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2016 AFC South Season Preview: Houston Texans

Matt Weston continues his AFC South tour by previewing the Houston Texans. It just might be okay.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Weston is previewing the AFC South for the 2016 season by going from worst to first in Football Outsiders' projections. Next is the Houston Texans, with a projection of 7.4 mean wins.

Part One: All AFC South Team

Part Two: Jacksonville Jaguars Season Preview

Part Three: Tennessee Titans Season Preview

The last time the Houston Texans played football that had a final score that counted, they were embarrassed and shut out at home by the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild card round of the NFL playoffs. It was the culmination of past Texans problems, just highlighted and exacerbated into a 30-0 loss. The special teams gave up an opening kickoff eturn touchdown to Knile Davis. The linebackers couldn't cover Travis Kelce again. Jadeveon Clowney missed another game.

Most importantly, Brian Hoyer played the fourth worst playoff game of all time. In this one, he completed 15-34 passes (44.1%) for 136 yards (4.0 Y/A), threw 0 touchdowns (duh) to four interceptions, and he fumbled twice while losing one. He led Houston's offense to a DVOA of -77% in that game.

The last two years of not addressing the quarterback position and subsisting on the remains of scavenged free agents, question marks, and former New England quarterbacks finally reached its breaking point. Hoyer's cataclysmic performance led to Bill O'Brien finally realizing a quarterback is central to being something more than the best team in a bad division. Without one, you are forced to flop around 8-8 unless you have one of the top ten defenses of all time.

Finally, after two years of waste, the Texans found one in Brock Osweiler. By "find," I really mean they fell into him. It took reported hurt feelings after being benched by Peyton Manning in Week 17 and a low ball offer for Osweiler to spurn Denver for Houston on a four year, $72 million contract. After two years and eighteen wins with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weeden and T.J. Yates, the Texans found a quarterback they actually invested in.

After Osweiler signed with the Texans, his past seven starts turned into a crime scene. Everyone sniffed around for clues to reach a conclusion as to whether he was worth the investment or not. Brett found that Osweiler made rookie mistakes that should improve with time. He loved how his footwork improved as the season progressed and highlighted some of the lovely OMG throws he made.

Cian Fahey at Football Outsiders felt differently. He thought that Osweiler didn't have a staple trait, lacked precision, and incessantly made disastrous decisions that defenses failed to capitalize on. The unbiased numbers that take all of his snaps and mash them together found Osweiler to the about the 22nd best quarterback in the NFL last year.  That's a production level similar Brian Hoyer and Teddy Bridgewater.

Brian Hoyer 205 (20) -2.9% (20) 61% 7.2 (T-16) 19 5 6.3% (22)
Teddy Bridgewater 185 (21) -5.1% (22) 65.3% 6.9 (T-24) 14 9 9% (34)
Brock Osweiler 153 (22) -3.2% (21) 61.8% 6.9 (T-24) 10 6 7.7% (27)

As for me? I think Brock Osweiler will be in a different situation in Houston. His offensive line should be better if everyone stops getting injured or ever gets healthy. The skill players around Osweiler here are better. This is his age 26 season and his first full one as a starter. Quarterbacks usually hit their prime at the end of their 20s; even though progression isn't linear, he should continue to improve. Additionally, Bill O'Brien sculpted works of art with blood and urine instead of clay.  Over the two years he's been in charge in Houston, O'Brien has been able to extract every drop of talent out of his abysmal, hand-selected, organic, grass fed, artisanal quarterbacks.

However, Osweiler still has issues. I don't think the decision making problems are something to chalk up as, "Aw shucks, he hasn't played that much." The guy has been practicing. He's been getting reps. He's been sitting in a film room. He's been doing all of this for four years. He made mistakes you expect from Jared Goff, not someone who's spent as much time as he has in the league. Too often, he looks past defenders and throws into double coverage. His feet are big and slow, and he clops around the pocket. Despite his size and arm strength, Osweiler has issues throwing the deep ball; he completed just 14 of his 48 deep attempts (29.2%) and threw only 1 touchdown to 3 interceptions. Aside from that clutch throw in the snow, Brock hasn't had success when slinging it.

But what else was Houston going to do?

They could have mortgaged an entire draft to take Jared Goff or the gritty Carson Wentz.

They could have signed another stopgap like Chase Daniel or gone down to the dumpster at Uncle Tommy's to talk about how we all may be living in a computer simulation with Ryan Fitzpatrick while chowing down on half-eaten slices of pizza and soggy garlic knots, washing it all down with bathtub wine.

