Sep 042016
 

Quarterback

The Texans have gone 18-14 over the past 2 seasons, since ex-Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien took over as head coach of a previously 2-14 team. They’ve done that despite remarkably playing 7 different quarterbacks: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Case Keenum, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, and TJ Yates. Their offense wasn’t horrendous in 2015, as they finished 22nd in rate of moving the chains, but their defense was definitely what carried them to a divisional title and a home playoff game, as they finished 3rd in rate of moving the chains allowed.

Of course, the Texans got blown out in that home playoff game, losing 30-0, as Brian Hoyer completed just 15 of 34 passes for 136 yards and 4 interceptions. The game was a lot closer than a final score, as the Chiefs didn’t score an offensive touchdown until after stud defensive end JJ Watt went out for the game with an injury in the third quarter, but the way Hoyer played that game, the Texans didn’t stand a chance, no matter how well their defense played. It’s not indicative of how Hoyer played all season. He just had the worst game of his season at the worst time. However, he wasn’t great in the regular season either, completing 60.7% of his passes for an average of 7.06 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in 9 starts, leading a mediocre Texan offense and finishing 31st out of 38 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

It was obvious the Texans needed a quarterback and, rather than waiting for one to fall to them at 22 in the draft or trying to move up on draft day, the Texans addressed the quarterback position early in free agency, signing ex-Bronco quarterback Brock Osweiler to a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal and releasing Hoyer. I’m really not sold on Osweiler being worth that much though. His overall numbers weren’t bad in 7 starts with the Broncos in 2015, completing 61.8% of his passes for an average of 7.15 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while grading out 20th out of 38 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. However, the Broncos’ offense struggled with him under center, moving the chains at a mere 68.66% rate in the 6 games he started and finished.

The Broncos had offensive issues beyond the quarterback position, but the Broncos’ offense was barely worse in the 8 regular season games Peyton Manning started and finished and Manning was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL last season. That’s despite the fact that the Broncos ran the ball a lot better in the second half of the season, when Osweiler made all of his starts. The fact that the Broncos were willing to go back to Manning instead of Osweiler when he returned from injury, as much as Manning had struggled to start the year, and is telling, as is the fact that the Broncos wouldn’t offer Osweiler any more than 45 million over 3 years.

Osweiler was just a 2nd round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, so he wasn’t exactly in high demand coming out of college, and he’s made just 7 starts since then, so we have a very limited sample size. There was some promise in that sample size, but it’s hard to justify paying him more than the Broncos would offer when they’re the ones who know him best. I know Houston was desperate for a quarterback, but so were the Broncos and I’m not sure Osweiler is a huge upgrade over Hoyer, though he obviously has way more upside, only going into his age 26 season.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

With struggles under center and a great defense supporting them, it should come as no surprise that the Texans’ offense has ranked in the top-5 in carries in each of the past 2 seasons (551 carries in 2014 and 472 carries in 2015). However, they’ve really struggled on the ground, averaging just 3.80 yards per carry over that time period. They needed an upgrade at running back as much as they needed an upgrade at quarterback this off-season and they got a good one, signing ex-Dolphin Lamar Miller to a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal.

Miller has averaged 4.59 yards per carry on 638 career carries in 4 years in the league and has finished in the top-7 among running backs in pure run grade on Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons (joining Marshawn Lynch and Le’Veon Bell as the only running backs who can say that). However, he’s gotten just 410 carries over those past 2 seasons, turning them into 1871 yards and 16 touchdowns (4.56 YPC). In 2014, you could blame his struggles in the passing game for his overall low usage, but there was no excuse in 2015, when he graded out above average as a pass blocker for the first time in his career and added 47 catches for 397 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air on an offense that was otherwise horrendous.

Miller certainly won’t be underutilized in Houston. Even if they pass the ball more often this season with Osweiler coming in, they still are a quick pace team that led the NFL in plays run last season, so there will be plenty of opportunity for Miller to get the ball. In a league where few backs surpass 300 carries in a season anymore, Miller could easily finish in the top-5 in touches if he can stay healthy. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2012, but he’s still somewhat of a projection to a larger role, as he’s never had more than 254 touches in a season.

