Houston Texans: Early Rookie Progress Reports
Counting on the play of rookies is never a desired position to be in, but with all the turnover on the roster recently, the Houston Texans will be forced to make the best of that situation. At least four rookies will be asked to be starters and major contributors for this team; not surprisingly, those players were their first four draft picks.
Jadeveon Clowney, Xavier Su'a-Filo, C.J. Fiedorowicz and Louis Nix III will all be expected to make an impact this season; the team won't have time to wait for them to develop if the Texans are going to surpass expectations this season. By the time the season is over, other rookies like Alfred Blue, Max Bullough, Marcus Williams and Andre Hal could also find their way into the starting lineup or at the very least be valuable reserves.
How have the rookies progressed so far? Until they put the pads on, it will be tough to say with 100 percent certainty, but for the most part the guys whom the team will be counting on have all looked pretty good.
You won't see a progress report for second-round pick Xavier Su'a-Filo or fifth-round pick Jeoffrey Pagan because both players have been out for different reasons. Under NFL rules, Su'a-Filo has been unable to attend while finishing up his school year at UCLA, while Pagan is still recovering from an injury.
Clowney is a rare athletic, physical freak.
The raw talent that had scouts drooling after the NFL combine and his pro-day workout has been on full display during rookie minicamp and OTAs.
At 6-5 Clowney moves like a WR off the edge. Players his size should not be able to move as easy as he can. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) May 17, 2014
Seeing Jadeveon Clowney move is a sight to see. He ran down Alfred Blue on a swing pass where Blue had a 5 yard head start. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) May 16, 2014
Jadeveon Clowney has a chance to show some pass rush. His first step off the line is unreal. Covers so much ground in step one. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) May 27, 2014
His first step off the line is unlike any player I've ever seen. He'll have the advantage on nearly every offensive lineman he lines up against because of that track speed. Where he still needs work is with his hands and secondary pass-rush moves for when he's not able to beat the lineman with just pure speed.
Clowney has work to do with keeping offensive tackles away from his body and using his arms and hands better to create space to work. All of the skill level you want in a pass rusher is there with Clowney and Linebacker Coach Mike Vrabel was correcting the rookie on the run on what to improve on.
Opposing offensive tackles will obviously play Clowney for the speed rush, considering how special his speed is for the position, so if he can develop a spin move or even a swim move back to the inside, I don't know how anyone will stay in front of him. He already possesses a great inside jump-cut move like J.J. Watt uses; if he develops the other two moves and is able to use his hands to keep blockers off his body, he'll be unstoppable.
Clowney already looks the part of a Pro Bowl player, and yet he's only scratching the surface of his potential.
Louis Nix III
Louis Nix twisted his ankle and missed #Texans day 3 of OTAs. Should be good for next weeks OTAs.— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) May 29, 2014
#Texans rookie NT Louis Nix left this afternoon before practice to go back to South bend to attend his graduation from Notre Dame.— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) May 17, 2014
Commenting on the health of Louis Nix, Bill O'Brien did perhaps his best Bill Belichick impression, per Pro Football Talk: "He’s got something wrong with him but I’m not sure what it is. I think he’ll be fine."
Once on the field, Nix batted a pass early during Day 2 of OTAs; perhaps his teammate J.J. Watt is rubbing off on him. Nix has shown flashes of the great potential that Texans fans believe he possesses, but he's behind.
He's missed too much time early on and it shows. Nix is still learning the system and the NFL style of play, while other players are a step or two ahead. Once he learns what defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel wants from him and starts to get comfortable, I think we'll see his great potential start to come out more often.
Nix is behind, but don't get worried about that just yet; it's still really early. Once we get through mandatory minicamp later this month and then training camp in July, he should be caught up and capable of consistently making an impact.
Many, including me, said that Tom Savage had the most physical talent of any quarterback on the roster once the Texans drafted him in early May. That physical talent has been on display through rookie minicamp and OTAs.
Patrick Starr of State of the Texans also noticed his physical talent but makes note that Savage is still pretty raw as a rookie.
Savage has the strongest arm that the Texans have seen in a long time and his ability to get to point A to point B with his throwing motion allows him to throw passes with velocity and in a hurry. His ability to drive the ball is impressive and he throws a “heavy” ball. Wide receivers learned the hard way trying to catch the football and there is an audible pop when Savage’s passes hit receivers hands.
He is still rough around the edges and there is still a learning curve but he made some NFL type throws today on the field. There was more good than bad when Savage threw the ball and there were maybe a handful of passes that hit the ground the entire day. Savage took control of the huddle and was already adjusting his formations on the field and it did not look like it was Savage’s first NFL practice.
Savage came into team practices at a disadvantage. He missed two years of playing time and development while transferring from school to school during college. As I pointed out in a previous article, Savage struggled at Pittsburgh with parts of the mental game, such as looking off the safety and being able to make anticipation throws. He won't fix those issues overnight.
