6 2015 NFL Draft Picks Who Could Be Opening Game Starters for the Houston Texan
Every player taken in the 2015 NFL draft believes he is good enough to be named a starter. A limited number of players in this group will actually be in the lineup for the first series of the season on opening day. Some will be chosen because of their talent, and others because the incumbent starter was unable to play.
There are several positions on the Houston Texans where rookies could benefit from such circumstances. Most will be candidates to start due to some glaring holes in the depth chart. These holes should be addressed during the league’s annual talent lottery kicking off on April 30.
Wide receiver, edge-rusher, inside linebacker, strong safety and punt/kickoff returner are in need of an upgrade. There is depth at running back behind Arian Foster, but Jonathan Grimes and Alfred Blue are barely competent backups.
Foster is heading into his sixth year as the starter at running back, and a finding a successor will be a priority. He has not played in a preseason game since 2012, fighting a variety of leg injuries in 2013 and recovery from offseason surgery in 2014.
Houston has the second-weakest schedule in the league this year. If the opener is against a cupcake opponent, the game plan could focus on sparing the aging Foster any unnecessary wear and tear. The spotlight would then fall on a draftee to take his place in Week 1.
Three Texans rookies opened the 2014 season against the Washington Redskins: Jadeveon Clowney, Jay Prosch and Justin Tuggle. The last time the team started off the year with more first-timers was in 2006. Five made their NFL debut versus the Philadelphia Eagles: Wali Lundy, DeMeco Ryans, Owen Daniels, Charles Spencer and Mario Williams.
There is little chance these six potential starters will all be assigned to the first string for the first game of 2015. None of them are first-round material. For our purposes, it is assumed the player acquired with the 16th pick is destined to be a starter.
What will be examined is which prospects could end up in Houston because their later-round abilities fit the most pressing needs of the Texans.
Running back – David Johnson
This is the back who is supposed to be the next Arian Foster? David Johnson can't replace Foster any better than DeAndre Hopkins can replace Andre Johnson.
Since Foster came out of nowhere to become the league’s leading rusher in 2010, he has averaged more yards per game on the ground (91.7) than any other runner. To take it further, he is the second-best undrafted running back since the NFL and AFL went to a common draft in 1967. Only Priest Holmes has more yards and touchdowns than Foster.
Johnson can run and cut, but he doesn't have the elusiveness and style of Foster. A member of the Missouri Valley All-Conference team, Johnson runs upright and prefers to jump-cut as he hits the hole. A good example is the touchdown run Southern Illinois gave up in the GIF above.
Foster keeps low and drags his off-leg (the one that is opposite the direction of his cut) when making a move. This makes for a smaller target that is harder to tackle below the waist.
The combine turned into a showcase for the athleticism of a player known primarily in Division I-AA circles. Johnson was a top performer in six of the seven events, which caught the attention of Bleacher Report’s Dan Hope.
4.50 unofficial 40 is a very good time for Northern Iowa RB David Johnson. 41.5-inch vertical and 10'7" broad jump earlier, per his Twitter.— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) February 21, 2015
Hitting 4.5 in the 40-yard dash is pretty rapid for a 225-pound prospect. Whether Johnson possesses the lower-body strength to move the pile in the NFL remains to be seen. Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout thinks with his skill as a receiver, he would be “a better H-back or move tight end at the next level.”
Johnson does have the quickness to exploit an opening and cut back against the flow. If he can learn to follow his blockers and time his bursts, the Texans could have themselves an every-down back worth developing.
Wide Receiver – Phillip Dorsett
Why are the Houston Texans just like Goose and Maverick from Top Gun? They have a need for speed.
Dorsett can certainly give it to them. This 5’10”, 185-pound comet ran a 4.25 in the 40 during his pro day. The last time the Texans drafted for speed in the third round or higher was in 2007 when they picked Jacoby Jones.
Please do not define him as a slot receiver as a function of his height. He can certainly line up there sometimes, but this guy was born to run the numbers.
His overview at the NFL’s draft site captures his value in one sentence: “Ten of his 36 catches (in 2014) were for touchdowns and he averaged 24.2 yards per catch.” This sounds a lot like a burner who has been a thorn in opposing teams' sides for the last three years.
How many times have the Texans been torched by the Indianapolis Colts’ T.Y. Hilton, leaving the fans to plead, “When are we going to get one of those?”
The 53 receptions and six touchdowns Hilton has recorded against Houston over his career cannot be recovered in one fell swoop. If Dorsett can exceed those numbers in 2015, including a fair portion at the expense of the Colts, then he will be the answer to Houston's prayers.
Edge-Rusher – Nate Orchard
For the knowledgeable fan, the first impression of Orchard would be: ”This guy does not fit in a 3-4 defense.”
A 4-3 defensive end who plays with his hand on the ground would have to make a big adjustment to his game. He would have to play standing up, be able to funnel the run back to the inside and provide some decent pass coverage.
The biggest complaint among draft analysts is his ability to handle the opponent’s rushing attack. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report states, “Against the run, he can be taken out of the game.” NFL Draft Analyst Lance Zierlein reports, “Not much of a factor against the run.” Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout thinks Orchard “Reads the run well, but lacks the consistent power to make stops.”
