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The Houston Texans have had a bit of a strange offseason, and before the 2019 season, the reigning AFC South champions still have questions.
The Houston Texans are around one month away from their official training camp beginning, but before anyone looks that far ahead on the summer calendar, the Texans still have work to do and they aren’t the only ones who know that.

ESPN.com had various staff reports come up with an “offseason power rankings” where they have the 2018 AFC South champion Texans in the category of “too soon to tell,” due to how they’ve attacked their offseason. That said, the list had the Cleveland Browns in the “elite” category for all of the changes they’ve made over the past couple seasons.

The “too soon to tell” category, which is the last category on their list, consists of 15 teams as the jury is still out on how well or not so well their offseason has gone, and to be honest, that is a very understandable ranking for the Texans this offseason.

Remember, the Texans fired now former general manager Brian Gaine earlier this month so that leaves a void in the front office. They were also hit with tampering charges by the New England Patriots — though they were later dropped — as they were pursuing Nick Caserio for their vacant general manager spot.

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Houston is also questionable on the offensive line for 2019, especially following their ’18 showing. Even though the Texans drafted two players with three picks in rounds one and two of the 2019 NFL Draft, who knows when Tytus Howard and Max Scharping will be ready for NFL action on the offensive line.

That brings everything back to the ESPN.com ranking of the Texans, as Texans reporter Sarah Barshop wrote the following on the Texans’ biggest question that still needs to be answered this offseason:

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“Who will play left tackle? This has been the question since the Texans traded Duane Brown to the Seahawks in 2017. Houston made some moves this offseason, but whether or not the offensive line has improved will depend on whether Howard can step in and play well in his rookie season.”

I can’t agree with this statement any more because the Texans do need to improve immensely on the offensive line. Until that problem is taken care of — they were one of the worst units in the entire NFL last season — the Texans will struggle when games matter the most.

Houston is banking on their current roster of offensive linemen to get the job done, show great improvement and for their rookies to develop.

NEXT: Houston Texans: Who are the odd men out at TE in 2019?
Who knows if any of that will occur this season, but one thing is for certain: once training camp rolls around and the players get their pads on, we’ll all know who has gained the needed improvement, and which players have not.

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HOUSTON — After finishing the season ranked 28th in the NFL in passing defense, the Houston Texans have some work to do on their secondary.

There is one place head coach Bill O’Brien would like general manager Brian Gaine to start.

“There’s no doubt we would love to have Tyrann [Mathieu] back,” O’Brien said last week at the NFL scouting combine.

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And while the Texans head coach said several times that the free-agency aspect of the game is “a business” and that “it takes two to tango,” there’s no doubt Mathieu was one of few bright spots in Houston’s pass defense last season.

The former Arizona Cardinals safety quickly became a leader in the locker room after joining the team last March and was a difference-maker on the field as well. Mathieu was brought in to play safety, but he was moved around the field because of injuries in the secondary. He bet on himself last offseason when he signed a one-year, $7 million contract, and it paid off. Mathieu is set to receive a big payday from someone this offseason.

“He’s a guy that really meant a lot to our locker room,” O’Brien said. “I’ve said it time and time again, this guy came in and was there from the offseason program and then at the end of training camp was voted a team captain. I think that says a lot about the impact he had, not just as a player — he’s a good football player, he’s a smart football player, he’s a versatile player — but also, what he meant leadership-wise in the locker room.”

The Texans have another veteran entering free agency in longtime Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson, who was the Texans’ first-round pick in 2010. The veteran moved from corner to safety last offseason and had a lot of success at the position early in the season, but he ended up primarily playing cornerback, again, because of injuries.

“Kareem had a really good year for us, also,” O’Brien said. “Again, he’s a versatile player. He’s a guy that has leadership qualities. He’s been with us since the day I walked in here. He’s an original Texan, was drafted as a Texan and has had a good career here.”

Jackson is coming off of his best NFL season, with a career-high 87 tackles and 17 passes defended. He also had two interceptions, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a sack. Though the team valued what Jackson did last season, it seems unlikely it would bring back both Mathieu and Jackson, especially if Jackson returns to playing safety. With Justin Reid coming off a successful rookie season, only one of Jackson or Mathieu is necessary.

The Texans’ first noteworthy roster move of the offseason was in their secondary. On Tuesday they released Kevin Johnson, who would have been owed more than $9 million for his fifth-year option if he was on the roster at the beginning of the new NFL year. The 2015 first-round pick missed the majority of the 2018 season after suffering a concussion in the opener against the Patriots and has played in only 35 games in his first four seasons. While it’s possible Johnson could return on a cheaper contract, the Texans were not willing to pay him top dollar at the position; he was set to make more per season than veteran cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Aaron Colvin.

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Joseph will return for the second year of the two-year, $10 million contract he signed a year ago after a strong season at age 34. Houston will hope for more from Colvin, who signed a four-year deal worth $34 million in 2018. Colvin missed time last season after injuring his ankle, but even after he returned, he did not play at the level the Texans were hoping for when they signed him and was a healthy scratch down the stretch.

