How Will the Houston Texans Use Their Rookies in 2014?
The Houston Texans added 10 young prospects to their roster over the three-day NFL draft. They range from Jadeveon Clowney, one of the most imposing examples of gridiron talent in recent memory, to the very last player taken in the proceedings, Lonnie Ballentine.
Now comes the task of developing their skills to a professional level. Both the rookies and the veterans will be adapting to new offensive and defensive systems, an effort that will test their patience but increase the opportunity to bond as teammates.
On a team that went 2-14 last season, all but a handful of standout players are on equal footing when it comes to competing for a job. When these rookies look back on their careers several years from now, their first season with the 2014 Houston Texans could be one of the most wide-open situations they ever experienced.
DE Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney was the safe pick, even if he was not the player the Texans really wanted.
If general manager Rick Smith could have swapped the first overall pick for three first-round draft choices and an additional second-round selection, Texans fans might have had to console themselves with offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
Because Smith could not cajole the Atlanta Falcons into being as generous as the Washington Redskins were in the Robert Griffin III deal, the consolation prize was the “most talented defensive lineman” (subscription required) Todd McShay has ever evaluated.
The challenge for the Texans is how to turn a collegiate 4-3 defensive end into a starting NFL 3-4 outside linebacker. That is not as simple as stand him up and turn him loose. Clowney will have to let go of some things while he gets used to some others.
Some of the explosiveness he had coming out of a three-point stance will be lost. He will have to learn to make better use of his hands because the offensive lineman will see him coming and have an extra half-second to get a bead on him.
His responsibilities will include the outside contain on the zone stretch and scraping over to the “A” gap if the inside linebacker is caught out of position. Of course, there will be tight end coverage and even handling crossers when they come out of the slot.
Clowney did rush the quarterback from a two-point stance on occasion while at South Carolina, but not with any great frequency. On those few occasions, it was little more than locate the gap and go.
Getting after the passer will be much more creative in the NFL, particularly in tandem with J.J. Watt. While Watt crashes the pocket from the inside and draws an extra defender, Clowney can take advantage of the open “B” gap to harass the quarterback. There are any number of variations on the twists and slants linemen and linebackers can take in pursuit of their prey.
LG Xavier Su'a-Filo
While taking Clowney with the first overall pick was the obvious choice, going with an interior offensive lineman in the second round was not. Adding Su’a-Filo to the roster makes several statements about this draft class and the composition of the Texans.
The most apparent is that none of the quarterbacks available were worth the first pick in rounds one or two. There were discussions to trade out of the top spot with the Atlanta Falcons, but nothing came of it. None of the teams on the board near the top of the second round felt that missing out on Jimmy Garoppolo was worth making a move.
Tom Savage is a true project with little hope of being the starter at quarterback in 2014. Having Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm almost guarantees a draft position in the top eight of the 2015 draft. After all was said and done, next year’s troika of Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Brett Hundley looked sexier than that of Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.
By taking the best guard in the draft, Bill O’Brien is not faced with the choice of having to play either Ben Jones or David Quessenberry out of position at left guard. Su’a-Filo will start while Jones can continue to be tutored as the successor to Chris Myers, and Quessenberry can compete for the right tackle spot.
The interior of the offensive line will be solidified to where Myers will not have to keep covering up Wade Smith’s mistakes. Myers can concentrate on his man and prevent a lot of the pressure that came up the gut and threatened the quarterback in 2013.
The addition of a tight end and a fullback indicates running the ball will have a higher priority than the standard NFL offense. While the rest of the league was passing itself silly, the Seattle Seahawks used a ball-control running game and a stifling defense to win the Lombardi Trophy.
O’Brien is putting his stamp on this team as its offensive coordinator by following the lead of Pete Carroll, and coincidentally, Bill Belichick. The New England Patriots overachieved once again by running themselves into the AFC championship game and not solely relying on Tom Brady to get them there.
