Jul 302013
 

Introduction

In 2011, the Texans won 10 games despite having their starting quarterback and top receiver only play together in 4 games. Before Matt Schaub went down with injury and missed the final 6 games of the season, the Texans were 7-3, scoring 27.3 points per game and allowing 16.6, which would have been 5th and 3rd respectively over the course of the season. Those numbers translate to a Pythagorean Expectation of 12.2 wins, which would have been second in the league that season. And all of that was despite Andre Johnson playing in just 4 of those 10 games, and Arian Foster missing 3 of those games.

Even after Schaub got hurt, they finished 10-6, going 3-3 without him and a 4th ranked scoring defense (17.4 points per game) and a 2nd ranked rushing offense (2448 yards) carried this team to the AFC semis, winning a playoff game. They lost Mario Williams going into 2012, but he missed all but 5 games with injury in 2011, so it didn’t look like it would be a loss that would set the Texans back much. Going into 2012, the Texans looked poised to be one of the best teams in the league.

For the first 5 games of the season, the Texans looked every bit as good as I expected. They won their first 5 games and unlike the only other undefeated team in the league at the time, Atlanta, they were doing it in impressive fashion, either knocking off a future playoff team or winning in blowout fashion by 20 or more in 4 of those games. However, things changed after week 5, a 6 point win over the Jets (their least impressive showing at that point in the season).

They went 7-4 the rest of the way, but not in impressive fashion. From week 6 on, they got blown out at home by the Packers, blew out the Ravens (their only really impressive game), beat the Bills by 12, beat the Bears by 7, which looked more impressive at the time than it was, especially since Jay Cutler didn’t even make it to halftime. Then they won in overtime against both the Jaguars and Lions and beat the Titans by 14 before their final 4 games, where they played 4 playoff teams, New England, Minnesota, and the Colts twice, losing 3 times by double digits.  After a less than impressive win over the Bengals in the post-season, they lost convincingly in New England to the Patriots in the next round.

What happened week 5? Well, against the Jets, stud middle linebacker Brian Cushing got hurt. Without him, they ranked 18th in opponents’ scoring and 13th in opponents’ yardage, after starting the season as the top yardage and scoring defense in the NFL. They also saw top cornerback Johnathan Joseph miss time and struggle through a groin injury and not play anywhere near the level they were expecting him.

They finished the season much worse than their 12-4 record would suggest. They had a less than stellar scoring differential, going +85 on the season, including +9 in their final 11 games, +2 if you include the playoffs. Overall, they had a Pythagorean Expectation of 10 wins, despite a weak schedule. They ranked 11th in the NFL in DVOA, 19th in weighted DVOA (weighs later games more heavily). They also were very reliant on winning the turnover battle, with a +12 turnover margin, with 29 takeaways and 17 turnovers.

That tends to be unsustainable on a year-to-year basis. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

Turnovers and takeaways are incredibly hard to predict on year-to-year and even a game-to-game basis (teams with a turnover differential of +4 or higher and teams with a turnover differential of -4 or lower both average a turnover differential of +0.0 in the following game). The Texans were actually just +2 in interceptions, but were +10 in fumbles, thanks to a fluky 64.1% fumble recovery rate. It’s not hard to see how the Texans’ turnover margin will even out in 2013. If it weren’t for this unsustainable turnover margin, the Texans would have been even worse in 2012.

Once again, the Texans were one of the league’s top “what could have been teams,” a team that flashes greatness when totally healthy, but can’t hold it together when injuries strike. They’ll never be completely healthy and it’s not like they’ve had an absurd amount of injuries, ranking 8th in adjusted games lost in 2012 and 11th in 2011. They just don’t seem to be able to take hits and keep on going and it’s very possible they’re just an above average team which flashes elite ability in the perfect scenario. They’re still the best team in their division, but I think they’re behind both Denver and New England in the AFC and maybe even Baltimore.

