Ranking the Houston Texans' Top 6 Sleepers to Watch in Camp
With the turnover on the roster over the last several seasons, expect many new players to be asked to step up and into important roles on the Houston Texans' roster this season.
Not all of those big roles will be filled by a big name.
Everyone knows that Jadeveon Clowney, Louis Nix III and Ryan Fitzpatrick will be asked to make an impact, but who are the lesser known players who could play a vital role in the team's success this season and beyond?
Who is this year's Arian Foster? Not many fans knew who the undrafted free agent out of Tennessee was in 2009, but by the end of the year, he had two great games under his belt and looked poised to break out the following season.
Foster did just that in 2010, not even 12 months after he was a virtual unknown.
In the age of the salary cap and free agency, teams aren't able to stockpile their starting lineup with 22 first-round picks, so a few underdogs have to make a difference in order for a team to succeed.
That thought rings true for the Texans, who are in the middle of a roster overhaul after losing about a dozen major contributors over the last three offseasons.
With training camp just around the corner, these six names are the players you should be paying attention to because they're all in a position to make a surprising impact.
Like Foster, Alfred Blue played for a major program in the SEC but had injuries slow down his career and hurt his draft stock. Also like Foster, I think Blue's pro career will be better than his college career.
Being a reserve at many programs would be a negative, but, at a running back factory such as LSU, I don't view his role as being a knock against his talent. One nice side effect of him not being used as an every-down back at LSU is that he still has plenty of tread left on the tires.
With Foster about to turn 28 and coming off a season ended by back surgery, expect the Texans' backup running backs to see more carries than they have in previous seasons.
The running back who gets the majority of carries as the backup should be someone who is able to produce in the passing game as well. Bill O'Brien wants to get Foster more involved in that aspect of the offense, and he has used his backs in the past as receiving threats while with the New England Patriots.
If Blue—who some observers have favorably compared to Foster—continues his strong performance from OTAs into training camp, he could become the Texans' second back ahead of the veteran Andre Brown, according to Patrick D. Starr of State of the Texans.
He runs smooth and for his 6-2 and 223 lbs. frame he catches the ball with no issues. He will get his induction into the NFL when he has to run inside the tackles but he could be a factor in the passing game as a situational piece. Seeing him in mini-camps, he had a steady progression of improving all the way up until the final day of practices.
Blue, to us, has everything needed to unseat Andre Brown as the second running back on the depth chart. It is early but more will be known as training camp starts.
Both Brown and Blue have talent as rushers, but if Blue catches the ball well in training camp, that could set him apart in the competition for the Texans' second running back spot. If I were a betting man, I would put money on Blue becoming the Texans' second-string running back in the not-so-distant future.
If he performs well this season—with Foster's age and contract situation—Blue could become the Texans' starter down the road, but that's getting ahead of things; it takes one step at a time.
This season, I expect to see Blue perform at a similar level to what Ben Tate produced in 2011. After missing his first year due to an injury, Tate exploded in 2011 as Foster's backup with nearly 1,000 yards rushing on over five yards per carry.
Those are lofty goals for Blue, but he has the talent to at least get close to that production level.
The former sixth-round pick missed all of last season after being put on injured reserve (IR), but he is poised to have a breakout year in 2014.
Alan Bonner will be in competition for playing time as both the Texans' slot receiver and return man; he has all the physical tools required to excel at each position. Given Keshawn Martin's struggles, had Bonner been healthy last season, he would have probably seen playing time at both positions.
Bonner will face a steep learning curve as a late-round selection with no NFL experience, but his athleticism stands out as being special, according to Patrick D. Starr of State of the Texans.
"Wide Receiver Alan Bonner is borderline electric when he touches the football in the middle of the field. Bonner can go from a stop to getting upfield in a hurry and showed that today."
Bonner will probably remain behind the other receivers while he learns and gets adjusted to the NFL after playing at a small school at the college level, but his athleticism and rare physical talents should intrigue the coaching staff enough to keep him on the roster and find touches for him.
The good news for Bonner is that his new head coach has a different philosophy on the slot receiver position. His previous coach, Gary Kubiak, treated the position as just the third receiver with seemingly no special skill set required to play the position.
As Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com pointed out, per ESPN Stats & Info, the Patriots, in one season under O'Brien, targeted the slot receiver 52 more times than the Texans did over the last two seasons combined. It should also be mentioned that many times the Texans' targets to the slot were to Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels— two non-traditional slot receivers.
From the same article, speaking to media following OTAs, O'Brien, per ESPN, talked about what it will take to play slot receiver in his system.
