It's felt like years since Cecil Shorts' caught Blake Bortles pass out of bounds on fourth down to end the Texans 23-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fortunately, it's only been months but it seemed way too long to wait after Bill O'Brien and company finished the season with four wins out of five games and five of the last seven. Excitement has been building and that was abundantly evident on the first day of training camp.
So, what happened on day one? A few observations I was able to make through the quagmire of people on Saturday.
- Before practice even started, I made note of the players coming out on to the field. The first thing that stood out was that there were no surprises. Everyone that was expected to be on the field was here, accounted for and ready to compete. Sure, Jadeveon Clowney, Akeem Dent and David Quessenberry worked out with the training staff on field three, but we knew that was going to be the case. No surprises. Guys seemingly all in shape and ready to roll.
- The other noticeable aspect of practice before it even kicked off was the physique of Jaelen Strong, the rookie receiver out of Arizona State. He arrived in May after OTAs and it was clear he wasn't in shape at all. He returned, though, looking sleek and strong as he did at Arizona State. We'll get to some more thoughts on him in a bit, but just seeing the conditioning work he put in and the results in his frame and stamina were a good sign.
- I wrote about the training camp battles that I'd most be interested in during training camp and one of those was punt returner. Well, as I surmised six different players took a crack today - Keshawn Martin, Chandler Worthy, Alan Bonner, Cecil Shorts III, Damaris Johnson and Keith Mumphery. Let the competition begin.
- Aaron Adams was recently signed, just two days prior to the start of training camp and is a good looking specimen. He'll get plenty of opportunity to fight for a spot on the 53.
- Having suffered injuries the past two seasons, receiver Alan Bonner spent both seasons on the IR, missing each season entirely. We weren't really sure what Bonner would, or even could, bring to the team. Well, if today was any indication, he's definitely going to be in this receiver mix. He caught everything thrown his way, with one exception on a deep ball vs. Kareem Jackson in 1-on-1s. Bonner is quick as a hiccup and sudden in and out of his breaks. I could truly see him getting reps at the slot receiver position throughout the rest of camp.
- During 1-on-1s, linebacker Brian Cushing seemed much more confident tracking receivers/running backs out in routes than he was last year. He's night and day different from last year and I can't wait to see the full package unleashed once the pads go on. Later in practice during team 11-on-11, Cushing was the backside linebacker on a run away from him and he ran it down before the RB even got to the line of scrimmage.
- That said, the best linebacker in coverage on this team remains unchanged - Mike Mohamed. One rep he was matched up on Arian Foster who can beat any linebacker in the league and Mohamed read his movement and cut him off before Foster could break his route where he wanted. Later in practice, Mohamed was one-on-one with tight end Ryan Griffin and knocked away a touchdown completion in the back of the end zone. I know the Texans drafted Benardrick McKinney at the inside linebacker spot but Mohamed isn't about to take a backseat to anyone with his multiple and varied skill set.
- On one of the first few plays in 1-on-1, Nate Washington made a brilliant, deep downfield catch for a TD. He's going to be 32 before the end of the month but he gets downfield better than any Texans receiver not named DeAndre Hopkins.
- Speaking of Hop, news flash, he's good. Real good.
- The cornerbacks, though, made life ultra-difficult for the Texans pass catchers. A.J. Bouye got beat by Washington early but broke up a couple of passes over the rest of practice. Charles James is like a gnat that you can't get rid of and then he lets you know all about it. Darryl Morris ran routes for receivers he was so locked in. That doesn't even include how well Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson looked throughout practice. There were, I believe at last count, four coverage sacks during practice, which almost never happens. This is as deep a cornerback position as the Texans have ever had, well at least since I've been covering the team since 2007.
- EZ Nwachukwu made a tremendous twisting catch matched up on Joseph. I'm not sure which QB it was but he threw a backshoulder dart and EZ turned completely around and snatched it out of the air for the catch. EZ just has to stay consistent all the way throughout training camp and not lose his momentum as it transpires.
