Houston Texans 2012 NFL Season Preview

Offense

The Texans broke out in 2011, won the AFC South with 10 wins, and made the playoffs for the 1st time in their franchise’s still short history. What’s even more impressive is the fact that they did this despite their quarterback and their #1 (and only good) wide receiver only playing in the same game together 4 times, thanks to injuries. When Matt Schaub went down, this team was 7-3 and a contender for the AFC’s #1 seed. 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 and if they can get their once strong passing game going again this year, they could be incredibly dangerous.

At the same time, the Texans lost a lot this offseason and might not be able to compensate. Mario Williams is the obvious name because he signed for almost 100 million dollars in Houston, but he missed 11 games last year and the Texans still allowed the 4th fewest points and had the 6th most sacks (44). Youngsters Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin stepped up big time in his absence and first round pick Whitney Mercilus, who I think was the best pass rusher of the 2012 NFL Draft class, will also be in the mix this season.

The more important losses will be Jason Allen, an important, versatile defensive back, Joel Dreessen, a talented 2nd string tight end who played a lot as the Texans used many two-tight end sets, DeMeco Ryans, a starting middle linebacker, as well as Mike Briesel and Eric Winston, their starting right guard and starting right tackle respectively on what was an incredibly strong offensive line. They’ll try to replace those guys in various ways that I’ll get into, but they’ll miss those 5. Still, in arguably the weakest division in the NFL, the Texans have a clear path to their 2nd straight division title and playoff appearance.

Quarterback

One other concern that Texans fans should have is their quarterback, Matt Schaub. That may sound weird as a few years ago Schaub was one of the league’s leaders in yards on a non-playoff team that couldn’t stop anyone, but even the Texans have concerns about Schaub. That’s why they haven’t given him a long term extension as he heads into a contract year. If he plays well, they’ll happily franchise tag him and work out a long term extension with him next offseason, but there are concerns.

The first is that he’s 31 and has NEVER PLAYED IN THE PLAYOFFS. That hasn’t always been his fault, but he’s had some less than stellar performance in big games and close games and you have to question his leadership, even if only a little, and wonder if he’s not Tony Romo with a better PR team. He’s also been very injury prone, which is part of why he’s never played in a playoff game (had he been healthy last year, he would have). That’s their other concern. Schaub has missed at least 5 games in 3 of the last 5 seasons. TJ Yates is a decent backup, but if the Texans want to have any chance of winning the Super Bowl, Schaub has to stay healthy. My money is still on Schaub staying mostly healthy and playing in at least one playoff game this season, but the concerns are there.

It’s interesting how Schaub’s role with the team has changed from 2009-2010 to now as the team’s style of play has changed. In 2009 and 2010, Schaub threw for 4770 yards and 4370 yards respectively for a 9 win and a 6 win team respectively. Last year, however, he was on pace for 3966 yards for a team that was 7-3 when he went down. The Texans’ 546 carries were tied for most with Denver, a team whose starting quarterback ranked 39th in the league in carries himself.

Schaub has always been a talented quarterback who has completed 64.3% of his career passes for 7.9 YPA, 98 touchdowns, and 58 interceptions in his career. He’s fully capable of staying healthy for 16 games and leading a very strong supporting cast to 12 wins. He just needs to actually do it. As strange as it may sound for a 31 year old quarterback, Schaub may be more potential than substance. He has the potential to be an elite quarterback, but you can’t put him there if he’s never played in a playoff game.

Grade: B

Running Backs

I’ve already mentioned how much the Texans love to run and how good at it they are. Last year, they ran 546 times and passed just 467 times. Only Denver had a bigger disparity and only Denver and San Francisco joined them in running more often than they passed (Miami had an exactly equally split). This wasn’t just when Matt Schaub went down. In 10 games with Schaub, they passed 292 times and ran 357 times, as opposed to 230 passes and 254 runs in the 8 games without Schaub (including playoffs).

Having a strong defense will allow them to this again. Arian Foster, barring injury, should be among the league leaders in carries for the 3rd straight year (1st in 2010 and 6th in 2011, despite missing 3 games with injury), while Ben Tate will be one of the most often used backups in the league. He’ll obviously be a valuable handcuff in fantasy football if Foster gets hurt. Both are incredibly talented and good fits for their blocking scheme.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Speaking of their blocking scheme, one thing that could hold the Texans back from running as well as they did last year is the fact that they lost two starting offensive linemen. They were backed up against the cap and had to let right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston go. Both were talented players, but the Texans believe in their blocking scheme and believe they can coach up unheralded players and make them into starters, as they have done in the past. On their strong line in 2011, only one player was drafted before the 3rd round.