It is a totally different position. On the inside I would say it is very important to be quicker than fast sometimes. It’s important to have good hands. It’s important to be a very tough guy, a guy that can block, run for us.
Obviously a very smart and instinctive player because it moves a lot faster on the inside with different bracket coverages, one-on-one coverages and different leverages that they see...
It's night and day.
Going off what O'Brien described, Bonner should be a perfect fit for the role. He'll face stiff competition from the veteran Mike Thomas, but Bonner will receive playing time and will have a role in this offense.
I expect Bonner to beat out Martin for a roster spot to be the Texans' fifth receiver this season.
The steal of the draft for the Texans might have come with the first pick in the seventh round.
Cornerback Andre Hal from Vanderbilt is a good prospect, and despite falling a long way down the draft, he has upside and potential. The guys over at the Battle Red Blog, per Brett Kollman, even liked him so much before the draft that they called him the "best" cornerback prospect available.
What did they love so much about Hal? In a phrase, "don't sweat the technique."
What makes Hal so appetizing as a prospect, at least based on my own evaluation, is his impeccable footwork, eye discipline, and hand placement. It becomes more and more apparent just how much Hal has drilled himself into technical precision the more I watch his tape.
His pedal is low and smooth, his hands are always settled in the right position whether in press of off, and he has a knack for reading quarterbacks without getting fooled by good route runners. In short, Andre Hal can play some damn good football.
That sounds good to me, but how has he looked on the field during minicamp and OTAs? Patrick D. Starr of State of the Texans has noticed flashes of good play from Hal but knows the rookie still has some rough edges that need smoothing.
He has some work to do but appears to have a better chance on playing on the outside of the defense. He has good hips to turn and run with wide receivers, but his biggest adjustment is coming from trusting his instincts and putting his fundamentals he is learning to the field.
Over thinking might be a slight issue for Hal, but there is a big adjustment for cornerbacks coming from college.
His late surge of play on the field opened some eyes that things could be clicking for the rookie.
If things do click for Hal, I think his potential spot on this team would be as the fourth cornerback or backup to Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson on the outside.
As Starr mentioned, if Hal is best suited to play the outside, that would limit his potential snaps because the Texans' biggest need at cornerback is in the slot where they lost Brice McCain this offseason. Brandon Harris will likely start off the year as their slot corner, but he's not an obstacle that would be impossible to overcome.
The Texans have other options to play on the outside behind Joseph and Jackson, but none of them have the potential of Hal. He's behind both A.J. Bouye and Elbert Mack at the moment, but that won't last the whole year if everything goes as planned.
With his technique as sound as it is, once it starts to click for him, the production level will jump up quickly. Unlike the typical rookie who has to be coached up on the fundamentals, Hal already has that part of the game down. For that reason I expect Hal to get the most out of whatever talent he does possess which I think is a great deal.
The only thing that will hold Hal back this season is his learning curve as a seventh-round pick. However, that shouldn't remain an obstacle for much longer.
The undrafted free agent, Max Bullough, out of Michigan State isn't a five-tool player so to speak, but what he does, he does very well. For him, that thing is run defense.
Bullough was part of a very stout run defense last year that allowed just 86.3 rushing yards per game. The two-time team captain was a huge reason why the Spartans were so successful in that area. What Bullough lacks in great speed or athleticism, he makes up for with great instincts and technique to make plays in the hole.
Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com, who had Bullough as a fourth- or fifth-round pick, believes he can be successful in the NFL.
Keys and diagnoses quickly, understands run fits and spills willingly. Physical -- good take-on/tackle strength between the tackles. Pursues hard. Good tackler when he's able to square up ball carriers. ...
Big, tough, experienced, durable, competitive Mike linebacker who was a heart-and-soul type for the stingiest defense in college football. Like a coach on the field, Bullough is a throwback talent whose instincts and technique will have to compensate for athletic limitations for him to win a starting role.
He lacks some of the measurables you look for from the position, so it's no surprise that he didn't wow scouts at the predraft workouts, but he's a player who plays better than what the numbers say—just put on the tape.
Bullough is physical, he's a sure tackler and he is rarely out of position and reacts quickly enough to make up for his lack of speed or elite athleticism.
Since he's not a physical freak like Jadeveon Clowney, what he does well won't show up during minicamp or OTAs when they're running around in shorts. Once the pads are put on, what he can bring to the table should become obvious.
Bullough has clear limitations, but he could become a great specialty player for the Texans. He isn't athletic enough or fast enough to cover tight ends in coverage, but he'd be very useful as a situational run defender.
