The Houston Texans spent most of the offseason focusing on the defensive side of the ball, and understandably so. Last season the team was woefully lopsided with a balanced, productive offense on one side of the ball and a porous sieve-like defense on the other.
The one concern for the Texans on offense was at wide receiver. Last season, All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson was hindered by injuries but also by attention of opposing secondaries. The Texans lacked a credible option to take away the deep safety that was constantly keeping his eye on Johnson.
Due to this, it was determined that a deep-threat wide receiver would be a plausible addition to the offense. I there was a Sam Wallace-type speed receiver lining up opposite of Johnson, teams would be forced to respect that threat, possibly distracting the deep safety from locking in on Dre.
But the draft has come and gone, and no receiver was added. Very little fuss was made over this, as the first five picks were all made for defensive players. It is hard to argue with that course of action. I was assumed by many, myself included, that the Texans simply weren’t as concerned about the offense since it was so much healthier that its team counterpart.
There could be another reason, though. It might be that coach Gary Kubiak believed that such a receiver was unnecessary and that the fix—more likely fixes—for the problem are already on the roster. It is very likely that the decision regarding said fix was made in March.
Some Texans fans raised eyebrows at the unexpected re-signings of Shaun Cody and Derrick Ward, but the surprise for those two moves paled in comparison to the reaction of extending tight end Owen Daniels' contract. There were numerous reasons to question the timing of a deal worth $22 million over four years.
It had seemed as though the Texans were taking steps to move on without Daniels, which is why the move came as a surprise. Daniels spent a good deal of the last two seasons injured, while backup Joel Dreessen filled in adequately. Also, Houston technically drafted four tight ends in the years 2009 and 2010.
Kubiak and the offensive staff probably came to terms, however, with the fact that while they had prepared for OD’s departure, they weren’t ready to accept how different the offense was going to be without him. Daniels' missed time coupled with his stellar play at the end of 2010 showed them just how valuable he is.
Daniels recently admitted in an interview with Pro Football Weekly that his knee was not 100 percent in all of 2010 after he tore his ACL halfway through 2009:
"I tried to sound like I was feeling great when people asked me last season before I hurt my hamstring, but honestly, last year was a struggle for sure," Daniels admitted. "A little bit just gaining some confidence in the knee earlier in the year, then having the hammy issue and missing five-plus games during the middle of the year was tough.”
But after returning from his hamstring injury, Daniels looked close to the form that had him going to the Pro Bowl in 2009. He caught 22 passes for 271 yards in the final four games in 2010, which were better averages for both categories than in the games before the injury.
That production only tells half the story of Daniels' worth to the Texans. Even with running back Arian Foster and Johnson having All-Pro years, Daniels complimented their production and made the Texans' offense that much better.
Consider that 25 of Daniels’ 38 receptions were for first downs. This means that roughly two out of every three times that he touched the ball, the Texans moved the chains. That is no fluke by the way: his percentage of first down grabs is 66.9 percent over the entirety of his career.
Daniels' athleticism presents itself in his ability to get up the field after catching the ball. His average of 5.74 yards after the catch (YAC) is easily the best among tight ends in the division, which includes the highly respected Dallas Clark of the Colts.
YAC is a stat that the West Coast offense is predicated on. It is a timing-based offense in which the quarterback gets the ball out of his hands quickly and on time, giving his receivers the ability to get up the field after they have secured the ball. This is especially true with the Texans' offense.
The ugly truth is that Matt Schaub is not a good deep-ball quarterback. As NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell has pointed out several times, Schaub fits Kubiak’s version of the West Coast offense very well, but he would not likely fare well in many other offenses, particularly ones that are dependent on the deep ball.
Daniels’ receiving skills ultimately accomplish the same result as a deep threat wideout; he demands attention from the safety. If defensive coordinators choose to leave linebackers on him, Daniels will have games like Week 16 of 2010 against the Broncos, when he caught eight passes for 73 yards and a touchdown.
A Former Tight End Integral As Well
Daniels is likely the main reason why Kubiak chose not to add a receiver from the draft, but a former tight end might have something to do with it as well. Dorin Dickerson, a former All-Big East tight end, may play a bigger role in 2011 than people expect.
Dickerson was taken in the seventh round of the 2010 draft and was immediately labeled as a wide receiver conversion project. Not only did the 6’4”, 225-pound tight end have by far the fastest 40-time of his position at the combine, at 4.4 seconds, his sprint was bested by only one wide receiver, Oakland's Jacoby Ford.
Dickerson played in only seven games his rookie year, mostly as a depth fill-in and special teams player. The rawness that kept him out of the offense last year may have subsided, though, and even if he is still a work-in-progress, he doesn’t need to learn how to be fast or big.
Jacoby Jones will likely be an unrestricted free agent once the labor unrest is settled, and while he has flashed his considerable play-making ability, his inconsistency has been maddening. If the Texans choose to let Jones walk, Dickerson may take the role of the deep threat as he continues to develop the rest of his route-running skills.
Many Texans fans were wishing for a speedy receiver on draft day, but none were taken. In the end, however, it may be a current and a former tight end that fill that void better than a rookie wideout could in 2011.
What do you think, though. Do you agree with my assessment of Daniels and Dickerson? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter (@JakeBRB).