Houston Texans 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans went from 12-4 in 2012 to 2-14 in 2013. What happened? Well, for one, the Texans weren’t as good as that 12-4 record suggested in 2012. They finished 11th in DVOA in 2012, as they faced a schedule that was 26th in the NFL in terms of DVOA. They went 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had about 10.2 Pythagorean Wins. They also finished 3rd in the NFL recovering 64.10% of fumbles, which led to their +12 turnover margin, which was powered by a +10 fumble margin.

In 2013, all of those unsustainable things that helped them in 2012 went the opposite way. Their schedule was 10th in the NFL in terms of DVOA. They went 2-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less. As bad as their record was last season, they only lost 5 games by more than a touchdown and two of those came late in the season in their final 3 games after Gary Kubiak was fired and the team essentially quit. They had about 4.2 Pythagorean wins. On top of that they allowed 8 touchdowns off of returns, as opposed to 2 touchdowns off of returns for that. If we zeroed that out, they would have scored 262 points and allowed 372 points, which is a Pythagorean Expectation of 4.9 wins.

Speaking of turnovers, their turnover margin went to a league worst -20, as a result of a 44.44% fumble recovery rate, 26th in the NFL. They also picked off an absurd low amount of passes, 7, and they threw 22 interceptions. Turnover margins tend to be really inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis though, as we’re talking about events that happen on such a small percentage of snaps. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0.

Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well.

The Texans’ defense did fine, except for their inability to force turnovers, which should turn around this season. They played well in spite of losing Brian Cushing to a significant injury for the 2nd straight season. They ranked 11th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.40% rate. However, the offense was the issue, as they ranked 25th, moving the chains at a 66.87% rate. They still finished 21st in differential at -2.53%, which goes back to the whole the Texans were better than their record last season thing, but the offense was clearly the issue last season.

Matt Schaub’s performance last season was clearly the biggest difference between 2012 and 2013 for the Texans. Schaub had a QB rating in the 90s in every season from 2008-2012, but struggled mightily in 2013, completing 61.2% of his passes for an average of 6.45 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 10 games, a QB rating of 73.0. He was Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible. The Texans’ other quarterbacks, TJ Yates and Case Keenum were not much better, as Texan quarterbacks combined to complete 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions on the season, a QB rating of 74.0.

Because of how bad they were last season, the Texans had the #1 pick in the draft and a golden opportunity to draft a quarterback #1 and potentially add a legitimate franchise quarterback into a strong supporting cast and get the team back to where it once was. Prior to this past draft, a quarterback was the #1 pick in 12 of the previous 16 drafts and only once did a team not draft a quarterback #1 and then draft a quarterback later, meaning only one team (the 2008 Miami Dolphins) felt they needed a quarterback and opted not to take one #1 overall.

The Texans made that two teams this year, taking Jadeveon Clowney #1 and waiting until the 4th round to grab Tom Savage. Clowney won’t help their miserable offense and he won’t elevate this team back into Super Bowl contender realm, but it’s hard to argue against taking a supposedly once in a generation player over a quarterback class that no one really seemed sold on. Clowney will line up at a position of need defensively and, along with the return of Brian Cushing, make their solid defense even better. Their offense could still turn the ball over quite a bit, but their defense should force way more than the 11 takeaways they forced last season, which will even out their turnover margin.

Tom Savage will probably sit most of, if not all of his rookie year behind veteran addition Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick isn’t great. He’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus every season since 2008 (he didn’t play in 2007), including 34th out of 37 eligible in 2008 and 35th out of 38 eligible in 2012. However, he’s actually coming off arguably the best season of his career, as he graded out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus (21st out of 42 eligible). He completed 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.01 YPA (both career highs), 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and also rushed for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns on 43 carries (5.23 YPA). He helped lead the Titans to a 71.66% rate of moving the chains (Jake Locker also started some games before he got hurt), which was 17th in the NFL.