Orchard may be a liability in this area coming into the league. Whitney Mercilus had the same problem, and now it is the strongest part of his game. If Jadeveon Clowney had managed to stay healthy his rookie season, playing the run would probably still be an issue going into his second year. Most collegiate defensive ends need time and coaching to cultivate this skill.
The one thing that stands out about Orchard—and is almost impossible to teach—is how to use your hands effectively. Once he engages the blocker, Orchard disengages as quickly as possible and then plots a path to the quarterback.
The highlight video playing at the top of the page also shows just how slippery Orchard can be for offensive tackles. He is in and out of their grasp in the blink of an eye.
It will not be as easy at the next level to rack up the 18.5 sacks that won him the Ted Hendricks Award for defensive ends. Everyone in the NFL is bigger, faster and stronger. Orchard just needs to keep learning with the same intensity he played with in college.
Inside Linebacker – Taiwan Jones
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel likes his linebackers large. During his heyday with the New England Patriots, Crennel had Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi. Each of them 250 pounds or more, they were essential in consistently putting the opposing offense in 3rd-and-long situations.
Pro football has changed, and there is not a defense in the league with that kind of size across its linebacker corps. Crennel would settle for two monsters in the middle on first and second down.
Brian Cushing fits the mold at 6’3” and 249 pounds, and a comparable partner for him would be ideal. Jones checks in at 6’3” and 245 pounds, which makes him one of the biggest prospects at inside linebacker in this draft class.
Jones also has the disposition to be the kind of interior thumper who frustrates the simple plans of offensive coordinators. Brandon Thorn of NFL Draft Scout sees him as the current version of Brandon Spikes, “a true downhill linebacker with more than enough length, strength and girth to come in and start immediately for a NFL team running a 3-4 defense.”
Joe Marino of Draft Breakdown has a similar assessment of Jones’ potential:
"Violently attacks the line of scrimmage and dominates against the run. Knows how to deal with blockers and re-direct plays with active hands. Excellent tackler who knows how to get his team lined up properly."
Quarterbacks may be passing on every down, which makes situational players like run-stuffers appear outdated. There are still jobs available for those who can make passing on first and second down a necessity and not a choice. This can be accomplished by turning the other team’s ground game into a pointless effort.
Jones is just the man for that kind of job.
Strong Safety – James Sample
The D.J. Swearinger investment has proven fruitless, with little return in the areas of run support and even less in coverage. Pro Football Focus ratings do not always tell the whole story, but when you rank in the bottom 10 (subscription required) out of 181 players, something is amiss.
The coaching staff may not be ready to kick the former second-round pick to the curb, but preparations should be made if no other choice is possible.
This is a weak draft class for safeties, especially the strong variety. Landon Collins is the only first-round projection at NFL Draft Scout, and it is hard to imagine the Texans reaching that high for the position.
Sample flamed out at the University of Washington, playing at a junior college before transferring to Louisville. He has the look of an NFL safety at 6’2” and 209 pounds, leading the team with 90 tackles before declaring for the draft.
Only one full college season means Sample relies on his physical skills while he refines his coverage ability. This places him closer to the box than an ideal Cover 2 safety should be. NFL Draft Analyst Lance Zierlein describes him as a “Proficient tackler in space…Gets downhill quickly and comes ready to tackle.”
Free safety Rahim Moore could play deep enough to compensate for Sample’s inexperience. His 4.56 time in the 40-yard dash at the combine is not exactly makeup speed. Once Sample learns where he needs to go it could be fast enough.
This prospective draft choice sounds so raw that it's hard to imagine him start over the veteran Swearinger. It may be seen as the only way to get through to a once-promising player who is running out of chances.
Kick Returner – Tyler Lockett
NFL teams expect production from their special teams, even though little in the way of draft resources is devoted to them.
Punters and placekickers are typically signed as free agents. Most players who return kicks do it as a side job in addition to their positional assignment.
It is also rare for one player to return both punts and kickoffs. Seven teams in 2014 had one man returning 80 percent of the kicks in both categories. The Texans split the duties among Keshawn Martin, Damaris Johnson and Danieal Manning.
Manning is an unsigned free agent, and Martin is not likely to survive training camp. Johnson was re-signed in the offseason and will be in competition to be one of the returners.
Another scenario would be for a drafted receiver to join in the fun. Phillip Dorsett has the jets to be under consideration but was not particularly successful in college at punt or kickoff returns.
Another exciting prospect at receiver who excelled at kick returns is Tyler Lockett of Kansas State. In 2014, he caught 106 passes for 1515 yards and 11 touchdowns and returned 21 punts for a 19.1 average and two touchdowns.
Lockett clocked a 4.4 40-yard dash time at the combine and was a top performer in the 20- and 60-yard shuttles. The main knock on Lockett is his size, which in the opinions of NFL Draft Analyst Lance Zierlein and Dane Brugler of NFL Draft Scout appears to be more of a concern than in Dorsett’s case.
Lockett and Dorsett have the same slight build as NFL survivors Antonio Brown, DeSean Jackson and T.Y. Hilton. It seems ridiculous that talented prospects are treated like kids who do not meet the height requirement for the rollercoaster. Let them at least take the ride before it is decided whether they can handle it on a repeated basis.