The midway point of the 2013 NFL season is upon us. Battle Red Blog has teamed up with Capital One Bank to present the most improved player over the first half of the season.
One of the strengths of the Houston Texans the past few years has been their offensive line. Their zone scheme was the envy of the league as they created lanes for Arian Foster to slice and dice through. This year, however, the offensive line has stumbled and tumbled around like a bear on roller skates. Their cornerstone left tackle, Duane Brown, has been bothered by a nagging foot injury and has not looked as powerful or as mobile as he has in the past. Wade Smith has failed to move the line of scrimmage and has continued to prove how worthless Pro Bowl berths can be. Derek Newton has been, well, Derek Newton. He was supposed to battle for the starting spot at right tackle with Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry; after both landed on IR, Newton was handed over the job again. Newton makes the entire fan base cringe like a baby eating a lemon every time he goes back to pass block, though he has been adequate in the run game. Chris Myers has been steady as always and continues to move nose tackles horizontally in the run game while being a consistent pass blocker. All of these players have ranged from horrific to adequate, but none have played at the same level they have had in the past.
All that being said, Brandon Brooks has been a pleasant surprise for an offensive line mired in criticism. He mauls defensive tackles in the run game and moves the line of scrimmage up the field. He might be a better fit in a power scheme where he could pull and kick out unsuspecting defensive linemen, but he's been superb in Houston's zone scheme. Brooks can cut the backside as well as anybody else I have seen and he executes beautiful double teams on the play side. In pass protection, he has had problems picking up the blitz, but he rarely gets beat in one-on-one situations. He consistently plays with a wide base and has a prize fighter's punch that keeps defensive tackles off his chest.
In the 2012 NFL Draft, the Texans picked the Miami of Ohio graduate in the third round with the 76th overall pick. Brooks was the seventh guard taken in the draft. He was a plump 6'5", 355 pounds when he was drafted. He ended up starting zero games and played in only five during the 2012 season, with his first appearance not coming until the Texans played the Lions on Thanksgiving in Week 12. Brooks spent the majority of the year backing up Antoine Caldwell and Ben Jones, both of whom spent the majority of the year rotating starts and playing time at right guard. Playing sparingly last year, Brooks' snap counts in 2012 look like this:
Towards the end of the year, he was able to fall into playing time after Ben Jones took over Antione Caldwell's starting spot. However, due to Jones' performance, Houston opted to give Brooks playing time here and there similar to what we are seeing with Ryan Harris and Derek Newton this season. At the end of the season, I had this to say about Brandon Brooks in my third ever post on BRB:
Brooks needs to learn the nuances of the zone run game; if he does, pretty soon he will turn into a Werebear mauling DTs into the secondary.
That is exactly what we have seen this season with Brandon Brooks; he has learned how to play in the zone system and he has mauled people. Over the offseason, he lost thirty pounds and has conquered the starting role since Kubiak handed it to him in OTAs over the summer. The weight loss has paid off tremendously; it has allowed him to be more agile, cut down defenders, improve his footwork, and he can now get to the second level with the greatest of ease. He has taken control of the starting spot at right guard and has played every offensive snap this season except for the 49ers' game, where he was forced to sit out because of a foot injury.
We thought Brooks would make a jump from year one to year two, but I was not expecting this. He is well on his way to becoming an All-Pro guard in this league and is deserving of a Pro Bowl nod this year.