In today's NFL, with less practice and less contact collectively bargained, educated observations on how a player has improved through the offseason are harder than ever to ascertain in June. The real proof of a player progressing from Point A to Point B in his career comes in August and beyond, when the pads go on.
Still, this won't stop us from trying to conjure up some hot football takes on who looks TOTALLY AMAZEBALLS running in shorts and T-shirts, especially if it's a guy who looked like hot doggy doo during last season. My point is that any observation of improvement regarding specific players by media members is probably done, in part, to serve some sort of content machine.
However,, when the head coach himself says that a player has improved, well WHOA NELLIE .. IT MUST BE TRUE! So without further ado, here are four Houston Texans who have visibly improved at the game of American football, even though they have yet to wear pads since getting smoked by the Chiefs in early January.
How do I know they've improved? Because Bill O'Brien said so!!
4. BERNARDRICK McKINNEY, Inside linebacker
2015 Summary: Played in 14 games and wound up the third leading tackler on the team (63 tackles), and improved as the season went along.
Why improvement in 2016 is crucial: Because Brian Cushing has never really had a plus-level fellow inside linebacker playing alongside him, and the improvement of this defense from really good to great lies in young players like McKinney and Clowney approaching their ceilings. Also, Cushing is on the back end of his career and an heir apparent as a leader at inside linebacker would be a nice development this season.
Bill O'Brien says:
“I would say one guy on defense that I haven’t been asked a lot about that I think has really improved during the offseason and was improving at the end of last year is Benardrick McKinney. Benardrick McKinney is a guy that really understands our defense well right now. He has got a very unique skill set, can do a lot of different things, not just play inside linebacker. He can help us on special teams. He can help us on third down. He can do a lot of different things for us. So, I think he’s a guy who has improved quite a bit."
3. DEREK NEWTON, Right tackle
2015 Summary: After getting shuffled all over the offensive line while the group dealt with injury and performance issues in the first half of the season, Newton settled in and was solid enough, if unspectacular, at right tackle.
Why improvement in 2016 is crucial: Because literally every other spot on the offensive line has some sort of question mark, as of June 15, 2016 — will Duane Brown be fully healthy? Will Xavier Su'a-Filo live up to the billing of a second round pick in 2014? Will Nick Martin establish himself as a rookie? How will Jeff Allen adjust to a new environment?
Bill O'Brien says:
"I think when you look at the offensive line, I think it has been pretty interesting to watch Derek Newton. Derek Newton practiced this offseason. I think he came back in good condition. To me it looks like him and Duane Brown, they’re both - you know obviously Duane being here for so long, being such a good player for us, he’s a leader. He hasn’t been in there because of injury. He’ll be back hopefully during training camp, but Derek Newton took on some leadership responsibility this offseason and I think that has been good.”
2. A.J. BOUYE, Cornerback
2015 Summary: Inconsistent season in coverage, finished with two interceptions and six passes defended.
Why improvement in 2016 is crucial: Because you can never have too many productive cornerbacks (Chapter 3, Verse 16 of the Book of Rick Smith), and after the Texans top three corners (Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, Kevin Johnson), the depth chart is wide open. The fourth corner is one injury away from having a prominent role in this defense, and all three of the top corners have had minor injury issues over the last couple years.
Bill O'Brien says:
“He has had a lot of opportunities this spring. With J-Joe (Johnathan Joseph) out for the spring and (CB) Charles James out and (CB) Kevin Johnson out, A.J. has gotten a ton of reps. He’s taking advantage of them. He’s a guy that’s playing with a lot of confidence and I think he’s really taking advantage of his reps. He has gotten better in man-to-man coverage. He has gotten better at his overall technique. He has helped us on special teams. He has worked very hard. He has definitely improved.”
BONUS! J.J. Watt says:
“He has played very, very well. He’s had an unbelievable spring so far. He’s a guy that’s always trying to learn, he’s always trying to get better. I think his confidence right now is through the roof, as it should be with the way he’s playing. I think the more he can build on that confidence the better he’s going to be. But I think he’s played really, really well, and he’s doing some tough duties. He’s covering some great receivers.”
1. JAELEN STRONG, Wide receiver
2015 Summary: After coming into OTA's overweight and struggling in training camp, Strong was able to get on the field in the second half of the season, catching the winning touchdown in the Texans first win ever in Indianapolis.
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Why improvement in 2016 is crucial: Because the Texans gave up draft picks to move up and select Strong in the 2015 draft, taking Strong in the third round when some teams were thought to see him as a first round talent. Also, while there is a high level of excitement about rookies Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, both are still rookies, and Strong's development could be key to ensuring neither are rushed into action.
Bill O'Brien says:
“Probably one of the most improved players on our football team, Jaelen Strong. From this point where he was last year compared to where he is now, he has turned it around 180 degrees. He’s in good shape, he has made a lot of plays this spring. The last couple weeks he has made a lot of plays on first and second down off of third down, in the red area and two-minute. He is really working hard to get better every day. He has a better understanding of our offense and he’s a guy that I think we’re all proud of. He has really made a change and really improved and had a good offseason.”
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