Houston Texans 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans were an average team in 2014, rebounding from a 2013 season that saw them go 2-14, largely because of a 2-9 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, a -20 turnover margin, a -6 return touchdown margin, and a 44.44% rate of recovering fumbles. Those types of things tend to be very inconsistent from year to year and the Texans flipped those in 2014, going 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, having a +12 turnover margin, having a +3 return touchdown margin, and recovering 55.81% of fumbles. As a result, they went 9-7, one game out of the post-season, and finished 19th in rate of moving the chains differential at -0.66%.

Their average performance in 2014 was the result of an above average defense that ranked 10th in rate of moving the chains allowed at 70.62% and a below average offense that ranked 22nd in rate of moving the chains at 69.96%. The Texans played 4 different quarterbacks in 2014. Ryan Fitzpatrick started the first 9 games of the season before getting benched for backup Ryan Mallett, who started the next 2 games, but then went down for the season with a torn pectoral. Fitzpatrick started the 3 games after that, but went down for the season early in that 3rd start with a broken leg, forcing 4th round rookie Tom Savage into action. By the end of the game, Savage had sustained a knee injury that caused him to miss the final 2 games of the season. That forced them to sign ex-Texan quarterback Case Keenum off of St. Louis’ practice squad to start the final 2 weeks of the season.

Fitzpatrick was easily the best of the bunch, even though he was the only one of the four to actually ever get benched. In games started and finished by Fitzpatrick, the Texans moved the chains at a 71.90% rate, as opposed to 66.06% in their other 5 games. If he had started all 16 games, there’s a good chance this team would have made the playoffs. In arguably the best season of his career, Fitzpatrick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback and completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.96 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, showing himself to be a great fit for first year head coach Bill O’Brien’s system. The rest of the team combined to complete 56.6% of their passes for an average of 5.65 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and all 3 other quarterbacks graded out below average. Fitzpatrick’s initial benching for the unproven Mallett in the middle of a playoff race was inexplicable and his season ending injury ultimately sealed their fate.

Continuing to show their best quarterback no respect, the Texans flipped Fitzpatrick to the Jets for a 7th round pick this off-season, even though he was only owed a very reasonable 3.25 million dollar salary in 2015. The Texans re-signed Ryan Mallett to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal this off-season and brought in Brian Hoyer from Cleveland on a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal, both of whom are worse than Fitzpatrick. He may be a career journeyman, but he’s had the best two seasons of his career in 2013 and 2014. He graded out below average in every season from 2008-2012, with Buffalo and Cincinnati, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, for the first two times he’s done that in his career. He may not be nearly as good in 2015 as he was in 2014 because he’s now going into his age 33 season coming off of a broken leg, but he was definitely worth bringing back. The Texans downgraded the quarterback position this off-season, which is never a good idea.

Hoyer and Mallett will compete for the starting job, with Tom Savage, who struggled mightily in limited action as a rookie, completing 10 of 19 for 127 yards and an interception, as the 3rd quarterback, assuming they decide to keep three. Hoyer is the most experienced of the two and the highest paid of the two, so he figures to be the week 1 starter, a hypothesis Texan beat writers have backed up. Hoyer had his moments in the first extended starting experience of his career in 2014, but ultimately proved to not be anything more than a solid backup caliber quarterback. He completed 55.3% of his passes for 7.59 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. The former undrafted free agent’s career numbers aren’t much different, as he’s completed 56.5% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions on 630 career attempts.

