ROOKIE REPORT

Expectations for each player in the Texans 2020 draft class with the season approaching

Photo Courtesy of the Houston Texans

The first time Bill O'Brien and John Reid crossed paths took place in 2013. The then-head coach of Penn State, O'Brien recruited the junior high schooler to become a member of the Nittany Lions when it was time to begin his collegiate career. Two years later — while draped in blue and white — Reid suited up for Penn State in his first college football game against the Temple Owls. The Nittany Lions fell 27-10 to the Owls at Lincoln Financial Field.

In addition to the loss, Reid's debut looked considerably different from what he envisioned two years earlier. Instead of receiving play calls from the person responsible for his recruitment, Reid played under head coach James Franklin. O'Brien was in the middle of his second tenure as head coach of the Houston Texans during Reid's freshman season in 2015.

Seven years after their first encounter, O'Brien will finally have the opportunity to relish at the talents of Reid. The Texans drafted the 5-foot-8 defensive back in the fourth round (141st) of the 2020 NFL Draft, and Reid has been far from a disappointment.

The 24-year-old cornerback has been one of a few rookie standouts from the Texans training camp — receiving praise from his coaches and teammates. Veteran safety Michael Thomas described Reid to be a "young DB coming in and trying to learn NFL football." New Defensive Coordinator Anthony Weaver says Reid has put the work in every day with the mindset of earning a spot on Houston's 53-man roster.

With the start of the 2020 season less than 10-days away, Reid should have his roster spot secured. But playing time will be tough to come by for the New Jersey DB. Barring any severe injuries to Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves, Lonnie Johnson Jr, or Bradley Roby, Reid could be buried at the end of the Texans' depth chart.

There is a chance Reid will become a rotational player on special teams, but 2020 will be a year the former Nittany Lion will learn the NFL from afar.

"He's a smart player...he's got a lot to learn...but relative to the rookie class he's done a good job," O'Brien said. "He's learning. He plays hard. He's competitive. He's a very smart guy. He can do some different things. He can help on special teams. He can potentially help us on defense. I think he's a guy that's mature. He's been through a lot, injury wise. He's had to overcome things when he was at Penn State and so, yeah, I think he's doing a good job."

The potential is there. And perhaps Reid will play an important role for the Texans secondary within the next year or so. The same can be said for Ross Blacklock, but the Houston native is entering his first season with the most responsibility among all rookies.

A prosperous training camp has given both O'Brien and Weaver lofty expectations in their top draft pick. The aspirations in Blacklock's contribution could lead to a situation where the 22-year-old defensive tackle will have his number called quite often — despite not being a starter right out the gates.

Last season, the Texans struggled heavily at stopping the run. They placed in the 24th percentile for allowing the most rushing yards — giving up a total of 1,937 yardages allowed in 2019. The offseason departure of D.J. Reader to Cincinnati could leave Houston's front seven more vulnerable this coming season, but Blacklock could be the solution to help fill in the void.

A versatile and dynamic playmaker. The NFL Draft Network said Blacklock has the upside to become a building block for an NFL defense. And he is in a great situation to succeed. Not only will Blacklock receive valuable time during his rookie season, but he has the opportunity to do so while learning from his football idol, J.J. Watt — Houston's incumbent defensive building block.

"He's [Watt] a workhorse," Blacklock said. "Just being able to play next to him and play with him, it's an honor. I'm trying to learn as much as I can while I'm here and while he's here. One day hopefully I can be in that status, but that's down the road."

Similar to Blacklock, Jonathan Greenard's upside forecasts a bright future in his pro career. But it may take a year or two for the Florida Alumni to start peeking — parallel to Reid.

Prior to a leg injury that has caused him to miss a handful of practices, Greenard's talent as an edge rusher left Weaver stating "the sky is the limit for that kid." However, veteran Whitney Mercilus says the rookie outside linebacker must improve on his fundamentals.

"I think he's great — he's just got to clean up a few things," Mercilus said. "His learning curve is just fine as far as picking up the defense and doing the correct things. Just like all of us, we've got to be able to pick up our stamina just a little bit in practice and all that, just because it's a unique time, and just clean up the fundamental technique things."

Both Isaiah Coutler and Charlie Heck are in the same situation in terms of rookies receiving little to no snaps in 2020. Not because of their talents, but Coutler (WR) and Heck (OT) play two of the Texans' most well-establish positions and have spent the majority of training camp learning from the older veterans. No preseason to showcase their on-field production may result in Coulter and Heck landing on the Texans' practice squad.

With Keke Coutee sidelined with a minor stress fracture in his foot, Coulter could find his way on Houston's 53-man roster making contributions on special teams given his speed. Even then, that might be a long shot after Coulter missed a couple of practices dealing with his own injury.

"The head coach [O'Brien] has said it multiple times, 'this is a tough year for rookies,' and it absolutely is. There's a bunch of cumulative reps that they've missed out on whether it was in the spring or in preseason games, but at some point in the season because of their work ethic, they're all going to contribute and help us here throughout this year." — Weaver.

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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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