Texans want to involve more receivers in passing game, including Nico Collins

HOUSTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 26: Nico Collins #12 of the Houston Texans celebrates with Pharaoh Brown #85 after catch a pass for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at NRG Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) (Bob Levey, 2021 Getty Images)

HOUSTON – Texans quarterback Davis Mills was clearly in sync last Sunday with veteran wide receiver Brandin Cooks, building on the strong chemistry they established last season.

Cooks led the Texans with seven receptions for 82 yards on a dozen targets against the Indianapolis Colts. Cooks finished with 90 receptions for 1,037 yards and six touchdowns last season while being targeted a career-high 134 times.

What didn’t happen as frequently as the Texans hoped for during a 20-20 tie at NRG Stadium: distributing the football to a variety of targets.

That includes second-year wide receiver Nico Collins, an imposing, 6-foot-4, 215-pound former third-round draft pick from Michigan.

Collins had just two catches for 26 yards on three targets while new tight end O.J. Howard had two touchdowns on two throws to him in his first game with the Texans.

“It’s the first game, it’s early in the season, we just started,” Collins said “There’s an opportunity to build on last week and work on things going forward. Definitely, the confidence is high. We’re still building. The season just started. We’re only one week in.”

Mills completed 23 of 37 passes for 240 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 98.9 passer rating.

He would like to get Collins more involved on the heels of a rookie season during which the Alabama native caught 33 passes for 446 yards and one touchdown on 60 targets last season and averaged 13.5 yards per reception.

“Game-plan stuff, he has routes,” Mills said of Collins’ lack of touches. “He has individual routes on the backside as the X receiver, where we see him matched up with somebody one-on-on we trust that he’s going to win.

“There’s other stuff where he’s just going to be built into a concept as really the first one, two or three progressions. There will be organic ways he’ll get the ball and he’ll make big plays for us.”

When Mills wasn’t throwing to Cooks, he frequently went to backup running back Rex Burkhead. Burkhead caught five passes for 30 yards on eight targets. The next highest targeted player was wide receiver Chris Moore with three catches for 31 yards on three targets.

That’s not ideal, especially for an offense that didn’t get much production out of the running game with 77 yards on 28 carries one year after having the worst rushing offense statistically in the NFL.

“We’ve got guys that can play all over the board,” Cooks said. “The more guys that you can get the ball, the better for your offense. No question, I look forward to that because we’ve got a lot of playmakers in the offense from wide receivers, tight ends, running backs. It’s not all about me. At the end of the day, I just want to win. However we can do that, that’s what I want to do. "

Heading into Sunday’s road game against a Denver Broncos defense that includes pass rushers Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory and cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr., the Texans are looking for improvement.

“No, we’re not satisfied with very little,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said. “The production from Cooks was good. What O.J. Howard was able to do was good, but we need more, absolutely. A lot of times we had three receivers set and a tight end.

“There are more opportunities but that goes along with things we’ll need to improve upon, the second thing. We can talk about the running game, we’re going to start with it. I know we’ve gone to work on all those, and we’ve identified things that we need to do differently for this game.”

The Texans are pleased with how quickly Howard has made an impact.

He caught a pair of touchdown passes as the Texans built a 20-3 lead against the Colts.

“Extremely valuable, he came and got to work immediately, early last week really, and knew that he wasn’t going to be in on the whole offense but those plays where we had him available, he was going to be a master at what he did,” Cooks said. “When he was in there, he stretched the field vertically and made really good plays. We’re confident that he’s going to keep doing that.”

A former Tampa Bay Buccaneers first-round draft pick who was signed to a one-year, $1.035 million contract, Howard is still learning the Texans’ playbook.

“I’ve just got to keep stacking and making plays for the team,” Howard said. “That’s what I can do: do my job and make sure I do it at a high level. I wouldn’t say a lot of it (knowledge of the playbook). I’m still trying to get the whole scheme schematically. It’s week to week with whatever I can retain and they allow me to do on Sundays.”

Howard has 119 career receptions for 1,737 yards and 15 touchdowns.

At 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, Howard has every physical tool to be a contributor in offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s offense

“When you come into a new system, there’s a lot of things you have to learn,” Smith said. “O.J. jumped in right away. I talked to him the first night we made the move, he said what he’s going to do. Can’t wait to get in and get started, find out what is role will be. As he started practicing, the guy can run.

“The guy can catch. He showed that right away. We talked about more production, tight end is always a position that goes unnoticed a little bit. We feel like we have three guys that can play at that position.”


Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com.


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