Mallett is less experienced, but I’d start him just because he’s younger (going into his age 27 season, as opposed to age 30 for Hoyer) and not as much of a proven failure as Hoyer. Mallett had 4 career pass attempts in 3 seasons as a 2011 3rd round pick before coming to Houston and lasted just 2 games in 2014 before going down for the season with a torn pectoral. He actually played one of his starts with that torn pectoral and, as you can imagine, it was a trainwreck, as he completed 21 of 45 for 189 yards and an interception. He was better in his other start, completing 20 of 30 for 211 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception, but he’s still completely unproven. Both figure to see starts this season and the quarterback position figures to be a position of major weakness as a result.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

If Ryan Fitzpatrick played well in the 11 games he started and finished, why didn’t the Texans have anything more than an average offense in those 11 games? Well, weirdly enough, the Texans actually didn’t run the ball that well last season. Arian Foster ran the ball well, rushing for 1246 yards and 8 touchdowns on 260 carries, an average of 4.79 yards per carry. However, because he missed 3 games with injury and because the Texans ran the ball with such regularity due to lack of trust in the passing game, backup Alfred Blue got 169 carries and turned them into just 528 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of 3.12 yards per carry. As a result, the Texans ranked 23rd in the NFL, rushing for 3.92 yards per carry. Despite that, the Texans ran the ball 551 times, most in the NFL (26 more than 2nd place Seattle), which hurt their offense.

Because they’re probably going to have worse quarterback play this season, they’ll have to be run heavy again, so they’ll have to hope that Arian Foster can stay healthy and handle 300-350 carries. Blue proved himself to be completely incompetent as a backup handling any sort of workload last season, grading out 43rd among 57 eligible running backs last season, despite seeing just 341 snaps. I don’t expect much better from him this season, considering he fell all the way to the 6th round in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the Texans didn’t do much to upgrade the backup running back position this off-season. The Texans should want him more in the 70-80 carry range. His only real competition for the backup job is Chris Polk, who was signed by the Texans after the Eagles let him go this off-season. The 2012 undrafted free agent has rushed for 270 yards and 7 touchdowns on 57 carries in his career. He might be better, but he’s, at the very least, unproven.

Keeping Foster healthy is going to be easier said than done, especially if he’s seeing 20 carries and 23 touches per game again, which is what he saw last season. The 2009 undrafted free agent has had an impressive career, rushing for 6309 yards and 53 touchdowns on 1391 carries (4.54 YPC), while adding another 2041 yards and 12 touchdowns on 227 catches through the air, but he’s only twice played more than 13 games and he’s missed 11 games with injuries over the past 2 seasons. He’s consistently good, grading out above average in 5 of 6 seasons (including 12th in 2014), but he’s going into his age 29 season so he could decline a little bit this season in terms of effectiveness and he’s not going to become less injury prone as he becomes older. The Texans are going to have to rely on their running game to move the chains this season, but I don’t think they’re strong or deep enough at the running back position to effectively execute that kind of offense with regularity.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Even though the Texans did have to cycle through 4 different quarterbacks because of injury and even though Foster missed time as well, the Texans actually had just the 6th fewest offensive adjusted games lost last season. Part of that is because Fitzpatrick and Foster combined to actually only miss 7 games, but part of that is because they didn’t really have very many injuries anywhere else on the field on offense. On the offensive line, their 5 starters missed a combined 1 game (Brandon Brooks week 6) out of 80 possible. They probably won’t have as good of injury luck upfront this season.

The Texans return 4 of 5 starters and have a replacement who was drafted with this situation in mind waiting in the wings. Chris Myers, who was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked center last season, was released this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 6 million dollar salary, ahead of his age 34 season. He’ll be missed, but the Texans do have a solid replacement plan. To replace him, the Texans will be moving left guard Ben Jones inside to center and starting 2014 2nd round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo at left guard. Su’a-Filo struggled mightily on 130 snaps as a rookie, but he still could be a long-term starter. He’s just unproven.

Jones, meanwhile, was probably their worst starter last season, though he wasn’t bad at all, grading out only slightly below average. The Texans ranked 6th in team run blocking grade and 11th in team pass blocking grade upfront last season, something they’ll have trouble repeating in 2015 thanks to the loss of Myers and the fact that they’ll probably have more injuries upfront. Jones hasn’t played center in the NFL, but he did in college and the 2012 4th round pick is experienced, making 27 starts in 3 seasons in the league and grading out only slightly below average in all 3 seasons. Like Su’a-Filo, he projects as a decent starter in 2015.

