7 Players Turning Heads at Houston Texans Training Camp
Take everything you hear or read with a grain of salt during training camp up until we get to about the third preseason game; that includes what you'll read from me because no one is right all the time.
This article is about the players who have stood out and perhaps surpassed expectations during the first few days of training camp. Training camp will last for about a month, so playing well over four days isn't enough to issue a final report card.
Just think back to last year when many people were impressed with how rookie receiver Alan Bonner performed or in 2012 when writers on this site said that Lestar Jean would be the Texans' third wide receiver; things change rapidly in the NFL, which is why some say it stands for "Not For Long."
So when you read the following slides don't take my explanation of how well these players have performed as a declaration that they'll be the big breakout stars for the Texans in 2014.
They've played well, and that may give them a chance at more playing time than most initially believed they would receive.
I'm not saying you shouldn't get excited; just curb your enthusiasm (that was intentional, we need a season 9, Larry David).
Now that I've done an amazing job of selling the optimism that should accompany this article, let me say I do believe in several of these players as potentially having a big role on the team this year.
The Texans roster had more turnover this year than in most offseasons it seemed, so there are many opportunities available for young players who haven't received an opportunity in the past. Players in this article have taken the first step by performing well early in training camp; hopefully they take the next several steps as well.
I know—no surprise here.
As incredibly high as the expectations are for Jadeveon Clowney, he has still found a way to impress the media in attendance during training camp.
You can see Clowney's speed on film, but in person you notice how well he uses his length. He could play for Boeheim.— Seth Payne (@PayneNFL) July 29, 2014
If Clowney is not 100% yet, I can't wait to see him healthy. For the 2nd day in a row he showed why he went #1. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 29, 2014
Clowney is going to produce many "wow" moments this season. I get the feeling he'll find a new way to shock us with his tremendous athleticism and skill for a long time.
Whenever you watch the Texans practice, your eyes are just drawn to him because you don't want to miss what he does next. Like when Clowney nearly knocked out Dennis Johnson during the third day of practice like he was Gennady Golovkin.
If you haven't seen the video yet, make sure to watch it. Clowney has a chance to become a very Paul Bunyan-like type figure where people tell stories about him that seem outlandish, but you still believe they could be true.
P.D. Starr of State of the Texans was witness to some of the impressive work from Clowney during Day 4 of training camp.
He was able to show his overall strength against the tight ends in a blocking drill and it was impressive. Clowney has such long arms that he is able to move players with ease and it showed today. Clowney is slowly coming into his own on the field, but he is just scratching the surface of his overall potential.
There's just nothing Clowney either doesn't do well currently or doesn't have the athleticism required to potentially do well in the future.
He has the speed to be an excellent edge-rusher, the size to play the run well, the moves to shoot into the backfield for a big tackle for loss and the athleticism to cover in space when needed; he's the total package.
I often worry in the middle of typing that I'm going overboard with my praise for Clowney, but he's so gifted that he'll likely back up whatever people in the media say about him.
The second-year receiver out of Clemson looks like he's ready to have a breakout season.
Issues with learning the system and making too many mental mistakes were well-documented last year during his rookie season, but DeAndre Hopkins seems to have put 2013 behind him.
Coming out of college as a draft prospect, Hopkins was regarded as a player who had insanely skilled hands and possessed the capability to turn small plays into explosion plays.
Hopkins displayed flashes of that potential last season; in particular, his series on the Texans' game-winning drive against the Tennessee Titans in Week 2 was impressive. His problem last year was inconsistency.
After recording seven catches in the Texans' win over the Titans in Week 2, Hopkins never reached that mark again and had three games where he caught only one pass for under 10 yards receiving.
Turning the page with a new coaching staff and a new offense will be beneficial for Hopkins. That's not to say Hopkins didn't play well at times because his stat line was solid for a rookie, but getting to hit the reset button while using the lessons learned from past mistakes could help further his development.
Early reports out of training camp have all been positive on Hopkins so far.