Fitzpatrick might not be as good as he was last season and he could really struggle. In fact, he could be one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this season. However, he should be an upgrade over what the Texans had at quarterback last season. He also has a fairly solid offensive supporting cast. The Texans are going to try to sneak into the playoffs on the strength of a strong running game and defense and limit Fitzpatrick’s impact on the game. They also have a new head coach, which should help them.

What should also help them out is their schedule as they play a last place schedule in arguably the worst division in football. They’ll get 4 games against the Titans and Jaguars. They’ll play Oakland and Buffalo. They also get the NFC East and the AFC North, so they’ll face the Browns, Redskins, Giants, and Cowboys. They play just 4 games against 2013 playoff teams (Colts twice, Bengals, and Eagles). That might not be enough for them to sneak into the playoffs, but they’ll be significantly improved in terms of win total from last season. Teams that have big decline in win total usually rebound by about half of that on average the following season. That would put the Texans at 7-9.

Grade: C

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Texans will be leaning on their running game, something they’ll have the luxury to do because their defense is strong. One thing that could help them is the return of Arian Foster from injury. Foster was off to a strong start to last season, rushing for 542 yards and a touchdown on 121 carries, an average of 4.48 YPC. He finished 23rd among eligible running backs last season despite playing just 334 snaps, before going down with injury.

Foster was breaking down before the injury though, largely as a result of the 1115 touches he had in the previous 3 seasons. His YPC went down from 4.94 YPC in 2010 to 4.40 YPC in 2011 to 4.06 YPC in 2012. Even his yards per catch was low in 2012, as he averaged 5.42 yards per catch, showing a significant lack of burst and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus. Now coming off of a significant back injury and going into his age 28 season, he could continue breaking down. At the same time, he could also continue playing well, like he was last season, now that’s he’s had some time to rest and rebuild. We’ll see.

Ben Tate, Foster’s long-time backup, is now gone, signing as the starter in Cleveland. The Texans made a shrewd move signing Andre Brown from the Giants to be Foster’s backup and a fallback option if Foster gets hurt again. Brown has his share of issues. He’s bounced around the league and has a massive injury history so he’s played 21 games since being drafted in the 4th round in 2009 and has 246 touches going into his age 28 season. He also averaged just 3.54 yards per carry last season and has a career average of 4.09 yards per carry.

That being said, he’s strong on passing downs as both a protector and a pass catcher and he’s a bruising north-south back who always picks up some sort of yardage and who is great around the goal line. He doesn’t have much explosiveness, but he averaged 5.27 yards per carry in 2012. He’ll be solid as Foster’s backup. If both Brown and Foster go down with injury, either Dennis Johnson, a 2013 undrafted free agent who rushed for 183 yards and a touchdown on 49 carries as a rookie (3.73 YPC), or 6th round rookie Alfred Blue will get a significant role.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Texans have a strong offensive line that helps both their running game and their passing game. Blindside protector Duane Brown is one of the better offensive tackles in the game. Last year he was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive tackle in a “down” season. Brown was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked offensive tackle in 2012, 5th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, and 19th ranked offensive tackle in 2010. Even after last year, he’s still one of three offensive tackles (Andrew Whitworth and Joe Thomas) who has graded out in the top-22 in each of the past 4 seasons. The 2008 1st round pick has graded out above average in every season since 2009, after a rough rookie year.

Chris Myers is also one of the top centers in the game. Myers has been a top-11 center on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2007, the only center in the game who can say that. He maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked center in 2011 and graded out 6th last season. He’s always been a better run blocker than pass protector, but he did struggle as a pass protector last season, grading out 30th out of 35 eligible in that aspect, as opposed to 2nd as a run blocker. He’s going into his age 33 season, but interior offensive linemen can often play well even in their mid-30s. His declining pass protection is a concern, but he should still have a solid season.

While Myers and Brown are established at their respective positions, the Texans also had a player break out last season. That player was right guard Brandon Brooks, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard last season, in his 2nd year in the league after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012. He was only alright as a pass blocker, but he excelled as a run blocker at 6-5 343, grading out 3rd at his position in that aspect. He’s still a one-year wonder, after playing 111 nondescript snaps as a rookie, but he could easily have another strong year this year, in his 3rd year in the league.