TE C.J. Fiedorowicz
The drafting of Xavier Su’a-Filo implied a commitment by Bill O’Brien to power football. Taking a tight end primarily known for his blocking at the top of the third round confirmed it.
Fiedorowicz is the latest in a long line of blue-collar pros from Kirk Ferentz’ program. Dallas Clark, Marshal Yanda and Aaron Kampman are just a few of the more than 60 players to make it to the NFL while Ferentz has been at Iowa.
It would be a mistake to see him as just another corn-fed ploughboy with a penchant for laying out linebackers. His surprising athleticism was revealed at the combine, where he led the tight ends in 225-reps (25), 3-cone drill (7.10) and 20-yard shuttle (4.26). His 40-yard time wasn’t too shabby either (4.76), placing him just behind Jace Amaro of Texas Tech (4.74).
On the surface he looks like a slightly faster version of Ryan Griffin, but that would be selling him short. While he may not be the second coming of Rob Gronkowski, his receiving skills are a cut above those of Griffin. That could move Fiedorowicz up the depth chart into the No. 2 tight end slot.
His hands are over 10” in length and, according to scout Nolan Nawrocki, he has “surprising lower-body flexibility to sink his hips to run sharp-angle routes.” He sounds a lot like a larger version of Owen Daniels. Fiedorowicz was underutilized at Iowa, where he caught 30 passes in his final season with an offense where the leading receiver had just 40 receptions.
Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald felt Fiedorowicz would be “a good complement to Rob Gronkowski in the Patriots offense.” It looks like O’Brien beat out Bill Belichick on this one.
NT Louis Nix III
No one took a bigger tumble in the draft than Nix, not even just-in-time first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater.
Few college players are physically qualified to play nose tackle at the NFL level. No one outside of Nix had his girth combined the quickness he displayed coming out his stance. Why, then, did he fall so far?
The meniscus injury that ended his senior season at Notre Dame was repaired in November, well before the torrent of mock drafts was unleashed. As Dave Siebert related in a Feb. 11 article on Bleacher Report, the meniscus is a piece of knee cartilage that has a naturally low blood supply. This inhibits the healing process, but can be aided with the use of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections, which Nix received on two occasions.
Weight has always been a concern for Nix, and the roster on the team website had him at 357 pounds at the start of the 2013 season. The surgery must have led to some improvement, as he managed to get down to 331 pounds by the NFL combine in late February.
A 5.49 40-yard time plus an inability to do any 225-pound reps due to a pectoral problem should have adversely affected his draft stock. Yet some analysts, such as Daniel Jeremiah, still projected him as the 25th overall pick as late as March 20. Our own Matt Miller of Bleacher Report had Nix as the 48th overall pick as late as April 4.
Once day 2 of the draft rolled around, a rumor about Nix and his use of social media was reported by Chris B. Brown of Smart Football:
Louis Nix thing about teams being concerned about his social media use was, from all I can tell, an actual thing. Who knows if explains drop— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) May 10, 2014
If that is a legitimate concern, what percentage of draftees could be reasonably accused of carelessly using social media? Wouldn’t the knee problem be enough to justify the fall?
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has to hope that Nix will be hale and hearty enough to anchor the Texans defensive line as the starting nose tackle. Somebody has to two-gap and draw at least one double-team from the offensive line so J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are free to get into the backfield and mess up the works.
One complaint about Nix that could have devalued his draft stock was the probability that he was merely a two-down player. Only a handful of nose tackles, such as Dontari Poe and Vince Wilfork, are capable third-down pass-rushers.
Every defense in the league bases its success on putting its opponents in third-and-long. A mastodon in the middle that can collapse the pocket on first and second down may come off the field in nickel and dime sub-packages, but Crennel’s defense is designed to showcase Watt, Clowney and hopefully Whitney Mercilus on passing downs.
When Nix heads to the sideline and sees third-and-seven on the scoreboard, he will know that most of the 3-4 defenses in the NFL missed out on a game-changer because of a balky knee and a misunderstood Twitter account.