Quarterback

In 9 games against playoff teams in 2012 (including playoffs), Matt Schaub was 207 of 320 (64.7%) for 2329 yards (7.3 YPA), 9 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, a QB rating of 85.3, leading the Texans to 23.3 points per game. In the other 9 games, he was 206 of 313 (65.8%) for 2284 yards (7.3 YPA), 15 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, a QB rating of 95.3, leading the Texans to 28.1 points per game. Going into his age 32 season, we know what he is. He’s an average to slightly above average quarterback who is noticeably better against easier opponents. He’s also missed 16 starts in 6 years as a starter and just posted his worst QB rating in 5 seasons, suggesting he may be on the decline. You can win a Super Bowl with him, but you need everything around him to be right.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Matt Schaub used to be able to rely on great production from Arian Foster. Last season, that wasn’t really the case. In fact, Foster might be the most overrated player in the NFL. A lot of this has to do with fantasy football as Foster as he’s perennially a top-5 scoring running back in fantasy football because he gets a ton of carries on a good offense. Even his fellow NFL players overrate him, as he was 8th in the player’s top-100 list, 2nd among running backs behind, of course, Adrian Peterson.

In reality, he didn’t have that good of a year. He averaged just 4.1 yards per carry and only had so many yards because he got 351 carries, more than anyone in the NFL and 61 more than anyone in the AFC. He also ran behind a good offensive line (ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked run blocking offensive line) and many backs could total those kinds of numbers behind that line with that many carries. He averaged just 2.2 yards per carry after contact, 40th out of 59 eligible backs.

The only thing commendable about his 2012 season was that he managed to have that many carries without getting hurt, but if he had, any back filling in for him probably would have given them comparable production. Add in his surprisingly mediocre season as a pass catcher and the fact that only 8 backs graded out worse than him in pass protection and you have a guy who barely graded out above average on ProFootballFocus. He also, as did the rest of the team, faced a fairly easy schedule and 4 of his mere 5 performances were he went over 5 yards per carry came against teams that ranked 21st or worse in YPC allowed.

Since his breakout 2010 season, Foster has been trending down. His YPC has fallen from 4.9 to 4.4 to 4.1. Losing one of the top fullbacks in the NFL in Vonta Leach after 2010 and two more starters on the offensive line after 2011 have hurt, as the Texans have gone from 3rd to 7th to 13th in terms of run blocking in the last 3 seasons. Things probably won’t be much better there this season and it’s not like they’re awful upfront or anything. They just aren’t the elite run blocking offensive line they used to be when Foster was a more efficient back.

Part of it also has to do with the sheer volume of work he’s gotten over the past 3 years, as he’s had 1115 regular season touches, plus another 128 post-season touches. Last season, he led the NFL with 351 carries which is bad news for his 2013. Since 1988, only 4 of 24 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. 2 of those backs were Emmitt Smith and one was a 22 year old Edgerrin James in his 2nd year in the league. The other was a 27 year old Clinton Portis, so it’s not impossible to do it several years into your career without being Emmitt Smith, but the numbers are against him. Portis also went on to break down the very next year (124/494/1) and was out of the league before his 30th birthday. Foster is 27 next month, by the way.

Since 1988, backs who lead the league in carries have averaged 367.7 carries per season, rushed for 1620.4 yards, and scored 14.3 touchdowns. The following season, they averaged 266.0 carries per season, rushed for 1063.5 yards, and scored 8.9 touchdowns. This is for two reasons. For one, it’s almost impossible to keep up that kind of production on a yearly basis and that doesn’t just apply to running backs.

What does apply to only running backs is how much they tire out. All of those carries puts a lot of tread on their tires in a short period of time. We’re talking about guys who are lucky if they have 8 year careers. Foster is already struggling through a calf injury in Training Camp. We could see a career worst season from him this year. I said the same thing about Maurice Jones-Drew last off-season. He was only 5 months older and managed just 414 yards and a touchdown on 86 carries thanks to an injury.

In the likely event that Foster struggles or gets hurt, it will open the door for Ben Tate. Tate struggled through injuries of his own in 2012, rushing for 279 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 65 carries, but in 2011, he rushed for 942 yards and 4 touchdowns on 175 carries. In the 8 games he had double digit carries, he managed 721 yards and 4 touchdowns on 133 carries. He’s a more than capable #2 back and fill in starter when necessary, assuming he doesn’t get hurt himself. He’s played just 26 of a possible 48 games in his first 3 seasons in the NFL thanks to various injuries. He should have a bigger impact this season than last though and, if he impresses, it could open the door for him to get a starting job elsewhere in 2014 as a free agent.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Texans lost 2 starting offensive linemen in the 2012 off-season, losing right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston. It hurt the Texans’ run blocking, taking them down a level or two from being an elite run blocking offensive line. The effect was less noticeable in pass protection, as they went from 7th to 11th in terms of pass blocking grade and 7th to 8th in pass block efficiency.

