Texans head coach Gary Kubiak often says that players make their biggest improvements between their first and second NFL seasons.
It's no surprise, then, that when asked about which players he's most eager to see on the field this fall, Kubiak rattled off the names of three rookies from 2010.
"I would've loved to see Dorin Dickerson have an offseason," he said. "I would've loved to see (Trindon) Holliday have an offseason; he missed a whole year. (Ben) Tate, Tate really hasn't played football in two years. Usually, players like that can make huge jumps from year one to two and help your team a great deal, and I think in a lot of ways we're starting over a little bit. It's not their fault, it's not our fault. It's just the way it's worked out, so we'll see how disciplined they've been."
Tate and Holliday are coming off season-ending injuries, and Dickerson played sparingly as a rookie as he transitioned from tight end to wide receiver. Because of the lockout, the Texans weren't able to monitor their progress at OTAs and mini-camp like they would in a typical offseason.
Dickerson is a hot topic among Texans fans because of his size (6-1, 220), speed (4.47 40-yard dash), athleticism (43.5-inch vertical) and potential that he flashed in the preseason (see: one-handed catch vs. Tampa Bay). But the seventh-round draft pick from Pittsburgh remains a work in progress heading into his second season.
"He's got to step to the table in a lot of areas, particularly in special teams," Texans wide receivers coach Larry Kirksey said. "He'll play in all aspects of special teams for us, and he's got to try to get in to be that third or fourth receiver. At worst, can be the fourth receiver for us or fifth receiver, but he's got to grow up now.
"He's got size. He's got playing strength. He's got speed, and now he has to be a little bit more nifty and understand the things that we want him to do and be able to function in those areas and be productive. He has to be on point to help this football team in any way he can. (That) starts with special teams, and then in the three- and four-wide receiver sets, he's got to be able to go in and play anywhere we ask him to play. When the coverage is away from him and on those other guys, he's got to step up and make some plays for us."
Dickerson spent much of his practice time on the scout team last season. Kirksey thinks it helped him "tremendously" to be able to watch and learn from perennial All-Pro Andre Johnson.
"There were days where you thought, 'Hey, this guy's got it,'" Kirksey said. "At the same time, he wasn't very consistent at times. He had a whole year to watch Andre; now, he's got to put the time in. He's got to put the film work in. The biggest thing with him because of his size, trying to learn that position – like I said, he's got the speed. Now, he's just got to get the finesse part of it down and understand getting in and out of his breaks."
The Texans had high hopes for Tate last season as a second-round pick out of Auburn. He was expected to compete for immediate playing time at running back, but he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first preseason game.
Arian Foster went on to lead the league in rushing, and Derrick Ward averaged 6.3 yards per carry as Foster's backup. Tate was medically cleared in February, but it's unclear what his role will be in a backfield that also includes Steve Slaton.
"I just hope that Ben can come out and compete with the three guys that we have," running backs coach Chick Harris said. "Ben hasn't been in a regular-season game yet. Ben kind of has a taste of what it's like, but he hasn't been in it yet. He is confident that he's going to be ready and going to bring something to the table. I'll be confident when I see it. I'm sure he's going to do the right things to make it a good competition in the backfield.
"I just can't wait because we know he's a tough guy. We know he has speed. We know he had talent before we drafted him. We're expecting him to go out and compete for a position and show what he has and how he fits. That's what you have to do: see how you fit and what you can get as far as playing time and then make it happen."
Holliday, a sixth-round pick from LSU, was drafted as a potential game-changer at kick returner. He showed flashes of his blazing speed in training camp before a hand injury ended his rookie season in August.
"If I lived in a perfect world, hopefully he'd be our kickoff returner and Jacoby Jones would be our punt returner, and/or one of 'em being both or Trindon doing both," special teams coordinator Joe Marciano recently told SportsRadio 610. "But, you know, we may not have that luxury. And the depth chart is a long list. It's open competition."
When that competition starts remains to be seen. But Texans coaches certainly expect Dickerson, Tate and Holliday to be in the thick of it at their respective positions.