Eating Crow on Nico Collins

While the 2-3 record is keeping fans from getting completely out over their skis, the Texans have on the whole been positive surprises this year. The defense has played a couple of sharp games. C.J. Stroud — though I thought he would be good — was better than even I expected right away. Bobby Slowik has been more up-and-down than someone other teams will try to poach for a head coaching job to me, but he’s done some very good things. (Sometimes he also calls run plays.)

But I’m here to talk about someone who I didn’t think that highly of coming into the year, and that’s third-year wideout Nico Collins. That’s not to say I thought he was a bad wideout, but I read the infusion of pass-catchers (Robert Woods, Noah Brown, Dalton Schultz, drafting Tank Dell, return of John Metchie) as a verdict against what was already there. Teams don’t often trust guys who miss large chunks of their first two years to injury, and the flashes had not become consistent production yet. I expected a more balanced offense rather than Nico and the Collinsettes, as it has often become in the first weeks of the season. Third-year wideouts were a big deal when I was coming into football as the breakout candidates, but rarely do you see a third-year breakout anymore — the scarcity of the position dictates anyone who can play is already playing much faster.

But there were extenuating circumstances: Collins played for the 2021 and 2022 Texans. Instead of being a supporting player in the offense, Collins leads the team in targeted air yards and has broken out as a YAC guy. He leads the NFL in yards after catch per reception and is a league-best +3.8 YAC over his expected YAC per Next Gen Stats. Collins was not in the top 40 qualified receivers in YAC last season, and in fact was third amongst just Texans behind legends Jordan Akins and Chris Moore.

So it’s tempting to look at those numbers and say something like “Houston’s Deebo!!!” and throw on two more exclamation points so they know you’re serious. But when you break down the scope of those missed tackles, I think it’s mostly just great play design from Slowik. Collins isn’t often cutting around open-field tacklers who can square him up. He’s getting a head of steam from Slowik’s designs as an in-breaker, and then using the momentum of being a 6-foot-4, 215-pound missile to bust through arm tackles in the secondary.

I was a little iffy when I was asked about Collins’ early-season performances because I’d already seen bits of this here or there. His game wasn’t about whether the talent would play, but about whether the talent could consistently be applied. This is a big player who was supposed to be a red zone threat, and between 2021 and 2022 he caught just 4-of-14 targets for 35 yards, with nary an eye-popping highlight to be found as compared to busted plays for the defense. So after Week 2? I kind of wanted to see some sustainment of the production.

Where I was encouraged — and what I want to see more of — is his performance against the Steelers in Week 4. There are three plays in particular that I thought showed well for his future.

One of them was a vanilla screen, one where he actually did leave someone behind:

This is an element to a good running game that the Texans have to emphasize given their lack of push up front: They’re gonna have to give the ball to their best tackle breaker and let him make some moves. Here you’ve got a would-be tackler in space that gets uncovered and darted around, and then you’ve got the speed to quickly press the available hole.

Another was a play where Collins was a late option and went up to get a ball at his highest point.

Big catch in Jacksonville last year aside, Collins has not won as many of these sorts of balls as it feels like a player with his rare size should win. But this is a late ball, Stroud has placed it in an area where Collins can go get it, and he does it with relative ease. It’s not so much that the plays he has been making this season are bad as it is just how many of them are in the same area and amount to in-breakers. I need the height to play. It doesn’t have to play as much as the YAC does, but it does need to be there.

And finally, there was his touchdown catch:

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think burning Patrick Peterson is the cutoff line on being a great NFL receiver in 2023. But it’s important to me that the tool is in the toolkit, and that’s something we didn’t really see a lot of in either 2021 or 2022. Show me you can break a defensive weak point like that and you have my attention.

In Week 5, Nico’s numbers tailed off a bit and the Texans surprisingly kind of played away from him. The interplay between Stroud and Jesse Bates was apparent — Bates jumped a few routes, including this one from Collins below — and Bates also was a victim on the go-ahead touchdown pass when he bit on a double move from Dalton Schultz. That was a an in-game adjustment to Bates playing loose on underneath balls:

I didn’t leave my watch of that game thinking that Collins was stymied — I think the Texans really wanted to get Tank Dell involved early, perhaps even that they believed Dell could give them more YAC than Nico Collins could in that matchup. (The idea that Collins was shut down by A.J. Terrell doesn’t really hold up — they barely matched up on each other.) Collins played more of a deeper role and ran more out-breaking routes. PFF charted Collins with 61.4% of his routes working in from the line of scrimmage in Weeks 1-4. In Week 5, that number was down to just 38.4%.

I kind of think no matter what he does from here, Nico has done enough to make himself a valuable NFL player. Receivers who can make the kind of plays he has as secondary options are extremely valuable in this current iteration of the NFL. The Christian Kirk contract may never happen again — the NFL free agency market looked heavily colluded in 2023 — but anyone who has demonstrated what Nico has demonstrated so far this year will be worth a real investment. If he keeps up this level of production all season, I’d go as far as to say he’ll get an eight-figure contract.

The question is just where in that spectrum he settles. Is he a No. 1? Is he a No. 2? It’s actually Houston’s most pressing issue in a way because Collins will be hitting the end of his rookie contract in 2024. He’s a late bloomer, and also the first player in Nick Caserio’s initial class that looks like he might be something worth keeping. I think it’s probably way too early in the season to call it one way or another — beyond the fact that he’s definitely improved into a productive wideout. But when you look at what awaits in free agency and the trade market in 2024 and 2025 (a place where Tee Higgins and Justin Jefferson have not signed extensions, for example), these last 12 games of the season are going to be extremely important to the evaluation on how the Texans move forward.

But in a season that has mostly been notable for Stroud’s quick emergence, I have my eyes on Collins every week. What we ultimately see him turn into will be one of the biggest hinge points of the 2024 offseason — both for his bank account and for how Houston can play the cards it has. If they believe he’s turned into a true No. 1, their chips can be spent elsewhere. If they don’t, what will he be worth and will they be willing to pay it?