The Texans will open OTAs in late May after sacks specialist Mario Williams, tight end Joel Dreessen and two starting offensive linemen signed with other teams in free agency. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans was traded to Philadelphia, perhaps the most stunning move of all.
A quartet of Texans -- tight end Owen Daniels, center Chris Myers, receiver Kevin Walter and backup quarterback T.J. Yates -- played in a pro-am event on Monday leading up to this week's Houston Open at Redstone.
Walter, third on the team with 39 receptions in 2011, said he's not concerned that the team will have to rebuild chemistry with so many gaps to fill.
"We're going to miss a lot of those guys," Walter said. "I wish them the best of luck, and it's tough. They're key guys. But we've got guys who are going to step up and make plays, and we have a lot to look forward to. Next year is going to be a lot of fun."
The Texans are coming off a breakthrough season that culminated in their first AFC South championship and first playoff victory. They lost in Baltimore in the divisional playoff then started losing core players in free agency.
Williams, the top overall pick in the 2006 draft and Houston's career sacks leader, bolted for a big payday in Buffalo and right tackle Eric Winston landed in Kansas City after the Texans surprisingly cut him. Winston started every game for the Texans over the past five seasons and was a respected leader in the locker room.
Right guard Mike Brisiel signed with Oakland, but Houston was able to keep Myers, who made his first Pro Bowl in 2011. Antoine Caldwell, who made only three starts last season, will now man right guard and Rashad Butler, who spent last season on injured reserve, is now the starting right tackle.
"It's an unfortunate way of the business," Myers said. "Unfortunately, the Texans had to experience it. It was my first time as a UFA (unrestricted free agent) and this year, a lot of guys aren't going to be on the team. Now it's time for a lot of guys to step up and play."
The Texans traded Ryans to Philadelphia for draft picks, a surprising deal that left some players shaking their heads. Ryans was a two-time Pro Bowl selection and team captain, but saw limited action in 2011 after Houston switched to a 3-4 alignment.
Dreessen then opted to join Peyton Manning in Denver, rather than stay in Houston and split time with Daniels for another season.
"There are always changes," Daniels said, "but I think the big difference this year is there's been a big change with guys who've brought us to this point, that have been here for five or six years. We'll all get together here in a couple of weeks and start that bonding process again and we'll be in good shape. We've got a lot of guys who are excited, a lot of guys who are eager to get their chance to play and show what they're all about. That's a good thing for us."
Yates will be ahead of the learning curve after starting the last five games in the regular season, and both of Houston's playoff games. A fifth-round draft pick, Yates won his first two starts, but then struggled later in the season.
Matt Schaub is expected to return healthy from a broken right foot, and Yates will return to the less-pressurized role as the backup. He'll get to study the game and hone his fundamentals this offseason, something he didn't have much of a chance to do when he was thrust into the spotlight following injuries to Schaub and Matt Leinart.
"Last year, it was kind of all about getting the offense down and working the offense and being able to go out there and produce," Yates said. "Now, I'm going to start focusing on learning defenses, learning what I'm going up against, and try to take that next step."