For the better part of a decade, Gary Kubiak’s Texans decided it was not prudent to give Andre Johnson, Owen Daniels, and Matt Schaub any help in passing game. When Johnson was doubled, which was pretty much always, Daniels was the only legitimate down field receiving threat left on the entire roster. Kevin Walter was never much more than blocker, Jacoby Jones had stones for hands, and Arian Foster, for all his greatness, was still just a check down option on most passing plays. Teams with elite number one corners or disciplined safeties were able to take Johnson away, and with him went the Texans’ aerial attack.
By the time Kubiak and Rick Smith finally decided to bring in some reinforcements in the form of DeAndre Hopkins, Owen Daniels was old and slow, Matt Schaub was a shell of his former self, and Johnson had to endure yet another heartbreaking season. One year later, and now Johnson himself is showing signs of aging while Daniels and Schaub are no longer even on the team. Nuk Hopkins is already one of the brightest young receiving stars of the league – and perhaps the only good thing to come out of Houston’s 2013 draft class – yet the Texans are very close to falling back into the same "one man show" conundrum that plagued them for so many years. In order for Bill O’Brien to stop himself from making the same crippling mistakes as his predecessor, he must act sooner rather than later.
The 2015 free agent class is positively loaded with talent. The group is saturated with well-known studs like Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Randall Cobb, and Jeremy Maclin, old veterans like Wes Welker and Reggie Wayne, as well as speed merchants like Torrey Smith and Aldrick Robinson. Hell, this class even features something Bill O’Brien hasn’t had since his days in New England – the scrappy, white, sure-handed slot receiver (hello, Cole Beasley). For receiver needy teams, this assemblage of wideouts is a one stop shopper’s paradise.
Due to the Texans’ cap situation still being somewhat muddy, I cannot envision any of the top four studs ever coming to Houston. Torrey Smith and Beasley, however, are distinct possibilities. Smith, a consistently inconsistent burner out of Baltimore, has had some flashes of brilliance as the quasi-number one target for the Ravens in the past few seasons. For all his highlights, however, he has never really had the ability to be "the guy". Even with the strong-armed Joe Flacco at quarterback, Smith’s best moments came as more of a complementary deep threat to Anquan Boldin rather than as the go-to target in the passing game. I imagine the former Terrapin would give presumptive quarterback Ryan Mallett a receiving option that can stretch the field as much as humanly possible as well as help Hopkins find room to work whenever a free safety decides to bracket Smith’s effortlessly fast "9" routes. Baltimore will undoubtedly try to retain Smith this off season due to their own depth issues at the position, but he is certainly worth looking into this coming March.
If O’Brien is comfortable with trying to find a legitimate deep threat through the draft instead of free agency, perhaps using cap space to go after an undervalued, reliable slot receiver like Cole Beasley would be more his style. Beasley has long been considered a secret weapon up in Dallas, yet he has rightfully been overshadowed as the fifth option in a loaded passing attack behind Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, and occasionally Terrance Williams. That is not for lack of talent, which Beasley certainly possesses, but rather just not being on a team that tends to use "traditional" slot receivers all that much. If the Cowboys are not pounding the ball with Murray, then more often than not they are throwing deep balls to Bryant or option routes to Witten that generate a constant stream of first downs. That is what they have always done, and it is what they will always continue to do. On a different team, in a different system, he could possibly turn into the next 80 catch "slot weapon" like Welker, Cobb, Julian Edelman, Victor Cruz, and Kendall Wright. With what will likely – or hopefully – be a relatively cheap contract because of limited production opportunities in Dallas’ system, Beasley is definitely the type of bang-for-your-buck free agency signing that the Texans need to take the next step.
Conversely, what if the Texans forego receiver entirely in free agency and instead turn their attention to that position in the draft? Can this year’s receiving class hold a candle to the potentially historic 2014 grouping? In terms of overall depth, probably not, but 2015 still has its fair share of monsters. Amari Cooper is the headliner as a somewhat average-sized but explosive athlete who can run a full route tree and possesses exciting "yards after catch" ability. Some have put Cooper on an equal plane with last year’s Sammy Watkins, which likely guarantees he will be long gone by the time the Texans get on the block barring some sort of massive trade up scenario. After Cooper, there is a lot of early debate among draft aficionados about who is the second best pass catcher of the pack. Kevin White has been compared to Anquan Boldin as a big bodied possession receiver and jump ball specialist, DeVante Parker is seen as a Jordy Nelson clone who can win with body control and route running, and Jaelen Strong – at least to me – has an identical physical skillset to Alshon Jeffery to go with a famously ravenous work ethic. Out of those top four options, the Texans really cannot go wrong should they decide to snatch up one of them in the first round.
It is not clear how Rick Smith will attack the glaring need at receiver this off season, but that need has undoubtedly thrust itself further up the grocery list last weekend after watching this team struggle to move the ball through the air with #80 on the sidelines. Hopkins is an excellent receiver who is certainly in line to succeed Johnson in the next few years, but not even he can do anything about constant bracket coverage with zero other threats to make safeties think twice about where to go. If Nuk is about to assume the role of Batman, then the Texans need to start looking for a new Robin as well.
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