The rock of their offensive line is left tackle Duane Brown, who has quietly emerged as maybe the best left tackle in the game, grading out 5th among offensive tackles (2nd among left tackles) on ProFootballFocus in 2011 and 2nd in 2012. No other tackle can say the same and only Joe Thomas can even say he was in the top-7 tackles both seasons. Unlike Thomas, Brown is very good both in pass protection and run blocking. In some order with Thomas and Joe Staley (#1 last year), he’s a top-3 left tackle at worst. Sacks aren’t a tell all stat, but from week 16 of the 2010 season to week 7 of the 2012 season, he didn’t allow a single sack, 27 games including playoffs, and he also had just 8 penalties.

The other elite offensive lineman for the Texans is center Chris Myers, a better run blocker than pass protector, but still a very, very good center. He’s graded out in the top-8 overall in each of the last 4 seasons, including 7th last season. Only Nick Mangold can say the same among centers. Going into his age 32 season, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and it’s not unheard of for interior offensive linemen to play well into their mid-30s.

Sandwiched between Brown and Myers is left guard Wade Smith. Smith was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked guard in 2010 in his first year as a starter after being very, very good in limited action in Kansas City early in his career, but he ranked 63th out of 78 eligible in 2011. Last season, he was right in the middle, just above average, but not significantly above average. That’s probably about the type of player he is, but considering his past, it’s tough to know what to predict from him though. I consider him a solid starter, however.

The right side of the offensive line is the much bigger concern. After all, they did lose the right side of their line in the 2012 off-season, without really replacing them. At right guard, the Texans used a rotation of Ben Jones and Antoine Caldwell and at right tackle they rotated Derek Newton and Ryan Harris. Harris is the only player in that quartet to grade out above average, doing so on just 416 snaps.

This season, instead of using a rotation, the Texans will be using a more traditional system at right guard and right tackle, which is good news considering how important continuity is to an offensive line. 2012 3rd round pick Brandon Brooks will compete with 2012 4th round pick Ben Jones for the right guard spot. Jones, despite being the lower pick, played 702 snaps to Brooks’ 101 last season, but Brooks played better in his snaps and is the higher pick so he’s seen as the favorite going into 2013.

The big guard has slimmed down to 325 pounds, which will help him be a better fit for this zone blocking scheme and even when he was bigger, he was pretty athletic, running a 4.98 40 at his Pro Day at 6-4 348 after not being invited to the Combine. We’ll see if he can translate that to the field. Jones, meanwhile, is better suited to being a utility interior lineman.

At right tackle, Derek Newton is seen as the favorite, but he was ProFootballFocus’ 65th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible last season. The 2011 7th round pick is nothing special at best. He’ll face competition from Ryan Harris, but Harris is actually listed as the 2nd string left tackle right now and may be headed for a swing tackle role. The Texans drafted Brennan Williams in the 3rd round to provide competition, but he recently had knee surgery. It probably won’t cost him many regular season games, if any, but it will severely hurt the rookie’s chances at winning the right tackle job. Overall, it’s a good offensive line, but it has holes and it’s not what it used to be.

Grade: B+

 

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Texans got a vintage year from Andre Johnson in 2012, as he caught 112 passes for 1598 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the NFL in yards per route run with 3.01 and ranking 2nd in the NFL in yards overall behind Calvin Johnson (who played over 200 more pass snaps). Those yards were actually a career high and those catches were 2nd in his career, pretty impressive considering he has 818 catches for 11,254 yards over 10 seasons. It was also unexpected considering he was 31 years old and coming off a season in which he played in just 7 games with injury.

However, the Texans saw the need for another receiver this off-season. Johnson has still missed 12 games in the last 3 seasons and is going into his age 32 season. The concerns about him before last season had merit. They just didn’t prove to be an issue, but they could be this season. Besides, after him, no other wide receiver had more than 64 targets last year (and that was a soon to be 32-year-old Kevin Walter who was cut this off-season). In fact, 4 of their 6 receivers last year were two tight ends, a fullback, and a running back. After Johnson and Walter, no wide receiver had more than 10 catches (Keshawn Martin), 26 targets (Keshawn Martin), or 151 yards (Lester Jean).

