WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The Houston Texans started their offseason program with an offensive line that will feature four new full-time starters, so offensive line coach Mike Devlin knew he had some work to do.
Entering his fourth season as the Texans' O-line coach, Devlin is well-aware of how important it is for his group to be on the same page, because he has been in a similar situation before. Left tackle Duane Brown's holdout, injuries and poor play meant the unit didn't have consistency last season. In fact, Devlin said, last season was "the third year in a row with moving pieces."
So he invited this new group to his house for a barbecue.
The unit, including free-agent additions Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete at guard and Seantrel Henderson at tackle, went over to their new coach's house for barbecue and a party, which included a competitive game of basketball in the pool. Fulton gave Devlin's cooking rave reviews -- "It was great, actually. I was surprised by that!" -- and said that the party and all the time the players spend together outside of team workouts has been really important to building camaraderie.
Last season, ProFootballFocus had Nick Martin ranked 29th among centers, starting left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo 75th out of 77 guards and starting right tackle Breno Giacomini 80th out of 81 tackles. Texans quarterbacks took 54 sacks, second most in the NFL. And after Brown was traded, Houston allowed 28 sacks, which tied Arizona and Buffalo for most in the NFL during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
General manager Brian Gaine used free agency to repair Houston's weakest position group, and Fulton is now the team's highest-paid offensive lineman after signing a four-year, $28 million contract.
"[Having four new starters] is not an ideal situation, and I think you'd probably hear that around the league," Fulton said. "But it's pretty fun to accept the adversity that's put in front of you."
It's still early in training camp, but the starters are expected to be Julién Davenport (left tackle), Kelemete (left guard), Martin (center), Fulton (right guard) and Henderson (right tackle). Martin is the only returning full-time starter, although Davenport did start three games at left tackle last season.
The Texans also have 2018 third-round pick Martinas Rankin, who will compete for playing time at tackle, but he is dealing with a foot injury and started training camp on the physically unable to perform list.
"Any time you have a line, it's just five guys as one," Devlin said. "Part of this whole offseason was bringing them together, making them talk [and finding] that togetherness you need as a unit.
"If we can get these guys, all five, playing together for this team, for each other and fighting on that same page, then we have a chance."
The relationships built at the barbecue have extended into the long days of camp, with a spirited group chat, inside jokes and even a housewarming party that Fulton hosted and the whole group attended. The offensive line, and certainly not just the projected starters, continues to build those relationships that will be so important as the unit works to protect the Texans' most important asset: second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson.
"They know how important that guy is to our football team, [and] they understand the importance of what their job is." Texans coach Bill O'Brien on the O-line protecting Deshaun Watson
He is coming off a tantalizing rookie season that saw him throw for 19 touchdowns and 1,699 yards with eight interceptions in six starts. His season ended with a knee injury, and he is just nine months removed from surgery on his right ACL.
"They know who's back there," coach Bill O'Brien said. "They know how important that guy is to our football team, [and] they understand the importance of what their job is."
Added Fulton: "He's a key piece to our offense. We definitely want to keep the quarterback as healthy as possible. We don't want anybody to touch him. So you've got to take pride in that as offensive linemen."
The player who could have the biggest impact on Watson's health is perhaps Davenport, who saw some time at left tackle last season as part of the five starters the Texans played at the position. Davenport appears to have the inside track to be the starter, because the Texans were unable to add a proven left tackle during free agency. They did attempt to sign former New England left tackle Nate Solder, who signed with the Giants.
Last week, Davenport acknowledged the importance of protecting Watson. He says he "no doubt" accepts the challenge of showing people he and the rest of the line aren't question marks for this team, and he tries not to pay attention to criticism.
"You just have to work hard and do your best to protect your quarterback, because you know everything revolves around [Watson]," Davenport said. "[It's important to] be technically sound and good every single play. You can't take a play off."
Devlin was impressed by the way Davenport has improved in the run game and said "it seems like he has a new sense of urgency." The assistant coach pointed out that the young tackle will only get better as he goes against three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and Pro Bowl pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney in practice. Davenport progressed well during organized team activities, O'Brien said, and "really has improved a lot in some of the techniques we've asked him to improve on" so far in training camp.
Regardless of who is in charge of making sure Watson stays upright, the group is focused on building that chemistry so Watson and the rest of Texans offense can succeed.
"We have some talented guys [on the offensive line]," O'Brien said. "We've got good guys, veteran players, but they have to play together and they have to get reps together, and that's what we're going to try to do throughout training camp."