Last season, cornerback A.J. Bouye went from a relative unknown to a key piece of the Texans’ top-ranked defense (before abandoning us for our division rivals in Jacksonville). Bouye’s breakout year was an important part of Houston’s success in 2016, and he was not alone. Jadeveon Clowney finally exploded onto the scene as the player we all hoped he could be, and Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney, solidified their status as key parts on the most dominant front seven in football.
This year, the Texans have plenty of questions surrounding their secondary after letting Bouye walk in free agency (strike one), and failing to spend a high draft pick on a corner or safety in one of the deepest DB classes in recent memory (strike two). So who is ready to step up in Houston this year? What players are poised for a breakout year on defense?
Kevin Johnson, CB
It makes sense that one of the top candidates for a breakout season would come from the secondary, which is now missing both Bouye and safety Quintin Demps. A former first-round selection, Johnson showed great promise during his rookie season (54 total tackles, 9 passes defended and an interception). Hampered by injury in 2016, he played behind Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Bouye. This season, he should see a big boost in snaps and will have another opportunity for a breakout year.
K.J. Dillon, Safety
The departure of Demps could clear the way for Dillon to take over a starting role in Houston. The former fifth-round pick’s season ended early when he was sent to IR, but he flashed explosive potential in limited snaps before his injury. This year, Dillon will compete for playing time with Corey Moore, Eddie Pleasant and perhaps rookie Treston Decoud, but he could eventually emerge as the answer to Houston’s questions at safety. (For more on this, check out our in-depth look at the safety situation heading into camp).
D.J. Reader, NT
Reader was a fifth-round selection in 2016, but ended up starting seven games for the Texans last season. This year, the 6’3”, 325 lb. nose tackle will look to fill the shoes of departed veteran Vince Wilfork and help to anchor an incredibly talented defensive line. Reader showed great potential last season, compiling 22 total tackles, a sack, and a pass defended as a rookie.
Zach Cunningham, ILB
Playing behind Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney, Cunningham isn’t likely to see a huge amount of playing time right away. But the second-round pick has the athleticism and potential to be a key part of special teams coverage, and if an injury thrusts him into the starting rotation sooner than expected, he could have a big season for the Texans.
Houston has plenty of players capable of breakout seasons in 2017, particularly in areas that lack obvious superstar starters (like the safety position). What are your thoughts, Texans fans? Is there anyone on the defense that you expect to have an exceptional season this year? You can discuss in the comments section below.