QB Tom Savage
No one was surprised when Houston took Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick. Almost everyone was perplexed when they waited until the third day of the draft to take a quarterback.
And not just any quarterback, but one that came out of nowhere on the final turn like a 20-1 longshot at the Preakness. In the weeks following the NFL combine, Savage was not even in the conversation for selection in the first three rounds of the draft.
Then Peter King of MMQB reported on April 14 that Gil Brandt, pioneering talent evaluator for the Dallas Cowboys during the Tom Landry era, had told King that Savage was “the hottest guy in the draft.”
On April 30, NFL Media analyst Charles Davis said the one-year starter from the University of Pittsburgh might even sneak into the first round. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports came on board May 2 with a second-round prediction:
Consider me among those who believe Tom Savage's wild ascent ends with a 2nd round selection. Very impressive kid: http://t.co/n8cyvPHMmb— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) May 2, 2014
Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and Savage was claimed by the Texans with the 35th pick of the fourth round. Now the questions turn to more practical matters.
What can the Texans expect from their minimal investment? Recent history indicates hopes should not get too high.
Since the AFL and NFL combined their drafts in 1967, 445 quarterbacks have been taken in the fourth through 12th rounds. Four have won a Super Bowl: Joe Theismann, Mark Rypien, Brad Johnson and Tom Brady. However, only Brady has been drafted in the last 20 years (2000).
When will Savage make his first appearance in a regular season game? Unless he lights it up in the preseason, it is difficult to imagine that Savage will even be the backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick in the season opener against the Washington Redskins. Despite his 0-8 record as a starter in 2013, Case Keenum is the likelier choice.
Well then, when will Savage make it on to the active roster? That could take some time.
Only two of the Texans' first nine opponents had a winning record in 2013—the Indianapolis Colts (11-5) and Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)—and the nine teams combined for a .444 winning percentage last season. It is possible that when their bye comes up in Week 10, the team might be flirting with a 5-4 record.
First-time NFL head coach Bill O’Brien could be more interested in building some equity with the fanbase by winning some games than throwing an inexperienced quarterback into the breach.
Should Fitzpatrick stay true to form and remain a turnover machine, leaving only two or three wins on the ledger, then turning the offense over to a rookie would be a viable option.
Savage had only one full season as a starter in college, playing behind an offensive line at Pittsburgh that gave up 43 sacks, the most in NCAA Division-1 football. He will need some extra time before his ability to read defenses and maneuver in the pocket catches up with his top-flight arm strength.
DE Jeoffrey Pagan
A former member of the 3-4 defense at Alabama, Pagan should feel right at home with the Houston Texans. As a matter of fact, he should be overjoyed to get a shot at playing his natural position.
If you take some time to look at the video above, you will notice how often Pagan (No. 8) is lined up over the center or one of the guards. The Alabama roster shows his position as defensive end, but he is effectively playing nose tackle most of the time.
Pagan might have benefited from using his final year of eligibility in Tuscaloosa to refine his technique. True NT Brandon Ivory would be returning to the lineup, and another year taking on offensive tackles could have seen Pagan being taken closer to the third or fourth round.
The Texans need a 5-technique defensive end in the 300-pound range, since the only other similarly sized D-linemen are nose tackles Jerrell Powe and Louis Nix. All Pagan has to do is beat out the other two potential backups: Keith Browner, who has yet to record an NFL snap, and Tim Jamison, who has played less than 200 snaps over the last two seasons.
RB Alfred Blue
Blue was off to a good start at LSU in 2012 with 224 yards on 30 carries and two touchdowns against North Texas and Washington. A torn ACL cut his season short and Jeremy Hill took over as the featured back.
Hill finished 2012 with 775 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Blue was forced to take a back seat. Last season was even more spectacular for Hill, who earned 1423 yards and 16 touchdowns, was named to the All-SEC first team and ended up as a second-round selection of the Cincinnati Bengals.
