Second year NFL players, Roc Carmichael and Lestar Jean may have taken different paths to land with the Texans in 2011 but their two paths merged in Houston after the lockout ended last season.
Carmichael, a fourth round draft pick and Jean, who surprisingly went undrafted, both found themselves joining camp and hoping to compete for time at the cornerback and receiver positions. Carmichael flashed immediately in camp with his speed combined with aggressiveness and physicality. Jean’s time in camp ramped up week after week. Lestar was getting off the press and flying by corners. He showed the ability to make leaping grabs and started drawing more interests from the coaches. He even made his presence known in a preseason game before his shoulder injury hit. Roc also injured his shoulder but it came before he was even able to face NFL competition in live game action. So, both rookies heard those dreaded two words…injured reserve.
The injured reserve rule states that any player placed on IR will not be able to return until after the season is over. The NFL is weighing a change to the rule that would allow for one player per team to be allowed to return to practice six weeks after being placed on IR and return to game action eight weeks later. Because this was not in place last season, both rookies spent 2011 as spectators. While on the sideline they witnessed their franchise make the playoffs for the first time in team history. Watching week after week and not being able to contribute ate away at the two rookies. While most NFL players were ready for their much needed break and to get away from the game for a few months, Jean and Carmichael went to work.
Over the last few months, the now healthy second year players have been battling one-on-one. Their goal was to make each other better and to polish off the rough edges of their game. They understood that the NFL is a competitive league and no one will feel sorry for you. They had to get better and needed to show growth from 2011 to 2012. Roc and Lestar were able to get their nose in the playbook and become comfortable with the team’s scheme during the season. Now during the one-on-ones they could actually put their knowledge to work and catch up with the team before the 2012 OTAs started. After interviewing Jean and Carmichael earlier this offseason, I asked if they could give me a brief video displaying the footwork and some of the drills. They obliged with this short footage that displays some of what they’ve been doing for the last few months.
In interviews that I’ve done with Jean over the last two seasons, he has stated that he has always been a 9 route runner. From pee wee all the way up to last season, he’s been mostly comfortable with getting over the top for the home run. Jean said that he wants to become a complete receiver and become comfortable with the whole route tree. Getting vertical and going up for the ball is second nature to Lestar but he’s been dedicated to beating the press and improving his footwork and route running. Having a physical, quick corner with good hips battling him daily for the last few months will definitely pay off for the driven Jean.
Carmichael has always been able to flip his hips with the best of them and he’s more than capable of coming up on the backs or jamming receivers. That being said, Roc will face a lot of fast, tall receivers in the NFL. Facing off against the 6’3, 215 pound Jean at the line of scrimmage, day after day, will only increase his confidence in getting the bump without being beat wide, inside, or deep.
Andre Johnson’s nagging injuries and the lack of depth at receiver were a huge issue for the Texans last season. Jean didn’t join the team under the best conditions, going undrafted before deciding to sign with Houston. Fortunately for Lestar, his head coach has a successful track record with allowing undrafted players to prove their worth. Arian Foster is the first to come to mind but if you go back to Gary Kubiak’s Denver days with Mike Shanahan, you could draw a more compatible comparison for Jean. Rod Smith had the greatest career of any undrafted wide receiver to play the game. Smith is joining the Bronco’s ring of honor this year and it keeps the success of hidden gems fresh in the mind of many, including Kubiak.
The question isn’t whether Jean is good enough to start in the NFL, it’s where does he start on this team. In my opinion, his natural role is that of the one being filled by Andre Johnson. It’s a no-brainer that he should provide depth behind Andre as the number one receiver but I’m a firm believer that you have to get your best players on the field. Kubiak wants to improve the play of the number two receiver on the Texans. Kevin Walter is a sure handed receiver but his lack of play making skills after the catch isn’t NFL starter, quality. The Texans also selected receivers, Devier Posey and Keshawn Martin in April’s draft. The competition doesn’t stop there as Jean’s fellow undrafted competition from last year, Jeff Maehl is joined by this year’s class of undrafted guys in Jerrell Jackson, Dwight Jones, and Mario Louis.
