Most National Football League teams have completed their OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and minicamps and are getting ready for the training camps to officially open in late July.

The coaching staffs have taught and demonstrated some of the defensive schemes and offensive formations their respective teams expect to utilize during the 2018 season that begins in early September and got to see first-hand which players caught on and which ones had trouble.

The early practice sessions gave the front offices an idea of which new players they will focus on and which ones probably won’t survive the first couple of cut-downs.

Our two franchises in Texas—the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans—both have to overcome some major problems before having winning seasons in 2018.

It looks to me like the Cowboys will have a much more difficult task ahead because they must find replacements for two All-Pro pass catchers in tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Dez Bryant.

Witten got a deal he couldn’t refuse, working in the television booth covering ESPN’s Monday Night Football, while Bryant was let go after a lackluster season last year when it appeared he was having trouble getting open on pass routes and then hanging on to the football once it touched his hands.

Besides finding replacements for these two veteran receivers, Dallas also must hope quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott return to their 2016 rookie-year form when they complemented each other which allowed the passing game to thrive.

Last year Elliott served a six-game suspension for the physical abuse of his girlfriend a couple years back while Prescott had difficulty making the Cowboys’ passing game effective and scoring touchdowns much more difficult.

But the Cowboys had trouble stopping their opponents from scoring as their defense appeared to have many holes in it—especially the defensive secondary.

Head Coach Jason Garrett would love the opportunity to sign Orange native Earl Thomas at free safety who’s having difficulty getting his contract extended with Seattle, but that’s a very unlikely scenario.

The Dallas Cowboys must depend on new faces to step in and do a yeoman’s job.

The Houston Texans must depend on some old faces to get healthy and return to their former talent level.

We’re talking about three-time defensive MVP J.J. Watt and his cohort Jadeveon Clowney returning to their All-Pro form plus quarterback Deshaun Watson fully recovering from his knee injury.

Clowney used the offseason program rehabbing a knee that required arthroscopic surgery that caused him to miss the Pro Bowl in late January. He also didn’t participate in the OTAs or minicamp, mostly because he’s wanting to have his contract reworked.

Watt seems to be rehabbing excellently from the broken leg he suffered in the fifth game last season which pleases Head Coach Bill O’Brien.

“I feel good about J.J. because J.J. feels good about J.J”., the fifth-year head coach chortled to the Houston Chronicle last week. “He’s been here every day. He’s very positive about where he is from a rehab standpoint.”

For the first time since he was hired in 2014, O’Brien has a bona fide starting quarterback in place with a healthy Watson returning to his early-season form of 2017.

When it comes to Watson, O’Brien just can’t conceal his enthusiasm about coaching the second-year quarterback and what they might be able to achieve for an offense that could be one of the NFL’s best, according to Sunday’s Chronicle.

When the season starts in September, the Texans could have seven or eight new starters, including four on the offensive line.

O’Brien was pleased with the offseason program. “We made a lot of strides in all three phases relative to this time of the year,” O’Brien said. “What we set out to do—getting these schemes taught and implemented, seeing these guys improve their physical skill set—we definitely got those things accomplished.”

If I had to pick which team would make the playoffs, I would go with the Houston Texans. Perhaps both Houston and the Cowboys will be there when it comes to crunch time!!

KWICKIES…The Houston Astros appeared to snap out of their doldrums of getting hits with men in scoring position and crossing the plate. Sunday, they exploded for eight runs in the second inning and went on to crush the Kansas City Royals 11-3, winning two of the three-game series. Infielder Yuli Gurriel had two doubles and a grand-slam home run BEFORE the second inning had ended. The starting pitching continues to be great, but the bullpen has been very sporadic. But the Astros’ lead in the AL West Division had expanded to 4½ games over second place Seattle through Sunday’s action as the team continues plowing through opposition under .500. Houston concludes its three-game series against Toronto this afternoon at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

And speaking of the Astros, Sunday third baseman Alex Bregman sported a mustache when he batted in the second inning and then was clean shaven when he batted in the fourth inning. Perhaps the huge eight-run second inning did the trick.

Bubba Watson overcame a six-stroke deficit over third-round leader Paul Casey by firing a 63 in Sunday’s final round to win the Travelers Championship at the TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn. by three strokes. He became the first PGA Tour golfer to post three wins this year.

I wondered what had happened to Lumberton native Clay Buchholz after he left the Boston Red Sox. He surfaced with the Arizona Diamondbacks where he is 2-1 with a respectable 2.56 ERA. However, the oft-injured right-hander left the game after pitching five solid innings Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving up two hits and no runs and getting credit for the mound victory.

JUST BETWEEN US…Little Cypress-Mauriceville sophomore-to-be Jack Burke has a busy summer planned with 10 tournaments involving high school golfers on his horizon. I got to play with him this weekend as he opted to play with Craig Couvillion, Bob Hoepner, Ken Ruane and myself. Jack’s game looked sharp like it always is. I got to thinking how ironic it is that Jack is whipping his high school competition, and yet he still is not old enough to have a driver’s license.