Late-starting Texans look ahead

HOUSTON The work on the fields was already planned -- the timing with the labor agreement was pure coincidence. But the preparations also offered a tangible sign that the football season is finally going to start after months of negotiations.

The Texans will begin training camp on Sunday, 15 days ahead of their preseason opener against the New York Jets at Reliant Stadium. Houston opens its regular season against Indianapolis on Sept. 11.

"I'm excited, and I guess relieved," All-Pro linebacker DeMeco Ryans, one of the team's player representatives, said Monday. "I think we're all excited to get back to work."

Before camp opens, Houston is expected to be an active player in free agency, and may make a strong bid for All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, one of the top players available. The Texans had the league's worst pass defense in 2010, and new coordinator Wade Phillips is switching from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4.

Defensive end Mario Williams will move to outside linebacker in the new setup, and cornerback Glover Quin will move to safety, creating an opening on the edge for Asomugha or another coveted free agent cornerback.

Another priority for Houston is re-signing All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, the lead blocker for Arian Foster, the NFL's leading rusher last season. Because of the lockout, free agency will be squeezed into one chaotic week, and Ralph Vitolo, Leach's agent, wasn't sure what to expect.

""The biggest problem is the timeframe, and the sense of urgency on how we're going to do all this," Vitolo said in a phone interview. "I mean, dealing with the team's free agents, the rookie free agents, the free agents on the street, the draft picks. The timing of this thing is the biggest impediment to what we all have to get done."

All NFL teams can begin signing their 2011 draft picks and rookie free agents on Tuesday. They can also begin negotiations with unrestricted free agents from other teams, but none can be signed until Friday.

League rules forbid teams from talking to players or their representatives during the lockout, so Vitolo and other agents were left to guess who might be potential suitors.

"You can speculate all you want," he said. "But if you can't have any conversations with anybody, who knows? The Texans might come to me on the first day and say, `We need him back. Let's put some numbers together and get something done.' Or they might not call me at all.

"You can't have all the good players," Vitolo said. "They're going to have to prioritize what they want to do, that's for sure."

Other free agents from the Texans' 2010 roster include receiver Jacoby Jones, defensive end Mark Anderson, tackle Rashad Butler and quarterback Matt Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner. Leinart did not take a snap last season, and Houston used one of its fifth-round draft picks on North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates.

The Texans used six of their eight draft picks on defensive players. They took Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt in the first round.

Without any offseason practices, rookies face more pressure to learn playbooks and adjust to the speed of the pro game. But Ryans says their steeper learning curve may not necessarily affect the quality of play in the preseason and regular season.

"It depends on how hard guys worked, and what they did," said Ryans, who's coming off surgery to repair a torn Achilles' tendon. "I know a lot of guys that worked their butts off, trying to get better, maybe even working out harder than they should've been. I can't just say that play will fall off, because I know how hard guys have worked."

Ryans is eager to see how Houston's coaches handle training camp, and how much the starters will be expected to play in the preseason games.

"I have no idea what coaches are thinking, or how they'll approach that," Ryans said. "I mean, we have so much to get done, we're getting paid to get back to work. I guess we'll all see how it goes."

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