Hopkins has looked great. Made a terrific catch over Swearinger a minute ago. #Texans— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) July 27, 2014
P.D. Starr of State of the Texans liked what he saw from Hopkins at practice as well.
DeAndre Hopkins looks like he is practicing with a purpose and there was not much he did not catch that was thrown his direction. He made multiple catches in traffic today and some against good coverage from Brandon Harris. The biggest part of his game is his overall strength to shield defenders from running though him to get to the football. It was a more confident Hopkins today on the field for the Texans.
If you've read most of my Texans articles for this site this summer, then you probably know I believe Hopkins will have a big season in 2014. Through the early portion of training camp I haven't seen any reason to back off that belief.
Seems like I've said it a hundred times since OTAs started, but Alfred Blue is one player you should keep an eye on. Turns out I'm not the only one keeping an eye on the rookie from LSU.
Good two days watching Texans practices. Keep an eye on running back Alfred Blue— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) July 27, 2014
Blue wasn't run until his legs fell off like many talented backs in college football, so he still has plenty of tread left on his tires. On top of obvious talent level, getting a fresh back who hasn't been worn down by a heavy load in college is a huge plus.
On the field what makes him such an intriguing young player is that he closely resembles the body type and style of play of Arian Foster. On the Texans website, they're listed as 6'2'' and 6'1'' respectively with only a four-pound weight difference.
The similarities don't end with their appearance. Like Foster, Blue is a back who runs a little tall but has great vision and reliable hands as a receiver. Sharing those same qualities by no means guarantees that he'll be successful, but being similar to an All-Pro back isn't a bad thing.
From P.D. Starr of State of the Texans, Blue is pushing Andre Brown for playing time behind Arian Foster.
Rookie runningback Alfred Blue continues to impress and today he popped off a long run by making defenders miss. He runs high at times and will need to get his pad level lower, but he has shown that he can handle what this offense is asking from him. He is becoming a reliable target for the quarterbacks out of the backfield and is slowly progressing with his pass protection. Blue will be pushing Andre Brown for the backup role at this rate.
As I just mentioned, the other back competing for the role as Foster's primary backup is Brown. The former New York Giant is a talented back but has spent more time in the training room than the trainers during his NFL career.
I have serious doubts he'll ever be healthy over a full season and also believe that Blue just has more physical talent than he does.
Blue will have to overcome a longer learning curve like every rookie, but once he gets his head above water with the playbook his upside is much larger than Brown or any other back on the roster besides Foster.
A Pair of Texas A&M Receivers
Uzoma Nwachukwu and Travis Labhart are making a name for themselves at training camp; one of them has a name that is slightly easier to spell.
Labhart is your classic underdog training camp story, but he has a better chance of making the roster than most would assume. Those chances increased significantly after the season-ending injury to Alan Bonner.
Chris Myers specifically pointed out Xavier Su'a-Filo and Travis Labhart as two who stood out to him on the first day of pads. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 28, 2014
Travis Labhart was working the creases of the field today & hard for anyone to guard. The A&M kids looking the part at WR. #Texans— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) July 27, 2014
"Looking the part" is an important description to take notice of because the current Texans coaching staff views the position of slot receiver differently than the previous staff, as I've explained in previous articles.
Bill O'Brien wants a guy who is quick in short spaces over straight-line speed and someone who has great hands; Labhart is that type of player.
Labhart would probably have had no chance of making the roster under Gary Kubiak, but O'Brien has had success with other small receivers, so I don't think his physical build will be the reason he gets cut if that happens.
Former teammate Johnny Manziel displayed solid hands and route-running ability in college, and that skill set has translated well to the Texans' practice field.
From Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com, Nwachukwu has worked hard to improve his awareness and route running from last season.
Coming from A&M, on some plays you can just go out there and use your athletic ability. You can win routes. But out here, you know, you’ve got guys like J-Jo and K-Jack, and if you do that you’re probably going to be in the sand somewhere. You definitely have to stay on your details and make sure your technique is right.
