The Texans added Timmy Jernigan, Michael Thomas (not that Michael Thomas), Eric Murray, Jaylen Watkins, and draft picks Ross Blacklock, Jonathan Greenard, and John Reid to a pass defense that finished 26th in defensive DVOA last season. The Texans are taking the hopes and dreams approach to defense in 2020—praying for things that rarely happen or have never happened before will occur next season.
In that vein, what do you think is most likely to happen in 2020: J.J. Watt plays 14 games, Lonnie Johnson Jr. improves to acceptable, Eric Murray can play deep middle, Whitney Mercilus or Jacob Martin have double-digit sacks, the rookies combine for ten sacks, or Gareon Conely is an above-average outside cornerback?
This is the question I asked the masthead. These were their responses:
I’d have to go with the mantra of “Never bet against J.J. Watt”. While he has been injury-bug bitten (swarmed?) over the last several seasons, he’s always been very smart about taking care of his body. Hopefully, as he’s aged, he’s gained the wisdom to learn the signs, listen to his body, and ease up enough when necessary to give him more endurance for the long haul.
If Houston had one other unstoppable force of a defensive lineman, my next bet would be on Mercilus or Martin rising up, but Jernigan allegedly hasn’t officially joined the team yet and Jadeveon Clowney, Everson Griffen and Damon Harrison are all still free agents, which means the defensive line very well may be worse in 2020 than it was in 2019. So I’d have to hedge my bets and say they both Mercilus and Martin will top out around 7-8 sacks. Gareon Conely has the most upside of the three DBs in question, but I’m not sold on him just yet - hopefully he surprises a lot of people this season.
What a brutal offseason for Houston that we have to choose from that lineup in a discussion of hopes and dreams.
Honestly, there isn’t enough evidence for anything suggested as “most likely.” I’d have to go with Watt playing 14+ games. He’s had some unexpected freak injuries, and he certainly held nothing back during the earlier part of his career where he played with intense focused violence on every play, but I think he’s matured into a wiser athlete with the big picture of how he wants to wrap his career now clearly in view.
When looking at that list, I’d have to go with Lonnie Johnson Jr. improving. He was arguably one of the worst cornerbacks in the league last year and caught a lot of flak for it. He’s been working hard this offseason to try and improve his footwork. If there is a training camp, I believe he will keep that same energy.
I can’t possibly expect Eric Murray to walk in and surprise when he hasn’t stood out in previous years. Whitney Mercilus could potentially hit double-digit sacks if healthy, but that’s a big if. I’d love to see Blacklock and Greenard come in and contribute early, but it really depends on how much longer this offseason stays virtual. Like BOB said, this should be an especially rough year for rookies to enter the league.
Of these choices, I think Lonnie Johnson Jr. improving to “acceptable” is most likely, mainly because there’s a lot of grey area in the term “acceptable”. He definitely reminded me of Kareem Jackson’s rookie struggles, but I feel like Johnson Jr. on the whole had a better or even significantly better season than Jackson did in his rookie campaign.
Mind you, NONE of my opinions on LJJ have anything to do with the fact that he’s been “risin’ and grindin’” and posting workout videos all offseason. A lot of people seem hyped about that, but it means absolutely nothing. I just think he has the physical tools to achieve “acceptable” in 2020.
As a runner-up, I do think J.J. Watt is going to have a healthy season in 2020, based on absolutely nothing but hope, because if he doesn’t - he is a lock to be cut (he may be a lock to be cut regardless).
My best guess is Eric Murray playing deep middle. There’s a lot of wishing regarding everything else. The Texans had Justin Reid and Gipson trade off on the deep middle role in 2019; Reid was much better in the robber position where he was closer to the ball. There Reid could have a greater impact on the run game, pick up crossers, and jump down on passing lanes. In general, Reid sees the game better closer to the line of scrimmage then he does way up there.
Murray has the speed to play deep middle. It just depends on how quickly he can pick it up after being a third roving safety for the majority of his NFL career. This choice has more to do with Reid being a spot that maximizes his talent than some grand confidence in Murray. Even then, Houston may see a lot of Michael Thomas next season or Reid standing around the deep middle part of the field.
What’s your pick?