The Texans have completed the first quarter of the 2018 season with a record of 1-3. Not exactly how fans expected the season to start off, but there is enough talent on this roster to get things going in the right direction.
Some of that talent is in the form of rookies finding a niche on this roster. Circumstances at hand compel rookies to get on the field at any level of the game. With no picks in the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft, there weren’t many opportunities for the Texans to ‘plug and play’ rookies on this squad. Although safety and both offensive tackle spots were in dire need of an upgrade, it’s difficult to expect a rookie - and for the Texans, a third round one at that - to immediately be NFL-ready. Although the Texans’ situation did not allow for the expenditure of premium draft capital, they have found valuable pieces from several mid-round rookies.
The first pick this year for the Texans took place in the third round and turned out to be a steal from the get-go. Justin Reid is a part of a reconfigured secondary along with Tyrann Mathieu and Aaron Colvin (who was injured this past week). Reid is a smart, poised safety who has been probably the most consistent secondary defensive back the Texans have. Reid is best when playing deep in coverage and panning over the top of the defense. Whenever the Texans line up in a nickel formation, Reid is on the field as the third safety. He is playing about 70% of the snaps on defense and is contributing on special teams as well. Reid was a player who dropped in the draft most likely due to his ceiling, but that only made his value that much greater when the Texans learned months later that they had lost Andre Hal.
Reid’s first play in the NFL was a doozy - he was juked into the ground by Travis Kelce in his first preseason game. Welcome to the NFL, kid. Since then, he has delivered quality tackling and sound defense. The next big step in his development will be to start breaking up passes and commanding the middle of the field.
Whoa. A different type of welcome to the the NFL was in order for this speedster at the wide receiver position. With Bruce Ellington out for the remainder of the season, Coutee, after missing the entire preseason and the first three games of the regular season with a hamstring injury, stepped in immediately and blew away the Colts with his speed. With how much Deshaun Watson likes to extend plays, he need two things out of a slot receiver. The first thing is being a reliable safety valve for when Watson needs to get rid of the ball in a split second. What makes Watson so incredible is the vision and miraculous plays. Having a receiver who can bail him out makes those plays we witnessed for six weeks last year more attainable.
The second thing Watson needs is quite the opposite: a late dump-off option. Watson loves to hold the ball as long as possible. It is in his blood to try to make a major play on every snap. In those situations where nothing is open and Watson has to resort to an intermediate option, Coutee must be readily available. There was a ton of praise surrounding Coutee coming out of training camp, but when he injured his hamstring and was forced to sit out several weeks, I thought his career trajectory was massively lowered. All too often a player misses the beginning of their career and he can never recover/learn everything he missed out on. It looks like Coutee has not missed a step and has the potential to be a page-turner in the Texans offensive playbook.
Rankin has always been a favorite of many on Battle Red Blog. So far, he has played at left and right tackle for the Texans. Lately, he has exclusively played left tackle instead of Julien Davenport.
On running plays, Rankin is more of an edge-setter than a move my guy off the ball and pancake his [KITTEN] type of tackle. Scouting reports mention that the further inside he goes, the better career Rankin will have. I think Rankin screams left guard, but for now he has to play left tackle because the Texans are in dire need at the position. He can actually play center, guard, and tackle, having experience in college playing all three. I like when the Texans line a tight end up over him in passing plays to push out the DE/OLB just a little bit more to let Rankin have more time to get into his slide-step. The closest thing to a plug and play player in Houston’s 2018 draft class has the makings of developing into a worthwhile pro lineman.
The “Duke of the Edge” had quite the preseason campaign to start off his NFL career. He played a little over a third of the snaps in Sunday’s game against the Colts. Ejiofor does not have raw speed around the edge or unmatched strength to bulldoze linemen, but what he does have is agility paired with aggressive pass rush moves. The next step in his progression is to mask his moves to make it more difficult for a lineman to diagnose what trick he is about to pull. Sleight of hand is a big asset for a pitcher - if you can’t see the curve ball coming, it will drop off the table before you even knew it was there. Same thing for an effective pass rush move.
Ejiofor will make his living in pass rush situations on third down. There is no such thing as too many elite pass rushers, and Ejiofor is a curve ball for offensive linemen after having to take the punishment of blocking either J.J. Watt or Jadeveon Clowney. Through the first four games, Ejiofor has recorded four tackles, one sack, and one fumble recovery.
Akins is another player whose preseason performance set a high bar for him before the regular season began. Akins is the best pass catching tight end on Houston’s roster and has been most readily utilized in the middle of the field. He has seven catches for 74 yards, and almost all of them have been short to the right on first and second down. Only once has the big tight end been targeted in goal line situations, but with so many pass catching options, it’s hard to trust a rookie over some of the proven veterans.
It seems Bill O’Brien definitely has a role in mind for Akins and his talents; it’s more a matter of trust and opportunity than anything else. With so many mouths to feedl, Akins getting about two or three catches per game seems fair for where he is in his career. Watch for Akins to begin to line up in different places throughout the game to create mismatches on the defense. For example, if the Texans line him up as the outside receiver and DeAndre Hopkins in the slot, it gives Akins an opportunity to be one on one with a smaller cornerback while allowing Hopkins to deal with a less proficient corner in the slot.
Thomas is a natural mismatch against nickel cornerbacks. At 6’6”, he towers over almost every other person who would be covering him. Thomas is currently the third string tight end and will need to develop as a run blocker if he wants to get on the field more. He had a big reception against the Colts and strode up the sideline for 40 yards before being brought down.
So far, Thomas plays about a quarter of the snaps and lines up in the slot or as a wingback. He has caught three receptions for 80 yards this season. He’s probably the most developmental project in the draft class, Thomas has the makings of an elite tight end whose pass catching abilities can really challenge teams in short yardage situations. For now, most of his catches have occurred against zone coverage where he is able to find a hole in the defense.
Even though 53 players can call themselves Texans, only 46 suit up on game day. Unless you are D.J. Swearinger, this means that almost everyone has to contribute on special teams. No backup is too valuable to not serve on special teams. Kalambayi, a rookie linebacker out of Stanford, is next in line to replace Brennan Scarlett as the run-stopping outside linebacker who can drop in coverage. As a sixth round draft pick, Kalambayi is a pure developmental and depth piece to the defense. He won’t rush the passer, but instead can set the edge against zone run schemes and will drop back in coverage if necessary. Kalambayi has made his impact on punt and kickoff coverage teams. Although he played the fewest amount of plays of any Texan last week, there is definitely some upside in this draft choice.
Undrafted rookie free agents making an impact is the best added value for a franchise. Frankly, I never thought Daniel was going to make the roster. Cutting future Hall of Famers from the roster is out of the ordinary and unpredictable for any position. So far, it may seem hard to back the decision to keep Daniel over Shane Lechler, as the rookie is averaging just 42 yards per punt, ranked 29th in the league.
What Daniel does best, however, is pin opposing defenses deep in their own territory. Of his 18 punts, 10 have been inside opponent’s 20 yard line. Of the 18 punts, only five have been returned for a total of 27 yards, which is pretty great for a first-time punter in the league. Field position battle is one of the most underrated contests in a football game; if a punter can force an opposing offense to gain one or two more first downs per drive, it pays dividends for the defense, as they have more opportunities to stop their opponent before scoring.
How do you think the rookies are performing at the quarter pole of the 2018 season?