From his vantage point deep in the middle of the Texans’ secondary, Justin Reid has the perfect view and crystal-clear vision.
Reid alertly watches everything happening in front of him, reading the quarterback’s eyes, body language and passing lanes. It’s his job to create confusion and to strike with the aggressiveness of a shark when the situation calls for fast actions.
Reid adeptly diagnosed where rookie quarterback Davis Mills, a fellow Stanford man, wanted to throw the football during a red-zone drill. Because Mills stared down his primary read, Reid took off in a hurry for an interception that he returned for a touchdown and celebrated with teammaes.
These are the moments Reid lives for. He’s delivering a strong message about himself as he heads into a pivotal contract year. Early in training camp, Reid looks as good as he ever has. He’s fully back after undergoing thumb surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament injury that ended an extremely disappointing season prematurely last year as he was forced onto injured reserve and missed the final three games.
“The best thing, one of the only positives about my season ending early last year is I got to really focus on my recovery getting back healthy,” Reid said. “Now, it's honestly the best thing that I could have done going into this season because physically I feel great. I'm bigger, I'm faster, I'm stronger. I feel very fluid and just loose on the field and I just feel like I'm free out there. I just get to play ball and go make plays.
“Last year wasn't a great year. It just wasn't. Heading into this year from a health standpoint, yeah, do I. I feel really, really healthy. I feel strong. I feel confident in every part of my body and man I'm having a lot of fun on the field again. Man, it's a blast.”
Reid has unfinished business on and off the field. He compartmentalizes any future contract negotiations with the Texans or other NFL teams as he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022 after his four-year, $4.063 million rookie contract expires.
Reid is due a $2.433 million base salary this year, but a blockbuster payday is ahead of him if he manufactures a bounce-back season. Reid leaves the business in the ultra-capable hands of veteran NFL agent Joel Segal. So, Reid concentrates and places his full attention on intercepting passes and delivering punishing tackles.
Should Reid have the kind of season he’s hoping for, the Texans could retain him on a new deal that would likely be expensive or he could cash in as a free agent.
The highest paid safeties in terms of average per year are the Denver Broncos’ Justin Simmons ($15.25 million), the Arizona Cardinals’ Budda Baker ($14.75 million), the Chicago Bears’ Eddie Jackson ($14.6 million), the Tennessee Titans’ Kevin Byard ($14.1 million), the Washington Football Team’s Landon Collins ($14 million), the Kansas City Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu ($14 million), the New England Patriots’ Devin McCourty ($11.5 million) and the Cleveland Browns’ John Johnson ($11.25 million). To join that elite category in terms of pay, Reid knows he can only control what he can control: his performance.
Is it tough to concentrate with so much at stake? For Reid, the answer is very simple: Not at all.
“Honestly, no,” Reid said. “ For me, it's always been very clear. Like I'm focused on this right now. I'm going to compartmentalize everything else and I kind of tackle things as they come. When it comes to football and want to put my best ball on the field, that's always been kind of No. 1 in my head.
“Like everyone around me, I have a great support team around me and they understand how I operate and how important this is to me. They know when I'm locked into this mode I'm locked in and once I step off the field then I have time to go do everything else.”
That type of concentration involves discipline. For Reid, it’s something instilled in him by his family’s military background, including his uncle serving and his mom in the reserves.
“My parents were very, very strict on the discipline aspect as far as handling my responsibilities ever since I was growing up as a kid,” Reid said. “ It's always handle your business first, have fun and do whatever afterwards but that's only after you get your business done first. There's kind of part of my foundation of who I am as a person.”
After winning consecutive AFC South division titles, the Texans fell to 4-12 last season as coach and general manager Bill O’Brien was fired following an 0-4 start. There was a ton of adversity surrounding the franchise, which has now been overhauled under the vision of general manager Nick Caserio and coach David Culley.
The Texans envision Reid as being a big part of the change they're overseeing with high standards.
