CAMP COUNTDOWN

Texans training camp preview: Wide receivers/tight ends

DeAndre Hopkins is still the man at WR for the Texans. Houstontexans.com

A winning season for the Texans offensively is going to be done more through the air than on the ground. The running backs group is average at best and a bottom tier offensive line probably won’t help with the down and distance. As good as Deshaun Watson is, it’s imperative that his receivers and tight ends create quick separation and gain yards after the catch.

It’s easy to be optimistic about the wide receivers. DeAndre Hopkins will be around for a while and Will Fuller was having a great season with Watson before injuries to both players ended it. When catching passes from Watson, these two guys put up some pretty big numbers. Hopkins had 44 receptions for 599 yards and 7 touchdowns and Fuller had 13 receptions for 279 yards and 7 touchdowns of his own. Combined they accounted for nearly half of Watson’s receptions and yards, but a whopping 14 of his 19 touchdowns.

That level of production, sustained over a full 16 game season could give the Texans one of the best passing attacks in the league. But they will need help. Brian Gaine knows that and the roster headed into training camp is loaded with eight other guys on the chart. Most of them very young and ready to carve out a role in Houston.

The familiar names: Bruce Ellington, Braxton Miller, and special teams guy Chris Thompson. DeAndrew White caught a pass last year, but was only in two games. The new faces are free agent acquisition Sammie Coates, fourth round rookie Keke Coutee, and undrafted free agents Jester Weah and Vyncint Smith. My favorites to make the roster are Ellington and Coutee. The other six guys are going to be climbing over each other to earn a spot.

When September comes around I can see Hopkins and Fuller lining up outside with Coutee as the slot receiver. I think it might be the ideal grouping. Another option in the slot will be the veteran Ellington. He demonstrated capability last year hauling in 29 passes for 330 yards and 2 touchdowns, working a lot over the middle of the field.

I think this is the end of the line for Braxton Miller. He hasn’t developed the way he needs to as a receiver in the NFL so it’s time for some young talent to push him aside. Jester Weah and Vyncint Smith will be those guys.

Weah played his college ball at Pittsburgh where he averaged 17 yards a catch. He’s a big body guy with 4.43 speed to match. Smith is also a big guy with speed, clocked at 4.36 on his pro day. But Limestone College in Division II makes his jump to the pros an uphill climb and will require a year or two to be ready. Either one of these guys might make the back end of the roster on athleticism and speed, both useful on special teams.

Then of course there’s Sammie Coates. He’s basically been a just a guy during his time with the Steelers and last year in Cleveland. His career numbers are 28 receptions for 516 yards and 2 touchdowns across three seasons. He may stick around, he may not. I’ll take the latter.

The tight end group is not as easy to be hopeful about. The Texans had a struggling and injury prone group last season that culminated in the retirement of C.J. Fiedorowicz after three concussions. A lot of attention was needed for improvement in 2018. It was necessary to get a big target in the middle of the field to help Deshaun Watson in the passing game. If he can block well in the running game then all the better.

That must be why there are seven tight ends on the roster. Holdovers from last year include Ryan Griffin, who was hurt most of last season and Stephen Anderson who played in 15 games but only caught 25 passes and 1 touchdown. MyCole Pruitt saw action in one game last year but no passes came his way. The other four guys are new in town, including two draft picks.

Brian Gaine made it clear on draft day that he wasn’t going to let this position fall through the cracks. He took Jordan Akins from University of Central Florida 98th overall and Mississippi State’s Jordan Thomas in the sixth round. He also added Matt Lengel off waivers from Cleveland and Jevoni Robinson as an undrafted rookie project who is converting from basketball.

Griffin is likely to be the starter with Anderson backing him up. It will take time for both rookie draft picks to get used to the NFL. Akins is a big guy but fits better as a split out tight end. He is going to need a lot of work before he’s an in-line blocker. Thomas is even worse. He has some great size-strength measurables but will need to learn some basics about route running if he plans on being on the team.

Not too many teams keep four tight ends on the roster unless one of them is great on special teams. The Texans have a lot of needs so I won’t be shocked if only Griffin, Anderson and Akins make the final cut. Griffin has the skills as a pass catcher but still could use a little more athleticism. Anderson just needs to keep developing and he will be fine. The big news will be if Jordan Akins turns out to be a valuable tool who can split wide. His size and ability could be a mismatch against linebackers in coverage and make him a nice red zone target.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about the players Watson will be throwing to. There is plenty of size and speed and the ability to create ideal matchup scenarios. The skill level of the backups will need some coaching, but it can work in Houston’s favor to put them in the right situations on game day. There is still work to be done and there may be new faces that join the team in the coming month, all with a goal of being a top tier passing attack.

 

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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