Setting Realistic Training Camp Expectations for Each Houston Texans Rookie
The opening dates of training camp for the Houston Texans have finally been announced. The rookies will report on Monday, July 21, to be followed by the veterans on Friday, July 25.
Camp will be held at the Methodist Training Center in Houston. The locale and conducting full practices in the dog days of the Texas summer will be familiar reminders of seasons past to most of the veterans.
The rookies will be in for the shock of their young lives while they try to adjust to the rigors of the professional game. Even if some of the novices are accustomed to running conditioning drills with the heat index hovering around 110 degrees, the expectations placed upon them will be something new altogether.
Over the next six weeks, a steady diet of new terminology and techniques combined with the spine-rattling contact and head-snapping speed of larger and faster players will prove too much for most of them. Those who meet the expectations of playing at the highest level of the game they love will enter a new realm of athletic achievement.
The potential of these survivors must be tempered by the reality of their youthful inexperience and relative talent. This will be taken into consideration while realistically predicting what the near future holds for them.
Athletic pubalgia—tricky to pronounce and harder to understand—is more important to Clowney right now than whether to play the run or the pass when the offense is in a two-back formation.
More commonly termed a sports hernia, the case afflicting Houston's No. 1 pick has been medically treated with minor surgery and a projected recovery period of six to eight weeks. The condition is not a true hernia in that no body organ is sticking out from the abdominal wall.
It is being treated as a minor inconvenience by the Texans, with head coach Bill O’Brien assuring the doubtful that Clowney will be ready for training camp. Mike Florio of Pro Football Weekly, in his June 20 appearance on In the Loop broadcast by Sports Radio 610 in Houston, took a more skeptical stance and insisted “you have to worry there’s going to be some lingering problem.”
Since this article is about training camp, the “who knew what when” side of the story about whether Clowney knowingly played with the injury will be left for others to debate. The questions raised by Clowney’s disclosure to the NFL Media's Gil Brandt regarding the subject muddied the waters to the point where the facts can serve more than one viewpoint.
As far as his play on the field is concerned, when will the top pick in the draft be able to handle the requirements of his new position at outside linebacker?
This was the issue prior to the draft, when it was clear the collegiate defensive end would have to convert to OLB if taken by a team that ran a 3-4 defense. OTAs and the mandatory minicamp were meant to be an introduction to the system, but Clowney missed some time due to the injury and compulsory attendance at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere event.
Although he may be ready to go when camp opens up, adapting to the new system combined with the ongoing recovery could translate to a take-it-slow approach. Even if Clowney was in perfect health, utilizing him in a specialist’s role primarily on passing downs was likely a contingency from the beginning.
While attending the NFL Rookie Symposium that started on June 25, he spoke with reporters, saying, "I'm just anxious. I'm learning the playbook, learning to use my hands a lot more, learning a lot from the older guys on the team."
The education of Jadeveon Clowney is in its earliest stages, and it will take some time before the apprentice masters his craft.
Expectation: first linebacker off the bench in subpackages
The selection of Su’a-Filo at the start of the second round was as simple as it was surprising.
General manager Rick Smith of the Texans decided in the offseason he was not going to re-sign the starter at left guard for the last four years, Wade Smith. The left guard and sometimes offensive tackle (see above) from UCLA was the top-ranked prospect at his position.
What left Texans fans scratching their heads was, “Why so soon?” Wasn’t quarterback a more pressing need? Jimmy Garoppolo, Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray were still on the board, so why not grab a guard in a later round?
If the New England Patriots had not taken Garoppolo at No. 62, Derek Carr would have been the only second-round QB taken. Murray and Mettenberger slid to the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively, a measure of how they were regarded by the rest of the league.
Su’a-Filo was the choice not only because Smith and O’Brien thought so little of Garoppolo. The persona of the Houston Texans version 3.0 was going to be run now, pass later and the rest of the draft would reinforce that identity on the offensive side of things.
Su'a-Filo has quick feet, long arms, and a nastiness to him that should help him immediately both as a run blocker and pass protector. The Texans' line is a definite strength.
To smooth the transition for Su’a-Filo, could O’Brien reach into the Gary Kubiak playbook and rotate him with Ben Jones? Jones split time with Antoine Caldwell in his 2012 rookie year, but the results were less than ideal.
Should the 2014 rookie need more time, Jones could be given the job until the time is right to let Su’a-Filo take over. Then again, a second-rounder is not likely to sit when the spot is wide open.
Expectation: lots of snaps in preseason, starting job in the opener
As mentioned in the Su’a-Filo slide, the acquisition of an offensive guard so high in the draft was indicative of a run-first philosophy. The addition of a tight end best known for his blocking is another link in that chain of thought.
Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout laid out the strengths of Fiedorowicz in definitive terms:
A throwback tight end capable of dominating opponents as a blocker and holding his own as a receiver. He played a key functional role in a run-first offense with the feet to blend in at the end of the offensive line and the hands and reach to be his quarterback's best friend.
If Fiedorowicz delivers, the Texans will have three capable tight ends, each with a different combination of skills.
Garrett Graham is the best receiver of the group, but he lacks the size to be a great inline blocker. Ryan Griffin has good hands and the frame (6’6”, 254 lbs) to add enough weight to handle defensive ends one-on-one. Fiedorowicz already knows how to lay out defenders and be a reliable pass-catcher over the middle.
Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle believes this assemblage of talent was in the cards from the moment Bill O’Brien was hired to revitalize the franchise.
As soon as O’Brien exchanged Penn State for his first NFL head coaching job, predictions arose that the revamped Texans would attempt to double up on their tight-end production. The initial two weeks of organized team activities didn’t dispute the theory. Garrett Graham, Ryan Griffin and rookie C.J. Fiedorowicz, among others, are expected to become safe harbors for the team’s to-be-determined Week 1 starting quarterback, with quarterbacks coach George Godsey and O’Brien blending multiple athletes into one critical offensive weapon.
Having more than just one capable tight end is a burgeoning trend, with six teams having two with 30 or more receptions. Fifteen have two tight ends with 20 or more receptions, while three (Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles) that have a trio which meets or exceeds that mark.
Brugler may have typified the rookie tight end as a “throwback,” but Griffin will tell you this offense is not just “three yards and a cloud of dust.”
'It's really complex,' said Griffin, who added 18 pounds and referred to his rookie season as the longest year of his life. 'You've got to know a lot and think on your feet. It's a lot of identifying stuff defensively, as well.'
This abundance at a single position could allow Graham to be the slot receiver this offense lacks at the moment. Jimmy Graham may have lost his arbitration case to be classified as a wide receiver instead of a tight end, but the change is coming.
The idea that Wes Welker or Julian Edelman is the ideal body type to navigate all the chaos within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage ignores the matchup problem the average tight end creates against almost every defensive back in the league.
Having a couple of ploughboys with soft hands that can free up Graham could be a decisive edge for an offense that lacks a host of experienced and productive wide receivers.
Expectations: on the field in short-yardage and jumbo packages, red-zone receiving specialist
According to Matthew Fairburn of SB Nation, the best true nose tackle in the draft fell due to a combination of senior-season weight gain, a subsequent knee injury and a snail’s pace 40-yard time of 5.42 at the combine. Now that he is here, let’s have defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel explain to Deepi Sidhu of the Houston Texans how a 6’2”, 331-pound defensive lineman can be so valuable.
Nose is critical. He has to be able to win one-on-one, force the double team and then not get killed on the double team. Then that allows the linebackers behind him to be good. It allows the free safety down the middle of the field to be good. Therefore, it allows you to be good down the middle.
Every defense in football wants to get the opposition in 3rd-and-long. What happens on first and second down inevitably sets the stage for that possibility. An immovable force like Nix that can control the middle sets the table for the rest of the front seven.
This strategy works if the opponent runs the ball on at least one of those downs. The way to defeat Nix is to force him to pass rush, where the absence of counter moves washes him out if the initial rush does not work.
To show his dedication to the job at hand, a man who had over 9,000 tweets from his account drastically scaled back his social media participation after joining the Texans. If Nix turns out to be the road grader the Texans have been looking for since the days of Seth Payne, there will be 90,000 tweets celebrating his selection.
Expectation: backup to Jerrell Powe, starter by end of season
Any hopes for a trade up into the first round in pursuit of Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater were dashed when general manager Rick Smith decided to hold onto his second- and third-round picks.
Savage is the consolation prize, one that shows how rumor-driven the NFL draft can be. Gil Brandt has been around the NFL since the days of goalposts on the goal line, and even he believed the hype that the twice-transferred quarterback was first-round material.
How a player that went 1,024 days without playing could generate such interest shows how hung up draftniks get on tangibles like size and arm strength. While Savage has those qualities in abundance, he also has just one full season to his name in the last three years.
No matter how well he can air it out, there are holes in his game that time may not erase. Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout had this to say about the draft prospects of Savage:
Needs to develop his anticipation to grip it and rip it. Struggles to identify blitzes and consistently read defenses. Lacks ideal on-field experience for a 24-year-old prospect. Decided to leave two different programs (Rutgers, Arizona) and his commitment and mental toughness will be questioned.
Bill O’Brien did what he could to protect his project, but Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle made the head coach sound less than enthused in an article titled, “QB Tom Savage off to ‘decent start’ with Texans.”
