CHARLIE PALLILO

Don't look now, but the Texans and O'Brien are in the mix for big things

Deshaun Watson has helped Bill O'Brien and the Texans. Bob Levey/Getty Images

Aside from the passing of founder and owner Bob McNair, the good times have just kept on rolling for the Texans. They should make it nine wins in a row Sunday, though Cleveland is no longer the gimme it has been for years.

Provided the Texans handle their business, Sunday’s next most significant outcome is Minnesota at New England. In a couple of weeks the Patriots play at Pittsburgh. It’s unlikely the Pats lose both, but not impossible. If they lose both the Texans have a tremendous shot at securing a playoff bye as a top two finisher in the AFC. The Steelers already have three losses and a tie (and a chance to lose to the Chargers Sunday). The Steelers have a probable loss at New Orleans yet to come. If the Texans finish 12-4 they are a near certainty to finish as at least the number three AFC seed.

So how does Bill O’Brien, NFL Coach of the Year candidate strike you? Back in preseason, certainly in mid-September, it would have struck you as ridiculous and/or hilarious. If the vote were today O’Brien would probably finish behind Bears’ head coach Matt Nagy. The Bears were 5-11 last season, Nagy has them 8-3 in his first season on the job. O’Brien last season captained the titanic Texans to 4-12. Add this season’s 0-3 start to that, and the fat contact extension he was gifted in the offseason looked even more absurd. This should have been a “prove it” season for O’Brien, his fifth in the gig. He is proving it.

O’Brien has always been a commanding personality, sometimes to the point of Billy Bluster mode. Results are results so he must be given his due. The most critical component of O’Brien becoming a better coach was the drafting of Deshaun Watson, but so what? Even with the Texans’ powder puff schedule and some big breaks going their way, eight straight wins shouldn’t be scoffed away.

Have the Texans evolved into a powerhouse team? There is no strong evidence saying yes. But they are positioning themselves to get a real shot at proving themselves bonafide contenders and perhaps legit upper echelon They could also wind up exposed as the beneficiaries of their easy schedule. If that turns out to be the case, at least they’ll be better positioned going forward than at any prior point in franchise history.

The not so good

Then, there are the Rockets.

Heading into the weekend here’s the full list of teams the Rockets are ahead of in the Western Conference: Phoenix.  

If the Rockets Friday night lose to the (10-11) Spurs for the second time this season, that would be loss number 12 already. The Rockets’ 12th loss last season didn’t happen until January 15th. All they need to match last season’s 65 win brilliance is a 56-6 finish! Snowballs have much better chances in hell.

As the Mavericks beat the tar out of the Rockets Wednesday night, about all Rockets’ backers had to fall back on was, well, Chris Paul was out. Last season when Paul, James Harden, Clint Capela all played the Rockets went an amazing 44-3. This season’s Rockets have already lost three games when their version of a Big 3 all played. Paul missing a chunk of the schedule is par for the course. No reason to think he’ll get more durable in his mid-30s. That Mike D’Antoni had Paul averaging his most minutes per game in four years was not smart, but you can grasp D’Antoni’s dilemma given the punchline of a bench Daryl Morey has him coaching. The Rocket bench is abominably bad. Over his decade-plus on the job Daryl Morey has been a very good General Manager, but this past offseason he was Dismal Daryl. From Carmelo Anthony on down the line.

Saturday night the Rockets are home Saturday for the bumbling Bulls. That is an extremely unenticing matchup. Owner Tilman Fertitta sure won’t be there. Much more excitement at the University of Houston as the Cougars host Oregon in the grand opening game of the Fertitta Center. The Cougars will never be a big deal citywide, but to grow their niche a sparkling 7100 seat arena with Kelvin Sampson coaching a good team gives UH as good a shot as it can ask.

Oregon’s leading scorer is 7’2” freshman Bol Bol. Yes, Bol Bol. Son of the late 7’7” Manute.  

Still waiting

It’s been mostly quiet on the baseball free agency front. The winter meetings should accelerate things when they open in Las Vegas a week from Sunday.

Buzzer Beaters

1. How ‘bout them Cowboys? The Rams say thanks.  2. Don’t know that Texas can score enough points to beat Oklahoma a second time, but UT plus the points is the sensible pick. 3. One addition, one addition only for the Astros among the rumored available: Bronze-Goldschmidt  Silver-Realmuto Gold-Kluber

 

Some physical standouts for the Texans as the youngsters get to work

What you need to know from Texans rookie minicamp

University of Kentucky Athletics

The Texans hosted a part of their rookie minicamp Friday and here is what you need to know. Obviously, the caveat is these are all rookies or players with very little NFL experience at all so take it for what it is worth.

