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Bill Barnwell: Texans One Of Six Teams Most Likely To Improve In 2018

Texans fans certainly believe it’ll happen, but find out why ESPN’s Bill Barnwell thinks things will get better in Houston this season.

NFL: Houston Texans-Training Camp Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Using various advanced metrics, Bill Barnwell has identified six NFL teams he believes the data indicates will be markedly improved in 2018. One of those squads is near and dear to readers of this site, and Barnwell’s theory that the 2018 Houston Texans will be much better than the 2017 iteration should provide some positive lunchtime reading for you, even if it just confirms what you already hoped or thought. Enjoy.

Houston Texans (4-12)

Point differential in 2017: -98

Pythagorean expectation: 5.7 wins

Record in games decided by seven points or less: 1-4 (.200)

Strength of schedule: 0.506 (10th-toughest in NFL)

I probably don’t need to sell you too hard on the idea that the Texans will be better than they were a year ago, if only because you watched Deshaun Watsonplay. Watson started six games, and the Texans’ offense averaged 31 points per contest in those games. That was the best mark in the league. After Watson went down with a torn ACL, an offense led by Tom Savage and T.J. Yates scored just 12.9 points per game. As you might suspect, that was the worst mark in the league. The teams that were ranked 25th (Raiders), 26th (Bills), 28th (Colts), 29th (Bears), 30th (Browns), and 31st (Giants) over that time frame all changed their head coaches and/or offensive coordinators after the season, while the 27th-ranked Broncos fired Mike McCoy in the middle of the season.

The Texans will run things back with Bill O’Brien as both head coach and offensive coordinator. You have to think his success with Watson under center has earned him a chance to see what the pair can do over a full season, but there are also reasons to be concerned about O’Brien’s late-game management. The Texans had chances to seal late leads over the Patriots and Seahawks, and O’Brien played both scenarios conservatively despite possessing a seemingly unstoppable offense. They lost both games.

Those decisions were among the reasons why the Texans went 1-4 in one-score games last season. It would be easy to worry whether O’Brien just can’t manage late-game situations, but the Texans were a strong candidate to decline last season because they went 8-2 in games decided by seven points or less in 2016. Under O’Brien, the Texans are a combined 14-13 in one-score contests. They’re likely to be far closer to .500 in those games in 2018, which would be worth a couple of wins on its own.

The Texans should also be healthier in 2018, given that they ranked 29th in Adjusted Games Lost a year ago. Getting back Watson would obviously be a huge improvement, but Houston has also spent most of the last two seasons without J.J. Watt, who was arguably the league’s best player from 2012-15. Watt wasn’t quite his old self after returning from a back injury last season, as he racked up four knockdowns without a sack in five games before going down with a tibial plateau fracture. There isn’t much of a track record for a Hall of Fame-caliber player like Watt missing most of two consecutive seasons with injuries before returning to his previous level of form, but with Jadeveon Clowney breaking out in Watt’s absence, even a limited version of the guy Watt used to be would give the Texans one of the best pass-rush combos in football.

Their schedule will also be easier. After finishing first in the AFC South in 2016, Houston fell to last place in the division, which lines it up for matchups against the Browns and Broncos. My strength of schedule metric is to look at the Texans’ opponents from a given year and see what their point differential was in games not involving the Texans. By that measure, the Texans had the 10th-most difficult schedule in football a year ago. ESPN’s Football Power Index, a more mature measure, projects that the Texans will have the easiest schedule in football in 2018.

The downside for the Texans is that they don’t have the draft picks that a typical bad team would get to improve its roster, given that Houston sent its first- and second-round picks to the Browns as part of the trades to add Watson and remove Brock Osweiler. The Texans have the worst set of offensive tackles in the league, which won’t help Watson’s chances of staying healthy. Virtually every one of their stars besides DeAndre Hopkins is an injury concern. They also have as much top-level talent as anybody in the league. If any team has the upside to come out of nowhere and emerge from the bottom of their division as one of the league’s best teams overnight in the same way the Eagles did a year ago, it’s the Texans.

Oh, that last line...that’s the stuff.