Under-25 developmental players crucial to Texans' rebuilding effort

HOUSTON -- At 4-8, the Houston Texans must look toward the future to figure out how to get back to competing for division titles.

Of course, the quickest way to turn a losing season around is by finding impact players in the NFL draft, but the Texans are at a major disadvantage without first- or second-round picks in 2021. While the new general manager will of course look toward free agency and hope to hit on mid-round picks, the new hire will also need to rely on some of the young players already on the roster.

As of Dec. 8, there are 25 players age 25 or younger on the Texans’ active roster. A look at some of the talent the team has to build around:

QB Deshaun Watson

Of course, Watson tops this list. The 25-year old quarterback is playing the best football of his NFL career, even in a losing season. Watson is the reason Houston is an attractive opening for head coach and general manager candidates.

The Texans signed Watson to a four-year, $160 million contract extension before the start of the season. While the Texans’ record doesn’t reflect how well Watson has played this season, he has certainly played up to that new deal, particularly since Week 5. In the game after he lost wide receiver Will Fuller for the rest of the season, against a very good Colts defense, Watson threw for 341 yards and ran for a touchdown.

WR Keke Coutee

A few weeks ago, Coutee wouldn’t have been anywhere close to this list, but since the Texans cut returner/receiver DeAndre Carter, Randall Cobb was placed on injured reserve and Fuller was suspended for six games, Coutee has shown he could be a solid receiver for Houston going forward.

Whenever the 23-year-old has received significant playing time, he has produced. In his first career game in 2018, his 11 catches were the most by a receiver making his NFL debut since 1970. He also had 11 catches and a touchdown in a playoff game against Indianapolis that season. But Coutee fell out of favor with former head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien and wasn’t given many opportunities on the field in 2019 or in the first half of the 2020 season.

On Sunday against the Colts, Coutee had eight catches for 141 yards and his nine targets in a game were the most since his rookie season. It could be that Coutee only plays well against the Colts -- his three best games in his career have come against Indianapolis -- but now that he is set to get an extended look, the former Texas Tech standout might be able to prove he has a future as a significant contributor in the NFL.

S Justin Reid

Reid was a third-round pick in 2018 and is perhaps the best young defensive player on the Texans’ roster. The 23-year-old was critical of his performance early in the season -- and the secondary has struggled -- but defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver said he has noticed a difference in Reid in recent weeks.

In the last three games, Reid had 25 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for a loss. On Sunday, he became the third defensive back in franchise history to record 75 tackles in each of his first three seasons.

The 2021 season will be the final year on Reid’s rookie contract, but expect whoever the new general manager is to want to keep him around for another couple years while the rest of the defense is sorted out.

DE Charles Omenihu

Omenihu was a fifth-round pick in 2019 and of the players currently on the roster, he likely has the best chance to develop into an impact pass-rusher. Defensive end J.J. Watt said Omenihu has shown “some flashes of some great things” and has carved out “a nice role there on third down as an interior pass rusher.” Omenihu, 23, is still playing limited snaps, but interim head coach Romeo Crennel said he has shown improvement this season.

“I think Charles is beginning to show his ability, and the fact that he's learning and understanding what this system needs from him, and so when he does it the right way, then he makes plays and he helps the defense, and he's doing it the right way more than earlier in the year,” Crennel said.

2020 draft class

Where are the rookies in the 2020 draft class? That's another trouble spot. Houston drafted five players in 2020, but without a first-round pick, there hasn’t been much to see from the group of defensive tackle Ross Blacklock (second round), linebacker Jonathan Greenard (third round), tackle Charlie Heck (fourth round), cornerback John Reid (fourth round) and wide receiver Isaiah Coulter (fifth round).

Midway through the season, Crennel was asked the importance of spending the second half of the season evaluating the young talent on the roster to see who they can build around going forward. The interim head coach said the “most important thing for me is to try to win games” and he is focused on the players who give them the best chance.

“I say this all the time that young players, particularly rookies, they don’t know what they don’t know and they have to get into the games and try to figure some stuff out,” Crennel said. “That’s where you have to do it. On the practice field -- you can see some things on the practice field but the game tempo is where these young players learn the most. So, you put them in the game and then you see what they do.

“Now, putting them in the game is an issue with me a lot of times, depending on who you’ve got in front of them.”

Coulter is the perfect example of Crennel’s perspective on rookies. Even without wide receivers Fuller (suspended), Kenny Stills (released) and Cobb (toe injury), Crennel opted to elevate receivers Chad Hansen and Steven Mitchell from the practice squad for the Texans’ Week 13 game against the Colts to contribute along with Brandin Cooks and Coutee. Coulter was inactive for the game. Crennel's decision worked, as Hansen caught five passes for 101 yards. Crennel said he made that decision because Coulter is “still learning the system,” while Hansen is “more familiar with it.”

“Young players, we’ve got them on the team because we feel good about them, they have got talent, but that talent has to grow and develop,” Crennel said. “When we feel like the time is right, then we’ll put them in there and give them that opportunity to get better as they go along.”