Miller’s only real competition for carries is Alfred Blue. A 2014 6th round pick, Blue has gotten plenty of action in his first 2 seasons in the league, with 352 carries, but he turned those into just 1226 yards and 4 touchdowns, a weak 3.48 YPC. He’s the reason why the Texans brought Miller in and he’ll be nothing more than a pure backup to Blue. He could even be pushed for his #2 job at some point this season by 4th round rookie Tyler Ervin, out of San Jose State. They’d likely split carries if Miller went down. It’s an obviously improved group of running backs.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

In addition to quarterback and running back, it’s obvious the Texans made the wide receiver position a priority this off-season, adding Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller in the 1st round of the draft and Ohio State wide receiver Braxton Miller in the 3rd round of the draft. Miller is much more of a project, converting from quarterback to wide receiver just last season, but Fuller has a great chance to play serious snaps as a rookie. He’ll compete with 2nd year player Jaelen Strong for the #2 wide receiver job this season. Fuller would seem to be the early favorite, but Strong wasn’t bad on 320 snaps as a rookie, as the 4th receiver behind departed mediocre veterans Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts, so don’t be surprised if he plays a big role.

DeAndre Hopkins remains locked in as the #1 receiver, though he’s unlikely to see the 192 targets (3rd in the NFL) that he saw last season, with more options to throw to in the passing game. Still, he’s finished in the top-12 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons, so he’s great player and figures to be a frequent target of Osweiler’s. With likely better quarterback play, more talent around him, and his best years possibly still ahead of him, going into just his age 24 season, the 2013 1st round pick could easily come close to last year’s numbers, when he caught 111 passes (3rd in the NFL) for 1521 yards (also 3rd in the NFL) and 11 touchdowns. He’s one of the best wide receivers in the whole game and the Texans’ best offensive player.

Things are not as good at tight end, where 2014 3rd round pick CJ Fiedorowicz remains as the starter. Fiedorowicz struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 63th out of 67 eligible tight ends and, though he moved up to 29th in 2015 (above average), he still struggled mightily as a pass catcher, catching just 17 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown in 16 games. He’s a strong run blocker at 6-5 265, but little else. Ryan Griffin actually led all Texan tight ends in receiving last year, catching 20 passes for 251 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he was terrible all around, finishing 66th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 351 snaps. He’s graded out below average in 3 straight seasons, since being drafted in the 6th round in 2013. There’s definitely upside in this unit, but they could still struggle for consistency after DeAndre Hopkins.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Brian Hoyer’s terrible performance in the playoff game was a huge part of the reason why this offense couldn’t move the ball, but the loss of left tackle Duane Brown to a torn quad was definitely felt as well, both in pass protection and on the ground. Brown went down for the season with a torn quad week 17, a huge loss, considering he finished the season 13th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’s no one-year wonder, finishing in the top-24 among offensive tackles in each of the last 6 seasons, but he’s going into his age 31 season, coming off of a major injury, and is reportedly not a lock to be ready by week 1, so there’s some cause for concern. That being said, he figures to have a strong season again once he’s finally able to play.

Brown isn’t the only Texans’ offensive lineman dealing with a major injury, as rookie 2nd rounder pick Nick Martin will miss the entire season with an ankle injury. Following the loss of capable veteran Ben Jones in free agency, Martin was expected to start, but the Texans will now turn to 2nd year undrafted free agent Greg Mancz, who played just 1 offensive snap as a rookie. It’s a major position of concern after losing first Jones and then Martin. Mancz figures to be overwhelmed as a starter.

Meanwhile at right guard, free agent acquisition Jeff Allen, formerly of the Chiefs, replaces right guard Brandon Brooks, who also left as a free agent this off-season. Allen is coming off of a very strong season, finishing 16th among guards on Pro Football Focus, earning him a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal. The Texans might have overpaid, considering he graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league in 2012 and 2013, before missing all but 1 game in 2014 with an elbow injury. Even in 2015, he only played 429 snaps and made 8 starts, so he’s unproven and a risky signing, but the 2012 2nd round pick is not a bad starter.

