When the Texans went 12-4 in 2012, they did it on the strength of a 5-0 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, an easy schedule, and a +12 turnover margin, powered by a 64.10% fumble recovery rate, so it was predictable that the Texans would regress, even with Brian Cushing coming back from injury. That being said, I don’t think anyone saw this coming as the Texans lost their last 14 games to finish 2-14 and will have the 1st overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Fortunately for the Texans, they’re in a much better position than most teams that get the #1 pick. They were competitive in almost every game this season, up until Gary Kubiak was fired after week 14, as the Texans had a 2-9 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. That includes losses by 3 points or fewer against eventual playoff teams in Indianapolis, New England, Kansas City and an eventual 10-win Arizona team. That was in spite of a -20 turnover margin, in part because of a 44.44% fumble recovery margin.
The Texans’ defense actually played very well this season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a mere 69.40% rate, despite losing two starters (Brian Cushing and Danieal Manning) for the season fairly early in the year. The offense’s ineptitude and tendency to turn the ball over and allow defensive touchdowns made them look worse than they were. The Texans have a golden opportunity to take a franchise quarterback at the top of the draft, which will go a long way towards helping the offense, clearly their weaker side of the ball. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they followed in the footsteps of the Colts and Chiefs and became the 3rd straight team to make the playoffs the year after getting the #1 pick. The Texans are in talks as we speak to hire hot head coaching candidate Bill O’Brien.
This one is pretty straight forward. The Texans can save 4 million in cap space (not to mention a ton of cash) by cutting Matt Schaub ahead of his 1 million dollar roster bonus in March, while Case Keenum as the look of a decent backup long-term at best. He did some nice things in his first few starts, but eventually proved why he went undrafted in the first place. TJ Yates, meanwhile, had a small cameo in mop-up duty for Schaub, completing 15 of 22 for 113 yards and 2 interceptions, and was never seen again, despite the team having nothing to lose by playing him. That doesn’t bode well for the future of one of the most unlikely men in NFL history to have won a playoff game. Teams that feel they need a quarterback picking #1 almost always take one so expect Teddy Bridgewater, or whoever is the top quarterback come draft time, to be a Texan in 2013.
This somewhat depends on what scheme they run in 2014, but if they stick with a 3-4 they need more rush linebacker help and either way they desperately need edge rusher help. Despite having JJ Watt in front of them tying up blockers, Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus graded out dead last among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Mercilus looks like a bust of a 2012 1st round pick (though it’s too early to make that claim definitely), while Reed would probably be best in a non-rush linebacker position, either playing outside linebacker in a 4-3 or inside linebacker in a 3-4, which are both also needs. In a 4-3, Mercilus will probably still be a starter and given another chance at his natural position of 4-3 end and Watt would probably line up outside in base sets, but they’d need someone to rush the passer from the edge on passing downs, as Watt would almost definitely move inside.
You can change this to middle linebacker/outside linebacker if the Texans go to a 4-3. Brian Cushing is their only proven non-rush linebacker and he’s suffered serious leg injuries in back-to-back seasons. Brooks Reed is another option if they bring in a strong edge rusher, but he’s unproven and might only be a two-down player as he’s kind of shaky in coverage. Daryl Sharpton and Joe Mays manned middle linebacker for the most part this season with Cushing gone and both were mediocre at best. They’re free agents anyway this off-season.
One of the positives of this season for the Texans has been the emergence of Brandon Brooks at right guard, as the 2012 3rd round pick had a very strong season. They need help at left guard though. Wade Smith is a free agent this off-season and he’s a declining player heading into his age 33 season. With Bill O’Brien likely to implement a power blocking scheme, Smith is highly unlikely to be back.
Along with left guard, right tackle was a big problem position for the Texans. Derek Newton was one of the worst starting offensive tackles in the league, as only 5 eligible offensive tackle graded out worse than him this season on Pro Football Focus. It’s time to give up on the 2011 7th round pick as a legitimate starter. 2013 3rd round pick Brennan Williams is an option, but he missed the entirety of his rookie year with injury and has a history of leg problems dating back to his time in college. The new coaching staff will probably want their own guy there.
Antonio Smith has been one of the best pass rushing 5-technique defensive ends over the past 3 years under Wade Phillips, but his future is up in the air going into free agency with the Texans’ coaching staff for 2014 yet to be decided. It doesn’t help that Smith will be in his age 33 season in 2014. If Smith isn’t back with the Texans, they’ll need to replace him. 2012 4th round pick Jared Crick has been decent in limited action thus far in his career and could be an option, but I doubt they’d want him to be their only starting option going in 2014.
Owen Daniels will be owed 4.5 million in an age 32 contract year coming off of a broken leg so he could easily be cut. The duo of Garrett Graham and rookie Ryan Griffin was fine at tight end this season, but Graham too is a free agent and the new coaching staff might want to add a tight end who is more of a power blocker than the finesse tight ends Kubiak liked.
Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are fine as the starting cornerbacks, but they really need to add a better 3rd cornerback. They can’t keep trotting out Brice McCain to play half the snaps after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ dead last ranked cornerback in 2013, despite his part-time role. He allowed opponents to have a 105.1 QB rating when throwing on him and was by far dead last in coverage grade by a cornerback.
