Houston Texans 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans played 7 different quarterbacks in 2014 and 2015 combined, but won 9 games in both seasons thanks to a strong defense. They thought they found their solution at the quarterback position and their missing piece last off-season when they signed ex-Bronco Brock Osweiler to a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal, but he turned out to be as bad as any quarterback they played in 2014 or 2015. He completed just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions in 14 starts and was briefly benched for backup Tom Savage for weeks 15 and 16, before Savage suffered a concussion that ended his season. Osweiler finished the season 32nd out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The Texans’ defense was excellent again in 2016, as they finished 3rd in first down rate allowed, but their offense finished 2nd worst in first down rate and they were lucky to win 9 games and make the playoffs again. They were arguably the worst team in the league to make the post-season, even though they did win a home playoff game against the Derek Carr-less Raiders. Their 9 wins came by a combined 44 points and they didn’t win a single regular season game by double digits. Their 7 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 93 points, giving them a -49 point differential, 7th worst in the NFL. They also finished 7th worst in the NFL in first down rate differential and had a -10 offensive touchdown differential, 5th worst in the league. Their 23 offensive touchdowns scored were the lowest in the league by any team, but they were able to make the playoffs thanks to a weak division, a lot of close wins, and a strong defense.

The Texans turned to desperate measures this off-season to get out of the 16 million dollars in guaranteed money they owed Brock Osweiler this season, sending Osweiler, a 2nd round pick in 2018, and a 6th round pick in 2017 to the Browns for a 4th round pick in 2017, effectively buying some of the Browns’ cap space. When the move was made, many saw it as the Texans clearing cap space to try to sign Tony Romo once the Cowboys released him, but Romo ended up retiring and joining CBS, leaving the Texans with Tom Savage atop their depth chart going into the draft.

On draft day, after the Bears and Chiefs both traded up to grab quarterbacks in the top-10, the Texans moved up to 12 in another trade with the Browns to secure their quarterback, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, sending their 2018 1st round pick to the Browns to move up 13 spots. All in all, the Texans used their first round pick this year and their first and second round pick next year to go from Brock Osweiler to Deshaun Watson at quarterback in an effort to hopefully finally solidify the quarterback position. It’s a very risky set of moves.

Despite all they gave up to get him, Watson is far from a lock to be the week 1 starter and is expected to work behind the veteran Tom Savage for most of the off-season. Conventional wisdom suggests Watson will get a shot at some point this season, given how much the Texans gave up for him and given that Savage is probably the least qualified starting quarterback in the league, but head coach Bill O’Brien’s system is not easy to learn and Savage has an advantage having been in the system for 3 years already. The 2014 4th round pick has just 92 career pass attempts and has completed just 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.39 YPA, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interceptions. He’s a backup caliber talent. Watson, meanwhile, could struggle as a rookie given the complexity of the offense and his tendency to force throws and get intercepted. He has good upside long-term, but isn’t NFL ready.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

One of the reasons giving up those 3 valuable picks to change quarterbacks this off-season is so risky is because it hurts their ability to address other glaring needs, particularly on the offensive line. Quarterback play was a big part of the problem for the Texans last season, but so was offensive line play and they didn’t address the offensive line outside of using their 4th and 7th round picks an offensive linemen who are unlikely to be able to contribute as rookies. Without a pick in the first 2 rounds next year, the Texans could have issues upfront for a while.

Derek Newton was a capable starter at right tackle for them, but he tore both of his patellar tendons on the same play last season and missed the final 10 games of the season. About as bad of a knee injury as you can imagine, Newton is not expected to play at all in 2017 and his future is very much in doubt. Veteran journeyman Chris Clark took over the starting job after he got hurt and predictably struggled, finishing 73rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles. He’s best as a swing tackle, but the only competition the Texans have for him is 4th round rookie Julie’n Davenport, who is very raw out of Bucknell and wouldn’t be an upgrade as a rookie.

Making matters worse at the offensive tackle position, left tackle Duane Brown is going into his age 32 season. A top-24 offensive tackle in each of the past 7 seasons, Brown finished last season 14th among offensive tackles and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but could easily decline over the next couple seasons. On top of that, Brown is reportedly unhappy with his contract and wants to cash in one more time, despite being owed 19.4 million over the next 2 seasons. So far he’s only missed voluntary off-season activities, but it’s definitely a situation to monitor, given how important he is to this offense.

The Texans have issues at guard as well, where both left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and right guard Jeff Allen struggled last season, finishing 57th and 65th respectively among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. That’s a disappointment because the Texans spent significant resources to bring both players in. Allen signed a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal with the Texans last off-season, coming over from Kansas City. Allen was a second round pick by the Chiefs in 2012 and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, before missing most of 2014 with injury. However, upon return from that injury, he finished 16th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts in 2015, which was apparently enough for the Texans to give him a big contract. It’s not a surprise that he struggled in his first season in Houston given how unproven he is. He could easily continue struggling this season.