The same cannot really be said of Xavier Su’a-Filo, a 2014 2nd round pick who struggled in his first season as a starter in 2015, finishing 61st out of 81 eligible guards. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league though. The Texans will obviously be hoping he improves, as they don’t really have another option. Oday Aboushi is their next best options, but he has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, dating back to his rookie year in 2013, when he was a 5th round pick of the Jets.

Rounding out the offensive line is right tackle Derek Newton, who is coming off of his 2nd straight seasons grading out above average, after struggling mightily early in his career. Newton has never been a good pass protector, but he’s been dominant in the run game in each of the last 2 seasons. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked offensive tackle in 2015, including 13th in pure run blocking grade. Obviously, pass protection is more important in today’s NFL, but Newton is not a bad starter. It’s not a bad offensive line overall, but there are definitely some problems, especially with injuries hitting them hard already.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

It’s not just the offensive line where the Texans have already been hit hard by injury, as stud defensive end JJ Watt is questionable for week 1 after undergoing back surgery in July. As I mentioned earlier, the Texans’ defense has been what’s carried this team over the past couple of seasons. And what’s carried this defense has been JJ Watt, 3-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Last year was arguably the worst season Watt has had since his rookie year in 2011, as he finished 2nd among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus behind Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. That’s obviously an incredible season, as he still finished #1 among 3-4 defensive ends for the 4th straight season, but he didn’t have the highest overall defensive grade on Pro Football Focus for the 4th straight season, as both Donald and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly both finished higher.

I would have voted for Donald over Watt for Defensive Player of the Year, but Watt should have won it in 2013, when he lost to Kuechly, so it all evens out. Any way you look at it, he’s one of the top few players in the entire NFL. The only reason he wasn’t quite as dominant as 2012-2014 is because he was hampered by injuries down the stretch, including a broken hand. Watt still hasn’t missed a game with injury in 5 years in the league, though his status is now in question for week 1, which puts a bit of damper on his 2016 expectations. Needless to say, any time he misses with injury would hurt this team’s playoff chances.

Things are not nearly as good on the rest of the defensive line. That might sound weird to say, considering likely future hall-of-famer Vince Wilfork starts at nose tackle, but he’s purely a two-down player at this stage in his career. WIlfork played just 562 regular season snaps last season and, while he excelled against the run, finishing 25th among interior defenders in that category, he got absolutely no pass rush, finishing 106th out of 123 eligible interior defenders in that category. Going into his age 35 season, the end is near for Big Vince. The Texans drafted his likely successor in the 5th round, taking Georgia Tech nose tackle DJ Reader, who measured in at 6-3 327 at the combine. Wilfork should still play the run well in a limited role this season, but it’s not out of the question that Reader could push him for snaps down the stretch.

The other defensive end spot is particularly problematic, as that’s an every down position without anything close to a clear starter. Departed free agent Jared Crick wasn’t good in that spot last season, but no one currently on the roster looks like an upgrade. 2014 6th round pick Jeoffrey Pagan, 2015 6th round pick Christian Covington, and 2014 undrafted free agent Brandon Dunn will compete for snaps at the position. None have any noteworthy experience. Pagan struggled on 191 snaps as a rookie in 2014 and played just 44 snaps last season. Covington played just 167 snaps as a rookie last season. Dunn played a career high 142 snaps last season. It’s a major position of weakness. This defensive line badly needs a healthy JJ Watt.

Grade: B

Linebackers

It wasn’t just the JJ Watt show last season on defense though, as a pair of former first round picks both took a big leap forward last season at outside linebacker. 2014 #1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and 2012 1st round pick Whitney Mercilus remain as starters. Clowney was the higher pick, but Mercilus had the better 2015 season, coming in 15th among edge defenders, while Clowney was 26th. This came after Mercilus finished below average in each of his first 3 years in the league from 2012-2014. He could keep up this high level of play and he has former 1st round pick talent, but he remains a one-year wonder.