They could have given Tom Savage a try.

None of those were the best options. Osweiler was. He played seven games and was below average in a tough situation. That's better than continuing to flail away with retreads or giving up an entire draft class.

Moving on to this season, Football Outsiders' KUBIAK system has the following projection for Brock Osweiler.

2016 Att Cmp Cmp% Yds TD INT Fum NY/P DVOA Rush Yds
556 330 59.4% 4026 22 16 9 6.1 -10% 111

I find it to be a fair baseline. He should throw more touchdowns because of the lack of tight end blocking, power backs, and the interior offensive line issues. Houston will throw in the red zone more often.  I say he will finish with about 28 touchdowns or so. I also believe Osweiler will finish around 16th in DVOA, not around 25th.

These estimates are based off context and past production. If he performs like this, it will be enough for Houston to win this division if the Texans' defense doesn't drop off.  However, at this point, I'm tired of the speculation. I just want to see Osweiler and this offense play. The past is the past, and the only thing left to do is wait for the future.

The rest of the offseason was spent adding weapons and zip to this offense. The days of Nate Washington catching 40 passes and dropping 400, Cecil Shorts III catching wide receiver screens, and Alfred Blue carrying the ball 150+ times in a season should all dissipate like the setting sun. That is great news. In the past two seasons, the Texans have just 113 plays over twenty yards (27th), ahead of only Kansas City, Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis and Oakland. They ranked 22nd and 25th in second level adjusted line yards and 12th and 29th in open field adjusted line yards. The offense has subsisted on plodding between the tackles and tossing the ball up to DeAndre Hopkins.

With Osweiler and this new group of skill players, the Texans may actually be able to win a game because of their offense instead of in spite of it. In the past, their formula was play great defense, hold the opponent to 17 points or less, get a lead, and then run the ball and punt until the game was over. This worked against the 7-9 New Orleans Saints. It doesn't work against the Kansas City Chiefs.

These skill players are even more important now with news regarding the offensive line. Nick Martin is expected to be out for the season after having surgery to repair a high ankle strain. Duane Brown is expected to miss Week One at the very least. Derek Newton is facing a hamstring issue. If the Texans were still clinging to their past formula, they would have been decimated by these injuries.

Now, the offensive line is still going to be an issue. Last season, the line was barely acceptable while they balanced injuries to Duane Brown and Brandon Brooks and worked to get Xavier Su'a-Filo up to speed. After the Cincinnati game, when all five offensive linemen played together for the first time, the Texans won games because of the line. Houston was 8th in pressure rate and was able to keep Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, and T.J. Yates clean in the pocket.  On the ground, they moved the first level of the line of scrimmage and gave Alfred Blue four yards of freedom until he was tackled by the first defender.

This year, the team will again be juggling the offensive line to start the year. But this time, they will never have the opportunity to put their five best linemen on the field together. Greg Mancz, an undrafted player from Toledo, is expected to start at center. Chris Clark will see time at left tackle. Kendall Lamm may actually get to play tackle again instead of just serving as a sixth lineman in place of a tight end after Carolina proved he never ever again should.

At least this season, the Texans have skill players who don't need perfect blocking. Lamar Miller has great burst and elusiveness. He can manufacture yards and make guys miss instead of just taking what the offensive line gives him. Braxton Miller and Will Fuller are really fast, can get open quickly, and can catch screen passes to help with the pass rush. Brock Osweiler was 21st in DVOA when dealing with pressure, unlike Brian Hoyer, who was dead last (37th).  Plus, Brock has shown skill at throwing shorter passes.

Matt Bowen pointed out in an ESPN Insider article that Osweiler was 8th in QBR (75.9) on throws that traveled less than fifteen yards. Bill O'Brien is known for changing the game plan to the opponent. It's impossible to know what color the chameleon will be when you don't know the landscape. Yet, if I had to guess, I would expect Houston to use more of a spread four wide receiver set offense fixated with quicker passes that get these players in space while DeAndre Hopkins does his own thing on the other sideline. This suits Osweiler's skill set. Again, it helps minimize the importance of the offensive line.