The Texans filled that need in the draft, using a 1st round pick on DeAndre Hopkins from Clemson. Hopkins has a bright future, but he’s just a rookie. Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season as rookies. He’s not a serious threat to eat much into Johnson’s targets or production and the Texans better hope that Johnson can perform as an elite receiver for one more season.

As I mentioned, there’s some concern about whether or not he can do that, especially with his injury history. Johnson is 27th all-time with 11,254 receiving yards but even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Johnson has 2 years before he gets to that point, but it’s just an average so we’re within range, which means it’s time to be a little bit concerned.

Hopkins will start immediately, though more out of need than anything. He’ll see a lot of snaps in that #2 wide receiver role as the Texans don’t rotate outside receivers much, giving the mediocre Walter 837 snaps last season. He’s an above average run blocker, which will be important to the Texans because of their run heavy nature. Keshawn Martin figures to be the slot receiver. It’s a role more suited to his skill set than Lester Jean or DeVier Posey.

Martin was a 4th round pick in 2012 and pretty inefficient as a rookie, catching 10 passes for 85 yards on 26 targets with 5 drops and a pass catch rating that would have been 5th worst at his position on ProFootballFocus if he had been eligible, despite limited playing time. Posey was a 3rd round pick in that same draft, but a torn Achilles suffered in January has his season in doubt. He’ll almost definitely miss the first 6 games on the physically unable to perform list. Jean, meanwhile, was undrafted in 2011, but had a lot of hype going into last season because of his physical skill set. He disappointed though, with just 6 catches. He’s going into his 3rd year in the league, but I think it’s more likely that he’s the next Jacoby Jones (at best) than anything special.

Martin won’t see a lot of action in that slot role this season though. After Johnson and Walter, the other 3 receivers who saw action last season, Martin, Jean, and Posey, saw just 613 combined snaps, including just 351 pass snaps. That’s because the Texans rarely use 3-wide receiver sets, preferring to use two-tight end sets and fullback sets with regularity. That might change a little bit in 2013 with great pass catching fullback James Casey (who lined up as a fullback, h-back, and tight end last season on 609 snaps) gone, but new fullback Greg Jones figures to play a bunch of snaps still, especially on running downs and tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham will still see a lot of action.

Graham did well in Joel Dreessen’s old role last season, run blocking well on 334 run block snaps despite concerns about his 6-3 243 frame and adding 28 catches for 263 yards on 232 pass snaps. Despite being a #2 tight end, he played the 30th most snaps at his position. That doesn’t sound like much, but they were the only team in the NFL with 2 tight ends in the top-30 in snaps played and that’s before you take into account James Casey’s tight-end-esque role. The intermediate passing game is a huge part of their offense.

Owen Daniels, meanwhile, remains a solid tight end, catching 62 passes for 716 yards and 6 touchdowns. He gets overlooked. The only issue with him, aside from slightly subpar run blocking is that he’s missed 15 games in the last 4 seasons combined and has failed to play in all 16 games since 2008. With Casey gone, it’ll be up to Ryan Griffin to play in 2-tight end sets if Daniels gets hurt again. He’s a mere 6th round rookie.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

JJ Fucking Watt. At 23 years of age in his 2nd year in the league, playing with torn ligaments in his elbow, Watt had what defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called the “absolute best” season by any defensive lineman in NFL history. Phillips would know, considering he’s been in the NFL since 1976 and has coached DeMarcus Ware, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Clyde Simmons, who, along with Watt, have combined for 6 of the 13 highest single season sack totals in NFL history.

I haven’t seen as much football as Phillips, but I’m inclined to agree with him. While his 21 sacks don’t break the single season record, Watt had those 21 sacks despite being an interior defensive lineman, having to fight through more junk to get to the quarterback and not having the luxury of coming from a quarterback’s blindside. You can’t say that about any other player who has ever had as many sacks in a season as Watt did last season.

He also had an NFL record 15 batted passes and played the run incredibly well. His 57 solo tackles not only led his position and not only led all defensive linemen in 2012, but they came for an average gain of 0.16 yards by the ball carrier, best in the NFL among players at any position. He also had 72 stops (tackles or sacks within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards of the line of scrimmage on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down). That was best in the NFL among players at any position and he missed just 2 tackles in the process.