On top of having to improve on those areas of the game, he has to learn a new offense, which has been described by Bill O'Brien as difficult to pick up for a rookie, per the Houston Chronicle.
We throw so many things at the quarterback when he comes in here, whether it’s knowledge of defense — even in the first night, we spend an hour and a half with the guy in individual meetings, and then expect him to go out there and execute at a high level. It’s hard to do. But that’s our expectation level here for that position.
If we see that he’s struggling with some things, then we’ll back it down for him. But so far it looks like he’s been paying attention. He’s done what we’ve asked him to do. He had his share of mistakes today, just like every guy did. But I thought it was a decent start for him.
A decent start.
It's what I expected from Savage, but it is also a clear indicator that he isn't on track to be the team's starter early in the season. He is a project who will need time to develop, so there is no need to panic right now.
He'll need to spend time as the third-string quarterback, hold a clipboard, learn from the veterans and maybe step into the starting role after the bye week. Most likely, he won't get his chance until the 2015 season.
He has all the physical tools required to play the position at a high level, but the other parts of the game are still trailing well behind. O'Brien can coach him up, but it will take time.
My initial thought when the Texans drafted C.J. Fiedorowicz was that he would be their third tight end, but it seems I underestimated his talent level. The former Iowa player has been impressive during rookie minicamp and OTAs and is on track to be the second tight end on any multiple-tight end formations on top of playing in short-yardage and goal-line packages.
Was impressed with TE C.J. Fiedorowicz and his athleticism for his size. At 6-5 and 265 lbs. he is a type of TE the #Texans have never had.— PDS (@PatDStat) May 16, 2014
Patrick Starr of State of the Texans likes what he's seen from the rookie so far:
Fiedorowicz is an impressive specimen. Seeing how easy the rookie is making things look is encouraging. He is already a well polished run game blocker and he can deliver a blow with a “pop” when using his hands. He also is an underrated as a pass catcher and does a good job of catching the ball when it is in his vicinity.
I think the Texans' base package will include two tight ends based on how often Bill O'Brien used multiple tight ends while he was with the New England Patriots. Garrett Graham is their best pass-catching tight end on the roster but isn't much of a blocker, so having Fiedorowicz on the field as an inline tight end will give the Texans some flexibility on offense.
With Fiedorowicz on the roster, Graham will be freed up to split out to the slot at times like the Patriots did with their tight ends in 2011 under O'Brien as their offensive coordinator. Graham told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle that he liked the pick of Fiedorowicz:
...it’s a tight end-friendly offense, and I think he’ll be able to help,” Graham said before the Texans’ charity golf tournament. “He’s a bigger guy who can definitely hold the line on the line of scrimmage.
The rookie can stay in to block against a top-level pass-rusher or help out the right tackle if he struggles like last season. He can also sneak out over the middle and be the quarterback's security blanket when the defenders run off to chase down the better receivers down the field.
His strongest asset will be his impact as a blocker, but Fiedorowicz is a versatile player who is already becoming a factor in the offense. I'm not sure if he will technically be called a starter because he'll be the second tight end, but I do think he'll get snaps at a number equal to a starting player.
The former LSU running back has been turning heads throughout rookie minicamp and OTAs.
Bill O'Brien has liked what he's seen from the rookie so far, according to Brian T. Smith from the Houston Chronicle:
He’s doing pretty well. He’s a guy that came in here as a talented young player that has shown us early on — very early now, OK? But he’s able to learn and he’s got some instincts and he so far he seems like a good team guy. I’ve enjoyed being around him.
Members of the media like Patrick Starr of State of the Texans have also come away impressed by Blue.
Alfred Blue catches the football like a wide receiver. Easy to see why the offensive staff liked his skill set. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) May 17, 2014
There was much discussion on why Alfred Blue was the Texans selection in the NFL draft but he is very similar to what Arian Foster is as a running back: a smooth and gliding running back that can catch the football out of the backfield. He is scheme versatile and has shown some good moves in one on one situations with the football.
It was difficult to know what the Texans were getting when they drafted him, because he was mostly a reserve back and missed time during his junior year with an injury. Blue did average six yards per carry over his four seasons in the SEC, which is a very impressive stat.
#Texans rookie RB Alfred Blue had only 209 carries at LSU. Averaged pretty much 6 yards a carry while there.— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) May 17, 2014
Before the draft, Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com called Blue a second-round talent who possess good size, speed and vision:
Terrific size and musculature. Inside-outside ability. Nice vision, instincts and patience. Has good speed for a back his size -- opens up his stride in the clear. Strong runner -- heavy on contact. Powers through arm tackles and runs with forward lean. Wields an effective stiff-arm. Looks to have good hands in limited exposure. Flashes playmaking ability. Has tread on his tires -- averaged just 52 carries per season at LSU. Has experience in a pro-style offense and on special teams. Clear upside.