The offense isn't here to carry the team, though. They are here to win the occasional game and accentuate what the defense does. The Texans' defense has been incredible the last five seasons:

Year Def DVOA Points Against
2011 -9.5% (6th) 278
2012 -14.2% (4th) 331
2013 2.5% (18th) 428
2014 -6.2% (6th) 307
2015 -9.3% (8th) 313

Aside from the no-good-dirty-rotten season of 2013, the Texans have had a top ten defense every year. Entering this offseason, Rick Smith and Bill O'Brien expected for this to be the same. Akin to Earth's 23.5 degree tilt and the evening pale light in the west, the Houston Texans' defense is going to be a top ten unit. If they can pair this with a fringe top ten offense, this can be a real contending team.

I'm worried, though. Attrition happens. In football and life, things rarely stay the same. Time sways the present into something entirely different. Heading into the offseason, the Texans assumed they'd have a top ten defense no matter what.  They didn't add one NFL caliber defensive player to this roster.  No, late round picks, UDFAs, and Antonio Allen don't count.

Problems are already starting to crop up. J.J. Watt has yet to miss a game, but right now he may the first couple of games and hasn't practiced yet (though there's some belief he could return to practice next week). All those snaps of the past are starting to wear on him.

Year Snaps Defensive Snap %
2015 1,004 96.26%
2014 1,049 93%
2013 960 94.12%
2012 937 88.06%

This offseason, he was dealing with both groin and back surgery. No one knows what the Texans; defense looks like without the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year/best player in the league. Nobody knows how this defense would react if it lost a player who has 74.5 sacks, 298 tackles, 12 fumble recoveries, 15 fumbles forced, and 45 passes defended these past five years, all while leading in the NFL in nearly every defensive line statistical category since 2012.

Would Houston fall from 6th to 15th? To 20th? To 25th? I have no idea. Additionally, when Watt does get back on the field, no one knows how long it will take for him to get back to cannibalizing offenses and snatching souls. Backs are awful things and can continue to hamper players even when they are deemed healthy.

If Watt  misses extended time, Brandon Dunn or Devon Still would take his place. This is an astronomical difference; it may be the biggest difference between starter and backup in the league. Problems like this are all over the defense except for cornerback. Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney would be replaced by Brian Peters or Max Bullough. Vince Wilfork would be replaced by D.J. Reader, which may actually be an upgrade. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus would be replaced by John Simon, the worst tackler in the league. Andre Hal would be replaced by Eddie Pleasant or Antonio Allen, which would leave the entire deep part of the field open. One or two injuries could be the push that make this defense tumble into the horrors of mediocrity.

Despite all the years of top ten finishes, the Texans don't have depth. They have a bunch of guys who get you excited in the preseason but turn your face Nickelodeon cartoon green when the season starts. If Watt misses an extended period of time, this season could be a disaster. If other starters miss time, the Texans could fall out of the top ten for only the second time in six years.

On the bright side, there's one monster lurking underneath the surface of this defense--Jadeveon Clowney. He was great last year. He had 36 stops, 16 defeats, 4.5 sacks, 5 QB hits, 18.5 pressures and 6 disruptions, all while turning the edge into an impenetrable fortress. That was when he played. The problem was, has been, and still is, his health. Clowney played 13 games, but only 562 snaps. That is 77 less snaps than John Simon. If Clowney's healthy and can play for an entire season, he can remove Simon from the field, upgrade the entire defense, and he has the skill and athleticism to morph this pass rush into something else. In an entirely healthy season, Clowney has the potential to get 15 sacks and 30 pressures. If he can do this, the Texans' pass rush could go from 6th in adjusted sack rate and 8th in pressure rate to Arizona or Seattle levels.

There's no question that the Texans are the most talented team in the division. They have won 18 games the last two seasons because of 52 positions other than quarterback. The Texans finally got one of those. They grabbed the best QB available to them this offseason based off their past decisions. That doesn't mean they aren't operating in the unknown at this position. When it comes to Osweiler, no one knows what's going to happen. No matter what the scribbled notebooks of the past point towards, the future is still cloudy. Wait. That's all anyone can do.

The one thing the Texans can trust, the thing they know, their defense, isn't 100% certain to be great. It lacks depth. They didn't add any passable NFL talent to it. Attrition and bad things happen. If anyone gets injured at a position other than cornerback, the defense will have a hole ripped open and it will be forced to rearrange things to cover it up. This, plus the unknown of Osweiler, makes me wary of this season.

But in spite of the dread and caution tumbling around this skull, this is still a team loaded with talent that fixed the problems of the past that plagued them.

Prediction: 10-6, 1st in the AFC South.