Along with those 21 sacks, he also had 25 quarterback hits and 30 quarterback hurries on 610 pass rush snaps, a 12.5% rate which is absolutely ridiculous for his position. He was 1st at his position in pass rush productivity at 10.8 (sacks + .75 hits +.75 hurries). No other eligible player at his position had a pass rush productivity higher than 9.5, in addition to leading his position in run stop percentage (percentage of run snaps with a stop) by 5.3%.

He had the highest regular season grade in ProFootballFocus history (5 years, but still) of +101.8. No one else has ever posted a season of +80.0 at any position and no one has ever been higher than +49.5 at 3-4 defensive end. He was incredibly consistent, not posting a score lower than +1.9 in a single game throughout the regular season, before a -0.1 in the playoff loss to New England. He was above +4.5 in every regular season game except that +1.9 game (against Chicago). As a rookie, he ranked 5th at his position on ProFootballFocus and played very well down the stretch, going over +4.1 in 4 of his last 8 games and over +2.4 in 6 of his last 8 (including playoffs). Last season wasn’t a fluke. It was just a supremely talented player coming into his own.

I can definitely understand why Phillips sees is as the greatest season a defensive lineman has ever had. He won the Defensive Player of the Year, winning 49 of 50 votes, and he should be the heavy early favorite to repeat in 2013, with another year of experience and a healthy elbow. He’d join Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Ray Lewis as the only players to win the award multiple times and join Taylor as the only one to win it in back-to-back seasons (he did it in a strike shortened season). At the end of the day, he could surpass Lawrence Taylor’s record 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards. Watt might not improve on 2012, but that will only be because it’s tough to improve on the best. There’s no non-quarterback I’d rather start a team with, hands down.

Opposite him, Antonio Smith isn’t too shabby either. He was never anything special (at best) before Wade Phillips came along before the 2011 season, but he’s ranked 8th and 6th among 3-4 defensive ends on ProFootballFocus in the last 2 seasons. At 6-3 274, he was a tweener in Houston’s old 4-3, but he’s been an excellent fit in Wade Phillips’ 3-4. He’s a bit undersized for a 5-technique end and he struggles against the run, but he’s great at getting to the quarterback. He’s ranked 2nd at his position rushing the passer in each of the last 2 seasons, last year coming in 2nd only to Watt, as he had 8 sacks, 8 hits, and 31 hurries on 548 pass rush snaps, a 8.6% rate. Watt’s presence helps him as he rarely sees double teams, but he’s an excellent pass rusher in his own right.

The only minor concern is he’s going into his age 32 season, which also happens to be a contract year. Some decline can be expected. The Texans have 2012 4th round pick Jared Crick behind him as insurance and he might be a starter in 2014 and beyond. Crick showed well as a rookie in 2012, on 220 snaps, especially playing well against the run. He was seen as a 2nd round talent before an injury ended his senior season early and hurt his draft stock.

In between Watt and Smith is Earl Mitchell, the nose tackle. The 6-2 296 pounder is undersized for the position, but Wade Phillips usually has undersized nose tackles. He’s only a base package player who comes off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. He’s a decent player who doesn’t play an overly important role, but he could see more snaps this season now that Shaun Cody, a mediocre reserve, is gone.

Terrell McClain, who was awful as a 3rd round rookie in 2011 with the Panthers, is their top reserve at the position now. He played just 10 snaps last season and based on his rookie play, it’s not a good thing if he’s on the field, so Mitchell will have a bigger role, unless 6th round rookie Chris Jones can surprise. That being said, it’s not an overly important position and the Texans still have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL because they have maybe the best pair of 5-technique ends in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Despite JJ Watt’s presence on the defensive line (and Smith’s), the Texans got shockingly little production from their rush linebackers last season. Watt and Smith combined for 29 sacks (and that’s not even their primary job as 5-technique ends), but the rest of the team combined for just 18. After an okay first season as a starter in 2011, Connor Barwin sucked in 2012, grading out 2nd worst at his position in pass rush grade and 3rd worst overall. He managed just 4 sacks, 12 hits, and 24 hurries on 570 pass rush snaps, a pathetic 7.0% rate for his position, especially considering the play of the defensive line.