Out of the latter group, Jackson is the only one that intrigues me. Jones and Louis are too raw to compete with the other top six but may find a spot on the practice squad. Jerrell looked good when Blaine Gabbert was his quarterback at Missouri and put up solid numbers, despite not being one of the top targets on the offense. The receiver position is one of the hardest positions in the NFL to come in and contribute early at. The Texans loved the way Posey went over the middle at Ohio State and snatched the ball out of the air. I doubt he’ll be up to speed anytime soon and between the two, Kubiak would take the safer bet of the two, between the rookie and the veteran Walter. It wouldn’t appear that Jean would be the best fit in Walter’s role but Kubiak could look to adapt the offense to get his best receivers on the field more.
That brings us to the slot. Houston selected Martin with the intentions of being their slot receiver. This may be the route they go but I would also consider the 6’3 Jean to take over the position in a role similar to that of the 6’4, 2006, seventh round pick, Marques Colston in New Orleans. It’s only May and I haven’t seen Lestar in competition since he’s improved his footwork and route running. How much he’s improved overall will dictate his role. The receiver depth in Houston probably won’t be decided until late August. Regardless of the role, Lestar Jean will definitely be a name to keep an ear out for in 2012.
The Texans secondary was vastly improved last season. Largely due to the acquisitions of Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning but also thanks in part to the relentless pass rush of the Texans’ front seven. Opposite of Joseph, the Texans used Kareem Jackson and Jason Allen last season. Allen has since left for Cincinnati via free agency. Vance Joseph, the Texans’ secondary coach and Wade Phillips swear by Jackson and look for him to take a huge step in 2012. Kareem showed improvement in 2011 over his rookie campaign in 2010, but that’s not saying much. The defense was clearly better with Allen starting opposite of Johnathan Joseph but Houston kept forcing the issue with Kareem Jackson.
Houston drafted Roc Carmichael in the fourth round last season but that was after drafting another cornerback, Brandon Harris in the second round. Rumor is that they also had a second round grade on Carmichael and were surprised that he was there in the fourth. The Texans used Brandon Harris mostly in the nickel last season. Fans of the team felt that Harris must of been a disappointment due to his lack of playing time. Actually, Brice McCain dictated Harris’ lack of playing time due to his own excellent play. McCain took a huge step in progression that the team now hopes for in Jackson’s game. I understand the desire to get Harris on the field as he will be a talented corner but they liked him at nickel for a reason. They should look at him in dime packages or consider a move to safety if they feel that strong of a desire to get him on the field. Back to the starters position opposite of Johnathan Joseph and enter Roc Carmichael into the conversation.
Carmichael is everything that Kareem Jackson was drafted to be. When the Texans used a first round pick to draft Kareem, they said they loved his physical play, how he stepped up against the run, and how he came from an NFL ready defense led by Nick Saban. Roc played at Virginia Tech, which he refers to as the new DB (defensive back) U (University). You can’t deny the cornerback talent that the Hokies put out. Carmichael routinely showed a presence versus the run in college and the ability to redirect receivers. He’s by far a faster cornerback than Jackson with much better hips.
The biggest difference in their game is Carmichael’s ability to play the ball in coverage. What drives Texans’ fans crazy is when Kareem actually sticks with his man in coverage but allows a pass to sail right past his helmet for the completion. Numerous times, Jackson is in position for the pass breakup but never finishes it due to lack of awareness. The Texans have always forced the issues with some players before finally cutting ties a year or two too late. I expect the situation with Kareem to go the same route. Houston will give Kareem another opportunity but then the team will slowly switch to a rotation between Kareem and Roc. After Carmichael is given the opportunity to trot out there with the starters, I would be shocked if he didn’t force the Texans hand to make the switch permanent.
I’m projecting a lot out of these two players but based on college game film, current roster, and the shear drive that these two individuals showed throughout the offseason, I believe these are fair assessments. It’s the NFL and everything is fluid. Kareem Jackson could develop and make a huge step from year two to year three, in the same manner that Brice McCain did. Devier Posey and Keshawn Martin could impress and catch on to the NFL speed and playbook faster than most rookies at their position. They’re all projections but with the determination of the second year guys, my money would be Roc and Lestar. We will all have a better feel for the competition come August.