Could Houston Texans WR Nico Collins Be This Year's Surprise Rookie Breakout?

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJuly 19, 2021

MOBILE, AL - JANUARY 30: Wide Receiver Nico Collins #4 from Michigan of the National Team during the 2021 Resse's Senior Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium on the campus of the University of South Alabama on January 30, 2021 in Mobile, Alabama. The National Team defeated the American Team 27-24. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Houston Texans faithful don't have much to look forward to this fall, but an eye toward the franchise's future can make the upcoming campaign palatable.

Rookie wide receiver Nico Collins has already worked his way to the forefront among the young prospects to watch, and he has potential to explode during his initial campaign. 

Collins appears poised to provide a similar impact seen by the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Chase Claypool, Washington Football Team's Terry McLaurin and Los Angeles Rams' Cooper Kupp after being recent third-round draft selections. 

The Texans chose Collins with this year's 89th overall pick. Normally, a third-round choice would get somewhat lost behind an organization's higher picks. However, Houston didn't have first- or second-round choices thanks to previous trades. As such, the spotlight will shine on the franchise's top two choices. 

Davis Mills will be closely watched because the Texans remain unsettled at quarterback. But he's not necessarily viewed as an instant-impact rookie. The 22-year-old signal-caller could eventually become a starter. He's not the solution currently, though. 

Collins is different in that he can step in from Day 1 and become a critical component to the Texans' offense.  

Currently, Houston's wide receiver corps features veterans Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb. Cooks produced 1,000-yard campaigns in five of the past six seasons, including 1,150 yards a year ago. Cobb's first season in the blue and red didn't go as planned. The 30-year-old target caught only 38 passes for 441 yards and a toe injury prematurely entered his season. But he's still a crafty option out of the slot and can help the younger options on the roster. 

The 6'4", 215-pound Collins is a prototypical X-receiver. The Michigan product has 34⅛-inch arms and a 78½-inch wingspan to go along with a 37½-inch vertical, 6.78-second three-cone-drill quickness and 4.42-second 40-yard-dash speed. His athletic profile is obvious. 

"Really liked his size, liked his speed," Texans wide receivers coach Robert Prince told reporters. "Plays physical, has a large catching radius. Just something to add to our receiving corps. Just liked those traits that he had."

Translatable traits are merely the first step for a rookie entering the league with the potential to make a splash. How a young man handles the mental aspects of learning a new playbook, the mitigating factors surrounding a move to a new city, team and environment and the process of learning to become a professional determine whether a gifted athlete turns into a productive on-field contributor. 

Early returns from rookie camp, organized team activities and mandatory minicamp are promising. 

"This guy doesn't look like no rookie to me, you talk about a guy who's out there, that's coachable ... you love to see that from a young guy, guy's explosive, natural hands ... looking forward to continuing to work with him and seeing him grow," Cooks said in May. 

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Interestingly, the decision to opt out of the 2020 campaign became part of the reason why Collins didn't go higher in the draft. When the Big Ten Conference waffled regarding its season, the wide receiver decided not to deal with the uncertainty. Instead, he began preparing for the '21 NFL draft. 

Some rust is expected after not playing for an entire season or having any involvement in official football activities. 

"One thing is, without playing last year, obviously you're missing a lot of game reps, but it also gives you a chance to be healthy," Prince said. "With Nico, the thing about Nico is he wants to get better every day. I mean, there’s a not a day that he comes in and he’s dreading coming to work. He looks forward to the meetings, getting better in the meetings and working out on the field. With that attitude, he has a chance to succeed." 

Tyrod Taylor certainly likes his new targets in Collins and fifth-round tight end Brevin Jordan. 

"They've impressed me the way they’re picking up the system," the quarterback told reporters. "The way they’re going out and making plays has definitely impressed me and I'm looking forward to working with those guys throughout the season and getting those guys plenty of balls to catch for sure."

Some may view Collins' projected leap in production as a stretch considering he never dominated at the collegiate level. As an underclassman, he caught 75 passes for 1,361 yards and 13 touchdowns between the '18 and '19 campaigns. 

Tony Ding/Associated Press

For comparison, McLaurin posted 64 receptions for 1,137 yards and 17 touchdowns during his final seasons on campus. The Ohio State wide receiver brought speed and refined route-running to the table, which translated. Collins' size and athleticism immediately make him a red-zone target and deep threat. Those capabilities can offset a lack of explosion often seen out of his stems. 

A less-than-expected amount of production also came about based on Michigan's inconsistent quarterback play. According to Pro Football Focus, Shea Patterson posted a 50.7 percent accurate pass rate during Collins' two most productive seasons. That number ranked 58th among 65 qualifying quarterbacks. 

Opportunity becomes the final piece of the puzzle. 

Whether those within the Texans organization actually admit it or not, a full rebuild has already begun. The amount of roster turnover this offseason has been staggering. Anytime an organization enters such a transition, those within the front office often lean toward seeing what the younger players can achieve when provided more opportunities. 

William Fuller V's departure created a void. The former first-round pick finished second on the squad last season with 53 receptions and 879 yards in only 11 games. Fuller led Houston with eight touchdown receptions. More importantly, 75 targets are now unaccounted for with the veteran's departure. Collins can provide a similar skill set as a consistent vertical presence. 

Stew Milne/Associated Press

Clearly, the Texans wanted Collins. General manager Nick Caserio flipped fourth- and fifth-round draft picks in this past April's event, plus a future fourth-round selection, just to acquire the wide receiver. Caserio knows what Collins brings to the table. The rookie does, too. 

"I use my size as an advantage," Collins said. "I feel like that’s one part of my game that I excel in. I play big. I play physical. I'm glad that the Houston Texans believed in me and they picked me up."

"A big target, I use my frame to my advantage. I feel like there's an opportunity for the quarterback to give me a fade ball in the end zone. I use my size the best way I can, and that’s the best way I perform on the football field, just using my size."

Very little resistance will likely emerge toward Collins showing up as part of the Texans' three-receiver packages once Houston takes the field in Week 1 against the Jacksonville JaguarsConsidering the Texans can save $3.1 million by trading Cooks to a playoff contender near this year's deadline—while potential suitors take on only $2.5 millionan expanded role could be forthcoming by the end of the campaign. 

Collins has a pathway to surpass initial expectations and claim his status as one of the most promising rookies the NFL has to offer. He simply needs to take advantage of what could be a difficult situation. In doing so, the Texans will have a building block in place as Caserio and Co. continue to reshape the entire organization. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.