The husk of an Earth devoid of football is starting to shed. The Houston Texans' training camp started yesterday. The first preseason game is thirteen days away. The first full day of Sunday regular season football begins in forty-one days. Over these forty-one days, tweets and talking points will be shared; everything will be scrutinized and over-analyzed.
Not everything is important however. The majority of words and time spent will have no significance on the future. I'll let 95% of it float over my head and direct the 5% of the information reported to focus on these four things.
1.) J.J. Watt's Health
J.J. Watt has never missed a game, yet over the last five years, he's played nearly every snap.
|Year||Snaps||Defensive Snap %|
Now it is starting to show. The hits are starting to move from hurts to surgery and recovery. He fought through the Hoyerible Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs and had offseason groin surgery. Then he had back surgery recently to repair a herniated disk. This "should" take around ten weeks to fully heal. Watt plans to be smart about his recovery and should not miss a game. Yesterday he was running around the field with his helmet strapped. Exultations were emitted.
Still, everything is speculation right now.The only thing we do know is that Watt is working to get healthy. This is very worrisome. First, the Texans added zero starting caliber NFL defensive players this offseason. The starting lineup is the exact same as it was last year. Houston is betting on the defense to be a top ten unit like it has been the last two seasons. The issue is that stability without improvement is rare. Attrition is the norm. With Watt's injury, we may be starting to see it. Not only that; no one has any idea what a Texans defense without Watt looks like. Would they drop to 15th, 20th, or 25th in DVOA without him? I have no clue, but it won't be a top ten unit without the best player in football.
The second issue is that this defense was one of the worst in the league last year to start the season. It changed once younger players received playing time and pushed out wastes of space like Rahim Moore and Justin Tuggle, along with taking snaps away from Vince Wilfork. This year, the reinforcements aren't there like last year. If injuries happen or a slow start occurs, there aren't replacements sitting around to fix things. Houston's defense is what it is.
Without Watt, Brandon Dunn, Christian Covington and Devon Still will rotate around the defensive end positions. All three of those guys may be replacement level players. A combination of these three and Vince Wilfork turns this line into one of the worst defensive lines in the league. That's how important J.J. Watt is.
Consequently, the brunt of the run defense will fall on the linebacking corps. They will have to deal with blockers on the majority of running attacks. None of the defensive linemen have the ability to fight and stick double teams, so the linebackers will be facing even more attention, since the focus Watt receives can go elsewhere. Additionally, the way this scheme works in the run game is for the outside linebackers to set the edge and squeeze everything back to the center. This leads to lots of outside runs going through the B-gap. With Watt, Houston was one of the best teams in the league at stopping these type of runs. The Texans were first in stopping the run toward the left tackle (2.35) and fifth in runs toward the right tackle (2.94), according to adjusted line yards. In a Wattless world, there's no telling how far Houston will drop off at stopping the run in directions this defense is schemed to force inside.
For the first time since Connor Barwin, Houston had viable pass rushers to match with Watt last year. Jadeveon Clowney was remarkable when he played. Whitney Mercilus made the leap into a real pass rusher instead of just being an edge setting monster. If Clowney can stay healthy, he has the talent and the skills to be one of the best rushers in the league. This has yet to happen, though.
There are no obvious holes in Mercilus' game to expect regression from him this year. Last season wasn't a fluke. But no matter how great these two can be, Watt had 17.5 sacks last season. No one can replace that. His shadow can't be filled with a combination of Dunn, Covington, John Simon and Brian Cushing/Benardrick McKinney blitzing. Quarterbacks are going to get more time to throw the ball, and the secondary is going to have to do the impossible--cover players longer. The good news is that Houston ranked third in the NFL in DVOA without pressure at 18% compared to 16th with pressure. The Texans are one of the rare teams in the league with a secondary that can make up for a lack of pass rush.
All of this is a hypothetical. If Watt is able to play Week One and doesn't miss a game again this season, Houston should be fine on defense. The problem is that as time progresses and life moves on this reality is becoming increasingly fragile. With these offseason surgeries, cracks are already starting to show. As early as this season, the Texans may have to deal without Watt devouring quarterbacks' souls, swimming over guards, chasing backs from the backside, swatting passes, and bullrushing tackles. Any news regarding Watt's health is the most important thing leading up to the 2016 season.
