The 10 Best Rookie Seasons in Houston Texans History
Brian Cushing was the best defensive rookie in the NFL in 2009, one of the greatest individual seasons in franchise history.
Over the course of their fifteen-draft history, the Texans have assembled rookie classes of all shapes, sizes and qualities. There have been small classes (six drafted players in 2005 and this current rookie class), big classes (twelve drafted players in their inaugural season, ten in 2014), good classes (2006 and 2009 come to mind), and awful classes (too many to count, but 2013 is probably the poster child).
It remains to be seen how good the current crop of rookies will be, but the early signs are encouraging, with at least a couple likely starters in the group (once Nick Martin returns from injury) and some dynamic pieces that fill positions of need.
So with contributions likely (and honestly, necessary) from this rookie class, it got me thinking — what were the standard bearers when it comes to rookie performances for the Texans? Let's start with a few honorable mentions before listing the top ten....
DUANE BROWN, T (2008, 1st round, 26th overall)
Only the second rookie in the history of the franchise (Chester Pitts, the other one in 2002) to start all 16 games of his first year ... steadily improved to where he was solid in 2009 and a Pro Bowler by 2011.
OWEN DANIELS, TE (2006, 4th round, 98th overall)
Solid rookie season at tight end with 34 catches for 352 yards and five touchdowns ... would develop into a Pro Bowler by his third season, and become the best tight end in the history of the franchise.
KEVIN JOHNSON, CB (2015, 1st round, 16th overall)
Solid rookie season with 10 starts in a cornerback rotation that already included former Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph and five-year starter Kareem Jackson ... likely nickel corner entering his second season.
ARIAN FOSTER, RB (undrafted)
Only a six-game sample size (after being called up from the practice squad) and didn't get his first carry until the thirteenth game of the season, but over the final four games of 2009, averaged 4.8 yards per carry ... 97 and 119 yards in final two games was foreshadowing of things to come ... led the NFL in rushing the following season ... third greatest player in franchise history behind J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson.
Ok, now onto the top ten...
10. DeANDRE HOPKINS, WR (2013, 1st round, 27th overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: Burst onto the scene with 183 yards in his first two games, including the game winning touchdown in overtime against the Titans in Week 2, which sadly would be the final win of the season for the Texans. Like everyone else on the team, Hopkins had his struggles the remainder of the season, but had enough moments to amass 52 catches for 802 yards.
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: Hopkins developed into one of the top five wide receivers in football over the next two seasons, and is in line for a monster pay raise when the Texans get around to extending his contract.
9. BROOKS REED, OLB (2011, 2nd round, 42nd overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: You want an odd Texans stat? Brooks Reed had more sacks in his rookie season than fellow rookie J.J. Watt. Yep, you heard that right — Reed had six sacks his rookie year, and Watt had 5.5, although you could tell by the time the 2011 postseason rolled around that Watt was going to be a monster. (More on that in a minute.) Reed was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 6 after Mario Williams tore a pectoral muscle that finished his Texans career. In his first five games as a starter, Reed got all six of his sacks on the season, but he showed enough to have at least one expert (ok, so it was Peter King) predict he'd win Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 and would gather over twenty sacks. To King's credit, he was partially correct — the Texans did have the Defensive Player of the Year that season, and that player did have over twenty sacks. He just had the wrong guy. No big deal, Pedro. J.J. doesn't hold grudges ... just ask all the recruiting services who rated him a two-star player out of high school.
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: Reed would go on to become one of the more confounding Texans over the next three seasons, getting only 8.5 sacks from 2012 through 2014, with both coaching staffs over that time trying to convince us that he was doing an AMAZING job of holding the edge, and that doesn't show up in the stats, and blah blah blah. Atlanta would give read a five year, $22 million contract after the 2014 season, and he started five games for them last year. The end.
8. T.J. YATES, QB (2011, 5th round, 152nd overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: Truth be told, Brooks Reed is and was probably a better football player than Yates, but screw Reed... we LOVE T.J. YATES! When Matt Schaub and Matt Leonard went out with injuries in November of 2011, the keys were handed to third string rookie Yates, who promptly changed his name to "Matt" just to make things easier (OK, that didn't happen), and led the Texans to their first AFC South title and their first-ever playoff win.
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: Like most of the Texans that year, Yates was swallowed whole by the 2013 campaign, and new head coach Bill O'Brien traded him to Atlanta in the 2014 preseason for linebacker Akeem Dent. Eventually, Yates would find his way back to Houston, replacing perpetually tardy Ryan Mallett, and secure two huge wins (Cincinnati, New York Jets) in their run to another division title. A torn knee against the Colts ended his season, but Yates has never-pay-for-a-drink status secured forever in Houston.
