Hey everyone. I just wanted to share an article that I wrote for the blog I am employed by (FootballPros.com) previewing the Houston Texans heading into the 2014 season. Note that I am not a dedicated fan of the Texans as I assume most of you are, so there will probably be things in this that you can find fault with. Apologies in advance for any of that. I'm looking for feedback though and any comments you may have are welcome.
2013 was supposed to be another strong year for the Houston Texans. The franchise was coming off back-to-back seasons of double-digits wins - the only two thus far in franchise history - and looked to be in position to capture the AFC South division title for a third year in a row while fending off the resurgent Indianapolis Colts. After two straight years of getting knocked out in the Division Round in the postseason, fans were more than eager for a deep run into the Playoffs behind the arm of Matt Schaub, the legs of Arian Foster, and a powerful defense led by J.J. Watt - arguably the best player in football today.
Unfortunately, things didn't go exactly according to plan.
Matt Schaub completely imploded in one of the worst and rather unexpected performances this side of Jake Delhomme. Arian Foster was continually battling injuries and ended up playing only eight games. The defense heavily regressed, especially with the losses of Danieal Manning and Brian Cushing to injury, even with J.J. Watt still demolishing offensive lines and quarterbacks across America. Nearly everything that could have gone wrong for the Texans last season did go wrong, and the result was a league-worst record of 2-14.
All dark clouds have a silver lining, however. Bill O'Brien has been brought in as the head coach and it's a hire that has inspired a lot of hope for the fanbase. Their disastrous season did give them the top overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and with it they added South Carolina phenom Jadeveon Clowney to a defense looking to regain its bite. Arian Foster will be back and hopefully have no problems with his health, considering that prior to 2013 he had played in 45 out of a possible 48 games in his three seasons since becoming Houston's primary runningback. Young players such as DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon Brooks, and Whitney Mercilus have had a full year of starting experience to put under their belts, and may be able to lead the Texans back to competitiveness.
It likely won't be a quick fix for Houston, but 2014 could definitely help lay the foundation for their next run a little bit later down the line.
2013; A Statistical Review:
|Houston Texans||League Average||League Rank|
Matt Schaub is gone after seven years as the starter in Houston until his sudden collapse last season, meaning that the Texans will be heading into the season with a new starting quarterback for the first time since 2007. Currently, it appears that Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to be the man under center when the opening weekend rolls around, for better or worse. Nobody is pretending that Fitzpatrick, a career journeyman who has made stops in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Tennessee since entering the league in 2005, is anything more than a stopgap. He'll hold the reins until the coaching staff decides they're either better off with Case Keenum run the show again, or that fourth-round project draftee Tom Savage is ready to step in.
Fitzpatrick is a mostly competent veteran with a quick release who will make your offensive line look good, and should be capable of serving as a temporary bridge to whoever emerges as the passer of the future for the Texans. He played very competently for the Titans in 2013 when Jake Locker went down with injury, and Houston is apparently hoping for more of the same.
Arian Foster returns, but another prominent member of their runningback rotation departs after Ben Tate signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency. The favorite to take up most of those newly available carries seems to be Houston's own free agent signee, Andre Brown, who showed flashes of greatness during his time with the New York Giants in betweens stints of sitting injured on the sideline. If Brown can stay on the field with a reduced workload behind Foster, the Texans shouldn't lose much production from their running game.
Behind those two are a few young guys looking for whatever opportunities might be left over. Dennis Johnson saw a decent bit of action last season due to injuries, and is likely first in line for carries again if either Foster or Brown miss time. Jonathan Grimes also returns after bouncing back and forth between the practice squad and the active roster over the course of last season, and he's likely fighting for the final runningback spot with sixth-round rookie Alfred Blue out of LSU.
From Bill O'Brien's time in New England and at Penn State, he's typically used a fullback in a part-time role in the offense. The team drafted Auburn fullback Jay Prosch, also a sixth-round pick, and one would expect that if you're going to use a draft pick on a fullback that he'll end up sticking with the team. Perhaps Brad Smelley also gets a look due to his versatility as more of an H-Back.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends:
While the internet swirls with furious trade rumors regarding Andre Johnson, there has been very little actually movement suggesting that the longtime Texans star will be going anywhere. Until that changes, expect to see him back on the field this year opposite DeAndre Hopkins, a first-round pick from a year ago who showed promise despite the overall failures of the offense as a whole. Johnson and Hopkins should make for a pretty strong duo, but there are significant questions of depth behind them. Keshawn Martin served as the team's #3 wide receiver last season, and he caught 22 balls while also serving as Houston's primary kick and punt returner. DeVier Posey was next in receptions with fifteen. Both Martin and Posey are young yet, and could continue to improve their games, but it surprised most people when the Texans opted not to spend a mid-round pick on a receiver this year. Instead their most notable offseason acquisition at the position was former Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Mike Thomas, who spent last season not playing football after failing to make the roster with the Arizona Cardinals.