Take a look at Texans players during media availability on their first day back at NRG Stadium.
- I mentioned Jaelen Strong earlier and a concern some have is whether he can get separation from NFL cornerbacks. But, even if he doesn't, he still might be open. A good example of this occurred during 1-on-1s. Matched up against Darryl Morris, the corner completely read Strong's route, nearly matching him step for step. But, Morris was still on Strong's hip; he couldn't go through him to the ball. Essentially, Strong shielded Morris with his big frame, boxing him out like a defender would do in basketball and made the catch. Morris clapped his hands as if he was angry he didn't make the play, but he just couldn't get around Strong or body him out of the way. Strong wasn't really open but the way he positioned himself on the route allowed him to make the catch and more importantly keep Morris from making the sure pick.
- Rookie RB Kenny Hilliard caught four passes at LSU as a senior but watching him catch the ball during minicamp, OTAs and again today, it's clear he catches it better than you'd expect from those numbers. He made a handful of catches and looked comfortable in that aspect of the offense.
- If rookie CB Kevin Johnson hits as hard with pads on as he does with pads off, oh wow, he might have to move to safety some day. From the first day of rookie minicamp through today, he's knocked more players to the ground than anyone else. Man, his ability to challenge any pass in his area is impressive. He reacts and breaks on the ball like a shot and when he gets there he's going to strip it out, knock it down or pick it off.
- Rookie TE Mike McFarland, known a bit more for his blocking than his receiving, made a few sweet catches throughout practice. He's a big boy and if he can catch it consistently and his blocking matches up, he'll get more important reps as training camp continues.
- Everyone wants to know about the quarterbacks. Thousands of people watched that practice and came away with different opinions. I didn't think either Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett dominated the practice session and each had good and bad moments throughout the day. Hoyer missed a few corner routes that were open in the end zone while Mallett struggled with some of the short to intermediate throws. That said, they're light years ahead of last year's quarterback group. Light. Years.
- One impressive moment of the day was a Mallett incompletion. The Texans were working on their inside the ten yard line/goal line offense. Damaris Johnson ran his route just past the goal line but was surrounded by three or
View photos from the first day of practice at #TexansCamp.
four intermediate coverage defenders. Mallett got on his toes and made the throw to the only spot that his guy could get it, which was about six inches off the ground. Mallett purposely threw low, hoping that Johnson could slide under it. Andre Ware and I noticed that was the only spot he could make that throw and were impressed by it, although a few fans behind us groaned about the incompletion. To me, it was an educated risk to make that throw in that spot.
- But, of the quarterback group, Tom Savage may have had the best day. I thought Tom threw it well throughout the day, other than taking a couple of coverage sacks. He's made significant progress since last season and that's great to see.
- Every day during minicamp and OTAs, 5th round rookie Keith Mumphery made a play deep down the field and the first day of training camp was no exception. He got behind a defensive back and made another deep catch on a throw from Savage.
- After an initial drop, TE C.J Fiedorowicz was much more of a factor in the passing game. He made a couple of touchdown catches down in the red zone and seemed much more comfortable than he was last year. If he, Ryan Griffin and Garrett Graham can be more involved in the passing game, look out.
- No one has pads on just yet but there can be contact. OLB Jason Ankrah took that to heart when he literally bench pressed one of the Texans rookie tackles on one of his pass rushes. Ankrah got up underneath him, just locked out on him and nearly knocked him into next week.
- One of the loudest ovations of the day was when the coaches and the offense did push ups after a goal line drill. The offense got stopped on four downs and as a result the entire offense, including all the coaches, dropped to give everyone ten push ups. Kareem Jackson took immense pleasure in watching the guys in blue do the push ups.
It was a relatively quiet day, no real surprises and an effective day altogether. An effective and efficient start to training camp. Tomorrow will be another one and I'll have more observations for you then. See ya' then!
The Houston Texans roster in photos. (Updated 4/16/2021)