He’s gone, but it’s not like they really replaced him. Top reserve Whitney Mercilus will move into the starting lineup for him opposite Brooks Reed and rookies Sam Montgomery (3rd round) and Trevardo Williams (4th round) will compete to be the primary backup. Mercilus also sucked last season, managing just 6 sacks, 1 hit, and 14 hurries, including playoffs, on 310 pass rush snaps, a very poor 6.8% pass rush rate, splitting snaps with Brooks Reed opposite Connor Barwin. He was ProFootballFocus’ 29th rated 3-4 outside linebacker out of 34 eligible.

However, I loved him coming out of Illinois and he’ll line up almost exclusively at right outside linebacker, the primary pass rushing position in Wade Phillips’ scheme (the DeMarcus Ware, Connor Barwin role), rather than moving around the formation, as he did as a rookie. This could very well help him, especially since he played almost entirely on the right side in college at Illinois. It’s a projection, but I expect him to have at least a decent year.

Opposite him, Brooks Reed was the best of their 3 rush linebackers last season, grading out about average, but he too struggled rushing the passer with 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 18 hurries on 308 pass rush snaps, a 7.8% rate, despite sharing a side with JJ Watt, who ate up blockers in front of him. He made for it by playing the run well and covering well and not committing a penalty, but he’s been a poor pass rusher in his 2 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. There’s been some talk of him moving to middle linebacker, which might fit his skill set better, but in order for that to happen, someone would have to step up and take his spot as a starter and even then it would leave them dangerously thin at the position.

The Texans are hoping one or both of their rookies, Sam Montgomery or Trevardo Williams can do so. They’ll probably be really disappointed with Montgomery. Athletically, he’s a poor fit for a 3-4 and he also has serious red flags. He interviewed terribly, admitting to betting in college and taking games (not plays, games) off. On top of that, he was slammed by his former coaches and reports say that the Texans may not have had the whole story when they drafted him and that no one who knew that whole story would have touched him anywhere near the 3rd round. He’s not off to a good start, landing on the non-football injury list, coming to camp out of shape and with an ankle problem. Williams, meanwhile, seems more promising, but it’ll be hard to count on him as a rookie.

Part of the reason why there is talk of moving Reed to inside linebacker is that there’s a big hole inside next to Brian Cushing. There was way too much of Bradie James, Darryl Sharpton, Tim Dobbins, and Barrett Ruud inside last year, especially after Cushing got hurt. None of those four graded out above average. The Texans planned to select Arthur Brown in the 2nd round to fill that void, but the Ravens traded up ahead of them to grab him.

They only addressed the position this off-season by signing Joe Mays late in the off-season, after he was cut by the Broncos. He’s a pretty mediocre starter who was benched early last season before eventually ending up on injured reserve with a broken leg. He doesn’t represent much of an upgrade. The Texans will be giving the mediocre (at best) Sharpton another shot, provided he doesn’t get hurt like he always does. He’s already on the non-football injury list with a bad groin, after spending much of the off-season struggling to come back from a late season hip injury. That’s part of the reason why they signed Mays, who figures to get the first great at the job if Sharpton can’t go. Even if that situation, he might only be a two-down player.

Cushing, meanwhile, is coming back from his own injury, that aforementioned torn ACL. He’ll be 11 months removed from it by week 1 so he should be good to go, but it’s possible that he won’t be the same player he was before, at least early in the season. I mentioned how much this defense went downhill after he got hurt. That wasn’t all him, but it had something to do with it, especially considering their atrocious depth at the position. Prior to his injury, the 2009 1st round pick was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker in 2011 and on to his way to another good season before the injury. He was also ProFootballFocus 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in the Texans’ old 4-3 in 2009, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, with a suspension shortened season in between. He’s easily their best linebacker in a unit full of question marks.

Grade: B-

Secondary

As I mentioned earlier, Johnathan Joseph suffered a groin injury mid-season and wasn’t the same. Fortunately for them, 2010 1st round pick Kareem Jackson finally came into his own in his 3rd year in the league. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked cornerback last season, allowing 44 completions on 94 attempts for 611 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 10 passes and committing 5 penalties.

He was pretty bad in his first 2 years in the league, so I’ll have to see it again and he rarely covers opponent’s #1 cornerbacks, so I can’t consider him elite or anything, but he’s a very important part of this secondary. If Joseph can bounce back this year, it will make their secondary so tough to throw on because they’ll no longer be able to just throw away from Joseph and pick on the other side of the field.