While the trio of Brown, Myers, and Brooks are very solid starters, the Texans had serious problems at left guard and right tackle last season. They might have fixed the left guard issue by drafting Xavier Su’a-Filo in the 2nd round of the draft, 33rd overall. He’ll be a day 1 starter and he should be an upgrade, even as a rookie, over Wade Smith, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked guard out of 81 eligible last season. He remains unsigned on the open market going into his age 33 season.

The Texans didn’t do anything about the right tackle position, where Derek Newton was Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. He wasn’t much better in 2012, when he was 67th out of 80 eligible. The Texans are hoping that 2013 3rd round pick Brennan Williams can push Newton for the starting job at some point this season, but Williams has had serious issues with his knee since being drafted. He had microfracture surgery that cost him his entire rookie year and the Texans still don’t know if he’ll be ready for the start of Training Camp. Missing Training Camp obviously would severely hurt his chances of winning the starting job. He also missed most of his senior season at North Carolina with a shoulder injury, so he hasn’t played much football over the past 2 seasons and seems extremely injury prone. It’s a solid offensive line overall, but there are some issues.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Texans also had one of the top pass catchers in the NFL last season in Andre Johnson. Despite Houston’s issues at quarterback last season, Johnson still caught 109 passes for 1407 yards and 5 touchdowns and ranked 7th in the NFL in receiving yardage. He did that on 613 routes run and averaged 2.30 yards per route run, 9th in the NFL. He only caught 109 of his league leading 176 targets (61.9%), but that was still a significantly higher percentage than the 58.6% of passes Texan quarterbacks completed in general. Texan quarterbacks also averaged 7.99 YPA when throwing to Johnson, as opposed to 6.61 YPA in general.

The issue is that Johnson is holding out because he wants to be traded elsewhere. He’s apparently displeased that the Texans waited until the 4th round of the draft to take a quarterback. He’s missing valuable time with a new quarterback and head coach and he risks getting out of shape if his holdout goes into Training Camp. He’s also going into his age 33 season, which makes this holdout even more concerning.

Johnson’s 12,661 yards are 17th all-time and he could easily be Hall-of-Fame bound when it’s all said and done. However, 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 isn’t quite there right now, but he’s at the point in his career where is age is becoming a concern.

It’s why he’s unlikely to be traded. The Texans aren’t going to get much compensation for him because he’s owed 11 million, 11.5 million, and 12 million in 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively and he’s pretty much year-to-year in terms of when his abilities could fall off a cliff. He could easily be a one-year investment at those non-guaranteed salaries so someone isn’t going to give the Texans much for him. On top of that, there really isn’t a wide receiver needy contender that has the cap space to add Johnson. Unless he holds out into the season, it doesn’t really make much sense for the Texans to trade Johnson for minimal compensation.

Any production Johnson loses this season as a result of his holdout and his age should be the gain of 2nd year wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was the 26th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Hopkins is working as the #1 receiver in Johnson’s absence, becoming better acquainted with the new offensive system and the new quarterback. Hopkins had a decent rookie year, catching 52 passes for 802 yards and 2 touchdowns on 629 routes run, an average of 1.29 yards per route run. He caught 52 of 91 targets, 57.1%.

His yards per route run was below league average, his completion percentage when thrown to was below the team average, and he graded slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, but he was still more productive than the average 1st round pick receiver as a rookie. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 lines respectively as rookies, both inferior to Hopkins’ rookie year. Wide receivers usually take a year or so to get adjusted to the NFL and Hopkins could make a leap in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. Reports on him in OTAs and minicamp have been very promising.

The Texans’ depth at wide receiver is very underwhelming, which is a concern if Johnson’s holdout extends into the season or he gets traded. However, as long as Johnson is out there, their lack of depth at the position isn’t a huge concern. They rarely ran 3-wide receiver sets under Gary Kubiak and they’re unlikely to run many more now under new head coach Bill O’Brien, in favor of using more two-tight end sets.

