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Houston Texans: Why it is time to pay for D.J. Reader

D.J. Reader
Houston Texans nose tackle D.J. Reader (98) in action during a regular season Week 4 NFL football game between the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans on Sunday October 1, 2017 in Houston. The Texans beat the Titans 57-14 (Matt Patterson via AP)

Going back to the 2016 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans had themselves quite the haul. Despite just three picks, they hit on half of them. Will Fuller, while often injured, has been a dynamic playmaker and the perfect complement to DeAndre Hopkins. They followed that up with Nick Martin. The $33 million man has made 33 starts in his first three seasons in Houston. Then, there was D.J. Reader in the fifth round, perhaps the biggest gem of that entire draft class.

Appearing in every game as a rookie, Reader notched seven starts. Since then, he’s started all but two games for the Texans. During that span, he’s established himself as a mainstay in Houston’s front. Not only that, he’s emerged as one of the most underrated interior defensive linemen in the NFL.

To start the 2019 campaign, Reader has been white-hot. He’s coming off a stupendous performance in their Week 3 win over the Chargers. Reader racked up a career-high 1.5 sacks, trailing his career season-high by just a half-sack. He already has two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. At this pace, he’s set to shatter his previous career highs.

Reader is transforming into a special player, and it’s time for the Houston Texans to pay him.

Dominant run defender

Reader’s trademark quality is his prowess against the run. He’s not necessarily going to be tossing blockers and blowing up the ball carrier. However, his presence goes beyond that. Often times, he’s the man up front eating blocks and opening lanes for his teammates. His impact has gone beyond the stat sheet. They say two-gapping specialists are a dying breed, but Reader is doing his part to preserve them from extinction.

Coming out of Clemson, Reader didn’t possess a favorable athletic profile nor viable production. However, his raw strength was always there. That has transferred onto the field and to the next level. Reader controls blocks with ease and can shed in a snap to corral the ball carrier.

Through the first three weeks of play, Reader looks like a top-five interior defender. That is in large part due to his stoutness against the run, where the majority of his snaps have come. In previous years, he’s been labelled a one-dimensional player, but that’s not the case anymore.

Pass rush progression

Highlighting Reader’s eruption to start the season has been the development in his pass rush. Listed as high as 347 pounds, it’s apparent he’s dropped his play weight. Reader looks noticeably leaner and in turn, much quicker and explosive than he has in year’s past.

Getting off the ball has been Reader’s biggest concern in the past. This year, however, he’s beating opposing linemen to the point of attack and building on that with improved hand usage. Reader routinely gets the first strike when rushing the passer. He’s implemented a swift swim move and shown the ability to rip inside to crash the pocket.

The growth Reader has shown as a pass rusher gives him a complete skillset. He’s now a legitimate three-down player although it’ll be interesting to see if the Texans treat him as such. Thus far, he’s garnered around 55% of the team’s defensive snaps, which is not a huge chunk in a limited sample size. However, Houston has a few players they need to get reps to and Reader usually falls victim on passing downs despite his emergence.

As the year goes on, I’d expect to see the Texans improve Reader’s snap share. Houston will want to be sure in what they have before they start talking extension (unless they already are behind closed doors). Reader’s boost as a pass rusher brings his game to new heights; just in time for a new contract.

Show me the money

In 2017, the Baltimore Ravens made Brandon Williams the league’s highest-paid nose tackle. They signed him to a five year, $54 million deal with just over half guaranteed. Reader will likely demand money in the same ballpark, give or take a couple million.

With Houston’s current cap situation, that shouldn’t be an issue. We saw them hand Martin a similar AAV. While he plays a more important position than Reader, their impacts on the field are not necessarily close; especially to start the season.

The Texans have been desperate for a running mate to J.J. Watt on the defensive line for years. It appears they finally have that guy in Reader and he should be Houston’s priority free agent. As Watt enters his final prime years, locking up Reader will give this tandem another few seasons to flourish. Once Watt decides to hang up the cleats, they’ll hopefully still have Reader under contract to carry the torch. 

Jonathan Valencia is an AFC South writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter @JonValenciaPFN.

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