“[Colvin] probably expected himself to play and perform better, too,” Gaine said. “I would say this: Aaron dealt with some injury last year. Unfortunately, he tried to come back from that injury and probably didn’t play as well as he hoped, so we’re hoping Year 2 of free agency, you get a better dividend and more contributions from the nickel position.”

The front seven is obviously the highlight and focal point of the Houston defense right now — it’s hard for that not to be the case when J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are lining up together — but it’s not hard to see just how good the unit could be. The defense gave up an average of just 19.8 points per game last season, tied for fourth in the NFL, despite all the changes in the secondary. In 2016, Houston thrived defensively with a cornerback trio of Jackson, Joseph and A.J. Bouye. Since Bouye’s departure, there has been a big hole in the secondary.

“On the defensive side of the ball, the strength of our team, obviously, sits in the front seven. As much as you can pressure the quarterback, stress the quarterback, stress the football, that’s critically important,” Gaine said. “At corner, we’re dealing with some free-agent situations and we have to navigate that over the next coming weeks. So, we’ll continue to try to build the defense and make it a strength of the team.”

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BOSTON (CBS) — Football fans in New England may not take too seriously the football team known as the Houston Texans. That’s not without reason.

Ever since the franchise was established in 2002, the Texans have served as a bit of a punching bag for the New England Patriots. The two teams have met head-to-head 10 times. The Patriots have won nine of those games. Two of them came in the postseason. The Patriots have won seven straight vs. Houston, dating back to the infamous “Varsity Jacket Game.” New England has outscored Houston by an average of 16 points in those seven games, and that includes a 27-0 Patriots victory when Jacoby Brissett made a start at quarterback in Week 3 of his rookie season.
Bob McNair may be listed as the Texans’ owner, but for the better part of two decades, the Patriots can lay equal claim.

Alas, things do change, and with regard to sentiments toward the football team from Houston, it’s time to properly set expectations.

In just a few short days, the Texans will be visiting Gillette Stadium to open the 2018 season. While every season has its own set of unknowns prior to kickoff, this year figures to be a rather unique one for the Patriots. There was, of course, the offseason of melodrama involving the quarterback, the head coach and the owner (with some contribution from the all-world tight end, too). That matter has seemingly cooled down, but several questions nevertheless remain about the potency of this year’s Patriots team. Specifically, the lack of impact players on the depth chart at receiver figures to be a potentially fatal flaw.

But pushing aside whatever questions may or may not exist about the 2018 Patriots, for the purposes of this week, there’s enough reason to believe the Texans will enter Gillette Stadium as a dangerous team — one fully capable of starting the year with an upset victory over Bill Belichick and Co.

Here are but a few reasons why.

Deshaun Watson Almost Did It Last Year

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Deshaun Watson (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Somewhat lost in the fog of the Super Bowl loss are the details of the 2017 regular season for the Patriots. And early in that season, on an unseasonably hot day in Foxboro, a rookie quarterback making his first road start came this close to beating the team that would prove to be the best in the AFC. This close.

Obviously, “close” only counts in horseshoes, darts, and hand grenades. But that narrow victory for the Patriots should instill a healthy level of awareness that a victory to start this season is anything but a cinch.

In that game, Watson had at least one “rookie” moment, as he threw a pick to Stephon Gilmore that was … bad. But, prior to throwing another interception on a Hail Mary in the game’s closing seconds, Watson had completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 41 yards on seven carries. (And the way he looked off Devin McCourty before throwing a dart for a touchdown on a deep post was exceptional.)

The point is, provided Watson is athletically at his peak in his recovery from a torn knee, the kid clearly won’t be fazed by the task of walking into Foxboro and succeeding. He’s done it before, and he should feel plenty confident that he can do it again.

J.J. Watt Is (Probably) Healthy

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J.J. Watt (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

J.J. Watt is certainly among the most dynamic players in the NFL. He is a one-man game-changer. But if you only watched Patriots games, you’d never know this.

Of Watt’s 76 career sacks, zero have come against the New England Patriots. (He does have one half-sack in a postseason game.) A four-time All-Pro, a four-time Pro Bowler, and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Watt has largely been neutralized whenever he’s gone up against a Belichick-coached team. He also missed the Texans’ loss to New England in the 2016 postseason due to injury, which he re-injured in Week 3 of that year in Foxboro.

Now, in a Week 1 matchup, fresh as he’ll ever be, and with some questions on New England’s offensive line heading into the year, Watt figures to be primed to make his presence felt for the first time against the Patriots. Even if Watt doesn’t accumulate stats himself, if he can be a force, he can open up opportunities for the rest of the playmakers on the Houston front seven — Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus chief among them.

In last year’s meeting, the Texans sacked Brady five times. Clowney scored a touchdown on a Mercilus strip sack. Brady survived — and thrived — but it was far from easy.

DeAndre Hopkins Remains Rather Dangerous

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DeAndre Hopkins (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Malcolm Butler out, Eric Rowe in. How will things turn out? Well, DeAndre Hopkins figures to provide an early answer to that question.