Su’a-Filo, meanwhile, was drafted by the Texans with the first pick in the second round in 2014. He was the player the Texans drafted instead of quarterback Derek Carr because they were worried about the optics of selecting David Carr’s brother, given that David was a bust as the #1 overall pick with the Texans in 2002. Passing on Derek proved to be as big of a mistake as selecting David, as Derek has become one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Oakland and Su’a-Filo has yet to develop into a starting caliber player on a team that has struggled for consistency at the quarterback position.

After barely playing as a rookie, Su’a-Filo has made 24 starts in the past 2 seasons, but has been a bottom-20 guard on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. The Texans don’t have another option so they are holding out hope that he can turn into a capable starter in the final year of his rookie deal, but that is far from a guarantee. The Texans do get center Nick Martin back, after the 2016 2nd round pick missed his entire rookie season with an ankle injury, though backup Greg Mancz was serviceable in his absence last season. Martin has more upside though and should have no problem winning his job back. Whether or not he develops into a starting caliber player remains to be seen though. Outside of aging left tackle Duane Brown, the Texans have a lot of problems on the offensive line.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

As bad as the Texans’ passing game played in both 2014 and 2015, with 7 different quarterbacks playing, they were significantly worse statistically in 2016. Their team QB rating of 73.3 was 3rd worst in the NFL ahead of only the Jets and the Rams and was at least 12 points lower than their QB rating in each of the previous 2 seasons. In 2014 and 2015, they were at least able to get the ball to #1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but who put up slash lines of 76/1210/6 and 111/1521/11 in those 2 seasons respectively.

In 2016, that fell to 78/954/4. Part of that was the fault of Hopkins, who fell to 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-12 in both 2014 and 2015, but the Texans need to do a better job of getting the ball to him. They completed just 52.0% of passes thrown to him last season and he’s too talented for that to happen. Even if Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson struggle in 2017, Hopkins is still a good bet to top last year’s numbers. Still only going into his age 25 season, the 2013 1st round pick is going into the final year of his rookie deal and figures to become one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league on his next contract. He’s too valuable to this offense to lose, so the Texans might not have any choice but to pay up.

Hopkins would benefit from another receiver stepping up to take some of the pressure off of him, something he hasn’t had since Andre Johnson played opposite him during his rookie year. The Texans drafted Will Fuller in the first round last year with that in mind, but he struggled as a rookie, catching just 47 passes on 92 targets (51.1%) for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. He finished 93rd out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and Fuller still has the upside to become a dangerous deep threat long-term, but he also has small hands and doesn’t make contested catches, so it’s possible he never reaches his upside.

After Hopkins and Fuller, the Texans leaders in receiving yards last season were tight ends CJ Fiedorowicz (54/559/4) and Ryan Griffin (50/442/2) and running back Lamar Miller (31/188/1). Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong played 379 and 300 snaps respectively behind Hopkins and Fuller and managed slash lines of just 15/99/1 and 14/131/0 respectively. Part of that was a result of quarterback play, but both struggled mightily as well.  Strong was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and Miller was a 3rd round pick in 2016, so they have some upside, but it’s very possible neither ever develops into a useful pass catcher. They’ll compete with Keith Mumphrey, a 2015 5th round pick who has also struggled mightily in limited action in his career, for playing time behind Hopkins and Fuller.

To mask their lack of depth at wide receiver, the Texans will probably use two-tight end sets whenever possible. CJ Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin played 678 and 507 snaps respectively last season. Griffin is a mediocre tight end at best, struggling throughout his career both as a run blocker and a pass catcher and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 6th round in 2013. Fiedorowicz, on the other hand, has developed into a solid all-around tight end.

After a miserable rookie season in which he finished 63rd out of 67 eligible tight ends, the 2014 3rd round pick jumped to 29th among tight ends in 2015, despite just 17 catches, because of strong run blocking ability. In 2016, he improved again, finishing 17th at the position and finishing 2nd on the team with 54 catches. At 6-5 265, Fiedorowicz is an unexplosive athlete, but has developed into a reliable underneath option and can win on the goal line. He’s not the difference making 2nd option this offense needs though, so this underwhelming receiving corps needs a breakout year from Fuller opposite Hopkins.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Texans’ passing game was so bad in 2016 that they struggled mightily to move the ball despite a decent running game complement. The Texans averaged just 4.08 YPC, 19th in the NFL, but that’s pretty impressive considering opposing defenses were stacking the box without fearing the passing game and considering they finished 6th in the league in carries with 456. It’s also a higher average than the Texans have had in any season since 2013. Playing strong defense and running the ball is their most obvious path to success, so the Texans are obviously hoping their running game can remain effective in 2017.

