HOUSTON (AP) — In his NFL career, Houston coach Bill O'Brien has rarely seen a rookie receiver get significant playing time.
This season, the Texans have two first-year receivers filling key roles and a rookie tight end playing a part in the offense, too.
There have been plenty of ups and downs for the trio through the first eight games. But O'Brien is looking for the group to be more consistent to help take pressure off top receiver DeAndre Hopkins and improve a lackluster passing game led by quarterback Brock Osweiler as Houston begins the second half at Jacksonville on Sunday .
First-round pick Will Fuller has had an immediate impact this season, finishing with 100 yards receiving in each of his first two starts. He's failed to replicate that success since as he has struggled with drops and injuries.
Houston's other rookie receiver is Braxton Miller, the former star Ohio State quarterback, who the Texans added in the third round of this year's draft. Miller has also dealt with injuries, but has appeared in six games and has eight receptions for 52 yards.
Stephen Anderson is Houston's rookie tight end who has seven catches for 57 yards in five games. He was signed as an undrafted free agent after a three-year career at California, where he had 1,260 yards receiving with seven touchdowns.
“It's not easy and I think that you'll see improvement as we go along here,” O'Brien said. “I think they're getting better and better … but it's definitely a challenge for rookie receivers to play.”
Receivers coach Sean Ryan has found himself doing more teaching this season than he has in the past because of the youth of his group. But he doesn't mind it.
“That's what they pay me for,” he said. “I kind of enjoy it. … There are some bumps on the road, but you just try to keep progressing with them and keep teaching them. That's the challenge of it and that's the fun of it. If I didn't appreciate that, I think I'd be doing the wrong deal.”
The Texans will need their rookies to play an even bigger role in the upcoming weeks with second-year receiver Jaelen Strong expected to miss several weeks with an ankle injury he suffered in Houston's game against the Lions before the bye. Strong has played in each game for Houston with two starts and has 14 catches for 131 yards.
Ryan finds himself teaching Miller a bit more than the others since he spent just one season at receiver at Ohio State following a shoulder injury that ended his career at quarterback after he earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors twice at the position.
“We need him to play fast,” Ryan said. “Even if you're not sure, cut it loose, let's go, that's what we saw on tape from him. He's an athletic guy. He's got great change of direction and all those skills. So we just need to see it. We need him to process things a little bit quicker, which is coming with experience and practice and all that.”
Miller believes the transition from college to the NFL would be difficult regardless of how long he'd played receiver and hopes things will be easier now that he's played a few games.
“Just coming in as a rookie, learning all the positions, it gets tough at times but I'm striving to be the best that I can be,” he said.
Fuller had 2,512 yards receiving with 30 touchdowns in a three-year career at Notre Dame and wowed at the combine with a 4.32 40-yard dash. But critics worried about his propensity for dropping passes in college and the problem has continued at this level.
Though he's third among NFL rookies with 372 yards receiving, the Texans are working to address the drops issue so he'll be more productive in the second half of the season.
“I don't think you can just say: `Hey, catch the ball,'” Ryan said. “There's more to it than that. It's either about your eyes, your eye focus or it's hand placement and where you catch the ball. It's stuff you learn early on Day 1 as a receiver. But it needs to be addressed and talked about all the time. And it needs to be practiced. That's how you try to address the situation.”