7. J.J. WATT, DE (2011, 1st round, 11th overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: Believe it or not, there was a time in his NFL career when Watt was not a one-man wrecking crew. As mentioned previously, he finished the regular season with only 5.5 sacks. However, it was the postseason where Watt broke out huge, with the above pictured pick-six against the Bengals (still maybe the most important, most famous play in Texans history) and a performance in the loss to Ravens in which he was the best player on the field. We knew big things were in store for Watt...
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: Not bad.
6. ANDRE JOHNSON, WR (2003, 1st round, 3rd overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: While his numbers were only slightly better than Hopkins' rookie numbers, Johnson's 66-catch, 976-yard rookie campaign gets bumped fairly high up the list based on more consistent output throughout the season, with 100 yard games in September, November and December.
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: Also, not bad.
5. DOMANICK (Davis) WILLIAMS, RB (2003, 4th round, 104th overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: The other, and, in 2003 at least, better half of the Texans' skill position rookie combination, Williams (then named Davis) became the starter six games into the season and in the final ten games, rushed for 860 yards and eight touchdowns. He added 34 catches as well.
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: Williams would have another big season in 2004 (1,188 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns), and would get a new contract before the start of the 2005 season. The deal had $8 million in guaranteed money. Unfortunately, 11 games into the 2005 season, Williams suffered a knee injury, and never had another NFL carry.
4. DUNTA ROBINSON, CB (2004, 1st round, 10th overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: Robinson would justify his selection as the tenth overall pick in the 2004 draft by finishing third in the league in interceptions (six), and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors from the Pro Football Writers Association.
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: The remainder of Robinson's Texans career would be star crossed, to say the least. He suffered a catastrophic hamstring injury in 2007, with the muscle tearing off the bone, and didn't make it back until five games into the 2008 season. However, Robinson played well enough to become the organization's first ever franchise tagged player in 2009, which led to him scribbling "PAY ME, RICK" on his shoes during games, a love note to general manager Rick Smith. Robinson would eventually leave for Atlanta in free agency after the 2009 season.
3. DeMECO RYANS, LB (2006, 2nd round, 33rd overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: In a rookie class that included the number one overall pick (Mario Williams), the standout was Ryans, the team's second-round pick, who would rack up 125 tackles at inside linebacker and go on to win the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: Ryans would become the captain of the defense and one of the most popular players in franchise history. A ruptured Achilles tendon in 2010 robbed him of his explosiveness for the following season, and the team eventually traded him (and a third round pick) prior to the 2012 draft to Philadelphia for a third- and a fourth-round pick. (FUN FACT: The Texans' third-round pick wound up being Nick Foles and the two Eagles picks wound being Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones.)
2. BRIAN CUSHING, LB (2009, 1st round, 15th overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: Cushing burst onto the scene in 2009 as an outside linebacker with 86 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions, winning the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and going to his first and only Pro Bowl. He also brought a swagger and attitude to the Texans' defense that had been fairly foreign up to that point.
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: While Cushing is one of the most talented and popular players in franchise history, you could argue that his rookie season was his peak. Injuries have been the main culprit robbing Cushing of what could have been a perennial Pro Bowl-type career (as opposed to just a "heart and soul guy", as Bill O'Brien likes to call him), but a four-game suspension for a PED violation to begin 2010 stymied Cushing's rookie year momentum, and two gruesome knee injuries in 2012 and 2013 robbed him of 20 of those 32 games. Even healthy again, it took Cushing the entire 2014 season to get his explosiveness back. In the end, Cushing's Texans career will probably wind up being a hotly debated "what if" topic at many a local tavern over the next few years.
1. STEVE SLATON, RB (2008, 3rd round, 89th overall)
ROOKIE SEASON: Before the 2007 season, the Texans signed veteran running back Ahman Green to a fairly sizable deal. Unfortunately, Green was a broken player at that point, and wound up cashing huge checks for very few starts. In 2008, the Texans drafted Slaton in the third round, and by the second week, he'd replaced Green as the starter. If you didn't see Slaton play in 2008, then the top of this list may make you roll your eyes, but if you did see him play, you know how incredible he was that season, with 1,659 yards from scrimmage, and a final seven games in which he averaged 105 yards and over five yards a carry.
EVENTUAL OUTCOME: Expecting to shoulder a featured back's workload, Slaton returned to camp in 2009 with about 20 to 30 extra pounds of mass. (It was a weird combination of upper body muscle and a newly formed boiler.) It did not go well. Slaton went into the tank in his sophomore season, had major issues fumbling the football, and was benched for Ryan Moats and eventually put on injured reserve. The following season, Arian Foster happened, and that was pretty much it. Slaton's career ended quietly in Canada in 2014 with the Toronto Argonauts.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.