Last season, Owen Daniels thought he had finally returned to the player he was before tearing a knee ligament in 2009.
After comparing film from then and now, the Houston Texans tight end realizes he wasn't quite there yet.
"I can look on film and tell a difference with the way I'm moving this year compared to last year," he said. "I could probably show anybody and they could probably recognize it. So that's what I like seeing. I'm excited to see that, and hopefully I can continue to look like that and continue to move around well."
Now that he really has returned to form, Daniels has re-emerged as of the top tight ends in the NFL, and gives the Texans' powerful offense another threat.
"He's playing right now as good as I've ever seen him play since he's been with me, and he's played pretty darn good in the past," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "Hopefully — we keep our fingers crossed here — he stays healthy. He's on his way to a big year."
Daniels made the Pro Bowl in 2008 after catching 70 passes for a career-high 862 yards. He had 519 yards receiving and a team-leading five touchdowns in 2009 before injuring the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the eighth game of the season.
He was progressing well in his rehabilitation from that injury before doctors discovered a stress fracture in his right kneecap, which slowed his progress. He returned to play 11 games in 2010, but his 471 yards receiving were the fewest he'd had since finishing with 352 as a rookie in 2006.
Daniels started 15 games and had 677 yards receiving a year ago.
"I know I felt pretty good at times last season," Daniels said. "I felt like I was wearing down toward the end of the season, but sometime during last season I felt pretty good and felt more explosive. Definitely this offseason with what I was doing, I felt really, really good."
That good offseason work has carried over into the season where he is fourth in the NFL among tight ends with 416 yards receiving and four touchdowns. His work has led some to compare this season to his Pro Bowl year of 2008.
"I think I'm more complete, honestly," he said. "I'm playing a lot better against the run, a lot better in pass (protection) than I was back then. I know I'm stronger than I was back then ... I feel as good as I did back then."
Houston's star receiver Andre Johnson has been impressed with Daniels this season, and sees a difference from last year.
"You can tell he's much more comfortable out there when he's running with the ball," Johnson said. "His running form and everything, he looks like he's much more comfortable. He's running a lot faster and things like that. Sometimes when you have those injuries it just takes a little time to get back comfortable, especially when it's dealing with knees and stuff like that."
Daniels loves playing with Johnson, and he knows he benefits from playing with someone who has more than 10,000 yards receiving in his career.
"His game has helped me out a lot," Daniels said. "The success I've had has a ton to do with what 'Dre's doing out on the field."
Johnson is often double-teamed, which leaves players such as Daniels in single coverage.
"I take pride in beating man-coverage, so just what he does out there gives us a lot more opportunities to make plays," Daniels said.
The AFC-leading Texans (6-1) return from their bye this week to play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Houston is fourth in the AFC in yards per game with 371.4 and second in points a game with 30.9. But Daniels feels like the unit can be much better.
"There's a lot of things we need to work on, like starting faster," he said. "Those last few weeks before the bye we didn't really get off to really great starts offensively. It took us a few series to get going. It was almost like we were waiting for something to happen before we got going. So if we get off to a faster start like we were earlier in the year and putting a great drive together and getting points right off the bat is big."
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