Being plugged into their offensive line is right guard Antoine Caldwell and right tackle Rashad Butler. Neither has much experience nor do they have much success, but the Texans believe they can coach them up. If either slips up, 3rd round rookie Brandon Brooks could be plugged in at either spot, while Derek Newton could be plugged in at right tackle, where the 2011 7th round pick is more natural than Brooks.

Luckily, the Texans did not lose 3 offensive linemen this offseason. At one point, it looked like center Chris Myers was also a goner. However, the Texans were able to bring him back, which is great news because, with a 32.6 rating, he was ProFootballFocus’ highest rated center in 2011 by a pretty wide margin. He was solid as a pass protector, allowing 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 10 quarterback pressures, but where he’s especially great is as a run blocker. No offensive lineman at any position graded out within 7 points of Myers as a run blocker on ProFootballFocus last year. He’s heading into his age 31 season, but I see no reason why he’ll slip up.

The only offensive lineman of the bunch who was selected before the 3rd round is left tackle Duane Brown, who was a 1st round pick in 2008, which makes sense since this is the most important position on the offensive line. Brown has lived up to his draft range. He was ProFootballFocus’ 6th rated offensive tackle last season. He was the only starting offensive tackle in the league not to surrender a single sack, though he did allow 4 quarterback hits and 23 quarterback pressures and graded out slightly below average as a run blocker. He only committed 4 penalties as well.

The one returning weak link on the offensive line is left guard Wade Smith. I bet the Texans are wishing that it was him that left this offseason rather than Brisiel or Winston. Because they had two offensive lineman to replace, they couldn’t replace Smith even if they wanted to. He had a -20.5 rating last year, good for 70th at his position out of 76. He was alright as a pass protector, allowing 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures, but he was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated run blocker at his position. Very strangely, he was 4th rated overall at his position in 2010. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that. Maybe he’ll bounce back.

Grade: B+

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Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

As Matt Schaub is known for being injury prone, so is his top wide receiver. Since 2007, he’s missed at least 3 games in 3 of 5 seasons and 19 games overall. He played a career low 7 games last year and now all of a sudden he’s in his age 31 season. He’s incredibly talented when healthy with 706 catches for 9656 yards and 52 touchdowns in his career and he’s had 100+ catches in his last 3 full 16 game seasons, but the Texans made it a priority of their offseason to add more talent in their receiver corps around him, as well as potential future successors as the team’s #1 receiver as even elite wide receivers like Johnson aren’t elite much past age 33 or 34.

The Texans used 3rd and 4th round picks on receivers, selecting DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin. They also have 2011 undrafted free agent Lester Jean, who has drawn rave reviews this offseason and could be due for a breakout year. I haven’t heard more good things about any player who has never had an impact in the NFL whatsoever than I have about Jean, for what that’s worth.

Of course, all 3 of those guys are currently behind veteran Kevin Walter on the depth chart, though that might not be the case week 1 or mid season as one or more of the aforementioned young guys could leap him on the depth chart at some point. Given what I’ve heard about Martin and Posey, I think it’s more likely that Jean will be the one to leap him. Martin and Posey are very raw and have been underwhelming in offseason practices. They’ll have impacts in 2013 and beyond if they ever do.

Walter, meanwhile, is the definition of mediocre. He’s tall and is a big target in the red zone, but he’s never been able to establish himself as a productive receiver and he caught just 39 passes for 474 yards and 3 touchdowns last year despite Andre Johnson’s frequent absences. Heading into his age 31 season, he’s not getting any better. When Johnson was out last year, the Texans really struggled to find another capable wide receiver. They have some upside guys, but none are sure things to be any better than what they had last year. Andre Johnson will need to remain healthy and remain his usual 80+/1200+/7+ touchdown self.

The one thing the Texans do have going for them is tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels too has had some injury issues in the past, missing 13 games from 2009-2010, but he played in 15 games last year and had 54 catches for 677 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Texans love to use a lot of two-tight end sets, no surprise given how much they like to run.

Joel Dreessen was their #2 tight end last year and he’s gone. An excellent and underrated overall tight end, he’ll be missed. Including playoffs, he played 817 snaps and was ProFootballFocus’ 6th rated tight end last year so they’ll need someone to replace him. The Texans believe 2010 4th round Garrett Graham is capable of doing so and will give him the job, but he’s incredibly inexperienced so I have my doubts. Overall, while they’ve lost players, things should be better offensively in 2012 than in 2011, when they still somehow managed to rank 10th in the league with 23.8 points per game. This is, of course, barring major injuries to Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson.

Grade: B

Defense

After ranking a putrid 29th in the league with 26.7 points per game allowed in 2010, the Texans improved all the way to 4th in the league with 17.4 points per game allowed. Adding Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator made a huge difference, but you can’t forget the addition of guys like Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning through free agency, JJ Watt and Brooks Reed through the draft, and DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin returning from injury. As good of a defensive coordinator as Phillips is, there wouldn’t have been much he could have done if they still had the lack of talent they had in 2010. Even with the loss of Mario Williams this offseason, they should still be a very strong defense this year.

