We’ve come to expect consistently great play from certain players year after year. We know what J.J. Watt brings to the table and we saw Whitney Mercilus notch 12 sacks last season. We can assume that Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson will be solid. Brian Cushing led the team in tackles, and he says he feels even better now than he did a year ago.
The aforementioned players are the heart and soul of the defense. The purpose of this article however, is to take a look at some guys who may not be as heralded, but have the potential to make a big impact this coming year. Houston will need some of these players to really step up and contribute in a major way.
5. Andre Hal – Free Safety
In just his second season out of Vanderbilt, Hal was asked to make the transition from corner to safety. Despite some growing pains early on, Hal performed very well overall last season. He finished the season with 36 tackles, 4 ints., and 10 passes defensed. He returned one of his picks for a touchdown. Hal has already been commended by his coaches in OTA’s for taking control of the secondary and directing traffic on the back end.
Andre Hal is only going to get better. His coverage skills are strong, thanks to his experience at corner. Hal is a fluid athlete with good instincts, who puts himself in the right positions to make plays. He is now in his second year at the safety position, so the game should slow down for him. Look for Hal to be a difference maker for Houston this season.
4. Benardrick McKinney – Inside Linebacker
McKinney was taken in the second round a year ago, and was immediately thrust into action. Alongside veteran Brian Cushing, McKinney enjoyed a solid rookie season. He is an old school, hard-nosed linebacker who likes to run downhill and meet ball carriers head on. While he struggled a bit at times in coverage, he proved that he belongs on the field at all times.
McKinney was third on the team with 63 total tackles, and he recorded one sack. He didn’t make a lot of splash plays, but he was consistently around the ball. Under coach Mike Vrabel’s tutelage, one has to think that B-Mac will make a big leap from year one to year two. It sure appears that Houston hit when they drafted this guy.
3. Christian Covington – Defensive Tackle
Here is another second year player who could really be a big factor for the defense. Covington (6-3, 300) was drafted out of Rice in the sixth round last year. Covington played just two full years at Rice, having missed the majority of his junior season with a knee injury. He saw limited time as a rookie for Houston, rotating in at defensive tackle.
Covington is still a bit raw, but Texans coaches feel he has good potential. He is a powerful player who has the ability to push the pocket and disrupt offensive rhythm. He is a good athlete for his size and is able to shed blockers effectively. Houston desperately needs somebody to step up and take pressure off of Watt. There’s a good chance Covington is that guy.
2. Kevin Johnson – Cornerback
Johnson was taken in the first round out of Wake Forest a year ago. He, like McKinney, stepped in immediately and saw a lot of playing time. When Kareem Jackson went down with an injury, Johnson was asked to start several games. He acquitted himself well, especially considering he was a rookie corner. Johnson had some questionable moments, like going against Sammy Watkins near the goal line, but all in all, he was able to hold his own. He finished the season with 54 combined tackles, 9 passes defensed, and one interception.
At 6-0, 188, with a slender frame, many questioned whether or not Johnson could handle the physicality of the NFL. Although slight of frame, Johnson plays with no fear. His cover skills are good, and he is a very physical tackler. Johnson has bulked up a bit for this season, and should feel that much more comfortable in Coach Crennel’s system. He is sure to see time on the outside as well as in the nickel package. Look for good things from Kevin Johnson.
1. Jadeveon Clowney – Outside Linebacker
2016 is a pivotal year for the former number one overall pick. His career thus far has been overshadowed by injuries. Clowney’s rookie season was wiped out by a torn meniscus in his knee during week one. He came back last year and played well (40 tackles, 4.5 sacks), but again, missed some games with injury problems. The knock on Clowney coming out of South Carolina was that he lacked work ethic and often took plays off. Houston coaches have seen none of that.
But it is put up or shut up time for Clowney. This is his third year, and there are no excuses. We all know what a freakish athlete he is, and he flashed on several big plays a year ago. Who can forget the big hit against Michigan or the 4.52 forty he posted at the combine? However, we need to see more. Clowney, at 6-5, 265, should be virtually unblockable. He should be setting up a tent in the backfield on a regular basis. Houston’s defense could be very scary if Clowney can put it together to go along with the likes of Watt and Mercilus.
follow me at @UltTexansTalk
Header image based on “Texans” by Karen (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)