Another way the Texans’ offensive line could be worse this season, in addition to the loss of Chris Myers and more injuries, is right tackle Derek Newton could regress, after being re-signed to a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Newton graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked offensive tackle, grading out below average in pass protection, but excelling in the run game, grading out 4th in that aspect in 2015. The issue, in addition to his struggles in pass protection, is the 2011 7th round pick is a one-year wonder. Newton has started 46 games over the past 3 seasons, but he was horrible in both 2012 and 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible in 2012 and 72nd out of 76 eligible in 2013. He’s very hard to trust and that was a very risky deal.

The two other spots on the offensive line, left tackle and right guard, are very strong though, barring serious injury. Right guard Brandon Brooks has quickly developed into one of the better guards in the NFL and he’s only going into his age 26 season. The 2012 3rd round pick flashed on 111 snaps as a rookie, took over the starting job the following off-season and hasn’t looked back, making 31 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and grading out 10th and 8th in 2013 and 2013 respectively. Heading into his contract year, he figures to be paid very well at some point. The Texans will probably try to lock him up ahead of free agency next March.

At left tackle, Duane Brown is older (going into his age 30 season), but more proven, with 7 years in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He struggled to start his career, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s graded out above average in the last 5, ranking 21st, 3rd, 2nd, 24th, and 10th respectively among offensive tackles in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Even though he’s a little older now and not as good as he was in his prime in 2011 and 2012, he’s still one of the better offensive tackles in the league and should have another strong season in 2015. It’s still a strong offensive line, but one that lost a solid starter from last season, but one should have more injuries this season, and one whose right tackle could easily regress in 2015.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Whoever starts under center for the Texans will have a very talented wideout to throw to, 2013 1st round pick DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins broke out in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, catching 76 passes on 120 attempts (63.3%) for 1210 yards and 6 touchdowns on 534 routes run, an average of 2.27 yards per route run, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked wide receiver. Hopkins did grade out below average as a rookie and is technically a one-year wonder, but plenty of good receivers struggle as rookies and that doesn’t mean he can’t repeat what he did in 2014 or even continue to get better.

Hopkins will only be in his age 23 season in 2015 and receivers often have a 3rd year breakout year. It’s possible that Hopkins is only scratching the surface on his 1st round talent and will be one of the best few wide receivers in the game in 2-3 years, but even if he just does what he did last year again, he’ll be a huge asset to this team. One concern is he had just 21 catches for 239 yards and no touchdowns in the 5 games that Fitzpatrick didn’t start and finish last season and he could have his numbers kept down by poor quarterback play this season, but that won’t be his fault. He could also see more targets this season with Andre Johnson (141 targets) gone, though he’ll also probably see more double teams as a result. Either way, he’s a very talented young receiver who might just need some help to produce big numbers.

Hopkins’ emergence is a big part of the reason why the Texans felt comfortable letting Andre Johnson go, after 12 years with the team, since they drafted him 3rd overall in 2003. Johnson is going into his age 34 season coming off the worst statistical season of his career in terms of yards per game since his rookie year. He caught 85 passes for 936 yards and 3 touchdowns on 141 targets (60.3%) and 487 routes run (1.92 yards per route run) and only graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked wide receiver. His overall numbers weren’t bad, but if you rank 27th among wide receivers in yards and 6th in targets, it’s a problem. Cutting him not only saved them 8.5 million, but it also freed up more targets for a budding young receiver. It’s tough, but Johnson is on the way down and Hopkins is on the way up, and that’s the way the NFL goes.

