There aren't too many football folks that don't look forward to the first day in pads. All the talking is done. The offensive linemen get a chance to finally run block. The linebackers get to deliver some blows. No more tagging off on running backs and ball carriers.
With rain in the forecast, the Texans took to the field about 45 minutes early to get their work done. The West Virginia weather gods looked kindly on the Texans, holding off the rain until the Texans players left the field. Here are my observations from a fun first day in pads.
- As per usual on the first in pads, Coach O'Brien lined up his two units down on the goal line. I love the way that he does that because it sets a tone in practice that it's about to go down.
- The defense came away with a number of stops, but let me tell you a little secret, the defense cheats on the goal line (I should know, I was a safety and ran straight to the ball like a linebacker). They know that there isn't a threat of the pass so all 11 guys are screaming to the ball no matter what. That said, it was HIGHLY intense.
- Rookie running back D'Onta Foreman did have the best run down on the goal line, scoring one of the two touchdowns. That's what the Texans need from him this year, if nothing else, and he punched one in from in close. More on Foreman in a bit.
- Linebacker Brian Cushing dominated the drill, honestly. Ramping up the intensity and running through some people? That's Cushing's bailywick, if you will. He got some help from his front, too. Defensive tackle D.J. Reader, similar to the way he did against the Patriots on the goal line in the playoff game, stuffed the gaps and knocked interior people backwards to help Cushing and his linebackers make some plays.
- The outside linebackers and tight ends went one-on-one in strictly a man on man drive blocking drill. Linebacker Ufomba Kamalu was tough as all get out to block. He was one of my overall standouts on the day. He fired into tight ends and powered them back off the ball. He held his ground when he had to bump inside to play against guards and tackles. He looked like a different dude than this time last year. He was as physical as anyone on the field.
- Fellow outside linebacker Brennan Scarlett had some juice today as well. He was strong at the point of attack and nearly knocked out rookie linebacker Gimel President on a kickoff return 1-on-1 drill. I mean, Scarlett caught him good, but President got right up and won the next rep.
- All in all, Scarlett played with some serious fire. Every time I looked up he was popping pads and moving around well. If there's a position that needs some depth to step up behind a star (Whitney Mercilus), it's this one. Scarlett and Kamalu seemingly did that today.
- I mentioned rookie linebacker Dylan Cole yesterday and I'm going to do it again today. I don't know that I've seen a linebacker run stride for stride with running back Akeem Hunt down the field...deep. Cole did that and knocked away a pass intended for Hunt in 1-on-1s. I wrote in my notes that "51 just seems to be in the right spot all the time."
- Later in a team drill, he read a screen perfectly and was in the hip pocket of the running back. The quarterback had to throw the ball away to avoid Cole having his second interception in as many days.
- I like the way that Kendall Lamm protected the passer in one-on-ones against the edge rushers. I've thought, for a while, that Lamm could progress into a starting role and he still has a ton of work to do, but he certainly looks the part at right tackle right now.
- Cornerback Denzel Rice came up with a forced fumble during one-on-ones against the receivers. Jaelen Strong made the catch and started to turn up field and Rice poked it away from him. If there's anything that ALWAYS gets the coaches attention, it's turnovers. Rice has made a few plays the past few days.
- Strong did struggle a bit early in practice, but during team drills later in the day, he made the catch of the day, diving for a deep ball in the end zone near the Sports Performance Center for a touchdown.
- Another rookie that bears watching is former Missouri product defensive tackle Ricky Hatley. He had a couple of powerful pass rushes against interior linemen. He's not going to be fancy, nor is he going to be a Watt/Clowney/Mercilus type productive pass rusher. But, he's one strong dude worth watching in the middle of the line as training camp continues. He also made a stop at the line of scrimmage on a zone run from the backside, squeezing down on the ball carrier after defeating the block.
- Watching Carlos Watkins work his hands and power through during pass rush one-on-ones, it was evident why the Texans were so intrigued with him early on day two of the draft. He won a few times convincingly in those drills against a couple of different guys.
- During one-on-ones against the linebackers and safeties, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz had a great catch, skying over the safety for a long catch down the seam. That's where C.J. has to dominate again in 2017 for this offense to take a quantum leap from last year.
- Eddie P. will remain Eddie P. after he knocked away a deep ball intended for speedy Akeem Hunt down the field.
- It's fun to watch running back Lamar Miller out in space. On the first play in team, he took an inside run and bounced it to the outside after the edge players collapsed a bit too much. That left him one-on-one on a defensive back and he "shook" him out of his shoes for a big gain.
- Later in a team drill where the offense drove the ball down the field, Miller started the drive off with an inside out zone run for about 35 yards. He got outside the block of right tackle Kendall Lamm and inside the block of C.J. Fiedorowicz and then hit the gas back to the sideline. He flew up the field for the big gain.
- Speaking of running backs, D'Onta Foreman ran hard and, most importantly, stayed inside his running lane. Meaning? Meaning that Foreman shouldn't try what Miller tries. Lamar can get the edge and turn the corner for meaningful gains outside the numbers. Foreman isn't quite that guy, but I love his feet and his interior vision, so I want to see him stay patient and find those more direct downhill running lanes.
- One of Foreman's best runs came against the number one defense. He started on a lead play to the left, but saw an alley to his right. So, without slowing down, he burst through the initial hole and darted over to the right and found his way for about ten to 12 yards.
