Roy Lopez adapted to every challenge, blocking scheme and obstacle as an NFL rookie, earning a starting job and a measure of popularity as the Texans' first-string defensive tackle.
Selected in the sixth round out of Arizona, Lopez replaced Vincent Taylor with the first-team defense when Taylor broke his ankle in the first game of the season.
Lopez proved to be a difficult blocking assignment, and tough to budge at the line of scrimmage as a classic nose tackle.
When Lopez got into the backfield for a big play, he celebrated with his signature salsa dance and emerged as a fan favorite.
"Roy got here, he was whatever he was, a sixth-round pick, and I'm not sure anybody was sure what we really had," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. "I think Roy has probably exceeded that."
Lopez recorded 31 tackles with 19 solos, four tackles for losses, one sack, two quarterback hits and a fumble recovery in 16 games with 15 starts.
Lopez's ascent makes him a role model for younger players like undrafted rookie defensive tackle Kurt Hinish
“Yep, 100%," Hinish said. "Roy is a bad dude. Kind of the same as me, an undersized guy. Like I said, we’re going to show up, punch you in the mouth every play. That’s the way we’re going to do it.”
Whether it's learning from defensive line coach Jacques Cesaire or older players like Maliek Collins, Lopez is intent on improving.
“I feel good," Lopez said. "I'm blessed to be here, happy to be here and keep growing with these guys. We're excited.”
He upgraded his diet this offseason, losing roughly 10 pounds.
Lopez combines toughness, quickness and strength.
"Absolutely, very stout at the point of attack; great quick first step, very strong, powerful hands; strong, powerful player.," Cesaire said. "And he’s young, too, so he’s almost going to be like an empty canvass that I can just mold him however I want right now. So, I’m excited to work with Roy as well.”
And Lopez continues to dedicate himself to absorbing more intel about blocking schemes.
“Just my knowledge of the game, I watched a lot of film. Just to learn from other guys and train with other guys and kind of pick their brain, what works," Lopez said. " So pretty much what it comes down to and then you sit back, okay, outside of football, you change your nutrition, you change the way you're training. Just being able to grow as a person, to be able to sit back and breathe, okay, you watch film, how do you want to look on film next year, what differences do you want to make and how can you improve this defense.”
The rmajor changes surrounding the Texans, both the familiar element of Lovie Smith being promoted to head coach and maintaining his defensive play-calling duties and the less familiar, hiring Cesaire to replace Bobby King, are being embraced by the former sixth-round draft pick from Arizona.
"When I got the news of coach's hiring, I was very excited," Lopez said. "It's nice to be able to come back and play for a defensive coordinator who is the same guy every day and that's to be the best Lovie Smith there is. It's something I grew up on: to be the best Roy Lopez I can be every day. The way you represent yourself is the mark you leave on people. We can play for Lovie. We all are looking forward to continuing growing. Last year was a stepping stone, and we can keep growing. We know exactly what he wants.
"To be able to grow under Lovie would be a great success. He'll sit down and talk to you. He will critique you. But at the same time, he will show you love and make you understand what he is saying. If you ever want to talk football, you can go up to his office or call him at any time of the day. That's the biggest thing: to have a coach you can rely upon."
During the offseason, the Texans' defensive linemen got together for training sessions with private defensive line coach Brandon Jordan, the Michigan State assistant, in Michigan and Arizona. It's about sharing information.
Playing next to Collins is a major boost for Lopez's development.
“Yeah, it was awesome," Lopez said. "We were able to meet up a few different places. We're thankful we have enough good trainers to be able to craft with each other and lean on one another, okay. When we get this, we're doing this. We're going to play this off of you, and just kind of pick brains.
"When you talk about a guy like Maliek Collins, he's very respected around this league. Media might not cover him the way they need to, but when you watch film, Maliek Collins is one of the best three techniques in this game. I don't think anybody can dispute that or argue with that. That's something that I'm very lucky to play with and be able to just pick his brain and learn from him.”
Aaron Wilson is an NFL reporter and analyst for Pro Football Network and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.