“He’s back there in that free safety position, and he sees everything,” Culley said. “He’s back there for a reason. He’s a guy that’s going to make plays. He’s a guy that flies around and is going to be around the ball.”
Reid acknowledges he had a rough year last season, finishing with 83 tackles, two sacks, six tackles for losses and four quarterback hits with zero interceptions. The younger brother of former Pro Bowl safety Eric Reid, Reid intercepted a combined five passes, returning one for a touchdown, during his first two seasons. For his career, Reid has 249 tackles, nine for losses and three fumble recoveries.
A former Ed Block Courage award winner, Reid’s third year in the NFL rapidly became defined by missed tackles, hesitation and crucial mistakes. It wasn’t that Reid was playing badly. He just wasn’t meeting his own high standards. Reid said overthinking was plaguing him. He wanted to be perfect and football is never a perfect game.
The low moment: a missed tackle on Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb that allowed him to bust loose to put the Texans away for a road loss. Playing for veteran defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, Reid is feeling comfortable again and enjoying the intellectual collaboration.
It was an altogether different story last season for Reid
“It was a little bit like I would almost over-criticize every little detail of every little thing,” Reid said. “I wanted everything to be perfect and football’s not a perfect sport. It never was and never will be. It’s meant to be played fast and meant to be played free.”
The Texans finished 30th in total defense last season, including 24th against the pass and last against the run. There were just two interceptions by defensive backs as they allowed 30 touchdown passes, a 69.7 completion percentage and a quarterback rating of 109.6.
“Coach Lovie Smith's system, it's so much more aggressive,” Reid said. “He lets us play free on the back end. He's very intent about us wanting to make plays and going and making plays, playing with instincts, playing with security; at the same time but when we see an opportunity to make a play and go strip the ball out he harps on us going to do that.
“He's in my ear literally every day. First thing he said to me in practice today was, "Yesterday was yesterday. Now do it again today," you know what I mean. So, he preaches consistency, he preaches getting takeaways, getting turnovers and that's just the type of defense that we want to run.”
Reid has a knack for hard hits that don’t cross the line and trigger penalties. He’s a compact, timely collision player
“I'm never out there to hurt anybody,” Reid said. “I'm not a dirty player. But I am a guy that you're going to pay the toll if you come across me. That's always been my mentality, to play legal, play clean but also play physical and deliver a blow and make guys pay for it if they come my direction.”
Like every offseason, Reid spent time working out with retired NFL safety Ryan Clark, an ESPN analyst, with other top safeties in Baton Rouge, La., and in Arizona. Clark is one of Reid’s biggest fans.
“Ryan Clark is a goat, he's one of my favorite guys,” Reid said. “It means a lot to me to hear that from him because he's played with some of the best, he's played with Sean Taylor and he's played with Troy Polamalu. He has a 13-year career and he's played with some of the greats. He's a Super Bowl champion, so to hear that from him it means a lot for me.”
Likewise, Reid’s teammates appreciate his athleticism, intelligence and positive attitude.
“He’s kind of tight, I like him,” Texans corner Terrance Mitchell said. “He’s raw.”
Reid laughed and smiles when told how Mitchell described him.
“Hey, just take him at his word, man,” Reid said. “Tight, raw, all with that, just a guy that's happy to be here. Just a guy that's trying to be the best leader I can be for the guys around me and help us get this thing set back on the right course.”
Ideally, Reid will emerge as a team captain and a leader for an overhauled defense. That’s what he wants. That’s what he expects from himself.
“I just try to be the best guy,” Reid said. “I want to be a resource for all the guys around me. I want to lead by example. If any guy has any question, I want to be there. I talk ball all day. I want to be a guy that not only is putting my best ball on the field but helps everybody around me put their best ball on the field, too. The better I play is better for everybody. If I play better it's for the defense, it's better for me individually and it's better for the team, too, and we're going to win more games if I play better.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.