Keshawn Martin struggled on 385 snaps as the 3rd wide receiver last season and on 268 snaps in that role as a 4th round rookie in 2012. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 99th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade last season and he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade in 2012 if he had been eligible, despite playing just 268 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out lower, both overall and in pure pass catching grade.

DeVier Posey, meanwhile, has struggled on 413 snaps combined over the past 2 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012. Alan Bonner is a 2013 6th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Mike Thomas is the veteran option. He was out of the league last year, after struggling on 463 snaps in 2012, being traded from Jacksonville to Detroit mid-season. His composite grade would have been 5th worst among eligible wide receivers that season. He’s been better in the past, as the 2009 4th round pick caught 66 passes for 820 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2010, but he hasn’t graded out above average since that season. He’s reportedly impressing in off-season practice and could be the favorite for the #3 wide receiver job, but I don’t expect much from him.

As I mentioned, the Texans will use a lot of two-tight end sets. With the injury prone and aging Owen Daniels gone, Garrett Graham will once again be the #1 tight end. He rose to this role last season after Daniels went down for the season week 5. Graham was re-signed to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal this off-season, which is weird because he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible last season on 786 snaps. He struggled as both a pass and run blocker and caught 49 passes for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns on 421 routes run, an average of 1.29 yards per route run.

He was better on 646 snaps in 2012, grading out above average, though the 2010 4th round pick played a combined 30 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league. He should be a slightly below average starter in the biggest role of his career this season. The 2nd tight end role will come down to either Ryan Griffin or CJ Fiedorowicz, both of whom are better blockers than Graham. Griffin was unimpressive on 368 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2013 and Fiedorowicz is a 3rd round rookie out of Iowa. The tight end position is unimpressive considering how much they will rely on two-tight end sets, but it’s better than their depth at wide receiver. After Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, there are issues in the receiving corps and the former is holding out.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Texans’ defense was, by far, their best unit last season. Hands down, the #1 reason for that was JJ Watt. Watt didn’t get the attention he got in 2012 with 21 sacks on a 12 win team, when he won Defensive Player of the Year in his 2nd year in the league, but he arguably had a better season, even though he only had 11 sacks on a 2 win team. He’s the most dominant player in the NFL at any position and that includes Peyton Manning. Manning is obviously more valuable because of the position he plays, but no one dominates their position like Watt does.

Watt didn’t come close to matching the 21 sacks he had in 2012 nor the 15 batted passes, but he had 36 quarterback hits and 38 quarterback hurries (on 556 snaps), as opposed to 25 hits and 30 hurries the year before (on 610 snaps). Those 36 quarterback hits were by far best in the NFL. Only Robert Quinn with 23 even came close. As a result, Watt had a pass rush rate of 15.3% which not only blew out of the water the next best pass rush rate by an interior defensive lineman (Gerald McCoy with 13.5%), but it blew the 12.5% pass rush rate he had in 2012 out of the water as well. Sacking the quarterback is great, but getting to the quarterback consistently, getting in his head and hurrying throws is even better.

Watt didn’t match his absurd 17.1% run stop rate from 2013, but his 13.7% run stop rate was 2nd in the NFL among eligible players (percentage of run snaps in which a player records a tackle within 4 yards of the original line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down). Watt also actually had a higher run grade on Pro Football Focus in 2013 than in 2012 and a higher grade overall. He didn’t post the flashy numbers he did in 2012 or play on a good team like in 2012, but the argument can still be made that he played as well or better.

I argued he should have been Defensive Player of the Year again, even though he had no shot of actually winning. The voters hate voting for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, as the only player to ever win it twice in a row was Lawrence Taylor and he did it in a strike shortened season. It wasn’t going to happen for the first time in a season of regular length with a guy who played on a 2-14 team and didn’t come close to matching his sack total from the year before.

