the Texans don’t have many spots up for grabs this year with most of the starting jobs already set in stone. But before we flood you with those kind of training camp stories each day over the next few weeks, it’s always good to take a look back at where the Texans stand after last season, and determine who the most important players are for Gary Kubiak and co. heading into 2013.

This list wasn’t easy to come up with, considering how many top athletes the Texans have at key positions. It’s also very focused on the defense, because, let’s face it, Houston aren’t going anywhere near the Super Bowl if Wade Phillips’ crew don’t live up to expectations.

1. J.J. Watt

Since it’s another Super Bowl or bust year, the Texans need to establish some kind of pass rush against the AFC’s elite come playoff time. Last year Phillips’ defense struggled doing so, but with that said, J.J. Watt will be the guy if the Texans are going to challenge for anything like a ring in 2013. Really this is pretty simple, because Watt makes the most big time plays for the team, and is perhaps one of the only guys on the roster that can change the outcome of a game in a split second.

2. Arian Foster

Foster had 1,400 yards to his name last year, but for some reason, no one (including himself) feels like that was good enough. The Texans aren’t a run first team, but even so, the entire offense depends on Foster to not only hold solid blocks for Matt Schaub from time to time, but also to remain one of the top backs in the Adrian Peterson category year after year.

Last season Foster had seven of his 15 touchdowns come when the Texans were behind in games. He missed a few practices back in May with a calf strain, but the best part about Foster is his reliability, and that makes him so important.

3. Andre Johnson

So what if people say he’s old? Or that he missed a beat last year? Johnson is still the guy that Schaub looks to when he rolls out from the bootleg and sets his sights down field. And if anything, all the talk of DeAndre Hopkins’ brilliance should only further motivate him. We’ve seen year after year with past Super Bowl champions that a veteran receiver makes the difference. During the Packers run in 2010, Greg Jennings had his second biggest season with 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns. Just last year Anquan Boldin also had a similar impact for the Ravens in the Super Bowl. If Johnson has another big year (y’know like the one he had last year?), the chances of a playoff berth increase tenfold.

4. Matt Schaub

Schaub takes the full brunt of criticism when the Texans underperform, and rightfully so. Still, he remains in the Top 10 quarterbacks in the league, and  even if you don’t want to admit it, Schaub has become one of the best at dishing off the play fake, eyeing off a safety and looking for a deep target. When it comes down to it, there’s about six or seven quarterbacks I’d take before Schaub to lead a team to a Super Bowl – and all of those guys already have rings. Schaub may not have one yet, and he may stall at crucial times, but he still manages to hold together a sound offensive strategy.

5. Brian Cushing

There’s been a couple of big losses this offseason on defense, namely Connor Barwin and Glover Quin, so it’s kind of a big relief to have Brian Cushing returning from injury. The best part about this is, we are yet to get a full taste of a Cushing plus J.J. Watt defense, and if the Texans can form some kind of threatening two headed attack as early as possible, it will be real hard to stop.

6. Owen Daniels

As far as tight ends go, Owen Daniels is never really in the conversation with the best. There’s nothing altogether flashy about his game, but he’s simply a well rounded receiver that, like Andre Johnson, is also one of Schaub’s favorites in the play action situation.

7. Johnathan Joseph

There’s been little focus on Joseph’s return from injury all offseason. Unfortunately he was also another guy that felt some blame after the Texans fall from grace last year, as his coverage struggled alongside his groin and hamstring after suffering reported hernias. Obviously though, Joseph’s return to the team and return to form is vitally important to how the Texans do this season. In the two games he missed last year, the Texans gave up 795-yards and struggled to hold down top receivers. There is D.J. Swearinger to back up if Joseph needs to miss some time, but having a full 16 game season from Joseph is a big priority.

8. Whitney Mercilus

The one spot that isn’t entirely solid on the Texans roster is at linebacker, with so many new inclusions and a few names fighting for possible backup spots in a weeks time. Whitney Mercilus had a quiet six sacks and two forced fumbles a year ago, and played particularly well towards the middle of the year with 12 tackles. He made only four starts though, and is looking for a lot more playing time in 2013. Whether or not we see a second year fall-off in his performance remains to be seen, but if he gets a few more starts, he could become a cornerstone in the Texans’ defense.

9. Brooks Reed

Next to Mercilus, Reed will replace Connor Barwin’s absence, and is coming off a groin injury that saw him miss time last year. Reed was healthy for OTA’s, but needs to improve on his 2.5 sacks a season ago. Really, this another health thing, because Reed was missed just as sorely as Cushing was when he was missing. The Texans will be relying on him to set the edge, and bring back the tough defense that stifled teams early in 2012. He’ll also play a big part in coaxing Trevardo Williams into a more familiar spot on defense.

10. Antonio Smith

Antonio Smith seemed to love the switch to the 3-4 last season, and his seven sacks show that. To me he gets forgotten about a little on defense among guys like Watt and Cushing, but let’s not forget he is a Pro Bowl defensive end, and if he can have another well rounded year like he did in 2012, he should stick around for a while on defense.

11. Danieal Manning

Relying on Ed Reed at this stage is dumb, and if Danieal Manning’s role changes this season because of Reed’s signing, that’s dumb too. At one point during last year Manning showed some flashes of how closely he can play against receivers, force bad passes in tight coverage and how strongly his tackling has improved. He did have only two interceptions to his name, but his importance can’t be overshadowed, simply because we don’t know how much we’ll see of Reed early.

12. Ed Reed

Reed may miss Week 1, and some more time after that, which isn’t what the Texans were bargaining for back in April. Whatever the case may be though, Reed has been brought in to be vocal, show leadership and look after guys like Swearinger in the secondary. If Reed was fully healthy he’d be much higher in this list, especially after winning a Super Bowl in Baltimore. Even if we don’t see Reed on the field much however, there’s no doubt he’ll play some kind of role in the locker room, and when he is playing, seeing him play a more centered safety role should be a lot of fun.

13.  Kareem Jackson

Jackson might have a bit more of a fight for his job this year, but he’s such an ideal fill-in man that it was hard to leave him off this list. He made four interceptions last season and started the year really strongly. If the Texans are hit with a big injury bug again, it’s nice to know there are a few corners like Jackson to rely on.

14. Chris Myers

Myers hasn’t missed a start since 2006, and in my opinion is one of the most trustworthy centers in the league today. Once upon a time Myers was brought down for his lack of strength and inability to hold up under pressure. Since being resigned though, none of that seems to be much of an issue anymore, and his athleticism shows on run plays.

15. Earl Mitchell

Mitchell served his time as Shaun Cody’s backup, and should be the starting nose tackle to start Week 1. So what’s to like about him? Firstly, his work ethic, especially during this offseason after leaning down and preparing for the season. Secondly, aside from how important his role is, Mitchell acknowledges that he needs to be a leader on the field as he enters his fourth season in the NFL, a veteran quality that the Texans continue to add names to.

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Tags: AFC South Andre Johnson Arian Foster Brian Cushing Ed Reed J.J. Watt Matt Schaub NFL Texans

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