Joseph was ProFootballFocus 9th ranked cornerback in 2011 in his first year in Houston and had graded out positively for the previous 4 seasons, including a 6th place ranking in 2009. He was off to a similarly good start in 2011, allowing 8 completions on 19 attempts for 86 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 2 passes and not committing a penalty. However, a groin injury suffered before week 4 limited him the rest of the way, causing him to miss 2 games in the process. He allowed 44 completions on 73 attempts for 552 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception the rest of the way, while deflecting just 4 passes and committing 4 penalties. He finished the season as ProFootballFocus’ 43rd ranked cornerback, just above average. He’s an obvious bounce back candidate, only going into his age 29 season.

Brice McCain will continue to work the slot, after re-signing for 3 years this off-season. The 2009 6th round pick has been their #3 cornerback dating back to 2010, moving to the slot in 2011. He played well on the slot in 2011, allowing a 48.7 QB rating on slot snaps, but wasn’t nearly as good there in 2012, with a 92.8 rating on slot snaps, and he was awful when he tried to play outside in Joseph’s absence. He was also awful in 2010 as an outside cornerback. At best, he’s a solid slot cornerback who can’t play on the outside, which makes sense given that he’s just 5-9 180. He could be pushed by Brandon Harris, a 2011 2nd round pick who hasn’t done anything in his two years in the league, playing just 205 snaps. He’s starting to look like a bust.e wH

The Texans lost starting safety Glover Quin this off-season, which wasn’t a huge loss. He’s an average starter who was overpaid by the Lions, who gave him 25 million over 5 years. The problem is the Texans made an even bigger overpay to replace him, signing Ed Reed for 15 million over 3 years. Reed is a future Hall of Famer, but he’s also coming off a season in which he ranked below average overall, turning 35 in September, and dealing with a bad hip that could cost him regular season games.

The Texans reportedly didn’t know of Reed’s hip injury and eventual need for surgery before signing him (while the Ravens did), so this looks like a big mistake on their part. His days as a solid starter are gone and they may be lucky if they get 12 games out of him from the looks of it. He had surgery in late April. 2nd round rookie DJ Swearinger could be seeing more action than they expected. He was drafted as the heir apparent to Reed, but it’s tough to count on him as a rookie.

At the other safety spot, Danieal Manning remains an above average starter. He’s going into his age 31 season so his best days might be behind him (he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked safety in 2010), but he’s graded out positively in each of the last 4 seasons since moving from cornerback to safety. He’s not over the hill yet. It’s not a perfect secondary, but they could very well have one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL and that counts for a lot.

Grade: A-

Head Coach

Once a perennial candidate to be fired (at least in the media), Gary Kubiak has strung together 10 and 12 win seasons and rewarded the Texans for being patient with him, ignoring the calls for his job for continuity’s sake. After Bill Belichick, Marvin Lewis, and Tom Coughlin, he’s the 4th longest tenured Head Coach in the NFL (along with Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy, who also came in before the 2006 season). It’s helped him greatly that he’s added Wade Phillips to his coaching staff to coordinate the defense, allowing Kubiak to focus on offense, where the Mike Shanahan disciple is an underrated game planner, play caller, and strong schematically, with his signature zone blocking offensive line and two-tight end heavy offense.

Grade: B+

Overall

As I mentioned in the opening, I think the Texans are a good team that flashes greatness, but something always goes wrong (usually injuries that they can’t excel in spite of). I could say that the Texans will be one of the best teams in the NFL this season now that Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Brian Cushing are all healthy at the same time (it’s happened just 6 times in the last 2 seasons, all wins), but the NFL is messy. Nothing will ever be a perfect world. I’ve given up projecting them as that top, top level team.

That being said, they’re by far the best team in their division. I’ll get into why the Colts are overrated in their write up, but the Titans and Jaguars aren’t going to be tough opponents. They should go 5-1 in their division again. Outside the division, they host Seattle, St. Louis, Oakland, New England, and Denver. Seattle, New England, and Denver will be tough opponents, but the Seahawks aren’t good on the road and St. Louis and Oakland should be easier wins. They should go at least 3-2 in those 5 games. They also go to Baltimore, San Francisco, San Diego, Arizona, and Kansas City. Baltimore and San Francisco will be tough places to win and Kansas City is underrated and San Diego could even be tough late at night on Monday Night Football week 1, but they should win at least 2 of those games. 10-6 seems about right.

Projection: 10-6 1st in AFC South

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