Through seven games, tight end Owen Daniels is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
Voting for the Pro Bowl opened on Monday, and there are plenty of players on the 6-1, AFC-leading Texans worthy of consideration for selection. Daniels is decidedly among that group.
Daniels has 33 catches for 416 yards, which rank second on the Texans behind Andre Johnson, and a team-high four receiving touchdowns. All of those totals are in the top-four among all NFL tight ends and top-three in the AFC.
In his seventh season, Daniels ranks second among AFC tight ends in catches, yards and yards per catch (12.6). He's tied for third in touchdowns and leads all NFL tight ends in yards after the catch (207).
The only AFC tight end with more catches and yards than Daniels is New England's Rob Gronkowski, who has two more catches (35) and 18 more yards (434). Gronkowski (5) and Pittsburgh's Heath Miller are the only AFC tight ends with more touchdowns. Titans tight end Jared Cook (13.1) edges Daniels in catching average by half a yard.
Daniels is on pace for 75 catches, 951 yards and nine touchdowns, which all would be career-highs. He's averaging 4.7 catches, 59.4 yards and 0.6 touchdowns a game.
"Obviously, he's had a tremendous year catching the ball," Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. "It's hard for people to cover him underneath. Owen has done a great job, and we're working him down the field. He (also) does a great job in the seams."
Daniels' best season to date came in 2008, when he had 70 catches for 862 yards and made the Pro Bowl. He had 40 catches for 519 yards and five touchdowns in eight games in 2009 before tearing his ACL at Buffalo.
Texans coach Gary Kubiak has made a concerted effort since training camp this season to rest Daniels every third or fourth practice to keep him fresh. Daniels said he hasn't felt this good since before his knee injury in 2009.
"I feel great physically," Daniels said. "The coaches really took care of me during camp, giving me days off here and there. I think that is translating into feeling good now and hopefully it will later in the season, too."
Coming off his torn ACL, Daniels missed five games with hamstring injuries in 2010 and had just 38 catches for 471 yards. His production started to climb back up last season with 54 catches for 677 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games.
Now, Daniels is on pace for the best season of his career, and he's been a vital part of the Texans' offense during the team's unprecedented 6-1 start.
And yet, what Daniels seems to be most proud of is not his torrid receiving production ("that's more of the thing that has come naturally," he says) or the fact that he has two more touchdown catches than any other Texans player ("I've been getting lucky, man… just taking advantage of my opportunities"), but the fact that he has improved as a blocker and become more of an all-around tight end.
"I think I've improved as a player," Daniels said. "I think I'm better in terms of holding up in pass protection and blocking in the run game than I was (in his last Pro Bowl season). I think I'm a little more physical now. You like to see that, the longer you're in the league, to get a little better at that type of thing.
"There are always bumps in the road, and everyone has them. I've really put in a lot of work to get back to where I was and feeling the way I do physically. I think I'm more of a complete player then I was back then for sure."
More complete, and every bit just as worthy of the Pro Bowl.