The 2020 NFL season is creeping up over us. Soon September’s giant lady will have taken over the beaches with a plastic bucket and shovel of her own, unleashing a Texans-Chiefs season opener and the 2020 NFL season upon us; that is, if we have a football season this year.
Despite the Coronavirus cloud hanging over everything, coaches still have to coach and prepare, players have to work out, analysts have to analyze, and writers have to write, as if everything will continue accordingly, beautiful and correctly, the way it always does.
Pro Football Focus, through the vessel that is ESPN, recently ranked every NFL roster in the league based on their expected starting roster’s 2019 Pro Football Focus Rankings. The Ravens were first. The Jaguars were last. The Texans were on the trail end at 23rd.
23. Houston Texans
Biggest strength: This has been Deshaun Watson’s team for several years, and it will fall on his shoulders now more than ever to carry this team to the postseason after the loss of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. No quarterback was more “clutch” than Watson last season. In the fourth quarter and overtime of one-score games, he put up a stat line of 66-of-88 passing for 909 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception.
Biggest weakness: As things stand right now, the Texans’ pass rush is a one-man show. Following J.J. Watt’s injury, Houston ranked just 30th in the NFL in team pass-rushing grade from Weeks 9 to 17. It’s probably safe to say the additions of rookies Ross Blacklock and Jonathan Greenard aren’t enough to offset the loss of D.J. Reader (75.4 pass-rushing grade in 2019) when it comes to the supporting cast for Watt in 2020.
X factor for 2020: Injuries have limited what Will Fuller V has been able to show through the first four seasons of his NFL career, but the results with him on the field have been noteworthy for the Texans. His 114.7 passer rating when targeted over the past three seasons ranks seventh among 102 wide receivers with at least 100 targets over that span. If he can stay healthy, Fuller has a chance to become Watson’s new go-to target next season.
According to PFF’s ratings, the Texans don’t have an elite player (which is defined as a PFF rating greater than 90) on their team, they have two high quality players in J.J. Watt (87) and Deshaun Watson (82.4) and five players of average quality: David Johnson (72.2), Duke Johnson (75.9), Will Fuller V (75.2), Laremy Tunsil (75.1), and Justin Reid (76.7). Everyone else falls into below average.
We know how this works now. Houston’s offense goes as far as Watson can carry it. The defense goes as far as Watt can carry it. This is how 2019 worked, and that’s how 2020 will probably work as well.
This offseason, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to make the case the Texans got better. The reason why Houston made it to the NFL Playoffs last year to begin with was because they went 10-3 in one possession games.
As long as Watson is the most clutch quarterback in the league, continues to mature and progress as a passer, and if the structure of the offense and the play calling looks more like a typical great NFL offense does, the actual overall talent on the team won’t matter as much as it could. Houston should continue to compete for a postseason berth. This is how good Deshaun Watson is.
That being said, there are legitimate concerns. A 26th ranked pass defense by DVOA only added rookies Ross Blacklock, John Reid, and Jonathan Greenard and free agents Eric Murray and Michael Thomas to it. They also lost two of their best defensive players in D.J. Reader and Tashaun Gipson; Houston’s run defense will be markedly worse without Reader. Brandon Dunn, Charles Omenihu, Brandon Dunn, Angelo Blackson, and Carlos Watkins can’t hold a candle to the new Bengals nose tackle. The Texans’ defense can perhaps scrape by as average as long as Watt is healthy, but he’s played just one full season since 2015.
The Texans’ offense lost the best receiver in the league, a player who had 68 first downs, the third most in the league behind only Julio Jones and Michael Thomas. The Texans now have a gap in their skill position group. No one can consistently create fresh downs and provide easy reads and throws like DeAndre Hopkins did. Sure, you can become a disciple of this speed idea; I love the deep ball myself, but you know who’s a great vertical receiver? DeAndre Hopkins.
Pro Football Focus grades are dubious. Like all attempts to objectively measure the game of football, they have their blind spots. This is just another in a long list of examples you’ll be reading this summer that has the Texans ranked somewhere in the early 20s.
At the end of the day, this team is all about Watt staying healthy and Watson turning the impossible into possible. As long as these two are on the field, Houston will compete for a playoff spot, regardless of the issues with the rest of the roster.