Clowney’s biggest issue through 2 years in the league has been injuries, as back and knee problems have limited him to just 17 games in 2 seasons in the league. 13 of those games came last year though and his performance on the field was solid as well. Oozing with talent and still only going into his age 23 season, Clowney could have a big-time breakout year this year if he can stay healthy. Mercilus might have had the better 2015, but Clowney has much higher upside. Both are valuable starters though. They also have a talented reserve in John Simon, who finished last season above average on 639 snaps, after flashing on 239 snaps in 2014. A 2013 4th round pick of the Ravens, Simon has proven the Ravens wrong for giving on him so quickly. He’s an excellent insurance policy that should see about 30 snaps per game regardless.

Inside, the Texans have a promising young linebacker and a declining veteran linebacker. Brian Cushing has been with the Texans since they drafted him in the 1st round in 2009 and had some fantastic seasons early in his career. However, he missed 20 games between 2012-2013 with lower body injuries and has graded out below average in each of the past 2 seasons, including 70th out of 97 eligible last season. Going into his age 29 season, Cushing’s best days are likely behind him.

Fellow starter Benardrick McKinney’s best days appear him ahead of him though, after the 2015 2nd round pick flashed on 411 snaps as a rookie. The 6-4 246 pounder is a force against the run and showed enough in coverage to warrant a larger role in 2016, after playing only in base packages in 2015. Safety Eddie Pleasant played around the line of scrimmage as essentially a 2nd linebacker in sub packages next to Brian Cushing, while McKinney sat on the bench. McKinney is expected to get a shot to play all three downs this season, though it’s not out of the question that Pleasant keeps his sub package job. Along with Clowney, Mercilus, and Simon, McKinney gives the Texans 4 promising young linebackers.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Even if Pleasant doesn’t keep his sub package role, he could still play a significant role on a team whose starting safety jobs are both up for grabs. Quintin Demps and Andre Hal made 13 and 11 starts respectively at safety last year, but both graded out below average. Demps is going into his age 31 season and has never been very good. Hal, meanwhile, is still young, but he wasn’t highly drafted, falling to the 7th round in 2014. Pleasant could push both of them for their jobs, though Demps is probably most vulnerable. Pleasant isn’t a great option either, as the 2012 7th round pick has just 1 career start and struggled in limited action last season. His value comes way more from his versatility and his ability to play both safety and linebacker at 5-11 210, rather than from him being a particularly good player. Whoever starts at safety, it should be a position of weakness.

Cornerback, on the other hand, is a much stronger position. Johnathan Joseph is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 9th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. In 5 years in Houston, he’s missed just 4 games with injury and has graded out above average in all 5 seasons, with his highest ranked season coming last season. He’s going into his age 32 season so his age is starting to become a concern, but he seems to still be going strong. He’s made the Texans look smart for locking him up on a 3-year, 22 million dollar extension last off-season.

It was a bit of a surprise when the Texans did that, as it looked like Joseph was going into his final year in Houston in 2015 when the Texans used the 16th overall pick on Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson. Between him and fellow former first round pick Kareem Jackson (20th overall in 2010), who they had just re-signed for 34 million over 4 years, it looked like the Texans were pretty set at cornerback for the foreseeable future. Instead, Joseph remains as a starter and Johnson will spent 2016 as the 3rd cornerback again. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but could be noticeably better in his 2nd year in the league.

Jackson also graded out below average last season and that’s a little bit more concerning, given how much money they gave him last off-season and given that he has a history of inconsistency. Jackson finished 12th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2012 and 11th in 2014, which is what earned him that contract, but he’s graded out below average in each of his other 4 seasons in the league. He’s also missed 9 games with injury in the last 3 seasons combined. There’s bounce back back potential here if he can stay healthy, but there are definitely no guarantees with him. It’s overall a solid secondary though.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Texans did a good job of identifying their biggest needs and addressing them this season, using high picks on wide receivers and spending big money to bring in Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller in free agency. However, Osweiler is still an unproven quarterback at best and it’s possible their young wide receivers take a year or so to become impact players in the NFL. Lamar Miller was a great signing, but the Texans are banged up going into the season and have one of the league’s oldest rosters overall. Even in a weak AFC South, it’s going to be tough for them to repeat. The division is not as bad as it was last season.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in AFC South

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