A lot of people will point to the Texans as a classic case of peaking too early. After an 11-1 start, they finished 1-3 and dropped all the way down the 3rd seed. After a less than impressive win over the Bengals in the post-season, they lost convincingly in New England to the Patriots. However, their problems started well before the final 4 weeks of the regular season and the post-season. Their schedule just got harder.
From week 5 on, they beat the Jets by 6, 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.
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, blowing out three bad teams (Miami, Jacksonville, Tennessee) and beating the Broncos in Denver convincingly.
In 2011, when their defense was fully healthy, they were the NFL’s 4th best scoring defense and that was before JJ Watt truly broke out. They’ve had a lot of injury issues over the past two years, with Matt Schaub going down late in 2011 and Cushing going down this year, but if they can keep their key players healthy, I see no reason why they can’t win a Super Bowl.
Cushing’s injury really showed their lack of depth at middle linebacker after they traded DeMeco Ryans this off-season. The Ryans trade was smart because he never really fit their 3-4 scheme and he wasn’t worth what they were paying him, but they never replaced him and that came back to bite them. There was way too much of Bradie James, Tim Dobbins, Daryl Sharpton, and Barrett Ruud at middle linebacker for the Texans. They need to add a new starter at middle linebacker next to Cushing, who should be back as a starter next season.
The Texans have been trotting Kevin Walter out opposite Andre Johnson for too long. His last two seasons have been his worst since 2006 and at age 32 in 2013, he’s not getting any better. Andre Johnson, meanwhile, is coming off a huge season, but he’s their only good wide receiver and he’s also 32 in 2013. It would obviously be a bad thing if he declined, and that could happen sometime in the next few years, so the Texans need to start preparing a successor.
They used a 3rd round pick on DeVier Posey and a 4th round pick on Keyshawn Martin last year, but they need a blue chip prospect in the mix. Posey might miss the whole 2013 season after tearing his Achilles and Martin’s only contributions to this team were as a return man. Owner Bob McNair recently mentioned that the Texans need to add another playmaker at wide receiver and he’s right. Expect them to target receivers early in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Texans lost two starting offensive linemen last offseason, at right guard and right tackle. They tried to fill the holes by rotating guys, but the duo of Ryan Harris and Derek Newton really struggled at right tackle. They should add a traditional starter. Harris was the better of the two and might be an option in 2013, but they could also use an early pick on a right tackle to attempt to solve the problem long term. Harris is a free agent this off-season anyway.
Earl Mitchell and Shaun Cody split snaps at nose tackle this year, but neither really played well. Cody is a free agent anyway. Wade Phillips had a lot of success with an interior pass rusher like Jay Ratliff when he was the Head Coach in Dallas. He might want to try to find his Ratliff in Houston. They definitely could use an upgrade at the position.
They tried the same thing at right guard that they tried at right tackle. It wasn’t as bad as it was at right tackle, as they used Antoine Caldwell, Ben Jones, and Brandon Brooks. They struggled, but Brooks and Jones were 3rd and 4th round picks last year so either of them could step up as starters at the position long term. It wouldn’t hurt to bring someone else in, however. Caldwell is a free agent this off-season.
Glover Quin played well this season, but he’s a free agent. If he’s not retained, he should be replaced.
The Texans got good pass rush this year, but most of that was JJ Watt and the rest of the defensive line. Rush linebackers Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin, and Whitney Mercilus were all among the worst pass rushing linebackers in the NFL. Purely as pass rushers, Reed, Mercilus, and Barwin were 26th, 29th, and 33rd out of 34 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers this season. Barwin and Reed played well in 2011 and Mercilus was a 1st round pick rookie, so they could all improve in 2013, but Barwin is a free agent and if he’s not retained, they’ll need another pass rusher to rotate with and push the other two.
Fullback James Casey is a free agent and will need to be replaced if not brought back.
Donnie Jones was among the best punters in the NFL this season, but he’s also a free agent.