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The Film Room: Nico Collins

The Texans have a new possession receiver, but is he any good?

NCAA Football: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

In case you forgot, the Houston Texans used to have a top three wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, and a top five quarterback in Deshaun Watson. And now they have, let me see here, Brandin Cooks, David Johnson, Nico Collins, and Davis Mills. Before the exciting move, the Watson trade request, and the sexual assault allegations, the Texans used to have top talent at these two positions. Nick Caserio has already made it a focal point with his limited draft resources to recoup what Houston used to have.

Before the 2021 NFL Draft, the Texans had a problem at wide receiver. Their existing production was composed of zippy little bodies. Cooks, Randall Cobb, and Keke Coutee. Players with small hit boxes. It requires a quarterback who can play on expert to be able to hit these receivers with narrow targets. Watson could string these three together like apartment complex patio lights. Lesser quarterbacks can’t make throws like this.

Houston’s only receivers with size are Chris Conley and Isaiah Coulter. Conley is the only free agent addition expected to make the roster. Coulter was unable to find the field on a team without an outside wide receiver lost in a 4-12 season—the football future is opaque for the former fifth round pick. Andre Roberts, Donte Moncrief, and Chris Moore, are competition, a broken special teams pool cue.

Enter Nico Collins. He’s the type of wide receiver the Texans used to have, that the Texans no longer have. At 6’4” 215 pounds, he’s a BIG DOG brand wide receiver, whose size is in the 94th percentile. Houston needs girth, and Collins provides it.

The Texans don’t have a wide receiver who can run routes and make plays like this. He’s enormous and stands out on the television screen, or the Youtube player for football plebians like ourselves. He’s an elephant on the planes surrounded by gazelles.

At Michigan, Collins nearly always operated out wide. He’s in a man coverage matchup against the outside cornerback who doesn’t have safety help. Collins shuffles and widens his release. The coverage is disastrous. The cornerback, who is aligned to defend the middle of the field and squeeze Collins to the sideline, somehow doubles down on it and turns and runs inside. The sideline is handed over to Collins.

The route itself isn’t important. What happens when the ball is in the air is what is. Collins tracks the ball the entire way well, creates separation without extending, and adjusts mid flight to a ball placed on his outside shoulder. His fingers are a spider’s web. He collects the ball at its highest point and rocks it to safety.

This time Collins is the middle receiver in a bunch left formation. He’s running the fade from the slot. He takes a similar release, and this time, against press man coverage, he’s able to beat the cornerback to his outside shoulder. Acceleration. The cornerback is turned and chasing as Collins widens his route out towards the pylon. The ball is over his head. The corner never sees it. That being said, he does a great job reacting to Collins’s eyes and body, and playing the ball as gravity works it back to the Earth. It doesn’t matter. Nico strangles the ball and catches the redzone score.

I hope the Texans didn’t try and marry their third round pick selections, for a team with the talent issues they have, but Mills and Collins fit well together. Mills throws a pretty sideline fade with touch, but runs into problems when throwing with velocity downfield. Collins can go up and get it. Seize the moment, Carpe Diem, whatever bad bicep tattoo slogan you want to come up with.

Collins is a big play wide receiver. He averaged 16.6 yards a catch in 2018 and 19.7 yards a catch in 2019. Rarely does he create great swaths of space between him and the cornerback. Instead, he wins with size, and utilizing his arms and hands to keep the cornerback off his body and away from the ball. Anything off the back shoulder is entirely his.

Production is an issue though. Collins never had more than 40 catches in a single season at Michigan. Sideline verticals and fades are the only routes he runs well. The rest is blank. Most of the map is dark for Collins. He needs to put on his sailor’s hat and learn how to run additional routes, so he can make the catches necessary to be a productive chain mover. Easy offense is what a wide receiver has to provide to be a NFL mainstay. If not, Collins is merely a redzone target, and a big play carousel. These type of wide receivers scatter across the league like cremains, and are never an integral consistent component of a NFL offense.

