AFC South: Ephrain Salaam

 
  Scott Boehm/Getty Images
  Duane Brown has improved his play at left tackle in recent years, along with the image of the Texans.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

HOUSTON -- While left tackle Duane Brown worked against Mario Williams during OTAs in the spring and summer, Chester Pitts took notice.

"He blocked Mario, who is, if not the best, top three at that position, fairly well," said Pitts, the team's left guard. "He used the scheme to help him stop a really good player.”

But that was not the only thing about Brown's work that was attention-grabbing. In 2008, when Brown was a rookie, he leaned on Pitts to make the calls and he jumped out for a rest on every third series, when Ephraim Salaam jumped in as a reliever.

Emerging Stars
A series examining a potential breakout player in each division.
Tues.: AFC West | NFC West
Wed
.: AFC North | NFC North
Thurs
.: AFC South | NFC South
Fri
.: AFC East | NFC East
Last year, Brown had felt compelled to thank Pitts after every game for all that help sorting through what he was supposed to do.

"He gets out there now and before I can get it out, he's said the call, boom, we're ready to go," Pitts said. "We're getting to where we don't have to make every call, we are grunting with each other, saying 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' or 'Go, go, go.' It's real simple, quick and short and we are on the same page. Things like that are really, really important on an offensive line, it's a group position."

The Texans' 76 sacks allowed in their debut season in 2002 left an indelible mark on a lot of people and 43 in 2004, 68 in 2005 and 43 in 2006 didn't do a lot to erase the stigma. But the number was down to 22 in 2007. And last year Houston's quarterbacks were taken down 32 times, just below the league average.

"They are starting to respect us more as a line," Brown said. "I didn't know too much about the history of the offensive line here before I got here, but once I did a lot of people told me that that was a big problem. I guess last year we did pretty good as a unit and you have to give us some kind of credit since we were the No. 3 offense in the league."

As the Texans are poised to shed several labels they've earned in their seven years of existence and make a run at a playoff spot, Brown's expected to emerge as a franchise left tackle who can help it happen, covering the blind side for Matt Schaub and helping punch holes for Steve Slaton. That's why Brown is our choice as the AFC South's Emerging Star for 2009.

"For a guy going into his second year, he's very advanced and he has a great opportunity to be a dominant player, no question," said Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, a new offensive assistant coach for the Texans. "He's a big, strong, powerful, agile good athlete who's smart. Just learning and getting the reps, that's going to be his deal. He has a good attitude about it too."

Said Colts Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney, who had three sacks and a forced fumble in two games against Houston in 2008: "I think Duane is a good athlete, a young guy who definitely as a lot of upside and potential. He's definitely one of the better tackles in our conference and our division. He has a lot of room to grow. One thing he definitely has going for himself is his effort and his ability to catch on quickly. ...

"Now with the pieces that they have and with some guys coming back with a couple years experience together, I think they should be a force to be reckoned with."

What suggests Brown is primed for a big jump?

Well, the conditioning issues that were partially responsible for him getting rotated out are gone, as is Salaam.

Brown played his final two seasons at Virginia Tech in the 305- to 312-pound range and he was 315 at the NFL scouting combine. But from his pro day to the start of his first training camp, he didn't focus on fitness the way he should have. He indulged in chicken parm and pizza. He wound up playing much of the season around 325.

Since then, he gave up the fried foods in favor of a diet heavy on tuna fish, big salads, vegetables and fruits. Brown played in regular offseason basketball games with teammates including J
acoby Jones
, Vonta Leach and Frank Okam at the Meyerland Plaza 24 Hour Fitness. Those efforts got him back in that more desirable weight range.

Film study has extended beyond Freeney and Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch, rushers he faces twice a season in the AFC South, to Matt Light, Jordan Gross and Chris Samuels, successful tackles he feels he can emulate.

Across the Texans' line, right tackle Eric Winston makes it sound like Brown burns a lot of calories with enthusiasm alone.