The options at tight end are a bit more promising, which is good considering Bill O'Brien's desire to use multiple tight ends in his offense. Garrett Graham effectively served as the team's primary man at the position after Owen Daniels went down with an injury, but was limited in what he could show due to the overall ineffectiveness of the offense. He could potentially be a sleeper in Houston now though with a new offense being installed that emphasizes tight end involvement and quarterback play that you hope will be more stable. True to that point, the Texans also drafted Iowa TE, C.J. Fiedorowicz, in the third round of the Draft and should be expected to serve as a big, blocking, #2 tight end for the team this year as a rookie. Ryan Griffin will likely return as the #3.
There were positives and negatives to be taken from the Texans' offensive line in 2013. On one hand, second-year guard Brandon Brooks took a big leap forward in his first season as a starter, and that gives Houston a fairly strong core up front along with Duane Brown and Chris Myers. On the other hand however, right tackle Derek Newton failed to achieve the same kind of success and was a major weakness for the team. Houston somewhat surprisingly brought in no real competition for Newton either, aside from a third-round pick from last year in Brennan Williams who spent all of 2013 on Injured Reserve. The Texans need to hope that one of either Newton or Williams steps up to give them solid play at the right tackle spot.
They also lose one starter from last year's line in Wade Smith, which might be for the best actually. Smith isn't the player he used to be, and even then he wasn't anything special. Now there's wide open spot on the line for the first selection of the Draft's second round, UCLA product Xavier Su'a-Filo, to slide right into as a rookie. If he plays up to his potential talent, that would be another big boon for Houston in the trenches. If anybody on the interior of the O-Line goes down with injury, Ben Jones returns to step in as a replacement. The Texans also signed Will Yeatman, who saw limited action as a reserve lineman for the Miami Dolphins the past three years, for depth at offensive tackle.
"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."
This quote might not have been directly referring to J.J. Watt when it was written in a sacred Hindu script hundreds of years ago, but it may as well have been. For my money, Watt is the best player in the NFL right now, and there are very few players even close to matching his caliber. On his own, Watt was a major reason why the Texans' defense managed to stay afloat for a large portion of the season despite heavy overall regression.
The two other starters from the 3-4 defensive line of the Texans have both departed in free agency; Antonio Smith to the Oakland Raiders and Earl Mitchell to the Miami Dolphins. Houston will be getting younger with both replacements. Jared Crick is the likely option to replace Smith at the other end spot, since Crick served as the first defensive end off the bench in the rotation for the Texans all of last season. He showed some flashes as a pass-rusher, but needs to work on shoring up his run defense. At nose tackle, it will be a competition between free agent addition Jerrell Powe, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Louis Nix III, a third-round pick out of Notre Dame who was rated for most of the year as a first-round talent. It might be easy to assume that Nix will win the job, but Powe was very strong as a rotational lineman for the Chiefs last season. It wouldn't be difficult for me to imagine him flourishing even more with an expanded role in Houston if he wins the starting job.
There's a lot of intrigue to be had in the linebacking corps for the Texans. Obviously all eyes will be firmly fixated upon Jadeveon Clowney as the number-one-overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, with his fair share of detractors and skeptics who criticize him as lazy and/or uncommitted to the game of football. Whether you believe those things or not, his talent is undeniable and the Texans have cleared the deck to put him on the field as much as possible. They've done this by shifting Brooks Reed, who played over a thousand snaps as an outside linebacker last year for the team, to inside linebacker to pair up with a returning Brian Cushing.
If Cushing is back at full health and Clowney lives up to his potential from Day One, suddenly Houston's defense is a lot closer to returning to its formerly intimidating form. That's not even accounting for potential growth from Whitney Mercilus now that he has a full year of starting experience, or Brooks Reed perhaps settling into his new position more quickly than expected. Mercilus and Clowney in particular could provide great dividends for the Texans if they play strongly, as Houston had nobody outside of Watt and the now departed Antonio Smith who could generate consistent pass rush for them. Mercilus, even though he managed to notch nine sacks in 2013, was a high-volume pass-rusher and on a per snap level only graded out to be middling.
The Texans should have a good amount of depth behind their starters too in case they need it. Even with the losses of Darryl Sharpton and Joe Mays in free agency, they still have several linebackers on the roster who saw defensive snaps last year. Jeff Tarpinian holds the bulk of it, but Ricky Sapp, Mike Mohamed, and Justin Tuggle all saw the field as well. Plus, the Texans also signed Akeem Dent in free agency, who was a former starter in Atlanta. Last year's fourth-round pick Trevardo Williams should also be in line for snaps after missing all of 2013 thanks to a leg injury suffered in Houston's preseason finale. The Texans also signed one of the more prominent UDFAs from the 2014 draft class in former Michigan State linebacker, Max Bullough.
