Nico Collins took off on a fly pattern, accelerating into his route to gain superior position against veteran cornerback Steven Nelson. Although Nelson applied tight coverage against the Texans' imposing wide receiver, Collins remained open because of his sheer size, leaping ability, and body control as he hauled in a touchdown pass from quarterback Davis Mills.
It was an encouraging snapshot of what Collins has displayed since the start of camp, showing again that he's poised for a potential breakout year heading into his second NFL season. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, with 4.4 40-yard dash speed, Collins is one of the bigger wide receivers in the NFL and provides a huge downfield target for Mills.
“Because I played basketball, in my mind: the ball is in the air, go and get it at its highest point," Collins told Pro Football Network. "It's kind of like getting a rebound. It gravitates me to go and get up and get the ball."
The former third-round draft pick from Michigan has also refined his route running skills since his rookie year. Creating mismatches has become a routine occurrence for Collins. Whether it's matched up against Nelson or rookie first-round draft pick Derek Stingley Jr., Collins represents an extremely difficult assignment in single coverage.
“That's tough duty for a defensive back," Texans coach Lovie Smith said. "The one play that you're talking about, defensively, Steven Nelson is in pretty good position. But when you're 6-foot-4, most corners are around six feet, that's a pretty good matchup for us. Nico Collins is an excellent football player. We expect him to make plays like that.”
As a rookie, Collins was still learning the ropes in the NFL and shedding rust after opting out of his final season with the Wolverines due to COVID-19. He caught 33 passes for 446 yards and one touchdown on 60 targets and averaged 13.5 yards per reception in 2021.
“Nico has put in a ton of work all last year and through this offseason," Mills said. "It shows what he's been doing out here in practice. I think we've definitely developed chemistry, and he's going to be dangerous.
"When we're on the same page and how we are on the same page, I don't think there's many people out there who can stop him. Definitely, size and athletic abilities. I don't think there's too many people out there who can play and jump with him.”
Collins wound up playing 59% of the offensive snaps in 14 games and eight starts last year, and his importance to an offense led by Mills has increased.
The Texans want to establish Collins to prevent defenses from concentrating solely on Cooks, who led the team with 90 catches for 1,037 yards and six touchdowns on 134 targets in 2021.
“We went to Brandin Cooks a lot last year,” Smith said. “And we definitely plan on doing it a lot this year. We need Nico to be that complement to Brandin, and he can. Big target, catch, go and jump. That can be a good combination."
Collins was the second-leading receiver last season, but there could be an uptick in those numbers based on the Texans' game plans, his growing chemistry with Mills, and how new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton plans to utilize the Alabama native.
The Texans need a lot of production out of Collins, especially with rookie wide receiver John Metchie III expected to miss the entire season with acute promyelocytic leukemia.
Playing for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, Collins caught 78 passes for 1,388 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons.
"At Michigan, Harbaugh, they all pushed us a lot," Collins said, who credited the mentoring he receives from older receivers like Cooks, Chris Conley, and Phillip Dorsett. "They put that work on us. It prepared me for this opportunity now. It's football. It's building calluses. It's always going to pay off in the end. The older guys, they've taught me a lot of the ins and outs. It helps me grow a lot.
"I appreciate them a lot. I feel like the second year, I'm more comfortable with the playbook. I still have to get better. There's still more room for improvement in my game: route running, catching ability."
Collins played for Hamilton at Michigan when he was the assistant head coach and passing game coordinator for the Wolverines.
Now, Hamilton is drawing up plays for Collins again.
"Pep brings a lot of energy," Collins said. "He gives you a great opportunity to make plays. It's a great offense. I love it. I feel like the sky is the limit for everybody."
At training camp, Collins has consistently gained separation and has been a constant red-zone threat. He's become much more convincing at selling his patterns.
"I don't have a favorite route, I like them all," Collins said. "I like the dig route because you can push the defender and get them running vertical, and then I come out of my break. One thing I worked on this offseason is my pad level and footwork at making every route the same.
"I'm trying to be one of the greats. I want to be a Hall of Famer in Houston like Andre Johnson. Until then, I've got to continue to stack my days."
As a rookie, Mills completed 66.8% of his throws for 2,664 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He had an 88.8 passer rating and was the second-best rookie passer in the NFL behind New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones.
Heading into his second season, the Texans have witnessed a lot of improvement from Mills. And that anticipated leap could greatly benefit Collins' production.
"Absolutely, you can see it out there that he's more comfortable," Collins said. "Whenever the ball comes my way, we're going to make plays. He's building that confidence. Believe in us, trust me."