From all reports, it sounds like the upside has translated over to the practice field during OTAs. The two backs above him on the depth chart both have had injury issues over their career, so expect Blue to get more snaps than initially thought. In my opinion, he will not only make the roster but possibly surpass Andre Brown for playing time.
If Max Bullough can learn the defense and get past the other typical rookie traps, he has a place on this roster. I thought he was a fifth-round talent, so getting him as an undrafted free agent could turn out to be a steal.
He is a tough, run-stuffing linebacker who will struggle in coverage, as Patrick Starr of State of the Texans noticed during OTAs:
After a slow first day, Bullough looks like he shook the jitters out on day two. Bullough was flying around and despite struggling in coverage looked much better today when asked to do the same thing. If Bullough can understand what Romeo Crennel is asking from the inside linebacker position quickly, he will have a chance to climb up the depth chart and be called on to be more than just a depth player.
Due to his limitations in coverage, Bullough will just be a two-down or maybe even a one-down player, depending on how often the Texans play in their nickel package.
From MLive.com, Coach Bill O'Brien had high praise for his work ethic and the college program he came from:
I think Max is a guy that has come in here and he came from a really good college program. He came from a program run by Mark Dantonio, who I have a ton of respect for. Coming from the Big Ten, Mark has built that program into a Big Ten champion. We knew he was well-coached. He's come in here and worked very hard with the other guys. He seems to be communicating well and doing the things that we're asking him to do in the first two days here.
He'll face tough competition from veteran Jeff Tarpinian, who played well last year when asked to fill in for injured teammates. He also excels in pass coverage but has flown under the radar so far.
One player that doesn't get enough praise was Jeff Tarpinian. Knows expectations of NE, and understands run fits and coverage. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) February 5, 2014
Jeff Tarpinian probably had one of the best games a #Texans ILB had all season. Downhill and made plays. Interested to see him more.— PDS (@PatDStat) November 20, 2013
It's too much to ask of Bullough to be an every-down player in Year 1. If he doesn't improve his skill level in pass coverage, he may never get on the field during a third-down passing situation, but that doesn't mean he won't play a valuable role on this team.
If Bullough continues to play the run well during practice, he could work his way into a platoon role at the inside linebacker spot next to Brian Cushing as a first-down run-defense specialist.
Coming from a small school, Marcus Williams will have a larger learning curve to deal with when adjusting to the speed and style of NFL play and practice.
He started off slow, but his talent level is starting to show on the field as he's gotten more comfortable, according to Patrick Starr of State of the Texans:
Cornerback Marcus Williams is one to watch and it is evident his ability to track the ball in the air. In drills he catches the ball easily at the high point and can move in an instant when he plants and goes. Williams struggles some in coverage but he made up for it with good technique in coverage down the field. He has the overall ability to put his name in the hat to make this team as the summer progresses.
That progress carried over into OTAs, per Starr: "Rookie Cornerback Marcus Williams is letting his skill set take over and today he made a nice break on a ball that almost resulted in an interception."
The Texans had a need for a slot corner going into the draft, so Williams has a chance to not only make the roster but earn playing time if he performs during OTAs, minicamp and training camp. He will face tough competition from veteran Brandon Harris and seventh-round pick Andre Hal, but neither player has a stranglehold on the position.
Williams has good size and was a playmaker during college with 21 career interceptions. Once he learns the playbook and adjusts to the speed of the NFL, he could be a real asset for the Texans. His versatility and experience as a kick returner will greatly help his chances of making the roster.
Finding a safety with 4.4 40-yard dash speed, per NFL.com, and 6'3" size is rare, especially with the last pick of the seventh round where the Texans selected Lonnie Ballentine.
The former Memphis player will have a ton of work to do to make the roster, but there's no doubt he has a better shot than most players in his situation. As Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle points out, only four players out of the 10 nonkickers selected with the last overall pick since 2002 have played in an NFL game:
...and just one, outside linebacker David Vobora, has made multiple starts - 16 of them for the Rams from 2008-10. But after spending the next season with Seattle, Vobora hasn't survived a roster cut since.
A dramatic recent exception to the Mr. Irrelevant rule is Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop. He won the Kansas City job as a rookie in 2010, and it remains his, four seasons and 517 points later.
Ballentine has elite physical tools but has to improve his coverage skills and tackling before he can step into a major role on the defense.
Patrick Starr of State of the Texans writes, "Rookie safety Lonnie Ballentine is still learning the defensive system, but at 6-3 he has some impressive length for the position. It comes into play, like this morning, when he high pointed the ball in an interception drill."
The Texans signed a pair of veterans to compete for the free safety job this offseason, so there's little chance for Ballentine to pass them. Where he can contribute this season will be on special teams as a gunner, as John Harris of HoustonTexans.com points out.
Ballentine is mature for his age, having graduated from high school early and already having a wife and a couple of kids, so I have little doubt about his willingness to work hard; he has the motivation. With his physical gifts, I will be surprised if he doesn't make an NFL roster.