2.) Brock Osweiler
We won't have any clue about what Osweiler can do in Houston until the season starts, but we can get a glimpse of his soft skills during camp. Things like being confident at the line, running the huddle, calling the correct protection changes, and finding the hot route are all very important and can be somewhat gleaned during training camp. The only hurdle is that I don't see any negative tweets coming from the Houston media bourgeoisie. It will likely all be very positive, nice, pretty, and nonobjective. That said, if anything negative comes out, pay attention to it.
3.) Return Game
It's absurd that the Texans still can't field a capable special teams. Even with the new regime, the Texans have managed to flail their way into the DVOA cellar. In 2014, Houston had a DVOA of -3.9% (28th). Last year, they finished 32nd with a DVOA of -5.7%, 0.4% behind San Diego. According to Football Outsiders, the Texans lost 3.7 points on field goal attempts, 2.6 points on kick returns, 15.1 points on punts (again, Shane Lechler is cool, but he's terrible), and 8.1 on punt returns.
Keith Mumphery was the primary punt and kick returner last season.
Keith Mumphery was the primary punt and kick returner last season.
I thought typing it again would make it make sense. It did not. It never will. I mean, it was 2015, and Cecil Shorts III was returning punts because I guess he doesn't drop the ball. It was 2015, and Quintin Demps was returning kicks occasionally. Hopefully this year, this nonsense will finally end. Tyler Ervin, Will Fuller, and Wendell Williams are all flashes of light who definitely will phase out the Keith Mumpherys of the world. The question to be answered is which one or two of these three will pull the guillotine and get the nod to return punts or kicks.
4.) The 2014 Draft Class
After enduring the worst season of all time in 2013, the Texans were justly awarded the number one draft pick. They selected a lot of players. Jadeveon Clowney, Xavier Su'a-Filo, Louis Nix III, Tom Savage, Jeoffery Pagan, Alfred Blue, CJ Fiedorowicz, Jay Prosch, Andre Hal and Lonnie Ballentine all were members of this class. It's the third year for these guys. The time is here where their prospect label is gone and it is time to produce.
Nix is already gone, and of several of the rest of these men I'm already out on. Fiedorowicz can't block or catch. Blue is a decent special teams player, but doesn't have the athleticism to do anything more than plod in the run game. Savage has a strong arm and nothing more; if he was any good, the team wouldn't have IR'd him last year. Pagan is just a guy. Prosch doesn't know who to block and can't block. I have no opinion on Ballentine at all. It's possible, but infitesimal that any of these guys every turn into a viable NFL player.
That happens in every draft class. The good news is that the guys that remain have the potential to be key players instead of just complements on this 2016 team. I talked about Clowney earlier. To reiterate, he's really good, and the athleticism is still there despite the microfracture surgery. If he can stay healthy for an entire season, he will do despicable things to opposing offenses this season and will be an absolute maelstrom of destruction. If he doesn't...I'm not even going to finish this sentence.
Xavier Su'a-Filo went from a borderline unplayable turnstile to a competent player last season. The problem is that he makes 4/5 of a block. He will drive the double team, but come off too late and miss the linebacker. He will set and punch and control the pass block, but will stop his feet and the lineman will beat him with a second move. He will get to the linebacker cleanly, but attempt his block too early and lunge at the defender. The strength is now there to match the athleticism. It's just going to take some more refinement. Again, it's year three. If it doesn't happen this year, it may never will.
In a draft class, that had the overall number one pick the 216th pick has become the best player from it. Who would have thought this? No one. Well, maybe one guy.
In 2014, Hal took some shots in the slot. He lacked the size to cover the bigger receivers who usually play there. Quarterbacks would throw over the top of him. He couldn't jam the line and would get beat after the first three steps. The move to safety has been a revelation for him. There he can sit, read, react, and teleport in front of the ball. The move and him taking over for Rahim Moore transmogrified this defense last year. Romeo Crennel felt comfortable with Hal's speed and ability to go from center of the field to the sideline. It led to the corners playing tight to the line of scrimmage and killed the seven yard cushion. That created a more aggressive defense that batted passes and forced turnovers.
Most of the training camp praise is malarkey to ignore. But when it comes to Hal, I will read 140 characters in glee over every meaningless interception he plucks. This year, people will buy his shirsey and he will get the recognition he deserves.