Watt was once again both Pro Football Focus’ highest rated 3-4 defensive end and Pro Football Focus’ highest rated player at any position, doing so for the 2nd straight season. No defensive player in the NFL had a bigger margin between the player who was in 2nd place behind him at his position on Pro Football Focus than Watt in terms of raw numbers and only Quinn had a bigger margin in terms of percentage. Watt alone elevated this defense to one of the better defenses in the NFL and he could easily do so again this season.

The Texans did lose veteran Antonio Smith this off-season, going into his age 33 season. Even though he was aging, he still was a big contributor last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 3-4 defensive end. He struggled against the run, as he usually does, but he ranked 5th at his position in pass rush grade. It’ll be hard for the Texans to replace him, especially since it doesn’t look like they have anyone close to as good as him on their current roster.

Jared Crick is one option. The 2012 4th round pick might have been drafted with this situation in mind, but, after flashing on 220 snaps as a rookie, he struggled on 277 snaps this season. Tim Jamison has been an impressive career backup since going undrafted in 2009, but he’s only played 741 snaps in 5 seasons. Ricardo Matthews is a veteran option coming over as a free agent from Indianapolis, but the 2010 7th round pick has graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including last year, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 45 eligible on 437 snaps, with no one grading out worse and playing fewer snaps.

The Texans also lost starting nose tackle Earl Mitchell though that isn’t as big of a deal because it’s only a two-down role and because Mitchell graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. The Texans drafted Louis Nix in the 3rd round. He fell in the draft because of injuries, but he practiced in minicamp. The 6-2 331 pounder should be able to play alright in a two-down nose tackle role in the middle of their defense, even as a rookie.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

While the Texans did lose Antonio Smith, Jadeveon Clowney should be able to replace his pass rush production, even if he does play a different position. Clowney was a much needed addition because their outside linebackers sucked last year, particularly in rushing the passer off the edge. Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus played virtually every snap, playing 1038 and 970 respectively out of 1060 possible snaps. They ranked 2nd and 6th respective among 3-4 outside linebackers in snaps played, but they were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst and worst ranked 3-4 outside linebackers respectively. Both played the run alright, but struggled mightily rushing the passer. Clowney will instantly be, by far, their best edge rusher.

Whitney Mercilus will remain in the starting lineup, though he could play fewer snaps, and the Texans will be hoping that the 2012 1st round pick can finally breakout in his 3rd year in the league. He wasn’t much better as a rookie, grading out 28th out of 34 eligible that season. Brooks Reed, meanwhile, could be moving to middle linebacker, at least in base packages. He’s not much of a pass rusher, grading out worst at his position in that aspect last season, but he graded out above average in run grade. This has been a trend throughout his career as he’s graded out below average as a pass rusher and above average as a run stopper in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. He could be a better fit inside.

Another reason why Reed could be moving to middle linebacker is because they have a massive need at the position. Daryl Sharpton graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season, which isn’t terrible, but now he’s gone, as is Joe Mays, who was a two-down base package middle linebacker last season. Brian Cushing is back from injury (more on that later), but they still need someone to line up next to him. That’s where Reed would come in. He’d only have to play two-downs because safety DJ Swearinger comes down towards the line of scrimmage and essentially plays a coverage linebacker role in sub packages. That would allow Reed to still provide depth at edge rusher in sub packages if needed.

Cushing, meanwhile, is a dominant middle linebacker when he’s on the field. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as a rookie in 2009, after going in the first round, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 2011, he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker. However, he missed 4 games with suspension in 2010, which put him behind the 8-ball and caused him to grade out below average.

That’s the only season in 5 years in the league in which he graded out below average, but he’s missed 20 games over the past 2 seasons combined with leg injuries, which is a serious concern. He should be ready to go for this season, but he’s very injury prone and, even only going into his age 27 season, there are no guarantees that he can be as good as he once was, even if he stays on the field. It’s still an improved linebacking corps though with Cushing back, Clowney coming in, Reed moving over, and Mercilus going into his 3rd year in the league.