Both players bring different skills to the table and can contribute to the team in different ways. The problem obviously is the numbers game at wide receiver.
Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Thomas and DeVier Posey in all likelihood have the top four spots on the depth chart wrapped up.
The most likely scenario is for them to keep five wide receivers so either Nwachukwu or Labhart will have to be very impressive and show value on special teams to convince the coaching staff to keep six.
I had thought Alan Bonner would be the Texans' fifth receiver before the injury; my guess is that spot will now go to Nwachukwu. Either way, the Aggie on the outside looking in after cut day will probably return to the team as a member of the practice squad.
The Texans need Andre Hal to play well and make a difference this season. As their only drafted corner over the last two years, his success or failure will be critical to the depth and success of the secondary this year and over the next several years after.
So far, so good from the former Vanderbilt player.
Doing my recap from today. Quick thought but Andre Hal really took a positive step today. Stepped up and showed some things today. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 28, 2014
Draft pick CB Andre Hal held his own today in team drills. Covered Andre Johnson a bit. #Texans— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) July 27, 2014
7th RD CB Andre Hal, who had an amazing 1 handed pick on a deep ball while covering A. Johnson, said he wants 2 cover the best 2B the best.— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) July 28, 2014
Gotta love that attitude and mindset, right?
Obviously practicing against good players isn't a guarantee of future success, but having to find ways to slow down Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins can't hurt his development. We also should remember that Hal comes from the SEC, so he defended the best the nation had to offer over his college career.
As a pro Hal projects better as an outside corner because of how physical he likes to play, but he's definitely an option in the slot. That position as the extra corner in nickel is a huge need for the Texans and is very much up in the air at this point with the poor performance of assumed starter Brandon Harris.
The Texans appear to be building a physical and aggressive defense, which plays right into the strengths of Hal. Too often in past seasons the Texans played back and asked their corners to react to the receivers instead of taking the fight to the man they were covering.
I hate that philosophy on defense and especially with how you use your corners.
The receiver knows where he's going, if he's given the freedom of an easy release and has room to make multiple fakes or give the corner a double-move; the defensive back has no chance. Unless he has Olympic track speed, by the time he reacts and tries to recover it's already too late to make a stop.
As long as your safeties are competent—think the Texans safeties will be this year—corners should be jamming the receiver at the line to throw off the timing of the route and playing tight afterward to make the window smaller for the quarterback.
Doing those two things will give more time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback, shorten the time it takes to close the gap for the corner and possibly cause more turnovers. Any team could use more turnovers from its defense but especially the Texans, who finished last in the category in 2013.
Like most rookies he'll have to deal with a lengthy learning curve, but his tight coverage on a future Hall of Fame receiver and the interceptions he's come down with prove that he's not overwhelmed by the moment despite being a seventh-round pick.
Not every player can be a star.
The players the team and fans expect to play at star-caliber at outside linebacker are clearly Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. That doesn't mean other players at the position don't have an important role to play in the success of the defense though.
In fact, those other pieces, such as second-year linebacker Justin Tuggle, are often more important than the credit they're given. Tuggle in particular needs to play well for the Texans because of how many different roles and positions he'll be asked to contribute at this season.
P.D. Starr of State of the Texans (subscription required) has been impressed by Tuggle so far during training camp.
Justin Tuggle is settling into his inside linebacker position and he did not miss a beat with the pads on. He was able to get downhill in a hurry in the run game and showed he has improved his ability to cover in space. If versatility is the key, Tuggle is fitting that description for the defense.
One of the biggest jumps from last year to this year is ILB Justin Tuggle. 2 days of contact he has impressed. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) July 29, 2014
Tuggle can play the outside and inside. He can stuff the run or play as an edge-rusher. He won't likely start at either position unless there is an injury, but his success at linebacker will provide the Texans with great depth, which they haven't had for several seasons.
The versatile Tuggle will also be asked to make an impact on special teams during the 2014 season.