There is a “What If?” quality Blue will have a chance to answer in training camp and preseason. The competition for the No. 3 back could tip in his favor should he show the willingness to use his size (6’2”, 223 pounds) and slipperiness to great effect on special teams.
FB Jay Prosch
The role of fullbacks continues to fade.
According to Football Outsiders, the top 25 fullbacks by snap count averaged 291 offensive reps last season, down from 332 in 2012. Offensive personnel groupings of “11” (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) are the all the rage, with two running backs becoming a specialty formation reserved for short-yardage situations.
The tracker at the official NFL website showed just two prospects with the “FB” designation were taken in the 2014 draft. Prosch was the first taken with Trey Millard going with the 30th pick in the seventh round. Clearly, this is not a high-priority position these days.
After the firing of Gary Kubiak, Lance Zierlein of The Sideline View speculated about potential candidates for the Texans job. When describing Bill O’Brien and his offensive philosophy, Zierlein noted the former Penn State coach “favors an up-tempo offense mixing a power running game with inside and outside zone and a play-action passing attack as a counter.”
Right now, the Texans roster has three running backs that each stand at least 6 feet tall and average over 220 pounds (Arian Foster, Andre Brown and Alfred Blue). It seems only natural the “triple A” would be joined by what Nolan Nawrocki claims is “an old-school fullback with explosive power to pave the way as an iso-lead blocker.”
It remains to be seen just how much zone concepts will continue to influence the blocking for the running game.
A “power” approach tends to rely more on defeating the man in front of you rather than the lateral movement that characterized the scheme Gary Kubiak implemented during his tenure as head coach.
Whatever form the rushing attack takes, Prosch will act as the tip of the spear that clears the way for the ball-carrier into the second level and beyond.
CB Andre Hal
The field for slot corner is wide open thanks to the departure of Brice McCain and a possible shift to safety for Brandon Harris. A.J. Bouye and Elbert Mack would be the other contenders with no particular advantages over Hal after both spent the entirety of 2013 playing special teams.
The profile for Hal on NFL.com from Nolan Nawrocki gives him props for good “man-cover skills” and “enough speed to run with receivers,” but questions his length (5’10”) and thinks he “could stand to refine his technique.”
Romeo Crennel has a preference for Cover 2 that will offer better protection against the deep routes at the expense of less help in the hole between the linebackers and safeties. But everyone in the defensive backfield is on the same level in this respect: Crennel will ask them to play more zone coverage than Wade Phillips ever did.
The winner at slot corner will be the man who can best apply trail coverage through that hole before a safety can come lend a hand. Hal might just be that man.
FS Lonnie Ballentine
Ballentine has a chance to join Ryan Succop, the final draft pick of 2009, as one of the few holders of the Mr. Irrelevant title to be an actual contributor to his team.
Succop has carved out a solid career as the kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs for the last five years. What will propel Ballentine to the same status will not be a foot, as in Succop’s case, but his feet.
Gil Brandt made special note of the hand-timed 40-yard marks of 4.39 and 4.45 the free safety ran at his pro day. At 6’3” and 219 pounds, he has the dimensions of a linebacker if not the skills to match.
Nolan Nawrocki asserted that despite his “exceptional size, length and closing speed,” Ballentine was “not a strong, face-up, wrap tackler.” That’s too bad, because the Texans have lacked a big, physical presence in the secondary for some time now.
Players this tall and fast are turned into receivers most of the time, but because of the “shaky hands” that happen to plague Ballentine, he was assigned the duty of knocking down passes instead of catching them.
The task of maximizing his potential falls to defensive backs coach John Butler and special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky. If they can pull it off, Ballentine could be a reasonable facsimile of Kam Chancellor, the wide-ranging enforcer of the Legion of Boom. In the meantime, he will be honing his craft as a hard-hitting member of special teams.