With Super Bowl LII serving as everybody’s most recent memory of the Patriots’ pass defense (or lack thereof), there’s clearly a need for significant improvement in 2018. In terms of defensive backs, the only major change was the departure of Butler via free agency and the addition of veteran Jason McCourty via trade. The Patriots drafted Duke Dawson with a second-round pick, but an injury prevented anyone from learning much about his game in the preseason.

In any event, no matter which players are lined up in New England’s secondary, Hopkins is always going to be a problem. This is a young man who has averaged 90 receptions, 1,266 yards, and 8.5 touchdowns over the past four seasons, despite the list of quarterbacks throwing to him looking like this: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and the aforementioned Watson. There may be no greater feat accomplished in recent years in the NFL than that.

In some prior years, Logan Ryan did a solid job of covering Watson whenever the two teams met. But with Ryan gone last year (and with a capable quarterback under center for Houston), Hopkins caught seven passes for 76 yards in Houston’s trip to Foxboro. Only one pass intended for Hopkins went for an incompletion. He also drew a 34-yard pass interference penalty on Gilmore.

Hopkins obviously won’t be the only receiving threat on Sunday — Will Fuller remains among the fastest receivers in the sport, and Bruce Ellington caught a touchdown in New England last year — but like Watt on the defense, his own dominance can open up a number of opportunities for his teammates.

Who Fills The Cooks Role?

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Brandin Cooks (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

For whatever reason, many football fans in New England seemed to have been underwhelmed by Brandin Cooks’ lone season in New England. That is a story for another day (the list of receivers who arrive in Foxboro and immediately put up a thousand-yard season is … short), but for the purpose of assessing this week, it’s clear that someone is going to have to step up for the Patriots at wide receiver.

Last year, when it came to attacking the Texans’ defense, Tom Brady looked to two men: Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks. The former will be there this weekend, but the latter will not. And there’s no clear and obvious candidate to make up for the loss.

Cooks was targeted on seven passes last year, catching five of them for 131 yards and two touchdowns. That of course included the game-winning touchdown with 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter … a catch that maybe wasn’t a catch. Regardless, it counted, and Cooks finished with his best regular-season performance as a member of the Patriots.

On Sunday, the Patriots will have Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson available at wide receiver, along with newcomer Chad Hansen. None seem capable of replicating Cooks’ performance, so the task of putting up 30-plus points against Houston becomes exponentially more difficult.

Add in that Tyrann Mathieu will now be flying around the secondary for Houston, and this game figures to be a potential grind for the Patriots’ offense.

Brady May Have To Be Perfect

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Deshaun Watson and Tom Brady (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Tom Brady is a Hall of Famer. Most football fans — happily or begrudgingly — regard him as the greatest quarterback of all time. He’s certainly accomplished quite a bit.

With that being established, beating the Texans last year may have required his single greatest game. Ever.

Hyperbole? Not really. Brady was unreal vs. the Texans last year, going 25-for-35 (71.4 percent) for 378 yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions. The then-40-year-old never showed a hint of fatigue on an 84-degree day, and he managed all of that production despite getting sacked five times and hit eight total times by a hungry Houston defense.

That was an afternoon where Patriots running backs were nearly nonexistent. The Patriots ran for just 53 yards on 19 carries for a 2.8-yard average. Their longest run of the day went for eight yards. Six rushes went for zero or negative yards.

Simply put, Brady had to essentially be perfect. And he was. Can he do it again, if needed? It’s surely possible. But relying on your 41-year-old quarterback to put forth that type of performance is generally not the best recipe for success.

A Week 1 Loss Would Not Be Out Of Character For The Patriots

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Bill Belichick walks off the field after the Chiefs defeated the Patriots 42-27. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

This one has much less to do with the Texans as much as it has to do with the Patriots themselves. And though it’s somewhat surprising for a team as successful as the Patriots, starting off the season with a victory is not often a sure thing.

And we don’t have to go back to the infamous Lawyer Milloy game to make that point, either. Look at the last four years:

2014**: Loss, @ Miami, 33-20
2015: Win, vs. Pittsburgh, 28-21
2016**: Win, @ Arizona, 23-21
2017*: Loss, vs. Kansas City, 42-27

* made Super Bowl
** won Super Bowl

Even one of the wins wasn’t particularly convincing, as the Cardinals only lost in 2016 due to a missed 47-yard field goal at the end of regulation.

Clearly, a Week 1 loss would be nothing new for New England. And last year, quite obviously, whatever the overall defensive game plan was for the Patriots, it needed quite a bit of tinkering. This year, Brian Flores is running the defense (albeit in an unofficial capacity), and he’ll want to avoid such a major hiccup early in the year. On the other side of the ball, there will likely be some growing pains as the Patriots incorporate Trent Brown at left tackle and reacclimate Marcus Cannon at right tackle. (Nate Solder’s departure was a big one, but it was Solder who gave up the strip-sack-turned-TD last year.)

Put it all together, and it’s difficult to deny that the Patriots face a rather stiff challenge in their season opener. Can they win? Of course. Should they win? Absolutely. But with Vegas favoring New England by six or seven points, it’s at least worth recognizing that this year’s Texans-Patriots meeting should be looked upon as much more of an even matchup than those in past years might have been.

That’s as long as Bill O’Brien books the right hotel, though.