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Daniels becoming of league's best

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A former high school quarterback who uses his smarts to find holes in coverages, Daniels leads all AFC tight ends with 29 receptions for 374 yards.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this article appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday *magazine on Oct. 19, 2008, for Houston's home game against the Detroit Lions.
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When Texans coach Gary Kubiak selected Owen Daniels in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, he knew that he'd uncovered a gem.

Eight tight ends were drafted before Daniels, who had been a quarterback until making a position switch his sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin. Heading into the second day of the draft, Kubiak and then-Texans general manager Charley Casserly had no doubt who their next selection would be.

"That night, we had some meetings and talked and we're talking about the second day of the draft, and really that was Charley's earmark guy as we went into the next day," Kubiak said. "He felt like he was going to be a hell of a player, and he's been right."

Since 2006, Daniels has 42 more receptions (126) and 400 more yards (1,494) than any tight end in his draft class, which included two first-round and three second-round picks. He's quickly on his way to establishing himself as one of the top tight ends in the league.

Kubiak isn't surprised. The Texans' coach remembers seeing a University of Maryland quarterback by the name of Mike Tice go on to play tight end for 14 years in the NFL before becoming head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

Likewise with tight end Ken Dilger, who went to the Pro Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts and won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dilger, like Daniels, was a high school quarterback.

"In my time in the National Football League, there's been many ex-quarterbacks become good tight ends," Kubiak said. "I think the reason for that is because they understand coverages, they understand defenses, so when they go to that position, they know what they're attacking."

Daniels' current quarterback, Matt Schaub, couldn't agree more.

"It's very easy to talk to (Daniels) about things from my perspective because he understands it and he kind of thinks in the same terminology," Schaub said.

"He's a very reliable target. He really understands defenses and what he's trying to accomplish with his route, so he has a good feel from whether it's man-to-man or zone and when we're trying to get him the ball so he can be the most open."

While Daniels' smarts help him find holes in zones, his athleticism gives him an edge against man coverage. At 6-3, 247 pounds with 4.65 speed, the former high school varsity basketball player and Illinois state finalist in the long jump presents matchup problems across the middle of the field for even the most versatile safeties and linebackers.

Just ask the Pro Bowl linebacker who practices against him every day.

"Owen's always one of the hardest guys to cover," DeMeco Ryans said. "He does a good job at the line of scrimmage just giving you a good fake, giving good moves, and he runs his routes well. He runs crisp routes that are pretty hard to defend.

"And when the ball is up in the air, it's very tough to get it from Owen. He has good hands. He goes up and gets the ball very strong, and he's definitely one of the best tight ends in this league, hands down. I don't think anyone catches the ball as well as Owen does."

Last season, Daniels caught the ball 63 times for 768 yards and three touchdowns. It was an improvement from a productive rookie season, when he had 34 catches for 352 yards and five touchdowns.

Daniels has taken another step forward this year. Through Week 7, he ranks first among AFC tight ends in receptions (29) and receiving yards (374). His yardage total is 67 more than his closest competitor, Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who has played in seven games compared to six for Daniels.

And few tight ends in the NFL have been more vital to sustaining drives than Daniels this season. Twenty-one of his 29 catches (72.4 percent) have produced first downs.

"He's improved each year that he's played," tight end Mark Bruener said. "How they've talked about Tony Gonzalez for all these years with the {QUOTE}Kansas City Chiefs and Antonio Gates, I really think Owen can be one of those guys who's going to be talked about throughout his career as somebody that is a premier receiving tight end and one of the leading tight ends in the league."

This offseason, Daniels spent time studying film of the likes of Gonzalez, Gates and Jason Witten to pick up on the different ways they move and run routes. He also set out to become more consistent in the passing game after uncharacteristically losing three fumbles in 2007.

Daniels, who admits he's still learning the nuances of the tight end position, also focused on improving in areas other than the passing game. His primary goals this offseason were adding strength and perfecting his technique at the line of scrimmage.

"Most of the guys I'm blocking are bigger than me and stronger than me," Daniels said. "Footwork and hand placement and things like that really go a long way to helping me to be successful when I'm out there trying to block those guys."

Bruener, who constantly gives Daniels tips in the locker room, in meetings and on the field, couldn't be happier with his pupil's progress.

"I think Owen has really worked tremendously hard to become a complete player," Bruener said. "And what I mean by a complete player is someone that can be at the point of attack in our running game and be a very effective receiver. He shows that week in and week out as far as his receiving skills, and he continues to be a very strong presence in our running game as far as being able to block the point of attack."

Earlier this season, Daniels became the Texans' all-time leading tight end when he passed Billy Miller for most receptions and yards from the position. The down-to-earth Daniels played down the achievement, saying it's "definitely cool" but that he wouldn't even have known that he broke Miller's marks if not for the fact that somebody told him.

It could be the first of many accomplishments for the converted quarterback.

"I don't think he's even scratched the surface," Kubiak said. "I think he's got a chance to be exceptional, so I'm really excited about him. We just need to keep him going."

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