Lamar Miller remains as their lead back, after rushing for 1073 yards and 268 touchdowns on 5 carries (4.00 YPC) in the first year of a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal in 2016. Miller was explosive in the first 4 seasons of his career in Miami, but never had more than 254 touches in a season. In Houston, he had 299 touches in just 14 games and seemed to wear down by the end of the season. He averaged just 3.72 yards per carry after week 7 and dealt with several nagging injuries. The Texans will probably limit his touches more in 2017 in an effort to keep him fresher. Still only going into his age 26 season, Miller should have another solid season as the lead back. He has a career 4.42 YPC average on 906 carries.

The Texans drafted D’Onta Foreman in the 3rd round of the draft and he could be Miller’s primary backup this season. Foreman’s main competition for the job is Alfred Blue, who averaged 4.20 yards per carry on 100 carries last season. Blue is a mediocre runner though, averaging just 3.64 YPC on 452 career carries, since going in the 6th round in 2014. It’s possible all 3 backs see work, but Foreman is a much more talented runner than Blue and should overtake him on the depth chart before the end of the season. It’s not a bad stable of running backs.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Texans defense played at a high level again in 2016, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed and keeping this team competitive in games despite terrible play by the offense. What’s most impressive is their defense played at such a high level despite basically getting nothing from 3-time MVP JJ Watt. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 defensive end in every season from 2012-2015, Watt struggled on 157 snaps in 3 games last season upon return from off-season back surgery and then needed another surgery after week 3 that ended his season. Back surgery is nothing to take lightly, but off-season reports have been good and he should be the favorite for Comeback Player of the Year, even if other players are more likely to win Defensive Player of the Year. The 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Watt is still only going into his age 28 season, so he theoretically should still be in the prime of his career.

In Watt’s absence, fellow former first round pick Jadeveon Clowney had a breakout year and picked up a lot of the slack. The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney was limited to 17 games in his first 2 seasons in the league by injury, but played 14 games last season and finished 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Clowney has primarily been an outside linebacker in his career, but has the size at 6-5 270 to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages and did so with regularity last season with Watt out. Even with Watt back, they still have a need for Clowney to play inside in sub packages, though the Texans are thinner at outside linebacker after losing key reserve John Simon. Wherever he lines up, Clowney’s best football could still be ahead of him, still only going into his age 24 season. He has a ton of natural talent and could be a perennial All-Pro if he can stay healthy.

With Clowney playing outside linebacker part-time, Vince Wilfork (507 snaps), Christian Covington (415 snaps), and DJ Reader (404 snaps) led the defensive line in snaps played last season. Wilfork remains unsigned, ahead of his age 36 season, and he struggled last season anyway, but both Covington and Reader played well in limited action, particularly against the run. Covington struggled on 167 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2015, but graded out above average last season. Reader, meanwhile, was just a 5th round rookie last season, but also graded out above average. In base packages, they will start with Watt on this 3-man defensive line. Fourth round rookie Carlos Watkins could also have a rotational role as a rookie. It’s a much improved defensive line with Watt back from injury and they have some nice situational pieces as well.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Along with Clowney, fellow former first round pick Whitney Mercilus had a big year in Watt’s absence last season, finishing 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. The 26th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Mercilus graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, but has broken out over the past 2 seasons, finishing in the top-8 at his position in both seasons. Mercilus, Clowney, and Watt will wreak havoc in passing situations, but it’s unclear who the 4th player will be rushing the passer with them.

If Clowney rushes the passer from the interior in sub packages, Brennan Scarlett, their new top reserve outside linebacker with Simon gone, will have to rush off the edge opposite Mercilus in sub packages. That’s a very likely scenario though, considering the Texans don’t have another capable interior pass rusher. A 2016 undrafted free agent, Scarlett was underwhelming on just 113 snaps as a rookie, but the organization likes him and he has a shot to win a situational role. He should be a big downgrade from Simon, who was quietly a solid player for the Texans over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average and topping 500 snaps in both seasons. He signed with division rival Indianapolis on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal this off-season.

At middle linebacker, Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney remains as starters, though Cushing could be pushed for his job by 2nd round rookie Zach Cunningham. McKinney was also a second round pick, getting drafted in 2015. He flashed on 411 snaps as a rookie and then finished 18th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season, while making all 16 starts. The big 6-4 246 pounder was surprisingly impressive in coverage last season. Going into his age 25 season, his best football could still be ahead of him.

