Texans' undrafted rookies to keep an eye on

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
7:50
PM ET
Most of the rookie love during the offseason and training camp for the Houston Texans has gone to first-round pick receiver DeAndre Hopkins and second-round pick safety D.J. Swearinger.

Hopkins has added a completely new dimension to the Texans' offense. With hands that can only fit into XXXL gloves, he catches just about anything within a five foot radius around him.

Swearinger is always the loudest guy on defense. He is intense, instinctive, athletic and plays with the confidence of an NFL veteran that Texans coach Gary Kubiak has never seen in a rookie before.

But the preseason isn't nearly as important for those guys as it is for the undrafted rookies and veteran free agents who will fight for roster and practice-squad spots over the next few weeks.

These four undrafted rookies have already made a positive impression in training camp:

Dennis Johnson, RB, 5-7, 193 pounds

With only Arian Foster and Ben Tate on the roster, the running back competition in Houston provided a rare chance for an undrafted rookie to make the 53-man roster and stay there.

"He's short but he’s stocky," left tackle Duane Brown said. "He's strong, very low center of gravity, and that can play to his advantage when he's going against some of the taller guys. ... He caught a couple people sleeping."

Johnson, who played at Arkansas, has gotten looks at both running back and kick returner during camp. He would have started tonight if Tate weren't ready.

"He’s got great quickness," Kubiak said of Johnson. "He catches the ball well. The thing I’ve been impressed with probably more than anything is that he’ll step up and block a blitz. It’s hard to find guys who stay on the field for three downs. And if you’ll block the blitz and know what’s going on, you can become a three-down player."

Justin Tuggle, OLB, 6-3, 247 pounds

The Texans invited former Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein to their rookie minicamp for a tryout. They actually gave Tuggle, another Kansas State product, a contract.

Tuggle is a study in adaptability. He played quarterback up until he went to Kansas State, where he did what Klein refused to do on the NFL level: give up the quarterback position to increase his value. Tuggle knew that as a quarterback he would spend his entire time at Kansas State behind Klein.

Making such a smart football decision might have come in part from having a father, Jessie Tuggle, who knew exactly how this business works. Jessie Tuggle played 14 seasons in the NFL and went to five Pro Bowls.

"It’s been an adjustment for him, but he’s fixing to line up and start so he’s fixing to play a lot of football," Kubiak said. "We like him. He comes from a background that says he’s going to be able to do this. His dad was a great player and he’s really adapted to what we’re doing."

A.J. Bouye, CB, 6-0, 183 pounds

The shift from playing in college, where so much of your day is accounted for with classes, workouts and practices, to the NFL, where, at least in Houston, players are treated like grown-ups with some level of autonomy, is difficult for some. It wasn't for Bouye.

He grew up raised by a single father after his mother died when he was one year old.

"You've got to make sure you stay on top of your game because you really don't have anybody else pushing you, so you have to push yourself," Bouye said. "I've learned growing up how to take care of myself. That helped a lot. It was me and my dad. I had to learn how to stay out of trouble."

Bouye had a quietly strong season at Central Florida last year. What's making him even better in Houston is his willingness to ask questions. That day when Deion Sanders held court with the Texans' defensive backs, Bouye was one of the few players to step forward and ask a question.

"I've been talking like J Joe [Johnathan Joseph], watching film, technique really, leverage, what to look for on film, what to look for in a receiver," Bouye said. "I've been learning a lot of stuff from him and coach [Vance Joseph]. My pedal technique, how to come off my breaks."

Willie Jefferson, OLB, 6-5, 233 pounds

Six-foot-five might be an undersell on Jefferson's height. He towers over teammates and has a lanky figure that could pass for a basketball player.

Jefferson is taking camp very seriously, considering it part of his second chance. He was kicked off Baylor's football team after arrests while at the school and then transferred to Stephen F. Austin, where he became a defensive end.

He first drew attention when the Texans put on pads and Jefferson held his own in one-on-one pass-rushing drills. Jefferson's opportunity increased when starting outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus suffered an injury that will keep him out of tonight's game. It led to Jefferson facing left tackle Duane Brown in drills, something he called a privilege.

"It was eye-opening going against D. Brown and the other tackle on the outside," Jefferson said. "It showed me that I need to get better at some things and showed me that I’m good at some things."

Run-stopping has been a bit more of a learning process for Jefferson.

"Hasn’t missed a rep," Kubiak said. "He’s kept up with what we’re doing. He’s kept up with [special teams coordinator] Joe [Marciano], so Willie’s got a tremendous opportunity to help this football team quickly. We’ll see how he does in the game."

Tania Ganguli

ESPN Houston Texans reporter

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