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By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Two teams that made dramatic improvements a year ago will be attempting to continue their progress when the Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers lift the lid on their 2012 preseasons with a head-to-head matchup at Bank of America Stadium.
After years of coming up short in their goal of reaching the postseason, the Texans finally broke through with a banner 2011 performance in which the team set a franchise record with 10 regular-season victories en route to its first- ever AFC South title, then notched another win in the opening round of the playoffs. Houston will encounter a few obstacles in trying to duplicate that effort, however, as it must replace a number of important contributors that departed either through free agency or trades.
The current roster no longer includes such names as outside linebacker Mario Williams, inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, offensive linemen Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, wide receiver Jacoby Jones and tight end Joel Dreessen.
Jones' exit creates an opportunity for a few promising young players to earn a significant role on offense, with 2012 fourth-round draft choice Keshawn Martin and second-year man Lestar Jean emerging as the leading candidates for the No. 3 receiver slot in camp. Both should have their chances to make an impression on Saturday, with the Texans likely to scratch Andre Johnson after the outstanding wideout missed a week of practice with a mild groin strain.
Jobs are also up for grabs on the right side of the offensive line that had previously been manned by Brisiel and Winston. Holdovers Antoine Caldwell and Rashad Butler have the inside track at starting nods at guard and tackle, respectively, but each is being pushed by rookie third-round pick Brandon Brooks and 2011 seventh-rounder Derek Newton.
Houston's stingy defense will be without standout end J.J. Watt for all or most of the preseason due to a dislocated elbow, and possibly starting inside linebacker Brian Cushing after the team's leading tackler was briefly hospitalized on Wednesday with an illness.
Quarterback Matt Schaub is ready to go, however, and is set to participate in game action for the first time since suffering a Lisfranc injury to his right foot that caused him to miss the club's last eight contests (including the playoffs). Both he and backup T.J. Yates figure to see limited snaps, however, with free-agent addition John Beck and former University of Houston star Case Keenum projected to receive the bulk of the work under center.
Though the Panthers finished just 6-10 last season, that was still a major upswing from the two-win output the team mustered during a brutal 2010 campaign. And with reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton poised to take another step forward in his first full offseason, Carolina's outlook appears quite bright.
Newton and the first-team offense will probably be out for only a few possessions on Saturday, with the 2011 No. 1 overall pick yielding to Derek Anderson as the veteran takes his battle with onetime starter Jimmy Clausen for the backup spot into the preseason.
The starting unit could be minus Steve Smith, however, after the productive wide receiver bruised his left knee in Tuesday's practice session.
On defense, a linebacking corps that gets proven performers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis back from injury and added Boston College standout Luke Kuechly in April's draft will be one to watch. Kuechly stands a good chance to crack the starting lineup in his debut, especially with Beason (hamstring) and Davis -- who's making his way back from three ACL tears in his right knee but has practiced sparingly due to a calf strain -- both questionable for the opener.
The Texans and Panthers will be meeting for the first time in preseason play, but the clubs did face off in Houston last December in a regular-season clash in which Carolina delivered a 28-13 win. It was the Panthers' first-ever victory in three lifetime bouts with the Texans.
08/09 11:28:29 ET
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