In the words of Gordon Ramsey, “It’s always fascinating what you find in the back of the fridge.” Head Coach/General Manager Bill O’Brien’s fridge is full of draft picks with multiple years of service time who are quickly approaching expiration dates. As with any team, there’s a grocery list of players who have never gotten their chance; in essence, they’re stuck in the back of the team’s proverbial refrigerator. The only way they can get out is through hard work, a little luck, and the right opportunity. For the players mentioned below, they’re primed for such an opportunity in 2020.
The 2018 sixth round draft pick flashed in his rookie preseason with several sacks and key tackles. He has utterly disappeared on the stat sheet since then.
Ejiofor was a Day Two draft talent with an injury history that knocked him to the end of the draft. Ejiofor fit well in former Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel’s flexible, positionless defense where he could rush the passer from a multitude of positions. The Alief High School product was well situated to succeed in Houston, but he has not seized the opportunity yet.
What was one of the best rookie preseasons in Texans history has turned into a black hole for the young pass rusher. Mike Bullock went so far as to say that “Ejiofor is poised to have one of the best rookie seasons for a Texans edge rusher since J.J. Watt.” Such high praise has been sadly followed up by an series of unfortunate events (injuries).
The Texans knew Ejiofor’s injury risk, as he missed the Senior Bowl with a torn labrum. When he tore his Achilles last offseason, that immediately put him behind the curtain and in the back of the mind for many Texans fans.
He’s a pass rushing technician who can push the pocket vertically with great quickness and several flashy moves—including his excellent spin move. The Texans desperately need what Ejiofor is best suited for—a third down pass rush threat who can rotate. He isn’t an edge setter like Whitney Mercilus or Brennan Scarlett, but if he can heal from his Achilles tear and other past aches, he could be a major rotational piece in Houston’s defensive front seven. He’ll have to hold off rookie Jonathan Greenard for the role of third-down OLB; that maybe the most underrated position battle this training camp.
Another Texas high school football product, Coutee is a crowd favorite as much as a undesirable prospect for Bill O’Brien. Often spotted on the “inactive” list even when being physically able to play, Coutee was in O’Brien’s doghouse for most of 2019. If it wasn’t obvious before, O’Brien’s recent offseason moves to bring in other veteran wide receiver talent like Randall Cobb flies directly in the face of developing Coutee. 2020 draft pick Isaiah Coulter does not pose a direct threat to Coutee; Coulter is a split receiver and Coutee is a slot, but it does add another level of competition to overcome.
Coutee is famous for two 11-catch games his rookie season against the Colts. Like Whitney Mercilus when both Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt are playing, Coutee feasts when the defense is focusing on other players. Coutee ultimately needs to perfect three routes: the option route, the slant route, and the drive route. If he can do that, he’ll have a spot on the roster. Not only that, but Coutee can be a major contributor as defenses have to prioritize the other deep threats the Texans have accumulated.
Admittedly, I did not think Thomas had a “place” in the Texans’ system when they drafted him in 2018 along with Jordan Akins. But after a rookie season in which he caught four touchdowns, there was quite the hype around Thomas heading into his second season. At 6’5”, Thomas was more of a wide receiver than tight end and and made for the perfect safety valve for Deshaun Watson over the middle of the field. Not only that, he was a match-up nightmare in the flats against smaller corners.
While Thomas’ blocking is pedestrian, that should not be as big of a concern in 2020. What is a concern is him missing almost the entire 2019 season with a cracked rib injury. Getting only around 60 offensive snaps in an entire season can damage a budding prospect.
To add to the burden, the tight end room is fraught with competition between Jordan Akins, Darren Fells, and Kahale Warring. Each player possesses a different skill set than Thomas, but all it takes is a couple poor outings and Thomas could be on the chopping block before his third NFL season begins.
I believe there’s a curse when I say “if he has a strong preseason”, because that phrase has been attached to Braxton Miller, Jaelen Strong, Tyler Ervin, D’Onta Foreman, Martinas Rankin, and K.J. Dillon without any success. I’ll put it this way: Thomas must be available and serviceable throughout training camp and the preseason to make the Texans’ roster.
His rookie season was arguably the best season of his career with six games started, but 2019 saw him reemerge as a rotational piece on Houston’s defense. Watkins has not found a true home on the Texans’ defense yet, as he plays mostly five-technique and on the interior in pass rush situations. He’s not much of a pass rushing threat though. Watkins is more of a pawn on the Texans’ defensive chess board.
We’ve been waiting for Watkins to make his mark. With Christian Covington, D.J. Reader, and Joel Heath out of the way, Watkins should finally be an integral part of the defense. Now with a path to real starts and production cleared, Watkins has to step up and into the role. He could seal up a massive hole this team has and instill depth on the front line.
Unlike the other players on the list, the pressure on Watkins is purely based on past play. He’s been in the league the longest of this group yet has a paltry amount of production to show for it. Watkins may become defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver’s biggest diamond in the rough on the roster. I’d say other than maybe Ejiofor, if Watkins makes a big leap this season, it would pay the biggest dividends for the Texans.
Another 2018 draft pick, Kalambayi has been shuffled all over the Texans’ defense. As an outside linebacker, Kalambayi was too slow and not physical enough to get snaps, so Crennel moved Kalambayi to play inside linebacker behind Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney. Kalambayi had opportunities to play in 2019, but mainly found his home on special teams. Nothing is wrong with that for a late sixth round pick, but he’s one or two injuries away from being thrust into a starting role.
A team captain of the Stanford Cardinals in 2016 and 2017, Kalambayi appears to be have embraced his role in Houston’s supportive cast, but if destiny calls, he’ll be quite an interesting player to watch rise to the occasion.