Call this the soft opening of the Houston Texans off-season, with the rookies reporting to NRG Stadium for the start of rookie mini-camp. The event kicks off a crash course of sorts that will get the rookies submerged into NFL life, not only on the field but with their new lives as professionals, receiving instruction on how to handle themselves as men day-to-day. The team will bring in multiple resources for the rookies. They will be taught about financials, receive cautionary advice from a law enforcement view, the NFLPA will visit to get rookies comfortable with their union, and much more. Veterans under contract will eventually join the rookies on the football field with the opening of OTAs on May 22nd.
The rookies will land on Thursday, take all their photos, meet with doctors, sign contracts, and receive their equipment for their new lives with the Texans. The group of 45+ rookies, composed of the drafted class, priority free agents, and try out players, will take the field on Friday and end their work on Sunday, giving the coaching staff a better look at their new group of youngsters.
This is one of the bigger rookie mini-camps in sometime during the Bill O’Brien era and there are enough players to run a full camp that will involve a complete practice from individual, group, and team drills to get the rookies their foundation on how the Texans want things done. The film room will be an important aspect for the group as they will get to see their days' work and have a chance to correct it the next day with instruction from their position coaches.
This is an important stretch for the rookies and here are some early situations to watch from the Texans rookie class heading into their three-day workweek on the field.
Yes, they will only be outfitted in helmets with shirts and shorts but there are clear indicators for the players that stand out. Important signs include positives taken from the passing game and how effectively each defender covers. For the most part, that translates over to Sundays during the regular season. For example, when DeAndre Hopkins was drafted in 2014, it was clear he was the most talented rookie on the field, making his now well-known acrobatic catches over defenders. More importantly from an evaluation perspective, a little known rookie from UCF, A.J. Bouye, showed that he had the skills to cover in the NFL environment. Bouye's standout talent as a UDFA in rookie camp eventually led to him landing one of the biggest free agent deals this past off-season, with Jacksonville, nearly five years later.
Wide receivers, cornerbacks, safeties, inside linebackers, running backs, tight ends, and quarterbacks get a lot of valuable time in these situations and there can be plenty seen with how well they handle their positions with work in this environment. There will be some individuals who stand out and will catch the attention of the coaches watching.
Rookie Free Agents
Surely some specific names will rise in prominence and those guys will be particularly important to watch when things get rolling, but the Texans make it a habit to give rookie free agents a chance to make their mark on the team. Since O’Brien took over the team in 2014, the Texans have had seven rookie free agents on the list when the initial 53-man roster was set prior to the season: one in 2014, three in 2015, and three more in 2016 is how it worked out. There is a chance in 2017 that there will be at least one rookie free agent who has defied the odds. Also, these individuals are fighting for practice squad spots, which are an extension of the roster, and the Texans have shown they would rather promote from their practice squad than sign free agents during the season, so there is incentive for rookies to land on the practice squad, if not the 53-man roster.
A look at the Draft Class
Of course everyone wants to see Deshaun Watson and how he looks on the field. More importantly, fans want to know how his arm strength looks and how well he can command the players around him. When it comes to Watson, there will be a pretty good baseline for this athleticism when he steps on the field. It is an important weekend for Watson, with his status as the highest profile rookie on the field for the Texans, and possibly in the NFL. The last Texans rookie to garner this much attention by stepping on the field would probably be Jadeveon Clowney, given all the expectations that surrounded the former top overall selection. Watson’s expectations are slowly climbing day-to-day and it really begins on Friday.
There is a good chance that Zach Cunningham could be a portion of the defensive package in nickel and dime, especially with his athleticism and ability to cover ground. He will not be asked to take on the full workload, especially with Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney leading the way. Cunningham should be viewed as a compliment to the two for the time being, with more ahead for him as he continues to learn the defensive system. The Texans try to land at least two high snap players with their first two selections and Cunningham, much like past second round picks under O’Brien Nick Martin, Xavier Su’a-Filo, and McKinney, will see plenty of playing time.
The Texans might have landed their version of New England’s LeGarrette Blount for their offense with the addition of D'Onta Foreman. Foreman had one season of high carries at Texas but is now fully healthy after a stress fracture in his foot was cleared by team doctors during the draft process. Considered a 1st and 2nd down back by O’Brien, Foreman made his money in college by living between the tackles and breaking tackles to eat up yards. With comparisons to Blount and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, Foreman is a clear compliment to Lamar Miller and the team will depend on Foreman to infuse the offense with multiple options to make it happen on the ground.
Despite being a 4th round selection, the Texans need some big help at the tackle position and Julién Davenport could be that player. The Texans invested a lot of time on him during the draft process, sending offensive line coach Mike Devlin to work him out and get to know him. With meetings at the NFL Combine and the Senior Bowl, the Texans figured out pretty quick that Davenport offered the team something for the future but it could be more that most expect. Davenport has to catch up to the speed of the game and even more so when J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney start working him in pass rush situations when they arrive. It will be seen pretty quick if Davenport can cut it and he should be one to keep an eye on heading into the weekend.
An interior pass rusher who can also handle the run, Carlos Watkins will slide into D.J. Reader’s rookie role of rotational player on the defensive line while Reader takes the place of the departed Vince Wilfork. The Texans are always looking for combination defensive lineman, players who can handle the run with technique and can heat up the pass rusher from the interior to not only get to the quarterback but to flush them to the edge rushers that the Texans have. Watkins is an intriguing player, especially with his versatile skill set at over 300+ pounds.
The Texans like using four cornerbacks during the season and try to keep their group fresh for the long haul of the season. Treston Decoud has a chance to get the 4th cornerback spot with a strong effort leading up to the regular season. Decoud is a long, rangy defensive back that most think should be a safety but the Texans are going to work him at cornerback when rookie mini-camp opens. With the departure of A.J. Bouye, Decoud’s importance to the team and him making his mark could be vital.
There is a logjam on the interior of the Texans offensive line but Kyle Fuller will start his career working at guard and also helping at center, his college position. Fuller is tall for an interior lineman and seeing him move will be the first thing to watch. Like most offensive and defensive lineman, it will be hard to get a good feel for his skill level until the pads go on. If anything, checking out his movement skills and seeing how quickly he can get out of his stance will be key. Fuller could be pushing for the 4th interior lineman on the roster.
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