The Texans don't have a no-doubt, every-down inside linebacker next to Brian Cushing, so I think their best option is to rotate players depending on the situation until one emerges.
On first-down, short-yardage situations, or any run situation for that matter, Bullough should be on the field. On definite passing situations, Jeff Tarpinian should be on the field. Otherwise, Brooks Reed and Akeem Dent will rotate at the position.
On top of being a great run defender, Bullough is also a guy who should excel on special teams. That versatility should allow the undrafted free agent to make the roster and receive playing time.
Meet the Texans' new Vonta Leach!
Since the Pro Bowl fullback left the Texans after the 2010 season, the team has struggled to find a replacement, and, not surprisingly, their running game has dropped off over recent years.
It wasn't just the loss of the fullback that caused the drop-off; it was also the fact that finding a replacement for Leach should have been a bigger priority.
Foster has missed having a physically imposing lead blocker; his ypc and ypg averages have both dropped off each year since Leach left in 2010, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. Leach made opposing defenders shy away from contact; you could tell some guys wanted no part of him. The Texans need that type of fullback back on their roster.
With the addition of sixth-round pick Jay Prosch from Auburn, the Texans finally have that guy.
Prosch was a vital piece of the Auburn running attack who averaged over 320 rushing yards per game last season.
Like Leach, Prosch is built like a throwback fullback. He's not one of today's hybrid players who is more of a tight end; the Texans play him at fullback to take advantage of possible mismatches; Prosch, first and foremost, is a road grader as a run-blocker.
However, part of what makes Prosch such an exciting prospect is that, while he is a physically imposing run-blocker, he also has shown the skill to be a receiving option and a great player on special teams, according to Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com.
Outstanding peripheral blocking vision -- scans wide and locates. Generates power through his lower body and drives defenders out of the hole. ... Intense, determined competitor. Good finisher. ... Can create a surge in short-yardage situations and power through the line.
Catches the ball easily. Core special-teams performer. Outstanding personal and football character -- highly respected team leader. Versatility is a big plus. Very durable.
Prosch is everything and more that you could want from a prospect at his position. The only reason he slipped to the sixth round is because the fullback position has been devalued a bit in today's pass-first league, but guys like him can still make an impact if their coach is creative enough on offense.
Prosch will outplay the position at which he was drafted.
The real time for Prosch to shine will be in training camp and during the preseason once the team is finally able to put on the pads and start hitting. The Texans found a starter in the sixth round in my opinion—a home run selection.
Kendrick Lewis has never been mistaken for a great player or even a fringe Pro Bowl player, but he could become an important role player for the Texans.
Lewis wasn't exactly a free agent many teams were hot for this offseason, but the Texans saw value in adding him to the roster since he played his best football under former coordinator Romeo Crennel.
Reuniting Lewis with Crennel in Houston to help teach the other players the scheme and provide depth was a solid move. If he's able to become a starter, then that's a great bonus.
Like other players on this list, Lewis has limitations, but he still has something to offer this team. As mentioned earlier, Lewis will be leaned on to help teach the other players; he has responded well as one of the leaders in the secondary, according to Patrick D. Starr.
Lewis should also provide a boost to the overall coverage ability of the safeties on the roster. The safety play for the Texans last year wasn't poor, but most of their guys were best suited to play in the box; they struggled when asked to play deep coverage or pick up a receiver one-on-one.
That should change with Lewis on the roster.
Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. Lewis is far from a perfect player, but he does mesh well with the other safeties on the Texans' roster. Lewis is at his best when he's asked to play in a deep zone or act as the center fielder for the defense.
If Lewis is able to succeed in that role, like he did under Crennel with the Kansas City Chiefs, that will greatly help D.J. Swearinger in his progression and development.
This is not just the case with Swearinger, but it's also the same situation for Joseph and Jackson. If they can trust that Lewis can protect the back end if a receiver breaks free, then they can afford to play tighter and more aggressively.
Lewis isn't Earl Thomas, but the same idea applies here. Without Thomas behind them to clean up any mistakes, Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks' other corners wouldn't be able to play as aggressively as they do now.
Having Lewis on the roster provides Crennel and the Texans defense with options.
With a safety who specializes in coverage rather than being a run helper or blitzer, they'll be able to mix up their looks and give their other safeties more freedom to freelance like Troy Polamalu has done so well for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They can drop back in a Cover 4 with Lewis in the center; they can play Cover 1 with Lewis as the center fielder or even bring him up to cover in the slot and drop a corner back deep at the snap to throw off the quarterback's key or how he's reading the defense.
The Texans didn't have that ability or luxury last season.