Now, all of a sudden, all those days have come and gone. Months have been flipped, and we are here. The buzzsaw of the cicadas will soon give way to autumn’s sway, flannel sheets, and recollections. Before that, there’s still a cheese dog left in in the microwave, three Zimas in the fridge, a quarter tank of gas, fumes in the sunscreen bottle, and enough time to bask in the death rattle in summer. One of the foundations of this time of year is the beginning of NFL training camps and preseason football.
Deshaun Watson’s knee. Jadeveon Clowney’s knee. J.J. Watt’s entire body. Martinas Rankin’s foot. Nick Martin’s ankle. Football is a game of attrition, and last season attrition got the best of the Houston Texans. The brutal and death-dealing front seven was zapped of Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt in the first quarter of the season. Watson was lost after start number six, an insurmountable injury for a team with a gelded defense. Houston’s season came and went with a last place AFC South finish and just four wins.
This year, like just about every year for just about every football team, the most important aspect is health. Watson is expected to be ready for training camp after shredding his ACL. Clowney is expected to be ready for Week One after celebrating the end to the 2017 season with arthroscopic knee surgery. Watt broke his leg against Kansas City after he broke his back the year before; whatever he provides now should be an added bonus, not something to be counted on. Rookie tackle Rankin should be fully healed by Week One, but probably won’t get those precious reps this summer. Martin’s ankle is a constant headache.
If this team is healthy, they have the talent to go whisker for whisker with the Jaguars in the AFC South; if they fail, a wild card berth should be imminent. But if the Texans lose two of Watt/Clowney/Mercilus again, or if something befalls Watson again, this season will look a lot like last year. This team no longer has the offensive line or secondary to make up for cataclysmic scenarios. So, tight spirals and one handed catches, flexed biceps and I’m in the best shape in my lifes be damned, the only thing that really matters this summer is health.
Earlier this offseason, it was reported that Bill O’Brien was making enormous changes to the Texans’ offense, an offense that decimated some mediocre to bad defenses last season before DW4 was lost to injury. This is something that has to happen. Deshaun Watson isn’t throwing a touchdown 9.3% of the time this year; I’d bet my life it won’t happen again. An offense filled with play fakes off interesting run plays never run by a Houston offense before is no longer a brand new thing. The Texans won’t catch anyone off guard this year. Defenses have had a year to prepare for what. They know what to expect.
To prevent one of the most dynamic offenses in the league from plummeting, O’Brien is going to have to tinker, meddle, and craft a newer and better version of what he came up with last year. I’m not expecting to see a lot of examples of these new plays or improvements during preseason, but any glimpses of it will be an exciting precursor for the season opener in New England.
Additionally, Romeo Crennel is back as defensive coordinator. No longer will Clowney be stuck dropping back in pass protection ten plays a game. No longer will Houston play tight man coverage against receivers a slow secondary can’t keep up with. The Texans lost a leader of men, but he was no mastermind. With Mike Vrabel gone to Nashville, the players are reunited with an older, wiser, and better defensive coordinator in Crennel. With Crennel back in charge, Houston should run the right coverage against the right teams, use a 6+ defensive backfield that’s fluid with multiple players playing a variety of roles, and attack offenses with blitzes that create open rush lanes to get players in advantageous one-on-one matches. I can’t wait to see his little glasses and big belly again.
3.) Offensive Line
Houston’s offensive line isn’t going to be as wretched as it was last season. Tom Savage isn’t here with his slow brain to fudge the numbers. Kendall Lamm isn’t going to play a snap at tackle. There won’t be a quick scurrying to put something together since Duane Brown is 100% not around instead of simply holding out. Jeff Allen’s belly lint beard is out somewhere in free agency looking for a job before the season starts.
The Texans’ offensive line won’t be great, but it should be good enough. Zach Fulton has the strength and skills to be a Pro-Bowl guard. Martin is better than his PFF grades indicate. Senio Kelemete is a capable starting guard. The interior of the offensive line should be able to move the first level and get to the second one, all while not allowing immediate penetration in the pass game.
The bigger question is the tackle position. Julie’n Davenport is penciled in at left tackle. But until we know what he did all summer, we won’t know if he got strong enough to start at this position consistently. With the Rankin injury, the right tackle position is an abyss. Seantrel Henderson was bad when he last consistently played, which you have to go back to 2014 to see an example of. I don’t know what the Texans will do at that spot, but they have to have Davenport step up and play well.
This is especially important because Watson was the best quarterback in football last year when throwing the ball without pass pressure. Interior pressure is tougher to deal with than exterior pressure. You can’t step up. There’s nowhere to go. But the exterior is where the best rushers in the league lay. If Davenport can’t handle it and if Henderson is actually here Week One, these comfy and cozy pockets quarterbacks dream about won’t be here, and Watson won’t get the chance to stay strong and sling it deep.
DeAndre Hopkins is just the best. The stretchy Spider Man slinging, one hand catch making wide receiver is probably the best August receiver in football. He does the spectacular in games that count, but these sublime one-handed catches are tailored made for the banal, sweltering, summer training camp practices. Whistles and yelling. Repetitions. Spats of team play. All of this is broken up and turned bizarre by Hopkins sticking one hand out and sucking in the football with his body at an incomparable angle.
This is what the beat reporter dreams of as he records snippet after snippet of the little steps that gets someone prepared for the season. They provide nothing beyond entertainment value to the fan scrolling through timelines and comments. Hopkins breaks up the monotony of summer practice and cyberspace wasting by making catches that only he can make. Let’s see what he can add to this already astounding list of summertime highlights.
5.) AFC South
In 2017, the AFC South was finally fun aside from the Titans blowing it yet again and ruining the opportunity for a Week 17 AFC South Championship Game. The Jaguars had the best pass defense in football; if it wasn’t for some declawed play calling, they should have beat the Patriots and ended up in the Super Bowl last year. The Titans snuck in to the playoffs, couldn’t cover Travis Kelce and the Chiefs’ quick crossing passing game, but then a Kelce injury and Derrick Henry outside run bouncing allowed them to complete a playoff comeback.
This year the AFC South should be better than FUN. It should be good. The Jags won’t be as healthy on defense in 2018, but they have the depth to overcome injury annoyances. They’ll still have a top five pass defense, and their offense is going to be better now that they understand their identity, one they doubled down on this offseason.
Tennessee spent big in free agency by adding a pair of Patriots in Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler. Butler is fine and overpaid, but he’s better than running LeShaun Sims out there. Lewis is the perfect complement for Henry. Rashaan Evans will add speed to a linebacking corps who couldn’t cover a twin sized mattress with a king sized sheet. And Harold Landry can be the fourth pass rusher the Titans need to revolutionize their pretty good rusher.
Oh, and Andrew Luck may be back! In case you forgot, Luck is a top ten, fringe top five quarterback who can hold together any splattered and splayed roster. Add this to a Texans’ team that is healthy right now, and you have an AFC South that is going to be an absolute bloody reunion.