- One other aspect about Foreman is that he's catching the ball very well out of the backfield and even, at times, adjusted to catching passes thrown behind him. That part of his game, well, it wasn't even a part of his game at Texas. But, he's showing he can do it in practice.
- Jadeveon Clowney just pinballs 250-300 lb. men like it's nothing. I'm amazed at the number of people he knocks backwards or on their wallets as he's fighting through blocks to find the ball.
- Watching linebacker Zach Cunningham, I can't help but think about Benardrick McKinney as a rookie. The first few days of McKinney's training camp back then, he wasn't sure exactly where to be. He eventually soaked in this defense and became a second team All-Pro last season. I can see Cunningham struggling a bit with where to line up and some different responsibilities than he's accustomed to, but he's going to be fine. Hopefully, a lot like another former SEC linebacking star: McKinney.
- I'll say this, though, that dude can run and he can cover running backs. He showed that in one-on-ones against running back Alfred Blue as he knocked away a pass.
- I don't even know that I've mentioned the quarterbacks until now and that's a shame. All three guys threw it well throughout the day. I mentioned yesterday that Deshaun Watson seemed upset with the way he performed at the end of practice, but he threw it much better on Friday. I thought his best throw was a lasered dart to receiver Will Fuller on a deep dig route, off of play action, during team drills.
- Wait, I take that back, the best throw he made was on a deep over route to Ryan Griffin off of boot action but Griffin couldn't hang on. That, my friends, was a gorgeous throw.
- Watson needs to make all the great throws he can because Tom Savage is doing much of the same. He continued to go to DeAndre Hopkins and that synergy/chemistry is definitely developing. During 7-on-7, Savage went to Hopkins on consecutive plays - one for a sliding catch and another placed in the perfect spot on an out route. A few plays later, Savage dropped that deep ball on Jaelen Strong that I mentioned earlier for the touchdown. Savage also hit C.J. Fiedorowicz on a seam route during a team drive session following a long Lamar Miller run (noted above).
- It didn't always go swimmingly for the quarterbacks. During team drive session, Watson wanted to find Stephen Anderson on an option route for a first down. Inside linebacker Shakeel Rashad read it perfectly, anticipated it, broke like a defensive back in front of Anderson...and then dropped it. Luckily the very next play, guard Xavier Su'a-Filo opened the hole for D'Onta Foreman who ran for a first down and went toe-to-toe with hulking safety Lonnie Ballentine. I don't think either guy had ever met someone like the other. Ballentine hasn't seen too many 235 pound tank-like running backs and Foreman certainly did not see many 6-3, 220 lb. safeties in the Big 12.
- Treston Decoud is getting a baptism by fire, but that man will compete. Even if he gets beat on one route, he's coming right back to battle for the next one. A perfect example of that was in team drills when receiver Jaelen Strong caught a slant on him for a ten yard pickup. On the next play, Strong ran a dig route and Decoud broke up the pass. After the play, there were some words exchanged between the two. Decoud also knocked away a deep pass intended for DeAndre Hopkins later in practice. Slowly but surely, he's getting more reps and gathering confidence.
- I watched the offensive line and defensive line in 1-on-1s more than any other day because the pads went on and, quite honestly, I'd seen enough of the "jets" from OTAs/Minicamp and the first two days of training camp.
- Jeff Allen looks like the Jeff Allen of old. I like seeing him mixing it up and getting feisty. He takes guff from no one, including his former Illinois teammate and pal Whitney Mercilus. Those two got tangled up in a stunt pass rush drill and there was some disagreement, shall we say, at the conclusion of the play. If Allen continues to progress, this offense will benefit greatly.
- Center Nick Martin is a tank. I interviewed him after the practice and I was struck by his build. I've talked with Nick plenty but this time it felt like he towered over me. He was one of the last guys off the field and had a solid day, it appeared. His first pass rush rep was against D.J. Reader who can bull rush the best of them. Martin anchored against the bull then got his hands in position to keep Reader from throwing an arm under to get free. I've said for a while that Martin is a technician at his craft and it's great to see him healthy again.
- In this space yesterday, I remarked that I was highly intrigued to see how rookie tackle Julien Davenport would fare against the Texans edge rushers. Look, Rome wasn't built in a day, but the young dude competed hard on both sides and had success too. Yesterday, Mercilus threw a spin move on him and left Davenport flailing. Today, Davenport faced Jadeveon Clowney and kept him at bay. Clowney wasn't completely sure how to attack the long armed rookie and Davenport sort of enveloped him and held his ground. As I mentioned, he's doing it on both sides of the line as well.
- Rookie Eli Ankou completely bull rushed one of the Texans guards that got the defensive line yelling his name. That's got to be a good feeling for a rookie when the veterans are hollering your name like after a successful rep.
- David Quessenberry did a solid job slowing Carlos Watkins during a one-on-one rep. David's strength is definitely there and the timing and the rest will hopefully come back soon. I can't even imagine what today must have felt like for him.
Well, that's about it for the first day in pads. Tomorrow might be the weekend, but trust me, there's a ton of work to be done and I'll be back with more observations from West Virginia. See ya' then, everyone.
Check out some of the best shots from the third day of training camp at The Greenbrier in West Virginia.