Kahale Warring is an absolute specimen

When people talk about physical specimens you usually don't get the full effect until you see them in person. Such is the case with the Texans new tight end. He had some very nice catches and reps going out as a pass catcher.

Just on his size and movement he had more than a few moments that turned heads. He is fluid in his movement on the field. You can tell every now and then he hasn't been playing the position long but those flashes are few and far between.

He will have to grow into a role and experience in joint practices and preseason games will be important for him this year. It is easy to see how he can eventually fit on a team.

The Bouncers at tackle

I don't know if I can get the nickname to stick but I want to see Tytus Howard and Max Scharping on one of those campy 90's posters with Deshaun standing behind them like he is already in the club.

Both of these guys are physically imposing for different reasons. Howard looks like a monster athlete and showcases it with ease. He moves so well for someone at his size and it is easy to see why he draws Duane Brown comparisons when people are discussing his body and body type. Scharping is built like a brick wall. He is thick and you can see how powerful he is from just looking at him.

There is obviously a long way to go, even to either one of these guys starting, but if it works out like the Texans hope Howard is the team's left tackle and Scharping is the team's right tackle of the future (and hopefully the near future).

Go Johnnie go

Johnnie Dixon is fast and he has a chance to work his way into the conversation at wideout. The former Ohio State pass catcher has crazy fast feet frequently showcasing his agility. He can scoot too and it wouldn't surprise me if he was one of the fastest players on the field Friday.

The wideout room is a little crowded. Obviously DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee are on the team without question. DeAndre Carter is the team's specialist with returns so he will have to fight to keep his special teams spot as well as his wideout spot. The other spot has Vyncint Smith as the early leader since he played with the team last year but he can absolutely be challenged.

I will be anxious to see what Dixon can do when he is catching passes from Deshaun Watson and A.J. McCarron.

Kentucky's imposing duo

Lonnie Johnson looks a lot bigger in person than he does on television. He is every bit his 6 foot 2 inch frame and has some thickness to his frame as well. The Texans have rarely had a cornerback with his physical makeup and presence. He had some nice reps staying with wideouts today.

His former Kentucky teammate Derrick Baity is on the team too. He is also huge standing an inch taller than Johnson. Though I didn't see a ton of his reps he had some success in a few team reps and forced one wideout come down with a ball out of bounds that would have not been a catch.

Johnson is obviously on the team but his former teammate's journey to be his teammate again is something to watch.

Duke Ejiofor's career on hold

The Texans announced second-year linebacker Duke Ejiofor was placed on injured reserve. He had a shoulder injury before last year's draft that caused him to drop and he also got injured with the Texans last year. Bill O'Brien addressed Ejiofor's placement on IR.

"It's been unlucky. Duke's a great guy and he just has had some bad luck. He'll be back, though. He'll be back at some point and he'll have a chance to be a good pro football player. He's a good guy, he can do a lot of different things, he's a versatile player. It's just one of those things. It's tough. It was a fluky thing. It's just bad luck really, to be honest with you."

Longshot to roster spot

It is early to be thinking about an undrafted player making the roster but Bill O'Brien laid out Friday there are plenty of Texans players who started as undrafted free agents.

"So, really the message is – the draft is important," O'Brien said. "Like, don't get me wrong. But it's a small portion of the roster building. You have seven draft picks, you have 35 guys out here. So, if you're on the 90-man roster, I think we've proven as an organization that it's what you do when you get here. It's not how you got here, it's what you do when you enter the building from that point forward."

The Texans entire special teams unit is made up of players that weren't drafted. New safety Tashaun Gipson carved out a role in the NFL after his name wasn't called. Brennan Scarlett and Brandon Dunn were two defensive role players who started as free agents who didn't get drafted.

Here is my early longshot to roster spot player: Chris Johnson, safety, North Alabama.

He ran a 4.42 at a regional combine. He flashed a little today with play recognition and athleticism. He will likely do most of his work when the pads are on and he can showcase a little more of what he brings from the safety spot. There is room in the defensive back room for someone to contribute right away on special teams.

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