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Sophomore Slump Or Sophomore Jump: Dylan Cole

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Each week we will chronicle the first season for each 2017 Texans rookie and evaluate if their second season in the NFL will be better or worse.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After a 4-12 season, there’s usually not too much to be impressed with by a rookie class. Their purpose is to fill the holes in the roster, excel on special teams, and inject youth into the roster. The transition to the NFL, however, is not as smooth for these supposed young talents bustling with potential. Many a time, they do not live up to their hype, draft position, or the potential we pundits see in them.

The second year for a player in the NFL is a critical one. Their first true NFL offseason usually demonstrates their seriousness about playing in the league long-term. If they are rehabbing from an injury, their recovery will reflect whether they have discipline in the training room that is conducive to success on the field.

For the next couple weeks, and presumably twice a week if I am feeling adventurous, I will go in reverse order from draft position and give my opinion if a Texans’ player from the 2017 rookie class will have a “Sophomore Slump or Sophomore Jump”. Today, I will focus on Dylan Cole, the inside linebacker from Missouri State that developed into a key contributor on the defense until his season ending injury...on the best play of his young career.

On his NFL.com draft profile, Lance Zierlein predicted Cole would be a fifth round draft pick. But after being snubbed by NFL teams in the draft, Cole chose the Texans because he felt “it was more just the opportunity, what it looked like and I got to know the coaches a little bit through the process two weeks before.” “They were definitely toward the top of my list of teams to pick. It’s a really good defense, if not the best defense.”

Strength and speed are not a problem for Cole. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle praised Cole’s work ethic during training camp, an early predictor that he could make the roster. From the depth chart, it looked as if there may not be enough room for him to make the team. Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney looked to be running mates at ILB while Zach Cunningham filled out his frame in preparation to start, with Brian Peters being the special teams backup if necessary.

Dylan Cole sprang onto the roster after a stellar training camp by impressing coaches on special teams. Even though the team invested a second round pick on ILB Zach Cunningham, Cole climbed from being stuck behind the likes of Brian Peters to being a flexible blitz and nickel linebacker option. Throughout the season, Cole quietly produced on a defense that increasingly became more injured and porous.

Cole is better at being the bull in a china shop than being a cutback linebacker. He is aggressive at the point of attack, never afraid to stick his nose into the chest pad of a larger lineman.

Aside: Check out this guy’s videos. They are all Texans highlight videos and I love a good Texans homer page.

Cole had a couple big plays to extenuate an impressive rookie season. First, in a blowout win over the Titans, he pulled out this pick-six against Matt Cassel.

With Cassel staring down the receiver, Cole jumped the route amd took it in for his first career NFL touchdown. He also showed off his speed and coverage ability several times throughout the season. After losing A.J. Bouye, the Texans struggled to cover running backs out of the backfield and tight ends streaking up the field, Cole began to assume that role halfway through the season and became somewhat decent at tracking the ball in the air against wheel routes (which is a difficult route to cover for linebackers),

The second spectacular play Cole made wound up ending his season. Against the Browns in Week 6, Cole was split out wide in coverage due to a Cleveland offensive package that had more WRs than the Texans had secondary players. In this concept, Cole is being targeted as the mismatch, particularly because the Browns stack their WRs to create confusion in defensive assignment. Cole was put in a vulnerable position.

He jammed the receiver at the top of the route and stayed in his back pocket the entire time they climbed up the field. Cole wound up intercepting this pass because it was about two yards short of being where it should be. Cole began to return the ball downfield, but instead of using his running skills, he tried to run over a tackler and then decided to jump him, which strained his hamstring and eventually ended hisrookie season. An amazing play for the rookie ended up costing him the rest of the year.

Even though he only played in 12 games and primarily as a back up, Cole played on 20% of the defensive snaps this season. Romeo Crennel’s defensive mindset is pretty simple: Put the best eleven guys out there no matter what position and create a defense that best suits them. When the injuries on the defense started piling up, along with Brian Cushing’s suspension, opportunities for play sprung up at different positions on the field.

There were many defensive schemes that positioned Cole as the sole inside linebacker while Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham were forced to play the outside linebacker and blitzing linebacker roles in a 3-4 defense.

As promising as Cole looked, it’s hard to find a starting role for him in 2018 purely because the Texans will be healthier and have added more depth to the defense. Combine that with a hamstring injury, and many might say Cole is primed for a reduction in playing time in 2018. However, without a suitable second OLB that I would rather see on the field than Cole (considering that I rate Jadeveon Clowney as a DE rather than an OLB) , Cole should find valuable snaps in 2018. For an undrafted rookie free agent—the only one to make the roster last year—Cole will carve out a role for himself that neither Cunningham nor McKinney have developed: The ability to cover and run with backs in the flats. That is a talent not many linebackers possess and will keep Dylan Cole on the field.

Overall assessment: SOPHOMORE JUMP.