In 2015, Deandre Hopkins and Whitney Mercilus introduced themselves to the league in a major way. Nuk Hopkins was statistically the third best receiver in the NFL. He carried Houston’s offense on his back all season long. Mercilus finished in the top 10 in sacks (more than Von Miller), with 12, in a season where he rewarded the Texans for extending his contract and investing a first round pick in him. So who will be the Hopkins and Mercilus of the 2016 season?
Here are a few likely candidates:
Jaelen Strong, wide receiver
After being selected in the third round of the 2015 draft, Jaelen Strong has been mostly a disappointment. He showed up overweight and out of shape to rookie mini-camp. He failed to make a big impression on the coaches and thus did not see the field much during his rookie campaign. His offseason started with an arrest for marijuana possession in February. He soon received a call from Bill O’Brien that apparently opened his eyes.
While the actual conversation isn’t common knowledge, the jist of it was O’Brien telling Strong that he still has plenty of support, but he needs to get his butt to work. Fast forward to OTA’s and mini-camp of just a few weeks ago. Strong reportedly dropped somewhere between 15-20 lbs. He showed up leaner, faster, and hungrier.
Strong, at 6-2, 210, has excellent size. One of the knocks on him coming out of Arizona State was that he lacked speed. He then ran a 4.44 forty at the combine to blow that theory out of the water. He also has a 42 in. vertical. Oh, and he has great hands.
All of the tools are there. Now it appears that his head is also in the game. You can bet that he is seeing Will Fuller and Braxton Miller in his rearview mirror, so he is extra motivated to perform. Don’t be surprised if we see big things from Jaelen Strong in 2016.
Tyler Ervin, running back
It’s very difficult to predict how a rookie will perform. Certain positions are more likely to break out than others due to their nature. I debated on Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, but I really think that running back Tyler Ervin has the best opportunity to be a break out player for the 2016 Texans.
Ervin is a do-it-all back out of San Jose St. Houston took him in the fourth round of this year’s draft. He has drawn comparisons to Darren Sproles because of his ability to affect the game in many ways. He runs, he catches, and he returns kicks. At 5’10, 192, Ervin runs a 4.41 forty.
I believe that Houston’s coaches will use Ervin in a scatback role. He can line up in the backfield or even in the slot. Ervin has big play ability and tons of versatility. In his senior season at SJSU, Ervin had 1,935 total yards and 15 tds. He also had a punt return for a touchdown. That’s the other aspect that he brings. Houston desperately needs a game changing return man. Ervin just might be that guy.
Benardrick McKinney, inside linebacker
B-Mac was a stalwart as a rookie linebacker alongside Brian Cushing. Houston drafted McKinney in the second round last year, and it didn’t take him long to cement his role as a starter. He is an old school, downhill, prototype thumper. At 6’4, 250, McKinney has the ideal size for the position.
He’s tall enough to see over the linemen, and he’s quick enough (4.66) to chase down backs and tight ends. McKinney finished third on the team in tackles with 63, behind Brian Cushing and J.J. Watt. As I was reading his NFL Draft profile on cbssports.com it was interesting to see that the player comparison for him was actually Cushing.
McKinney is already drawing rave reviews for his off-season growth. Cushing appreciates what B-Mac was able to do as a rookie, and expects him to only get better. Look for this linebacker duo to have a big year, and look for Benardrick McKinney to soon become a household name.
Jadeveon Clowney, outside linebacker
Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but I expect Clowney to have a huge year. There are plenty of doubters out there, and many who already have him labeled as a bust. Clowney is ready to silence them. He’s dealt with a lot of injuries in his first two years. But last season, he played in 13 games, and performed very well.
JD was solid against the run, and he picked up 4.5 sacks. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but we did see glimpses of what Clowney could become. There were times during the season where it looked like he was a bit hesitant, maybe not trusting his surgically repaired knee. In 2016, we should see a completely healthy, more confident Jadeveon Clowney.
What can you say about a guy who is 6’6, 266, runs a 4.53, and has 34-inch arms? The guy is a complete freak, athletically. When everything comes together, it could be very scary. Clowney is entering his third year in the league. For all accounts and purposes, it’s his second, because he missed basically all of his first. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Clowney breaks out in a big way.
The Texans have a chance to be very good on both sides of the ball. There is plenty of talent, but a lot of questions yet to be answered. I’m going to be cautiously optimistic that the aforementioned players will step up and help Houston to be very competitive in 2016.
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Header image based on “jadeveon clowney hit” by Shea Huening (CC BY-ND 2.0)