Cushing also had a solid season, finishing 23rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He did miss 3 games with injury, which have always been an issue for him. His worst stretch of injuries came in 2012-2013, when he played just 12 total games in 2 seasons combined. He played 30 games in 2014-2015, but didn’t look like his old self, grading out below average in both seasons. Last season’s solid play was a bit of a surprise, but it’s no guarantee to continue in 2017, given that he is going into his age 30 season and given his injury history.

Owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018 with Cunningham waiting in the wings, this is likely Cushing’s final season in Houston. Cunningham was a borderline first round talent who slipped to pick #57, so the Texans made the wise decision drafting him, even if he doesn’t fill an immediate need. Cushing will probably hold Cunningham off this season, but Cunningham should be a starter for them at some point. With Watt coming back from injury, this should be an improved front 7, but they still have depth issues in sub packages with John Simon signing with the Colts.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Simon wasn’t their only off-season loss on defense, as AJ Bouye and Quintin Demps signed with the Jaguars and Bears respectively. They finished last season 3rd among cornerbacks and 12th among safeties respectively, so they will be big losses for the Texans. While their front 7 should be better with Watt back, their secondary could easily be a lot worse. The Texans don’t have an obvious replacement for Demps at safety, but Corey Moore was their 3rd safety last season, so I would expect the 2015 undrafted free agent to get the first crack at the job.

Moore didn’t play well last season though, finishing 60th among 90 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus on 392 snaps, in the first significant action of his career. He’s a weak starting option. He will face competition from KJ Dillon, a a 2016 5th round pick who played just 19 underwhelming snaps as a rookie before tearing his ACL. Eddie Pleasant (1 start in 5 seasons in the league) and Robert Nelson (0 starts in 3 seasons in the league) are also options. Whoever starts figures to be a major downgrade from Demps.

Andre Hal is locked in as the other starting safety, but largely by default, as he finished 55th among 90 eligible safeties in 11 starts last season. The 2014 7th round pick has made 22 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has graded out below average in both seasons. He’s unlikely to be much better in 2017. He wouldn’t be starting for a lot of teams, but he’s the Texans’ best safety with Demps gone. Safety figures to be a real position of weakness in 2017 on a defense that will have to be good to make up for the lack of talent on offense.

Fortunately, they are deeper at cornerback, even without AJ Bouye. Bouye played so well last season that they’re obviously going to miss him, but he was actually just their 4th cornerback at this time last year and only saw starts because their top-3 cornerbacks, Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Kevin Johnson, all missed time with injury. Johnson’s injury was the most severe, as he played just 286 snaps in 6 games before breaking his foot and missing the rest of the season. He was probably the best of the trio too, grading out the highest among the three on Pro Football Focus in limited action. A 2015 1st round pick, Johnson graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but looked on his way to a breakout season in 2016 before the injury. He’ll probably open the season as the 3rd cornerback, but he has a ton of upside and could push both Jackson and Joseph for their starting jobs.

Jackson missed just 2 games with injury, but he hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season since 2012, always missing time with nagging injuries (13 games missed in 4 seasons). He finished 35th among cornerbacks last season, but has also graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, so he’s been inconsistent throughout his career. Now going into his age 29 season, he’s in the tail end of his prime and could begin to decline soon. He could also have another couple solid seasons as a starter left in him though.

Joseph has had the better overall career, grading out above average in 8 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, but he’s also going into his age 33 season and finished behind Jackson in 2016, ending the year as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback. He also missed 3 games with injury. That was a big dropoff from 2015, when he finished 9th in one of the best seasons of his career. Joseph is going into his 12th season in the league in 2017 and will be a free agent after the season, so he could easily decide to retire next off-season. He and Jackson could both have solid seasons again, but that’s far from a guarantee, so they will need Jackson to be healthy and continue developing. Their secondary could be a lot worse this season.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Texans get JJ Watt back from injury and getting rid of Brock Osweiler was addition by subtraction, but their quarterback situation still isn’t good and they sold 3 key defensive players in John Simon, AJ Bouye, and Quintin Demps, none of whom were properly replaced. They also didn’t add much in the draft or free agency in terms of players who are actually going to help them this season. They have major issues in the receiving corps, on the offensive line, at quarterback, and in the secondary and lack sub package depth upfront after Mercilus, Watt, and Clowney. They still have a disruptive front 7 and should have a strong defense once again, but not strong enough to make up for their offensive issues. Their division should be tougher this season and they’re unlikely to be as good in close games as they were last season (8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less). I think it’s unlikely this team makes it back to the post-season in 2017.

Final update: The Texans will open the season without left tackle Duane Brown, who is holding out. That’s the last thing this offense needs. The Texans should have a strong defense this season, but their issues in the secondary can’t be ignored and their offense figures to struggle barring a miracle rookie season by Deshaun Watson. He’ll make starts at some point because Tom Savage won’t win many games.

Prediction: 5-11, 4th in AFC South

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s