Training camp news and notes

Texans training camp report: David Johnson continues to impress

Photo Courtesy of the Houston Texans

The Houston Texans stood on the 40-yard line when Deshaun Watson received a snapped to initiate the play. With his eyes set on his target, Watson threw a 15-yard pass attempt to tight end, Darren Fells. Instead of making the completion, Watson's pass attempt fell short as safety A.J. Moore Jr. came away with the interception.

Moore's pick on Watson was the first of two interceptions by Houston's secondary. A few possessions later, cornerback Cornell Armstrong picked off A.J. McCarron's pass attempt to Keke Coutee in a similar fashion.

"I think it's hard because you don't want to throw interceptions, but you also want takeaways in the game," head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien said. "Again, at the end of the day the turnover-takeaway battle is a huge part of the game and I think it's going to be a huge part of the game early on here. Penalties, tackling and then turnovers and takeaways – your ability to take the ball away – those things are going to be huge. It was good to see our defense – they work hard at those drills and then it carried over ... today a couple of times."

The Houston's Training Center marked the Texans' return to practice for their third day of action in full pads. Wide receiver Kenny Stills and inside linebacker Dylan Cole made their first appearance in training camp, but noticeably missing from the group was star defensive end, J.J Watt. The five-time Pro-Bowler did not participate in any of the team's on-field practice, but Watt's absence was apart of O'Brien's new management plan for his seasoned veterans.

"J.J. has played a ton of football for us and at a very high level," says O'Brien. "He's on a different type of plan. I'm not sure how much you'll see him out there this week. He'll be out there eventually, but he's on a different type of plan just like a lot of other guys."

David Johnson continues to impress:

David Johnson recently told Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report that his personal goal in 2020 is to recapture his potential as a running back who is capable of recording 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiver yards on the season. Albeit Johnson has yet to live up to his 2016 All-Pro status, the Texans appear to have put the 28-year-old running back in a position to succeed.

Stepping in as the primary back, Johnson took part in several reps showcasing his productivity as a dual-threat option coming out of the backfield. Johnson had some quality plays rushing the ball for a few yards, but what stood out the most was his proficient hands as a receiver. He capitalized on four out of his five pass-catching plays coming out of the backfield — demonstrating the harmony of the Watson-to-Johnson collaboration.

Since the beginning of training camp on July 25, Johnson's new coaches and teammates have gushed at his expertise, and the Texans' endless offensive possibilities to attack with him on the field. Johnson has impressed nearly everyone through his first few weeks of training camp. Everyone, except for his new backfield-mate, Duke Johnson.

"Absolutely nothing," Duke said. "Everything I see from David, I kind of expect. We came out the same year, so I kind of knew what he was capable of. I watched him when he was in Arizona. I think what has surprised a lot of people is the way that he's able to move at the size he is and what a great receiver he is out of the backfield."

Steven Mitchell Jr. plays with starters:

Last season, wideout Steven Mitchell Jr. spent most of 2019 as a member of the Texans practice squad. The most amount of snaps he received took placed during Houston's season finale against the Titans. As a starter, Mitchell recorded 37 yards on five catches in 65 snaps — as the Texans fell 35-14 to their AFC South rivals.

Coming into camp, the possibility of Mitchell solidifying a placed on the Texans' 53-man roster seemed far-fetched — but the former undrafted free-agent is making a strong case.

Mitchell ran nearly all of his reps with the starters during the Texans' 11-on-11 situational drills, where he completed three receptions from Watson in the process. O'Brien credited Mitchell's reps to managing his primary receiving core, but was impressed by the development the USC prodigy showcased Monday morning.

"I really like Stevie. He works so hard. When you look at the GPS numbers, he can run all day. He works really hard. He made a couple good plays today, he had a touchdown catch today. I think he's gotten better every year here. I think he's really improved. Relative to his role, he does things on special teams, he does things on offense. He's always trying to improve and he's always embracing his role." says O'Brien.

Special teams rotation:

The Texans have a plethora of speed on their roster. So much so, special teams coordinator Tracy Smith mentioned that he feels comfortable using anyone from Will Fuller to Keke Coutee as Houston's primary returner. Perhaps Fuller maybe the latter given his offensive responsibilities, but Smith explored with a combination using of Coutee, DeAndre Carter and David Johnson.

From the looks of it, Carter and Coutee have reprised their role as the Texans' primary choice in both kick and punt returns — with Carter as the main option. Followed by Johnson, who only received reps with kicks.

"We have to take pride in it and I think we have a bunch of people who do that," Johnson said. "Once you establish a core group of special team players, it's up to that core group of people to lead the teams and believe that third phase of the game is really important. That's how you win football games and close football games at that."

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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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