Jadeveon Clowney isn't the only young player primed to make an impact for the Texans. If Houston is going to a make a push for the playoffs this season, these young players could be a big reason why.
During the 2014 NFL season, a wide variety of relatively unheralded sophomore and third-year players will inherit or take over key roles for many teams around the league.
In this series, we've been breaking down "who" we think those players are, "where" they play, "why" they'll potentially play a key role in 2014 and "how" they'll succeed in that.
On tap today, we have the Buccaneers.
Who: "Nuk" was the Texans' first-round pick in 2013 out of Clemson. He caught 52 passes for 802 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie -- not shabby considering some of the shakeup at quarterback for Houston.
Where: Opposite Andre Johnson.
Why: Whoever starts at quarterback for the Texans this year will need some big-time targets, and Hopkins is a future star. His per catch average of 15.2 yards shows he's a deep threat, but he's also a great athlete with yards-after-the-catch ability. He was targeted 93 times in 2013, and I expect that he'll see that number increase in 2014, along with the number he converts to catches.
How: Play fast. After a year under his belt learning the to play at the NFL level, Hopkins should only get better.
Who: Swearinger was the Texans' second round pick in 2013. He started ten games in his rookie year, appeared in all 16 and racked up 71 tackles, a pick and a forced fumble.
Why: Swearinger played his best ball on the line of scrimmage as a rookie, but will be asked to play in pass coverage more during his second season, so that may be a challenge. However, he's the type of athlete that can handle this responsibility; after a year of learning from Ed Reed and Danieal Manning, he should be up for the task.
How: Swearinger has a season of learning to read offenses and starting to understand how to work in concert with your own front seven down, and this knowledge gained should help him play faster in 2014. "I'm a safety," he said recently, "And if I know what the D-line is doing and what the linebacker's doing, it helps me because I know where they are, and I know I can take my chances and gamble."
OLB Whitney Mercilus
Who: Mercilus was the Texans' first-round pick in 2012, out of Illinois. He recorded six sacks his rookie year and added seven last season. Houston will be hoping he can hit double digits in 2014.
Where: Outside linebacker
Why: Most eyes -- both those of fans and of offensive players -- will be trained on J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, meaning Mercilus will get a lot of one-on-one pass rushing situations. He must take advantage of this huge advantage.
How: Get the playbook and scheme down pat. "When we first dove into [Houston's two-gap 3-4], everybody was learning," Mercilus said, as reported by Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. "Guys here like myself, who haven't been in a 3-4 as complex as it has been, I'll tell you, it takes a little time to actually understand it and get it right. Pretty much, we're doing pretty solid right now. Just have to get better."
DE Jared Crick
Who: Crick was the Texans' fourth-round pick in 2012.
Where: With J.J. Watt moving around on the Texans' defensive line, Crick will as well, but generally speaking, he'll be the end opposite Watt.
Why: Like Mercilus, Crick will have the distinct advantage of playing next to Watt and Clowney, which should open him up for some opportunities to make some noise. Crick finished 8th all time on Nebraska's sack list with 70 in college, so you know he's got some skill rushing the passer when healthy. The barrel chested defensive end has underrated athleticism and toughness.
How: rick has to exploit his one-on-one matchups, because you know teams are going to be doubling down on his teammate in JJ Watt. Because they have to.
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