"Duane is super intense," Winston said. "Everything he does, he's almost hyper about it and that's a good thing. When you're in this kind of business, you do the same things over and over and over again and that's the key, trying to perfect it without it getting boring. He's got that intensity about him where he can keep that up

"He doesn't get bored because he's trying so hard every time, and that's a good trait to have."

Brown also realizes how fortunate he is to have found such a perfect fit. The league is littered with players who can't find their niche, who don't fit their team's schemes. In the zone-blocking run scheme the Texans brought in Alex Gibbs to install and operate, the team asks its linemen to run. Athleticism and mobility are the most desirable traits. The Texans don't covet guys like Baltimore's 6-foot-9, 350-pound Jared Gaither or San Diego's Marcus McNeill (6-7, 336).

"That's what our whole scheme is about, is us running," Brown said. "My main responsibility is pass protection, protecting the blind side of course, and on the backside of our run plays, trying to get that cut back crease. Me having the athleticism I have, I'm able to do both of those jobs."

"I feel like I've become a much better player and I expect a lot from myself. God willing, I stay healthy, I feel like I should be here for a while."
Scott Boehm/Getty Imagese



Duane Brown has improved his play at left tackle in recent years, along with the image of the Texans.


Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

HOUSTON -- While left tackle Duane Brown worked against Mario Williams during OTAs in the spring and summer, Chester Pitts took notice.

"He blocked Mario, who is, if not the best, top three at that position, fairly well," said Pitts, the team's left guard. “He used the scheme to help him stop a really good player.”

But that was not the only thing about Brown's work that was attention-grabbing. In 2008, when Brown was a rookie, he leaned on Pitts to make the calls and he jumped out for a rest on every third series, when Ephraim Salaam jumped in as a reliever.











Emerging Stars


A series examining a potential breakout player in each division.
Tues.: AFC West | NFC West
Wed.: AFC North | NFC North
Thurs.: AFC South | NFC South
Fri.: AFC East | NFC East











Last year, Brown had felt compelled to thank Pitts after every game for all that help sorting through what he was supposed to do.

"He gets out there now and before I can get it out, he's said the call, boom, we're ready to go," Pitts said. "We're getting to where we don't have to make every call, we are grunting with each other, saying 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' or 'Go, go, go.' It's real simple, quick and short and we are on the same page. Things like that are really, really important on an offensive line, it's a group position."

The Texans' 76 sacks allowed in their debut season in 2002 left an indelible mark on a lot of people and 43 in 2004, 2005 and 2006 didn't do a lot to erase the stigma. But last season, Houston's quarterbacks were taken down 32 times, just below the league average.

"They are starting to respect us more as a line," Brown said. "I didn't know too much about the history of the offensive line here before I got here, but once I did a lot of people told me that that was a big problem. I guess last year we did pretty
good as a unit and you have to give us some kind of credit since we were the No. 3 offense in the league."

As the Texans are poised to shed several labels they've earned in their seven years of existence and make a run at a playoff spot, Brown's expected to emerge as a franchise left tackle who can help it happen, covering the blind side for Matt Schaub and helping punch holes for Steve Slaton. That's why Brown is our choice as the AFC South's Emerging Star for 2009.

"For a guy going into his second year, he's very advanced and he has a great opportunity to be a dominant player, no question," said Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, a new offensive assistant coach for the Texans. "He's a big, strong, powerful, agile good athlete who's smart. Just learning and getting the reps, that's going to be his deal. He has a good attitude about it too."

Said Colts Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney, who had three sacks and a forced fumble in two games against Houston in 2008: "I think Duane is a good athlete, a young guy who definitely as a lot of upside and potential. He's definitely one of the better tackles in our conference and our division. He has a lot of room to grow. One thing he definitely has going for himself is his effort and his ability to catch on quickly.

"Now with the pieces that they have and with some guys coming back with a couple years experience together, I think they should be a force to be reckoned with."

What suggests Brown is primed for a big jump?

Well, the conditioning issues that were partially responsible for him getting rotated out are gone, as is Salaam.