To replace Johnson, the Texans signed Cecil Shorts from Jacksonville. Shorts, a 2011 4th round pick, once looked like a very promising young receiver. After a rookie year where he didn’t see the field much (179 total snaps and 2 catches), Shorts caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2012. He was even better than those numbers suggested, as he did that despite missing 2 games with injuries and not playing more than 50% of his team’s snaps until the team’s 6th game of the season. He ran 423 routes on the season, giving him 2.31 yards per route run, 8th in the NFL, and he did that despite playing with the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at quarterback.

However, injuries prevented him from taking that next step. He missed 6 games with injury in 2013 and 2014 combined and averaged 60 catches for 667 yards and 2 touchdowns per season. He’s never played a 16 game season in his career, playing 50 out of a possible 64 games in his career and being limited in many others, and he’s only graded out above average once in 4 seasons in the league, with his worst season coming in 2014, when he graded out 98th out of 110 eligible wide receiver. He’s a marginal starting wide receiver at best, but he’s a decent value on a 2-year, 6 million deal. As weird as this sounds, from a financial standpoint, Shorts might be better for the Texans than Johnson would have been in 2015.

The Texans also have better depth at wide receiver than they did last season, as their 3rd receiver last year was Damaris Johnson, who graded out 107th out of 110 eligible wide receivers on 586 snaps. Nate Washington, signed to a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal, coming over from Tennessee, will probably be their 3rd receiver this year. Nate Washington has been around for a while, playing in every game in each of the last 9 seasons, catching 411 passes for an average of 6296 yards and 40 touchdowns with the Steelers and Titans. He’s never been great, with only one season of 1000+ yards, but he’s always been decent and dependable.

However, now he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off of an underwhelming season in which he caught 40 passes for 647 yards and 2 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible in pass catching grade. He’s not very good at this stage of his career, but he should be better than Johnson was last season. The Texans also used a 3rd round pick on Jaelen Strong, further adding to their wide receiver depth. The team likes him, but he’ll probably be the 4th receiver at best as a rookie and push for more playing time in 2016 and beyond.

Things aren’t good at tight end either. Garrett Graham, a 2010 4th round pick, was re-signed to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal last off-season, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons, after grading out above average in the first 3 seasons of his career. He graded out 57th out of 64 eligible tight ends in 2013 and 55th out of 67 eligible in 2014. A poor blocker at 6-3 243, Graham has never had more than 49 catches in a season and has just 96 catches in his career. He’s a solid #2 tight end, but he’s not a starting caliber player.

The Texans drafted CJ Fiedorowicz in the 3rd round in the 2014 draft to potentially be a starter long-term, but he was awful as a rookie, grading out 63rd among 67 eligible tight ends on 485 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but I wouldn’t bet on him ever becoming a starting caliber player. Most 3rd round picks don’t. There’s a reason they fall to the 3rd round. Ryan Griffin is also in the mix for snaps, after grading out below average on 339 snaps last season. The 2013 6th round pick also graded out below average on 368 snaps as a rookie and doesn’t appear to be a starting caliber player long-term.

The Texans best tight end is arguably defensive end JJ Watt, who flashed on 9 snaps last season, catching 3 passes for 4 yards and 2 touchdowns. At one point a collegiate tight end, Watt could probably be a starting tight end in the NFL, but he’s far more valuable on defense and the Texans would risk tiring him out by having him play a significant amount of snaps at tight end. He might be able to handle it, but it’s not worth the risk, considering how good he is on defense. He’ll remain a gadget, goal line tight end, if anything. The Texans will struggle to find a consistent target after DeAndre Hopkins and struggle to move the ball through the air.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Speaking of JJ Watt, he won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season for the 2nd time in 3 years and probably should have won it in all 3 seasons. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top rated player in each of the last 3 seasons. Those ratings aren’t necessarily meant to be compared across positions, but Watt has been so much better than everyone else that it’s a fairly safe assessment to make. With Watt over the past 3 seasons, we’ve witnessed a stretch of dominance by a player that hasn’t been seen since Reggie White’s prime at the most recent. The only season in his career when he didn’t grade out #1 at his position was his rookie year in 2011, when the 11th overall pick “only” graded out 5th among 3-4 defensive ends. Last season was arguably the best season of Watt’s career and his rating on Pro Football Focus reflected that, though the ratings are not meant to be compared across seasons either, which is why I said arguably.

