Once upon a time, we were all very, very excited about the Texans’ 2014 draft class. Bill O’Brien and Rick Smith assembled a formidable cast of college all-stars, including a generational defensive force from South Carolina, a highly regarded guard prospect from UCLA, a first round talent at nose tackle from Notre Dame that fell to the third round due to knee injuries, a hulking tight end from Iowa that crushed defenders in the run game, and a group of late round picks that all inspired confidence in the future. Houston even grabbed BRB favorite Andre Hal in the seventh round; Hal went on to make the club as an excellent special teams player and reserve corner. All in all, the 2014 draft class for the Texans was originally seen by many as among the very best of that year.
However, it did not take long for doubt to creep in. Jadeveon Clowney’s rookie season was almost entirely spent on the sidelines due to multiple injuries, as was Louis Nix’s. Xavier Su’a-Filo started slow after joining the team much later in the summer due to UCLA’s quarter system, and he did not really start putting it all together until the final few weeks of the season. C.J. Fiedorowicz flashed his ability in the run game intermittently, but was pretty much invisible as a receiver all year long, other than catching a touchdown pass from Arian Foster on a trick play. Truth be told, sixth round pick Alfred Blue might have been the biggest contributor from the entire rookie class as a reserve running back, thanks in part to being given a whopping 36 carries against the Browns in Week 11. Blue churned out yard after a clock-killing yard and gave Ryan Mallett his first professional victory as a starter, which by itself might be more than the rest of the rookie class did combined.
2015 is a new year, however, and this sophomore Texans class is primed to show up in a big way. Here is a list of who I think will be Houston’s biggest second-year contributors, ordered from least to greatest.
10: Lonnie Ballentine, S, Memphis
Ballentine has an uphill climb if he wants to make the team this coming season. Luckily for him, safety is one of the weakest position groups on the roster. The former Mr. Irrelevant is known as an excellent athlete with superb range and a good work ethic. He will need every bit of those qualities to stave off Andre Hal’s presence after Hal's switch to safety. As far as being a major contributor in 2015, Ballentine’s time to shine will likely be on special teams.
9: Jeoffrey Pagan, DT/DE, Alabama
Pagan was known as a stout run-stopper in college, and that is exactly what he will be asked to do in the pros as a rotational defensive end behind Jared Crick. I imagine that Pagan will be brought in for early down work while Crick gets some rest, with 2015 rookies Christian Covington and Lynden Trail getting looks as his pass rushing complement on third downs. As long as Pagan does his job and puts J.J. Watt in third and long situations, he will be well worth the sixth round pick that was invested in him.
8: Tom Savage, QB, Pittsburgh
Savage would be last on this list if he ends up as the third string quarterback, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he might win the number two job by the end of camp (with Mallett as the starter, of course). All reports out of OTAs and minicamp were very positive, and I believe there is a legitimate shot that Savage’s superior physical gifts may give him the edge in that battle.
7: Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn
The Texans are one of the few offenses that relatively feature a fullback, which is why they went out and drafted a damn good one in Jay Prosch. Prosch somewhat struggled as a rookie, which I partially attribute to his having to essentially relearn all of his blocking angles when switching from Auburn’s gap scheme run game to the Texans’ zone run scheme. When Prosch did make contact at the right angle, though, damn he could smack people. I think he takes another step forward this season as he gets more comfortable in his role in the offense.
6. Andre Hal, CB, Vanderbilt
Hal made the switch to safety this offseason after the Texans drafted Kevin Johnson in the first round, and I think he can thrive in that role. I have already talked about Hal’s intelligence, footwork, and work ethic in a previous post before the 2014 NFL Draft, and that skill set should transfer well to safety.
Hal should become Rahim Moore’s backup in the short term, and possibly contributing as a hybrid safety/slot corner in dime packages that can give the back seven some versatility in the long-term. At worst, Hal will continue to have an impact as a gunner on special teams, where he made several highlight reel plays as a rookie.
5: Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
Nix lost his entire rookie season to rehab from a knee injury, but all signs point to him finally being healthy throughout OTAs and minicamps. Bill O’Brien even went so far as to praise Nix’s progress as a player, and it is looking more and more like the former Golden Domer will be firmly situated as Vince Wilfork’s backup at nose tackle. I anticipate Nix getting plenty of work in "big nickel" packages that require hefty bodies up front to stop the run that can also crush the pocket against the pass.
4: C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa
"The Polish Hat" had little impact as a rookie other than as a run-blocker, but that should change in 2015. His huge 6’5" 265 pound frame will fare well in the red zone, and with Ryan Fitzpatrick out of town, Houston might actually have a starting quarterback that acknowledges the existence of his tight ends. It is no surprise that Garrett Graham suddenly had his best statistical performance of the year when Ryan Mallett was in at quarterback, and Fiedorowicz should benefit in a similar way.
3: Alfred Blue, RB, LSU
It is not a question of "if" Arian Foster will miss games at this point in his career; it’s "when". Alfred Blue reported to OTAs in the best shape of his life and seemed physically miles ahead of where he was as a rookie. When Foster inevitably goes down with some sort of hamstring ailment, Blue should be in a good position to help carry that load. I still do not think that Blue is the Texans’ starting running back of the future, but hopefully he can at least get the offense through two or three games this season without the unit completely imploding in Foster’s absence.
2. Xavier Su’a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Su’a-Filo has a big opportunity as a second year player to step in as Houston’s new left guard. Ben Jones will more than likely make the move to center in the wake of Chris Myers’ release, which means Su’a-Filo has exactly one offseason to get himself from promising young talent to competent starter. "XSF" was chosen at the top of the second round because of his physicality and work ethic, and it is time for him to prove that his selection was worthwhile. For better or worse, 2015 is the biggest audition of Su’a-Filo’s life.
1: Jadeveon Clowney, DE/OLB, South Carolina
Who else would it be? A healthy Clowney is an absolute game changer, if his preseason action last year was anything to go by. The Texans have one starting spot filled at the strong side linebacker position with Whitney Mercilus, but there is a cavernous void on the weak side that can likely only be filled by Clowney’s presence. His combination of length, strength, and speed is incredibly rare. If his knee holds up, Clowney could combine with J.J. Watt to form one of the most fearsome pass rush duos to ever play the game. If that kind of potential does not qualify for the top spot on this list, I don’t know what does.
The story of the 2014 Texans draft class started out with a rough first chapter, but there is room for growth like this franchise has never seen before. At least two members of the class should be starters in 2015, with no less than six of them being primed to play major roles as rotational players, sub package specialists, and special teams contributors. This is a class that may yet produce both superstars and much needed depth in several key positions. If everyone stays healthy and continues along their current developmental trajectory, this 2014 grouping could still be the class for the ages that we once thought it to be.