Fists balled up, his face defined by intensity and attitude, Tytus Howard exploded out of his stance and powerfully shot his hands into the midsection of Pittsburgh Steelers star outside linebacker T.J. Watt.
Howard had grown tired of watching Watt harass Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson last season during a road loss. So, he took decisive action.
The former first-round draft pick from Alabama State gained leverage and hip-tossed Watt to the ground. Although Watt had a productive game and the Texans took the loss, Howard knocked down the Pro Bowl pass rusher several times.
“T.J., he’s a great player, man,” Howard said. “I went out of that game like, ‘If I can block him, I can block just about anybody in the NFL right now.’”
It’s that combination of aggressiveness, strength and competitiveness that makes the Texans intrigued by the possibilities of moving Howard around. A natural right tackle who’s the Texans’ top option at that position ahead of Charlie Heck and injured veteran Marcus Cannon as he remains sidelined with a calf injury and also underwent offseason arthroscopic knee surgery, Howard has played a significant amount of snaps at left guard next to Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil.
As potentially potent as that combination could be, the Texans could always have Howard play right tackle and insert former Green Bay Packers starter Lane Taylor at right guard once he’s activated and fully recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Regardless of where Howard (6-foot-5, 322 pounds) lines up, the Texans are encouraged by his progression heading into his third NFL season. Howard has gotten stronger and in better shape this offseason while training with Billy Voltaire of Volt PT at Kinitro Fitness.
“I feel like when I put the work in, I can play anywhere on the line,” Howard said. “I'm only here to be the best me I can be to help the team, so that's my ultimate goal. I think by me being at tackle and coming in to play some guard, I feel like my feet are a little bit faster.
“When I'm playing guard, I'm able to use my athleticism a little more inside against guys who usually don't go against guys with as good a feet as I do, so I think I like playing all the positions. Whichever one my team sees me as, I'm going to go in day in and day out and play the best I can be.”
Texans coach David Culley emphasized that how the team figures out where to play Howard is a fluid situation. The idea is to build in flexibility in case of injury or performance issues to find the right combination of players.
“Well, we don't really have a position exactly for him right now as far as all of those guys,” Culley said. “We're basically going to continue to move them guys around and just make sure that they know all those positions. The thing we can say about it, you've got to be flexible in the offensive line.
“You've got to be able to go left tackle, right guard. You've got to be able to go right tackle, left guard, right tackle. You've got to be able to do that, and that's the versatility we've got to have up there. Basically you only carry so few guys, so you've got to be able to be able to go multiple positions there.”
And Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly stressed that having Howard move around is a compliment to his skills.
“Yeah, it allows us to get our five best on the field,” Kelly said. “Especially at that position, it's the sum of all five parts. So, having a person who not only can handle it physically but can handle it mentally allows us, again, to get the five best players on the field and not necessarily just pigeonhole someone into one specific position.”
Signed to a four-year, $12.225 million contract that includes a club fifth-year option, Howard is much healthier this season. A year ago, he endured a rough offseason that included recovering from knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, a procedure to repair a broken finger, and dealing with no offseason practices due to the coronavirus pandemic. He wound up getting off to a slow start.
Now the Texans are seeing Howard regain the form that made him an all-rookie selection.
“He's all over the place,” Tunsil said. “He's doing a great job. Everybody knows how Tytus Howard is doing. He's a great guy, he’s a great player, just getting better every day.”
Howard has no intentions of being the Texans' left tackle as that spot belongs to Tunsil, one of the left tackles in the NFL, but he can hold his own at the position when called upon.
“No, man, he’s best in the game,” Howard said. “My goal is to be on that level, and that’s why I look at all his film, learn from it, and I take all that in and I try to apply it to my game. Ever since LT has been here, he has been nothing but like a big brother to me, helping me out on and off the field, just giving me ideas and ways to help my game get better. I'm appreciative of my boy right there.”
Howard allowed just two sacks last season, but was penalized 11 times. A lot of times, Howard had to overcompensate to bail out right guard Zach Fulton, who recently retired from the New York Giants. It created a difficult situation on the right side as Fulton regularly allowed a lot of pressure, including 11 sacks.
A former quarterback who has gained 100 pounds since high school, Howard remains a work in progress.
“Tytus Howard has a lot of talent and a lot of tools,” said former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger, an NFL Network analyst. “He’s still improving. I like him a lot.”
Duke Manyweather, a private offensive line coach based in Plano, likes the athleticism and hard-nosed mentality he sees from Howard.
“I’m very excited about Tytus Howard,” Manyweather said. “When you turned on the film with Tytus, you saw a long, explosive, aggressive offensive lineman whose skills would translate immediately and become something special in the NFL.”
In two NFL seasons and 22 starts, Howard has allowed just four sacks and five quarterback hits.
Howard has only played left guard in a regular-season game once, playing 64 snaps in 2019 in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I'm a lot more comfortable now than when I was a rookie because when I was a rookie it was all new to me, so I was just put inside and I never played inside before, versus now I've played guard before,” Howard said. “I got a lot of reps on the left side, so I'm very comfortable being on both sides.”
Right tackle, though, is Howard’s natural position. It’s where he feels at home.
“I'm very comfortable playing right tackle” Howard said. “My goal is to go in, do my best job at right tackle and do my best job at left guard, left tackle. So any position they put me in, that's my goal is to give my all at every position because I like to play, so me being on the field, it makes me happy, makes my team happy, so that's what I want to do.”
Unlike previous offseasons, Howard was healthy and didn't have to spend time at NRG Stadium rehabbing an injury. So, he got to spend a lot of time with his wife, Chelsea, and his 10-month-old daughter, Willow Grace.
“I spent more time with my family because I wasn't in the building as much, and getting a chance to spend a lot of time with my daughter, my wife, it helped me a lot with my family and stuff like that because when you're having a good time at home, it makes coming to work a lot better,” he said. “I do this job; I do it for them. Fatherhood has changed me a lot, man.
“Being able to see my daughter every morning before I leave home, it just makes me go that much harder every day, so offer her all the things I never could have when I was growing up. Just knowing I have someone at home that's depending on me that's just fully depending on me, it just makes me want to work and do everything just a little bit better.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128