Justin Houston did have more sacks than Watt last season, 23 as compared to 21, but Watt plays a position where it’s tougher to get to the quarterback. Also, while Houston had just 8 quarterback hits, Watt had 44. No one else had more than 21 in the NFL at any position. Watt added 54 quarterback hurries, which is actually less than Houston’s 56, and in terms of overall pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps), Houston was actually the better of the two at 15.7 as compared to 15.0, but, again, Watt plays a much tougher position from which to get to the quarterback. No 3-4 defensive end other than Watt was better than 9.7 in pass rush productivity. Watt’s position is also more important to run defense than Houston.

Watt wasn’t nearly as good at his position against the run as he was as a pass rusher, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect this season. He’ll never be as valuable as a top quarterback and he probably won’t even make the playoffs again until his team figures out the quarterback situation, but he’s definitely the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL. He’s easily the biggest reason why the Texans ranked 10th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains last season, as the Texans didn’t have a single player other than Watt finish in the top-10 at their position. Extended for 100 million over 6 years last off-season, Watt is locked up through his age 32 season in 2021 and at a very reasonable price, considering Justin Houston and Ndamukong Suh got 101 and 114 million respectively over 6 years.

Watt should actually have some help on the defensive line this season, as the Texans signed Vince Wilfork to a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal. Cut by the Patriots to save 8.5 million, Wilfork isn’t the player he once was, going into his age 34 season, coming off of a torn Achilles in 2013, and he’ll only play a two-down base package role as a nose tackle this season, but he should still be useful to the Texans. At the very least, he should be an upgrade over Ryan Pickett and Jerrell Powe, who played 290 and 277 snaps respectively at nose tackle last season. Both were disastrous, especially Powe, as no one played fewer snaps than Powe at the defensive tackle position and graded out worse.

Wilfork, meanwhile, has graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. One of the seasons he didn’t was his injury shortened 2013 season and he bounced back in his first season back in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end, including 6th against the run, which is his specialty. He’ll move back to his natural position of nose tackle in Houston in 2015, where his run stopping abilities can be best utilized (though he can still play 3-4 defensive end in a pinch), and he should have at least one more season of above average run play left in the tank. He was a risky signing because of his age, but he should work out.

Jared Crick will be the other starting defensive end, opposite Watt and next to Wilfork. The 2012 4th round pick has never graded out above average in his career, grading out below average on 220 and 277 snaps in 2012 and 2013 respectively as a reserve and then last season on 726 snaps as a starter. However, he was only slightly below average last season, so he’s not a horrible starter. The bigger problem is the Texans’ lack of depth behind him. Watt never needs to come off the field, so that’s not a concern, but Tim Jamison was their top reserve last season and he graded out 44th among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on 420 snaps. He’s gone now, but Jeoffrey Pagan, a 2014 6th round pick who struggled mightily on 191 snaps as a rookie, is their top reserve now, which isn’t a better situation. Still, it’s a strong defensive line, almost entirely because of Watt.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While the Texans didn’t have a lot of injuries on offense, they did have more than an average amount of adjusted games lost on defense (20th fewest). That alone doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a better defense this season, but they do have pair of talented linebackers who had serious injury problems last season that the Texans are hoping can bounce back. The first is middle linebacker Brian Cushing. Cushing, a 2009 1st round pick, has had some fantastic seasons in his career, grading out 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookie in 2009, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, and 3rd among middle linebackers in 2011. He graded out above average in each of the first 5 seasons of his career from 2009-2013, but he missed 20 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 combined, suffering a torn ACL and a broken leg, and it appears those injuries have taken a serious toll on him.