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, DJ Swearinger will play linebacker in sub packages, as the 5-10 217 pounder played 66.3% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage last season, 9th among eligible safeties. He’ll continue in that role, playing safety in base packages and linebacker in sub packages. The 2013 2nd round pick struggled as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked safety out of 86 eligible, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league.

Chris Clemons will play every down at the other safety spot. Clemons was a steal on a 2-year, 2.7 million dollar deal, coming over from Miami. Clemons was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety last season and 25th ranked safety in 2012 in two years as a starter with the Dolphins, his only two years as a starter. The Texans didn’t have anyone like him at safety last season, where Danieal Manning and Ed Reed started the season as starters, before the former got hurt and the latter got cut. Then Swearinger and Shiloh Keo took over as the starters and struggled, with Eddie Pleasant playing 155 snaps as the 3rd safety.

That 3rd safety job is up for grabs. Pleasant, a 2012 undrafted free agent who played 3 snaps as a rookie in 2012, could keep the job after flashing on those 155 snaps in 2013. Shiloh Keo played 793 snaps last season and could keep a significant role, even after struggling last season. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out below average in every season he’s been in the league and only played a combined 76 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league combined.

Most likely, it’ll be veteran free agent addition Kendrick Lewis, who the Texans signed from Kansas City. Lewis has been a starter for 4 years in Kansas City, since going in the 5th round in 2010, grading out above average in 2 of them, though he’s graded out below average in the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same recently thanks to injuries. He’s missed 11 games in 4 seasons. However, he should be a better fit as the 3rd safety in Houston, provided he beats out the competition.

Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph will continue to be the starters at cornerback. Jackson, a 2010 1st round pick, seemingly had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback and allowing 46.8% completion, after struggling in the first 2 seasons of his career. However, Jackson regressed in 2013, grading out below average. He’s now graded out below average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league and that 2012 campaign looks like a fluke and makes him look like a one-year wonder. He’s still a talented cornerback though and could have a bounce back year this year. It would obviously benefit him as he’s in his contract year and set to hit free agency next off-season.

Johnathan Joseph is a veteran working on a 5-year, 48.75 million dollar deal, but he hasn’t been worth that kind of money since his first year on the contract in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback. However, even though he hasn’t been as good as that season or as good as 2009, when he was with the Bengals and ranked 6th among cornerbacks, he’s still graded out above average in every season since 2008. He was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked cornerback last season. He’s now going into his age 30 season so his best days might be behind him, but he should still be an asset for the Texans.

The 3rd cornerback last season was Brice McCain, but he was awful, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst cornerback on 633 snaps. The Texans cut him this off-season and his absence should be addition by subtraction. The issue is the Texans don’t really have a proven replacement. Brandon Harris will likely be asked to step up, going into the 4th season of his career and the contract year of his rookie deal, after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. He hasn’t really lived up to his draft status, only playing 415 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. We’ll see how he does this season. There are issues in this secondary, but there’s also talent and they should be improved over last season. It’s a solid defense overall.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Texans’ offense won’t be significantly improved this season because they didn’t seriously upgrade the quarterback position, but their defense should still be solid despite the loss of Antonio Smith, thanks to the addition of Jadeveon Clowney and the return of Brian Cushing from injury. They aren’t significantly more talented this season than last season, but they were much better than their record suggested last year. They just got screwed by close losses (2-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less), fumbles (44.44% fumble recovery), turnovers (-20 turnover margin), and return touchdowns (-6 return touchdowns), things that all tend to be very inconsistent.

They finished last season 21st in rate of moving the chains differential and they could easily be a middle of the pack team this season, relying on their running game, a strong offensive line, and a solid defense to win games. They’ll have an easy schedule so there will be opportunities for them to win games and even make noise in the playoff race. I think they need to significantly upgrade the quarterback position before that happens, but they’ll be in the mix. I’ll have an official season prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 9-7 2nd in AFC South

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