HOUSTON — The free agency period was a sobering epilogue to the best season in Houston Texans' history.
Career sacks leader Mario Williams signed with Buffalo, and Houston also bid farewell to All-Pro linebacker DeMeco Ryans and veteran offensive linemen Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel.
Winston and Brisiel were stalwarts on one of the league's top offensive lines, and Houston coach Gary Kubiak is getting his first look at the new faces on the front as organized team activities began this week.
Rashad Butler will move up the depth chart into Winston's spot at right tackle, and Antoine Caldwell is penciled in as the new starter at right guard. Derek Newton, drafted in the seventh round in 2011, can back up either Butler or left tackle Duane Brown.
The Texans did re-sign center Chris Myers, who made his first Pro Bowl last season. Houston drafted Ben Jones, a 6-foot-3, 303-pound lineman out of Georgia, to back up Myers.
But all eyes will be on the right side, where Winston started 88 consecutive games and Brisiel started 13 last year and returned for the playoffs despite breaking his right leg.
The 6-foot-4, 317-pound Butler played in only two games last season before going on injured reserve with a left elbow injury that required surgery. He played in every regular-season game in the previous two seasons, mostly at left tackle.
Butler says his elbow healed months ago, but he needs these May workouts to knock off the rust that came from sitting out.
"Right now, I feel like the hands and footwork coordination are maybe a little bit off," Butler said. "It might not really show that much, but I can feel that my hands and feet are not quite in perfect correlation with each other. But that will come, with the more reps I get in OTAs."
The 6-3, 311-pound Caldwell played in only five games last season, but he saw action in 12 games in 2010 and 11 as a rookie in 2009. He played center and guard at Alabama.
"Those guys have been a part of the chemistry," Kubiak said. "It's not like they haven't been here. But I mean, you miss Eric (Winston) and you miss Mike (Brisiel), two great guys and damn good players. The only way you're going to replace them is with the whole group getting good again and continue to improve and the three guys that are still here playing better, so it'll work itself out. We've just got to keep going."
Butler is approaching the spring workouts just like any other, though he still feels like he needs to win over the coaches after missing most of last season.
"Coming off an injury is tough," he said. "It's one thing when you're just not getting playing time, but coming off an injury, it's definitely different. Coaches want to know, 'Hey, is this guy back to where he was? Is he looking any different. I definitely have to prove myself in these OTAs, and then again in training camp."
With the help of the sturdy line last season, the Texans led the league in possession time and set franchise records for yards rushing (2,448) and rushing attempts (546).
Brown doesn't expect the line to miss a beat with Butler and Caldwell in place.
"It's tough, I can't lie about that," Brown said. "Eric was a huge part of this offense, as was Mike Brisiel. When you have the same guys together for multiple years, you can really build something special. But these guys aren't just coming in here. They've been here for a while, they've practiced with us for a while."
The Texans also drafted Miami, Ohio, guard Brandon Brooks and Purdue tackle Nick Mondek.
The 6-5, 346-pound Brooks played guard and tackle in college, and with Newton's improvement, Kubiak thinks Butler and Caldwell will be challenged to keep their starting roles.
"They will get pushed," Kubiak said. "I think Newton is way ahead of where he was last year and this young guard (Brandon Brooks) has got a chance to be a heck of a player. It's going to be a very good competition. Those things don't normally sort themselves out until you put the pads on. Right now it's more finesse and positioning-type stuff."
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