Brown played his final two seasons at Virginia Tech in the 305- to 312-pound range and he was 315 at the NFL scouting combine. But from his pro day to the start of his first training camp, he didn't focus on fitness the way he should have. He indulged in chicken parm and pizza. He wound up playing much of the season around 325.

Since then, he gave up the fried foods in favor of a diet heavy on tuna fish, big salads, vegetables and fruits. Brown played in regular offseason basketball games with teammates including Jacoby Jones, Vonta Leach and Frank Okam at the Meyerland Plaza 24 Hour Fitness. Those efforts got him back in that more desirable weight range.

Film study has extended beyond Freeney and Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch, rushers he faces twice a season in the AFC South, to Matt Light, Jordan Gross and Chris Samuels, successful tackles he feels he can emulate.

Across the Texans' line, right tackle Eric Winston makes it sound like Brown burns a lot of calories with enthusiasm alone.

"Duane is super intense," Winston said. "Everything he does, he's almost hyper about it and that's a good thing. When you're in this kind of business, you do the same things over and over and over again and that's the key, trying to perfect it without it getting boring. He's got that intensity about him where he can keep that up

“He doesn't get bored because he's trying so hard every time, and that's a good trait to have."

Brown also realizes how fortunate he is to have found such a perfect fit. The league is littered with players who can't find their niche, who don't fit their team's schemes. In the zone-blocking run scheme the Texans brought in Alex Gibbs to install and operate, the team asks its linemen to run. Athleticism and mobility are the most desirable traits. The Texans don't covet guys like Baltimore's 6-foot-9, 350-pound Jared Gaither or San Diego's Marcus McNeill (6-7 336).

"That's what our whole scheme is about, is us running," Brown said. "My main responsibility is pass protection, protecting the blind side of course, and on the backside of our run plays, trying to get that cut back crease. Me having the athleticism I have, I'm able to do both of those jobs."

"I feel like I've become a much better player and I expect a lot from myself. God willing I stay healthy, I feel like I should be here for a while."
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The Texans' three most recent No. 1 draft picks, including No, 15 in the upcoming draft, may well be the key to Houston's season.

That was a big theme coach Gary Kubiak hit on in his Tuesday morning breakfast meeting with reporters at the owner's meeting in Dana Point, Calif., which I have had a chance to look at thanks to John McClain.

Here are the key pieces of what Kubiak had to say regarding No. 15 and recent first-rounders Amobi Okoye, a defensive tackle, and Duane Brown, the left tackle:

What do you expect out of your first-round pick?

Our first-round pick has to have a big impact on our team. The more the first-round pick continues to be an impact player, the better we're going to get. We could still use an impact player at linebacker and on the backend (but) we'd be hard-pressed to take a receiver or a running back in the first round.

How important is it for you to hit a home run with that pick?

It's very important. We've made progress, and for us to make some more progress, that guy has to be an impact player.

On Okoye's second-year drop off and expectations for him now:

Amobi's got to become an impact player. You talk about this year's No. 1 pick becoming an impact player, that's what we need him to do. When it comes to taking the next step for our defense, Amobi's more important than anybody. I was a little disappointed last season but not with his work. He battled a high ankle sprain. I think we're over those things. He's grown up. He's more mature. I like the way he's started the offseason. Bill [Kollar] has a good reputation with players like Amobi and what his talent is as far as coming off the ball. It's a big year for him."

On what Kubiak wants to see from Okoye:

I want to see him be active, be a factor. We want him to be a factor in all phases of the game. Sometimes I think he worried so much about trying to get sacks that he forgot about having fun and just cutting it loose and playing the game. Sacks aren't the most important thing. We expect him to be a big-time contributor.

If Okoye is the one defensive player who has to step up, who's the one offensive player who has to step up?

I think Duane Brown has to take another step forward. There's no more coming off the field like he did last year [when backup Ephraim Salaam played every fourth series]. He made a lot of progress as a rookie starting every game, and now he has to make more to help our offense be more successful.

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