“We also think his skill set complements Justin Reid very well,” Gaine said.
Reid, a third-round pick in 2018, played so well as a rookie that not only do the Texans think he can take a big jump forward and be a leader in the secondary in his second season, but in some ways, they are building the unit around him.
The Texans’ secondary will have a lot of new faces this season after Houston lost defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson in free agency and safety Andre Hal retired in April. Houston signed Gipson, but hopes its replacement for Mathieu's production was already on the roster.
Reid played in all 16 regular-season games during his rookie season, finishing with 88 tackles, three interceptions, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Perhaps his most exciting moment as rookie came in the Texans’ Week 11 victory in Washington. On third-and-goal in the second quarter, Reid intercepted Alex Smith's pass in the end zone and returned it 101 yards for a touchdown.
Reid did all of that while also playing a key role on special teams by running the Texans' punt protection, playing the part of what head coach Bill O’Brien referred to as “the quarterback of the punt team.”
“Most rookies don't play a lot, [but] Justin got a lot of playing time and played at a good level,” O’Brien said. “He really has good command of what we're doing defensively and he has good command of what we're doing on special teams.”
‘He’s almost too smart’
When Gipson asked around about Reid after he signed with the Texans in free agency, he kept hearing the same thing: that he might be too smart.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that about a football player,” Gipson said.
“I sit next to him in the meetings and I try to pick his brain. Other people had said he’s almost too smart. He’s a guy who knows everything. There hasn’t been a question yet -- and I’ve asked him a lot of questions -- he hasn’t had the answer to. ... The mental part kind of blows you away because the guy is smart. That’s one of the things that they told me.”
Reid, who played three seasons at Stanford, spent part of his offseason working toward completing his degree in engineering. While he was at school, it wasn’t just Reid’s intelligence that stood out to his defensive backs coach, Duane Akina, but the work that Reid put into the mental aspect of football.
“He’s got the book smarts, but that doesn’t always translate to intelligence on the football field,” Akina said. “Many times when you put 21 other moving pieces out there, it’s quite different from memorizing Chapter 6 and then taking a test on it. … He loves football and he studies really hard at the game. He was a great match for me because we teach a lot of concepts here at Stanford, where he really enjoyed that side of the game.
“He really enjoyed all of the mental aspect of the game. When you have a great athlete that can run and jump and then you factor the mental side of the game in, that’s why I knew he would really succeed in the NFL.”
Veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph quickly took notice of how hard Reid studied and the detailed notes he took on his iPad during team meetings. Last season, Reid rewrote the entire Texans playbook -- from memory -- in his iPad to help him better learn and understand it. When Reid gave presentations to his teammates during team meetings, Joseph said they looked like something a coach would put together.
At Stanford, the lead defensive back usually runs most of the meetings during the summer. When it was Reid’s turn, Akina said, he “really took it to another level.” Because Reid was able to teach the material, he was really able to learn the concepts that allowed him to be ahead of many other college safeties.
Akina started getting texts from him at all hours of the day.
“I’d get a text from him on Tuesday night saying, ‘Hey coach, when they’re in trips and the backs set weak, what do you think of this?’
“As time went on, he started thinking the game from a coach’s perspective,” Akina said. “[He was] game-planning a little bit. And those were all really good thoughts."
Big jump from Year 1 to Year 2
Because of the turnover in the Texans’ secondary, Reid has already taken on more of a leadership role ahead of his second season. During the first OTA practice open to the media, Reid stood on the sideline talking to Gipson and cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun.
“My role is just to be a resource for those guys,” Reid said. “They’re smart guys. They’ve been in the league a while. ... These guys already know football. For me, it’s just helping them get acclimated to our playbook and the way we do things around here, and any questions they might have, just be there for them and help them get settled in with it.”
Reid is expected to start alongside Gipson next season. Gaine praised Reid’s versatility, which gives the Texans more flexibility between the free safety and strong safety positions.
“Based on how the offense lines up, they’re interchangeable players,” Gaine said. “The more interchangeable you can be at that position, the better versatility we have on our defense, which means the more we can do in terms of substitution packages, blitz schemes, pressure schemes [and] coverage adjustments. So guys don’t have to flip sides. They can play on the left, they can play on the right. They can play man, they can play zone.”
Because of the addition, Reid stressed the importance of improving the communication while also building chemistry in the secondary. Reid said he’s also learning a lot from Gipson and the pair “feel like we can read each other’s minds” on the field.
“I think that he had one of the more underrated seasons last year,” Gipson said of Reid. “You combine that with the mental skill set, I think that him and I will mesh well. Our skill set is similar and I’m excited to pair up with him.”
Reid said he has spent the offseason working on some of the more nuanced parts of his game, such as improving his eye control. In addition to the obvious team goals of wanting to continue to win, Reid said he is motivated to take a big step forward in Year 2.
“I want to have a couple more PBUs [pass breakups] and a couple more interceptions,” Reid said. “I know that I had three last year but I dropped three, so I want to turn those three into six.”
Reid is recovering from a January wrist surgery. During the Texans’ organized team activities, he said he’s “not 100 percent yet but feeling really, really good about it.” And now, Reid said it’s “a totally different feeling” going in to his second season compared to his first offseason program a year ago.
“There’s like a comfort level -- not a comfort level as in I’m satisfied, like I’m taking it easy or anything like that, but a comfort in knowing where I am, knowing the playbook, knowing my teammates better and that sort of deal,” Reid said. “It just feels like I get to use last year as a springboard into going into this season. Instead of starting down here, now I get to start here and keep trying to build up and raise from there.”