While O’Brien said last week the Texans’ new offense isn’t as complex as some have predicted, the coach acknowledged Friday the system ‘is not the easiest to learn for a young quarterback.’
‘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.’
Here’s guessing that expectation level will go unfulfilled in Savage’s first year.
Expectation: third-string snaps in the preseason, practice squad if O’Brien only carries two active quarterbacks
The most glaring need for the Texans on the defensive line was a big, bad nose tackle to man the middle. Getting a defensive end who does not mind playing two-gap football was next on the list.
Pagan must have done his homework on what Romeo Crennel asks of his D-lineman when a transcript of his post-draft interview was published on the Texans website. When asked what he considers his most natural position, he responded “I would say I would play better as a three-technique but I’m also a defensive end too, so being in the two gap scheme kind of game me the best of both worlds.”
At 6’3” and 310 pounds, the mass is there if not the methods. Nolan Nawrocki gave Pagan a “bottom line” that was harsh but held the door open for an NFL career:
Thickly built, relatively nondescript contributor who decided to forgo his senior season despite never establishing himself as a force. Has size and strength to warrant developmental consideration as a five-technique, but lacks exceptional traits and will have to commit to handling the dirty work to have longevity.
The closest competition for a backup defensive end slot is Ricardo Mathews, who is the same size as Pagan but has four years as a substitute with the Indianapolis Colts. The difference between the minimum salary for these two is $420,000 for the rookie versus $730,000 for the veteran. This time, less is not more.
Expectation: gone in final cutdown.
Dave Zangaro spoke with Bill O’Brien during OTAs and noted that versatility was something he looked for in his players. On offense, two backs mentioned were Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead, second-string runners who each averaged over 30 catches a year during their careers with the New England Patriots.
The analog for the Texans would be Arian Foster, who has averaged 47 receptions since becoming a starter in 2010. The parallel ends with the statistics. Faulk and Woodhead never handled the workload Foster has over the years. At 5’8”, they simply did not have the size to do what Foster could at 6’0” and 232 pounds.
The Texans currently have two reserve backs that match up with Foster in the size department. Andre Brown (6’0”, 224 lbs) is a four-year veteran that due to a variety of injuries has only dressed for 22 games in his career. Alfred Blue (6’2”, 223 lbs), a fifth-round draft choice out of LSU, had a great 2012 season cut short by an ACL injury.
Blue was healthy for the entirety of his senior season, but the star running back role had been taken over by Jeremy Hill, who went on to be taken in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals. Blue has regained the same speed and power that had him averaging 112 yards per game before his knee blew out.
It is hard to tell what kind of receiver he could be in the pros. LSU does not throw much to their backs, completing only 34 passes to five backs in 2013.
O’Brien has liked what he has seen out of Blue, but the comment recorded by Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle has an offhanded feel to it.
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? So we’re not sending him off to the Pro Bowl just yet. 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.
OK, coach, but will it stay that way?
Expectations: third or fourth back off the bench in preseason, gone in final cutdown
If the 2014 draft was an indication the running back position is being devalued, then fullbacks are being devastated.
It took until the 54th pick before Bishop Sankey became the first runner chosen, one of 20 taken in the entire process. Prosch was only one of two fullbacks taken, the other being Trey Millard, a seventh-round choice of the San Francisco 49ers.
Just before the start of the 2013 regular season, Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report asked the question, “Are Fullbacks a Dying Breed in Today's NFL?” Freeman concluded the position was not dying, but it was in a state of arrested development.
A check of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) shows that every team in 2013 had a fullback on the field at some point. The number of snaps ranged from a low of 32 for the Miami Dolphins to 702 for the Oakland Raiders.
More to the point, did playing a good fullback provide any benefit? The top 10 players at the position as ranked by PFF represented nine teams (two played for the Minnesota Vikings). Collectively they averaged 4.5 yards per carry, 0.3 of a yard above the league-wide average of 4.2 yards per carry.
If that qualifies as an insignificant increase, let us take it down to the level of one team. Arian Foster had the best season of his career in 2010, the year when Vonta Leach was named All-Pro. Foster had his second-best season in 2012, when tight-end-turned-fullback James Casey placed 11th in PFF’s rankings.
The Texans plan on emphasizing the running game this season due to an unpredictable quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick and a thin receiving corps that may or may not include Andre Johnson. A true fullback would help the situation given that H-back Brad Smelley and Toben Opurum are position holders of record at the moment.
Prosch was the “the most physical player I saw at the Senior Bowl,” in the words of John Harris of the Houston Texans media crew. He will never wow anyone as a ball-carrier or receiver, but he is a wide body with the right physical characteristics and attitude to clear the second level for the Texans’ primary offensive weapon, Arian Foster.
Expectation: lots of work in the backfield and special teams in preseason, will be the starter on opening day