If the Texans stick with a 3-4, they might want a more traditional nose tackle with Earl Mitchell set to hit free agency. If they move to a 4-3, defensive tackle becomes a bigger need. JJ Watt would probably play outside in base packages and move inside on passing downs so they’d need to find two new base defensive tackles. Mitchell could be one of them, if brought back, and Jared Crick could be another, but it’s still an area they could try to add more talent.
Key Free Agents
DE Antonio Smith
Antonio Smith really emerged as a great pass rushing 5-technique for the Texans under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Undersized at 6-3 277, Smith never really found a niche in the NFL before Phillips, but in the past 3 seasons he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked pass rushing 3-4 defensive end twice (2011 and 2012) and 5th ranked once (2013). He may just be a system guy though and who knows where Phillips is going to be in 2014. He’s also heading into his age 33 season. He could be back with the Texans, but that would depends heavily on what scheme they implement and wherever he signs, he’s not getting a long-term deal or a lot of money.
RB Ben Tate
Ben Tate was drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 by the Texans to be the starting running back, but broke his ankle in the pre-season, which opened the door for Arian Foster to emerge as one of the best running backs in the NFL. Ben Tate impressed as his backup, averaging 5.09 YPC on 240 carries in 2011 and 2012 and got his shot to be the starter in 2013 when Arian Foster went down with a season ending back injury.
Unfortunately, the injury bug reared its head for Tate again as he broke several ribs. He only missed 2 games, the final two of the season, but was definitely hampered by the injury as he averaged just 4.3 yards per carry on 181 carries. Tate clearly has the talent and toughness to be a lead back in the NFL, but he’s also missed 24 of 64 possible regular season games in his career thus far and is coming off of an injury plagued season. The running back position is becoming devalued because of their short career spans and injury proneness, so Tate could have a hard time finding a ton of guaranteed money on the open market on a deal that will take him into his late 20s. He’ll already be in his age 26 season in 2014.
G Wade Smith
There was a time when Wade Smith was one of the best guards in the NFL, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked guard for the 2010 season, but it’s been downhill since there, culminating in arguably the worst season of his Houston tenure in 2013, as he ranked 60th out of 81 eligible guards. Age is likely the culprit and going into his age 33 season, with Gary Kubiak and his zone blocking scheme gone, Smith is highly unlikely to be back as a starter in Houston this off-season and he may have a hard time finding starting work anywhere. He’ll likely be looking at one year deals.
DT Earl Mitchell
Undersized for the nose tackle position at 6-2 296, Mitchell, a 2010 3rd round pick, has been a favorite of Wade Phillips since he arrived as the defensive coordinator before the 2011 season. That makes sense as Phillips prefers smaller than traditional nose tackles, having success with Jay Ratliff in Dallas in his previous stop. Mitchell has been a starter ever since, playing about half the snaps, but he’s been pretty mediocre. I’d like to see him get a shot at his natural position in a 4-3 this season. He’ll probably be looking at heavy rotational work and a short-term deal worth a couple of million dollars.
FB Greg Jones
Greg Jones was one of the top fullbacks in the game in Jacksonville, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked fullback in 2010 and 3rd ranked in 2011, but he’s not quite the same player he once was. Still, he had a solid year and was a welcome addition to Houston’s running game, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked fullback and proving to be a significant upgrade as a point of attack blocker over his predecessor James Casey. That being said, the market for soon-to-be 33 year old fullbacks is not very big so he’ll probably be looking at one year deals again this off-season.
TE Garrett Graham
Former head coach Gary Kubiak loved his tight ends and took Garrett Graham in the 4th round in 2010. Graham had to work his way up with a bunch of tight ends above him, but managed to get all the way up to the 1st string in 2013 after starter Owen Daniels went on injured reserve. He didn’t do a ton with the opportunity, catching 49 passes for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns in 14 games, including 11 starts, averaging 1.30 yards per route run, in the bottom third of the league. He’s a decent blocker even at 6-3 243 so he’ll probably be at the top of lists for teams who need #2 tight ends this off-season and it wouldn’t shock me at all if he was back in Houston.
Cap Casualty Candidates
QB Matt Schaub
Matt Schaub did his best Jake Delhomme impression this season, completing 61.2% of his passes for an average of 6.45 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, getting benched on several occasions for 2012 undrafted free agent Case Keenum. Fortunately, the Texans structured the 4-year extension they gave him at the start of the 2012 season well and can cut him this off-season, save 4 million on the cap, and have his contract completely off the books for the future. He’s as good as gone.
TE Owen Daniels
Owen Daniels was a favorite of Gary Kubiak, but Kubiak is gone now. Daniels is heading into an age 32 contract year coming off of a broken leg and the Texans can save 4.5 million in cash and off the cap by cutting him.
S Danieal Manning
Manning is in almost the exact same situation as Daniels. He’ll be in an age 32 contract year in 2014, coming off of a broken leg and the Texans can save 4.5 million in cash off the cap by cutting him. He’s been a solid starter in the past, but the Texans seem to be going into a complete rebuild so he could be gone. Shiloh Keo and DJ Swearinger are youngsters who were decent this season.
CB Brice McCain
The Texans would only save 850K in cap space by cutting McCain, but they’d save 3 million in cash over the next 2 seasons and it’s more about getting him off their roster. He was atrocious in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ lowest ranked cornerback despite a part-time role.