The Texans were active in both free agency and the Draft when it came to adding players to their defensive secondary; and with good reason too as they struggled to get consistently positive play out of anybody not named Jonathan Joseph. Even Joseph turned 30 this offseason, and will soon be entering the decline phase of his career. Kareem Jackson is returning to again man the starting corner spot opposite Joseph, but Jackson has generally been up and down in his career and it's yet to be seen if he'll have the kind of success he experienced in 2012, or the disappointment of his 2013 campaign.
At the two safety spots, it looks like it will be D.J. Swearinger and Chris Clemons starting in the two-deep. Swearinger, a second-round rookie last year, had some pretty good games and some pretty mediocre ones after being placed in the starting role halfway through the season. Clemons, meanwhile, has been a pretty decent free safety for the Miami Dolphins over the last couple of years and was a bargain signing for the Texans in free agency. Improvement should be expected here. Depth is also a near certainty for the Texans at safety, with Shiloh Keo playing a starter's workload for the Texans last season, and the addition of Kendrick Lewis in free agency - previously a starter for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Depth at cornerback is a much bigger concern. Their #3 CB from last year, Brice McCain, is gone, but that's probably good news for Houston really as he was a disaster in 2013. The leading candidate to replace McCain appears to be Brandon Harris, who served as the fourth corner for Houston last year but has largely failed to make a name for himself since being drafted out of Miami in the second round of the 2011 Draft. If Harris doesn't make the job his own, the Texans might have to lean on either seventh-round rookie Andre Hal out of Vanderbilt, or Josh Victorian; who played all of two snaps for the team last year and has bounced around from practice squad to practice squad for several teams, even making a brief stop in the Arena Football League along the way. The only other apparent option would be veteran Elbert Mack, though he was used strictly on special teams last season.
Special teams generally can be a very volatile factor for a team from year to year, which should be good to hear for the Texans as the past two seasons they've ranked 32nd and 29th respectively in Special Teams DVOA. Adding one of the greatest punters of all-time in Shane Lechler was supposed to help, and in Lechler's defense he did rank fifth in yards per punt last season, but their net punt yardage was still among the worst in the league. This suggests that either the coverage team was very poor - certainly possible considering all the injuries Houston had which thinned out their special teams unit too as guys had to be promoted up - or that Lechler was just outkicking his coverage far too often. It's probably a little bit of both, and hopefully it can be improved as long as they have better fortune with health this year.
At kicker, Randy Bullock left plenty to be desired, ranking 30th out of all 32 primary kickers in field goal percentage last year. He's been given the message by Texans brass that his job isn't safe, via the team bringing in Chris Boswell to compete with him in camp. Boswell is a UDFA out of Rice, but was generally tabbed to be one of the top kickers available in this year's draft class. Bullock will have to outduel Boswell in preseason if he wants to keep his job.
Keshawn Martin returned the majority of kickoffs for the Texans last year, and returned all but three punts for the team last year as well. He's expected to return to cover those duties again in 2014, but might face some competition from sixth-round pick Alan Bonner, who is also a wide receiver and has experience as a return specialist from his time at Jacksonville State. Rumblings are that Martin's spot on the team isn't entirely secure, so this could be another competition to watch through camp and the preseason.
The Texans were nothing short of an outright disaster in 2013. Their quarterback spontaneously imploded and they never managed to pick up any of the pieces to recover. It remains to be seen just how serious of a setback this will be for the franchise, but it is unlikely that they'll return to prominence as quickly as 2014. Bill O'Brien and Rick Smith seem to be content with rebuilding this team, and aren't in too much of a hurry to get back to battling with the AFC's elite. Some older veterans such as Andre Johnson and Jonathan Joseph might not be entirely pleased with it, and maybe they won't even be on the team either by the time Houston gets back to that level, but this team as presently constructed seems to be steadily building as opposed to it being a rushed job.
Unless injuries take a toll on them again, and Ryan Fitzpatrick unexpectedly crumbles as the starter too, they should be better than they were last year. Five or six wins doesn't seem to be out of the question, and that would be a solid first step back on the road to glory for the Texans. They could maybe even accomplish more than that depending on how many of their young starters continue to improve; among which there are many. DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, D.J. Swearinger, and several others will also have significant say in what the 2014 Houston Texans are. Chances are likely that they'll fall a bit short of being invested in the Wild Card hunt themselves, but they could play frisky spoiler to a team hoping to qualify for the postseason.
General Prediction: 6-10, Third in AFC South
Offensive MVP: DeAndre Hopkins
Defensive MVP: J.J. Watt
Offensive Sleeper Candidate: Garrett Graham
Defensive Sleeper Candidate: Jerrell Powe