Most of his short receptions came on drags against cut calls, where the outside cornerback passes a short inside breaking route, and then backpedals looking for a number two vertical, or a post coming from the other side of the formation. This was scampering across linebackers, and led to immediate tackles. There was no source of consistent production. Collins is incredible at playing jackpot in the deep end of the pool. The rest of his game is blank.

It’s a curl route against Penn State. The cornerback never has to turn and run with the vertical. Once Collins breaks back to the ball, the cornerback is on his inside shoulder. This is a post up. This isn’t a route. The ball is on the outside shoulder. Yet, in this positioning, the cornerback is able to time the ball and go through the inside shoulder to ensure the incompletion.

The quick game is exhaustive. It looks more like a battle in the trench, than a route won in space. On this slant, Collins’s size shields the cornerback from blowing past his inside shoulder to defend the pass. The route is still read well. The corner breaks on the ball, but just narrowly misses it. It’s a difficult catch. Space is always constricted like some enormous reptile.

The NFL Draft is an event that is defined by limited information. This previous draft was more limited than usual. Without the NFL Combine, and a normal NCAA season, and with fraudulent Pro Day testing, and Zoom meetings, the canvas was blurrier than impressionism pointillism.

Collins is the benefactor of this. He skimped out on the 2020 season. His 4.45 40 was the product of a favorable stop clock, or an entire year spent sculpting his body. Whichever it was, he didn’t show this level of speed on the field at Michigan. Most of his catches were made because of his body size, not because he flew past defensive backs and raced them off the top of the route.

If the speed is real, and this is a result of the hardwork and maturation of his body, then the game will be simpler for him. It won’t take a extensive array of body movements and techniques to get open. The speed and vertical threat will open the door for advantageous inside breaking routes. Drags, slants, and digs, become simple expressions when the sideline is a horrifying possibility. Fear opens up cornerbacks’ hips and gets them chasing the sideline, creating interior space.

Receivers can without absurd outside speed. They can become successful players with size and technique alone. Yet, it takes the ability to consistently beat press man coverage, a difficult task for young wide receivers, something he’s already struggled with, and hands that devour everything to pull it off.

Collins either needs to learn how to break press coverage with shoves, swipes, and arm jousting, or the speed needs to be there to open up the game for him. If the speed is real, then routes like this are possible at the NFL level. The corner is playing off in a Cover Three defense. Collins runs a slant, he sticks at the top of the route and there is a lack of suddenness, but the fear of the vertical, and the coverage, opens the door. The ball is wide, but looks catchable. What was an easy twelve becomes zero.

Collins faced an existential dilemma at Michigan. His quarterbacks were atrocious. Absolutely putrid. Completely terrible. It’s difficult to get a good feel for him because of the desperate heaves, and overwhelming slings. I’d love to see Collins playing with an actual quarterback, instead of a Shea Patterson, whatever that is. This is an issue that he’s still facing after college. We may not see Collins play with a great quarterback in Houston throughout the entirety of his rookie contract.

After a year of training on his own, away from terrible quarterback play, Collins looked better in the Senior Bowl than he ever did at Michigan. There was a notable difference in his explosiveness and releases off the line of scrimmage in his one v. one drills. That being said, these drills favor the wide receiver. Who knows if it will stick. And again, I’m dubious of the Pro Day numbers being accurate.

Collins is a body selection, providing an athletic profile the Texans don’t have, with one plus trait, the ability to go up and grab passes down the sideline. Everything else is limited and murky. He doesn’t attack the middle of the field, his route tree is a sapling, he lacks suddenness in his breaks, there are problems breaking press man coverage, and he doesn’t generate consistent offense.

It’s an interesting selection for a team with a regime change. Under the tyranny of Bill O’Brien, Houston routinely struggled to generate production from talented midround selections, especially at the wide receiver position. Jaelen Strong and Braxton Miller flamed out and never produced; Coutee has never consistently produced, forever living in the doghouse. The new staff in Houston has to do a better job developing young talent to reclaim what they used to have. If they can sharpen the edges and get the most of out of Collins’s single best skill, the Texans will have a starting outside wide receiver. For now, he’s merely a red zone threat to toss contested passes to. There’s a lot of work to be done.