Even though he played in 14 games in 2014, he was nowhere near his old self, grading out below average for the first time in his career, 38th among 60 eligible middle linebackers. Cushing dealt with ankle, wrist, and knee problems for most of the season and had surgery on all 3 of those body parts this off-season. The reviews of him this off-season have been good, so there’s some hope for a bounce back year, only going into his age 28 season in 2015, but it’s very hard to trust him to stay 100%. His last healthy season was way back in 2011. At the very least, I think the Cushing of 2009 and 2011 is gone.

The Texans added Benadrick McKinney in the 2nd round of the draft to start next to Cushing, so if Cushing gets hurt again, Mike Mohamed, who graded out above average on 524 snaps last season, would replace him. Mohamed is a 2011 6th round pick who had played 13 career defensive snaps prior to last season, so he’s hard to trust, but he’s more than adequate as a 3rd middle linebacker. The addition of McKinney makes them much deeper at the position and much better equipped to handle another Cushing injury.

The other linebacker with a serious injury concern is Jadeveon Clowney, the #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Texans improved by 7 games in the win total last season in spite of him, not as a result of him, as he had about as of a disappointing rookie year as he could have had. Not only did he grade out below average, but he was limited to 146 snaps in 4 games by knee problems and had to have off-season microfracture surgery, which puts him in a race to play week 1. Even if he does play all or most of this season, microfracture surgery is a very tough surgery to recover from and he probably won’t come close to fulfilling his huge upside until 2016 at the earliest. It’ll be hard for the Texans to count on either Cushing or Clowney being significantly more valuable than they were last season or either one of them contributing to any sort of defensive improvement.

Unlike middle linebacker, the Texans don’t have good depth at outside linebacker behind Clowney. Brooks Reed, who graded out above average on 799 snaps last season, signed in Atlanta this off-season, leaving John Simon as the 3rd outside linebacker. Simon, a 2013 4th round pick, flashed on 239 snaps last season, after playing just 3 as a rookie, but is a long way away from convincing me that he can be a competent every down outside linebacker if the Texans need him to be. They’ll have to hope that Clowney can stay healthy, allowing Simon to work as a rotational player behind Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.

Mercilus is locked in as an every down player at the other outside linebacker spot in Houston’s 3-4, after getting a 4-year, 26 million dollar extension this off-season. That deal was a classic case of a team overpaying for a marginal talent. Mercilus has largely been disappointing since the Texans drafted him 26th overall in 2012. Mercilus has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, including 28th out of 34 eligible in 2012 and 42nd out of 42 eligible in 2013. He’s coming off of the best season of his career in 2014, but he still only graded out 35th out of 46 eligible, particularly struggling as a pass rusher. It’s a very underwhelming linebacking corps overall behind a strong defensive line.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph have been a solid duo of starting cornerbacks for the Texans since they brought Joseph in as a free agent four off-seasons ago, but there was at least some potential that one or both of them would not be back in 2015. Jackson was a free agent, as his 5-year rookie deal had expired. The 2010 1st round pick has had an up and down career, grading out 11th among cornerbacks in 2014 and 12th among cornerbacks in 2012, but below average in the other 3 seasons. There are two ways to look at this. One is to see him as an inconsistent player. The other is to see him as someone who got off to a slow start in his career, but has generally been good since then.

Joseph, meanwhile, could have been cut this off-season, ahead of an age 31 contract year, in which he was owed a non-guaranteed 8.5 million dollars. The Texans signed Johnathan Joseph to a 5-year, 48.75 million dollar deal four off-seasons ago and it’s largely been a good deal for them as Joseph has missed just 4 games in 4 seasons and graded out above average in all 4 years. Joseph’s best season came in the first season of his deal in 2011, when he graded out 11th at his position, but he’s played at only about a level lower in the other 3 seasons, grading out 44th, 25th, and 23rd in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively.