Defensive Line

As good as their defense is, no one on the squad had a rating on ProFootballFocus higher than JJ Watt, who had a 33.2 rating and ranked 4th at his position. He was equally great against the run as he was as a pass rusher, with 11 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 30 quarterback pressures (including playoffs), good for a 9.3% rate on 557 pass rush snaps. He also had a pick six in their playoff victory over the Bengals. Oh, and did I mention he was a rookie? He has the look of a perennial Pro Bowler.

Opposite him, the Texans got a surprise year from Antonio Smith. Smith, a career journeyman and mediocre starter, actually ranked 7th at his position with a 12.1 rating last year. He was the definition of “good pass rusher/bad run stuffer,” ranking 2nd at his position behind only Justin Smith as a pass rusher, but ranking dead last as a run stuffer. He had 8 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 35 quarterback pressures on 544 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 10.8%, very strong for his position. His 11 penalties need to be cleaned up, however.

Sometimes, on clear running downs, the Texans rotate in Tim Jamison, a solid run stuffer who is a strong backup at all 3 defensive line positions in the Texans’ 3-4. At nose tackle, the Texans rotate in two mediocre players primarily, Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell. That position may be their biggest weakness on defense, but they use a lot of base packages so the nose tackle position isn’t that important in their scheme. They also used a 4th round pick on Jared Crick, who figures to see some snaps as a situational player as a rookie.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

While JJ Watt and Antonio Smith are great pass rushers, they’re not the only reason why the Texans managed 44 sacks last year, despite missing Mario Williams for every game except 5. Brooks Reed, a 2011 2nd round pick, and Connor Barwin, a 2009 2nd round pick, both got great pressure on the quarterback last season, with Reed doing so as a rookie and Barwin doing so in his 1st year off of a major injury and despite having minimal previous experience in the NFL.

Barwin managed 12 sacks, 19 quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback pressures on 598 pass rush snaps, good for a 9.9% rate, while Reed had 10 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 26 quarterback pressures on 471 pass rush snaps, good for a 8.9% rate. The Texans drafted Whitney Mercilus in the 1st round to rotate with these guys and he should have an immediate impact as a situation pass rusher. I thought he was the best pass rusher in this draft class and that he could have an Aldon Smith esque rookie season with enough playing time.

As weird as it may sound, the Texans won’t really miss Mario Williams, who they played very well without last season. Reed, meanwhile, may see some snaps at middle linebacker, another position where he could be a fit. He’s stronger against the run than he is as a pass rusher and can hold his own in coverage.

Reed may be needed at middle linebacker because the Texans traded away DeMeco Ryans. Ryans, a former Pro Bowler, played pretty well last year, but was never as good of a fit in a 3-4 as he was in a 4-3 and with the team pressed up against the cap, they sold him to the Eagles for cap relief, a 4th round pick, and a swap of 3rd round picks.

In his absence, the Texans are expected to platoon Bradie James and Darryl Sharpton. James has experience in Phillips’ scheme from Dallas and Phillips thinks the world of him and may even make him their defensive signal caller when he’s on the field, but he was only a mediocre situational player in Dallas last year and he’s heading into his age 31 season so it’s an obvious downgrade. Sharpton, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick in 2010. Al Sharpton’s nephew, Darryl is inexperienced, but expected to see some snaps at middle linebacker this year. And, as I’ve mentioned, we could see Reed here some as well.

Whoever plays at that middle linebacker spot will be playing next to one of the best in the business, Brian Cushing. Cushing made a seamless transition from 4-3 outside linebacker to 3-4 inside linebacker last year, earning himself a 24.8 rating on ProFootballFocus, good for 4th at his position. Cushing is very strong in all 3 facets of the game, covering well, stopping the run well, and even contributing as a blitzer. No middle linebacker was sent on a blitz more often last year than Cushing, who blitzed 225 times and picked up 4 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback pressures, good for a very impressive 15.6% rate.

Grade: A-

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Secondary

In the secondary, Johnathan Joseph was as advertised, after signing a 48.75 million dollar deal over 5 years to go from the Bengals to the Texans last offseason. He was ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked cornerback last year, struggling some against the run, but ranking 4th in coverage. Joseph allowed 51 completions on 91 attempts (56.0%) for 602 yards (6.6 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while deflecting 10 passes and only committing 2 penalties. Among eligible cornerbacks (75% of team’s snaps), he was 2nd in QB rating allowed.

Opposite him, however, could be a problem. Jason Allen is gone. He really stabilized things, playing slot cornerback, outside cornerback, and even some safety. He allowed 39 completions on 77 attempts (50.6%) for 457 yards (5.9 YPA), 5 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 2 penalties.

With him gone, Kareem Jackson is going to be expected to step up. The 2010 1st round pick is bordering on bust. He’s been terrible in coverage in each of his first 2 years in the league. Last year, he allowed 38 completions on 62 attempts (61.3%) for 646 yards (10.4 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 5 penalties. He was good against the run, 5th at his position in fact, but he ranked 84th at his position, out of 98, in coverage and had a -5.0 overall rating. He’ll need to step up in his 3rd year and be a solid full time starter, otherwise he could find himself replaced after the season. If he slips up, Brice McCain could step into the starting lineup. Luckily for them, McCain looks like a budding star.

McCain was 8th at his position in terms of his rating in coverage, despite playing just 482 snaps, and 2nd at his position in QB rating allowed, among eligible cornerbacks (25% of team’s snaps). He allowed 24 completions on 51 attempts (47.1%) for 251 yards (4.9 YPA), 0 touchdowns, and 2 deflections, while deflecting 9 passes and committing 3 penalties. The 2009 6th round pick appears to have a bright future. The Texans also have 2011 2nd round pick Brandon Harris in the mix, but he barely played as a rookie, playing 28 snaps, and he’s behind McCain on the depth chart right now.

At safety, the Texans also have another nice offseason addition from the 2011 offseason, Danieal Manning. Manning is a solid safety who is better in coverage than against the run. Next to him, however, Glover Quin really struggled last year. With a -8.3 rating, he was their worst starter last year and he somehow played more snaps than anyone on the team. Unless 2011 5th round pick Shiloh Keo, who also only played 28 snaps as a rookie, can step up, the Texans don’t appear to have a replacement handy. This may be a position they focus on in the 2013 NFL Draft. Overall defensively, they have a very strong bunch and could easily be a top-5 scoring defense again.

Grade: B

Head Coach

After making the playoffs last year, Gary Kubiak went from a man perennially on the list of guys talked about as candidates to get fired to a guy who was a Coach of the Year candidate. Hiring Wade Phillips definitely helped and the calls for his job were legitimate as the team annually missed the playoffs, but he’s got the talent now to win 10+ games for at least the next few years and if he does that, he’ll have plenty of job security.

Grade: B+

Overall

The Texans have lost a lot, but they’re so talented that they can make up for it. They were 7-3 when Schaub went down last year and 10-3 at one point before dropping their final 3. They made it to the AFC Semis with a backup quarterback. Even when Schaub was healthy, his #1 receiver was not. They run the ball incredibly well and play strong defense, but also can air it out when necessary, so long as Schaub and Johnson are healthy.

When Schaub went down, they had 273 points scored and 166 points allowed, meaning they were averaging 27.3 points per game and allowing 16.6 and that’s over 10 games, a good sample size. That’s insane. That would have made them the 5th ranked offense and the 3rd ranked defense (tied with Baltimore), easily the only team in the league in the top-5 in both categories.

If you extrapolate those averages over 16 games, that’s 437 points for and 267 points against, which would have been the 4th highest differential in the NFL behind Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England. That would have given them a Pythagorean Expectation of 12.20 wins, which would have been 2nd behind only San Francisco’s 12.30. Speaking of Pythagorean Expectation, they were the only team in the league to win 10+ games and not exceed their Pythagorean Expectation. Their Pythagorean Expectation was 10.86 wins, good for 7th in the NFL.

My only tiny concern with them is that they regress, that their miss the players they lost more than expected, that the Schaub/Kubiak duo reverts to old habits of losing, or that Schaub and/or Johnson get hurt. However, my money is on Schaub having a strong year, winning 12 games, quarterbacking one of the most complete teams in the NFL heading into the playoffs, getting franchise tagged and getting an extension on par with the Eli Mannings or the Ben Roethlisbergers or the Philip Rivers of the world in the offseason.

Schedule wise, things actually look pretty easy. The AFC is the significantly weaker conference and they may play in the weakest division in the league aside from them. They went 4-2 in the division last year, 3-0 before the Schaub injury and could easily go 5-1 or so this year. Outside of the division, they play host to Miami, Green Bay, Baltimore, Jacksonville, and Minnesota. 3 of those games are incredibly easy and I think they can give both Green Bay and Baltimore runs for their money in Houston. 4-1 in those games seems right, putting them at 9-2 in the 11 games I’ve mentioned so far.

Their other 5 games send them to Denver, New York to play the Jets, Chicago, Detroit, and New England. That New England game is going to be very tough as the Patriots almost never lose at home, but they’re better than the other 4 teams so they should be able to get at least the 3-2 needed to round their record out at 12-4.

Projection: 12-4 1st in AFC South

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