The Texans ended up keeping both of them, cutting salary at other spots, namely center (Chris Myers) and wide receiver (Andre Johnson). Joseph will return after signing an extension this off-season. He won’t make 8.5 million this season, but the Texans gave him 11.5 million guaranteed on a 3-year, 22 million dollar deal, which gives him some long-term security, in exchange for giving the Texans some additional financial flexibility. Even though he’s on the wrong side of 30, he should grade out above average for the 8th straight season. Meanwhile, Jackson was re-signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal which is risky, but pretty appropriate. Both should be above average starters again this season.

Despite that, the Texans used their 1st round pick (16th overall) on Kevin Johnson out of Wake Forest. Johnson doesn’t fill an immediate pressing need, but he should be an upgrade on AJ Bouye, who graded out 71st among 110 eligible cornerbacks on 644 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last season, and he should be a long-term replacement for Joseph, whenever the Texans decide to part ways with him. Johnson could take a little bit to get used to the NFL, but it’s a talented trio of cornerbacks.

While things are largely the same at cornerback this season, the Texans underwent a complete overhaul at safety this off-season. Kendrick Lewis (1097 snaps), DJ Swearinger (1037 snaps), and Danieal Manning (591 snaps) were their top-3 safeties last season in terms of snaps played and all 3 are gone. Lewis signed with Baltimore as a free agent and Manning retired ahead of his age 33 season. Both of those two players graded out above average last season and will be missed. Swearinger, however, graded out 78th among 87 eligible safeties last season and got cut with two very affordable years left on his rookie deal because of disciplinary problems, eventually latching on in Tampa Bay. Swearinger played around the line of scrimmage in place of a 2nd linebacker in sub packages last season, with Manning coming in for him in the secondary, but, with the addition of McKinney through the draft, the Texans no longer needed him to do that.

Stevie Brown and Rahim Moore were brought in as free agents this off-season on a 1-year, 825K dollar deal and a 3-year, 12 million dollar respectively and both will play every down as traditional safeties. They’re going to be a solid duo. Stevie Brown, a 2010 7th round pick, played just 151 snaps combined in 2010 and 2011, but had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked safety. Unfortunately for him, he tore his ACL and missed his entire contract year in 2013 and was forced to settle for a one year deal back with the Giants to rehab his value. His 2014 season was a mixed bag. He graded out about average and played all 16 games, but he made just 8 starts and played just 559 snaps, as he was benched for a stretch in the middle of the season. As a result, he was forced to settle for a near minimum deal this off-season and he should be a strong value for the Texans.

Moore should also be a strong value. Given that it was a weak safety market, especially after Devin McCourty re-signed with the Patriots, I thought Rahim Moore had a good chance to be overpaid. There was an argument to be made that he was the best safety that hit the open market this off-season. Moore was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety in 2012 in his 2nd year in the league (only his age 22 season) and it looked like the 2012 2nd round pick had a very bright future. Moore hasn’t quite lived up to the upside he showed in 2012 over the past 2 seasons, and his career was briefly stalled by a frightening, rare leg injury that could have cost him his leg or his life. However, he’s still graded out around average in each of the last 2 seasons on Pro Football Focus and made all 16 starts in his return from injury this season. Besides, he’s only going into his age 25 season so his best football could definitely still be ahead of him. He and Brown are a solid duo in a solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Texans were an average team that won 9 games last season. I have a hard time seeing them being better than that this season, considering they got rid of their best quarterback and considering that there isn’t really anywhere else on the field where they figure to be significantly better this season. With the Titans actually adding a legitimate franchise quarterback (or at least a potential legitimate franchise quarterback) and some nice parts on defense, the Texans could actually be leapfrogged in the division by the Titans. At the very least, they’re closer to the Titans and maybe even the hapless Jaguars than they are to catching the Colts. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Texans after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in AFC South

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