Houston Texans 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

From 2014-2016, the Houston Texans started 8 different quarterbacks, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. Despite that underwhelming quarterback carousel, the Texans went 9-7 in all 3 seasons, winning the division twice, and even winning a playoff game over the Connor Cook led Oakland Raiders during the 2016 season. Part of that was their lack of competition, especially in the weak AFC South and in that playoff win over the Raiders, but their defense carried them as well. Combined with their defense, it looked like if they could ever solve the quarterback position they’d be a Super Bowl contender.

With that idea in mind, the Texans were aggressive in upgrading the quarterback position last off-season. Incumbent starter Brock Osweiler had a 16 million dollar guaranteed salary, as a result of the Texans previous aggressive impact to upgrade the quarterback position, but Osweiler was arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL in 2016. Rather than giving him another shot in 2018, the Texans traded a 2nd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to the Browns for a 2017 4th round pick in a pure salary dump of Osweiler’s contract. They then packaged together the 25th pick in the 2017 NFL draft and their 2018 1st round pick in another trade with the Browns to move up and grab Deshaun Watson with the 12th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

It was a risky move because it left them without a first or second round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but it worked, at least for a while. Despite being considered raw coming into the league, Watson took over as the starter after Tom Savage was benched midway through their week 1 blowout loss to the Jaguars and completed 61.8% of his passes for an average of 8.33 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while adding 269 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground on 36 carries (7.47 YPC), in about 6 and a half games. The Texans moved the chains at a 39.15% rate in Watson’s 6 starts, which would have been 2nd best in the NFL over 16 games, but then he tore his ACL during practice and missed the final 9 games of the season with injury.

Not only was the Watson injury a major setback in his development, but the Texans went just 1-8 the rest of the way and finished at 4-12, so those draft picks sent to the Browns turned out to be 4th and 35th, so now those trade don’t look as good as they did mid-season. Tom Savage took over as the starter after Watson went down and he completed just 56.1% of his passes for an average of 6.33 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions on the season.

Savage went down with injury late in the season as well, so 3rd string quarterback TJ Yates entered the lineup and he was even worse, completing just 48.5% of his passes for an average of 5.39 YPA, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions. In 10 games where Watson did not start, the Texans moved the chains at a 30.74% rate, which would have been 27th in the NFL over 16 games, a significant drop off from their play with Watson in the lineup.

Watson is expected to be back for week 1 and could easily continue developing into one of the better quarterbacks in the league, but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be the same immediately. Robert Griffin III is an example of the worst case scenario of what can happen to a mobile quarterback after a rookie year ACL tear, but, even if Watson’s recovery isn’t the worst case scenario, he still might not be the same quarterback immediately, given how important mobility is to his game.

Watson averaged 7.47 yards per carry as a rookie, but he did not look to run until he had no other options. Instead, he used his athleticism to buy himself extra time so his receivers could get open downfield. He held the ball longer than any quarterback, averaging 2.91 seconds from snap to attempt, and faced pressure on 47.7% of his dropbacks, but he took a sack on just 16.5% of those pressured dropbacks and led the NFL in both average depth of targets (11.2 yards) and in percent of targets beyond 20 yards (19.6%). Watson got into some trouble on deep throws, throwing 4 of his 8 interceptions on his 40 targets of 20+ yards, but he also completed 18 passes for 559 yards and 7 touchdowns on targets of 20+ yards. If he isn’t able to maneuver the pocket or throw on the run as easily after the injury, it could be a big problem for him.

The Texans seem confident in his ability to bounce back, only signing veteran Brandon Weeden to be his backup. A journeyman who has been on 4 teams in 6 seasons in the league, Weeden has completed 57.9% of his passes for an average of 6.70 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions in his career and hasn’t thrown a regular season pass since 2015, in his first stint with the Texans. The Texans would be in big trouble if Watson were to get hurt again, but, even if he stays on the field all season, he might not be 100% in his first season back from the injury, especially given how reliant he is on his mobility.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Watson’s play especially took off when starting wide receiver Will Fuller returned after missing the first 3 games of the season recovering from an off-season broken collarbone. Watson and Fuller only played together for 4 games, but they connected for 13 catches for 279 yards and 7 touchdowns and the Texans moved the chains at a 43.07% rate in those 4 games, which easily would have been the best in the NFL over 16 games. Fuller is a great deep threat, so it makes sense he and Watson would have good chemistry.

Fuller wasn’t nearly as good the rest of the season, catching 15 passes for 144 yards and no touchdowns in 6 games without Watson and missing another 3 games with injury, so he finished with just a 28/423/7 slash line in 10 games. The 2016 1st round pick also missed 2 games with injury as a rookie and had an underwhelming 47/635/2 slash line in 14 games. He’s only going into his age 24 season though and could easily have a breakout season in 2018 if both he and Watson can stay healthy all season. He probably won’t average 21.5 yards per catch or have a 53.8% touchdown rate like he did in 4 games with Watson last season, but he could still easily push for 1000 yards if he and Watson play all 16 games.

Top receiver DeAndre Hopkins also put up big numbers with Deshaun Watson, but he put up big numbers regardless of who was under center. In 6 games started by Watson, he caught 38 passes for 551 yards and 6 touchdowns and then he caught another 58 passes for 827 yards and 7 touchdowns in 9 games started by other quarterbacks. Down the stretch, almost the entire Texans’ passing offense was chucking it downfield and hoping Hopkins could make a play, despite frequent double and triple teams. From week 14-16, he had 64.1% of the Texans’ receiving yardage in a 3 game span, before missing week 17 with an injury.

Despite playing just 15 games, he caught 96 passes (6th in the NFL) for 1,376 yards (4th) and 13 touchdowns (1st) and he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked wide receiver. Over the past 4 seasons, DeAndre Hopkins has 361 catches (7th in the NFL over the past 4 seasons) for 5,064 yards (3rd) and 34 touchdowns (3rd), despite having consistently terrible quarterback play. A 2013 first round pick who is still only in his age 26 season, Hopkins should post monster numbers again in 2018 with a healthy Deshaun Watson.

Watson wasn’t just helped by having DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller making plays. This entire receiving corps dropped just 2 passes on 204 attempts with Watson under center, a drop rate of just 0.98%, easily the lowest among quarterbacks last season. The league average drop rate was 5.28%, so Watson’s completion percentage was bumped up a few percentage points simply because his receivers almost always held on to the ball. With a league average drop rate, he would have had about 11 drops and those extra 9 drops would have translated to about 121 lost passing yards, about 0.6 yards per attempt.

That drop rate seems like a fluke that is unlikely to continue though. Houston receivers dropped 20 passes thrown by their other quarterbacks on 321 attempts (6.23%) and this receiving corps lacks reliable options after Hopkins and Fuller. Watson only completed 61.8% of his passes last season and, between what should be a higher drop rate and possible rustiness after the injury, he could easily be under 60% in 2018. I don’t expect him to average over 8 yards per attempt again either, unless he returns 100% to form and a capable 3rd receiver steps up in the passing game.

Tight end CJ Fiedorowicz was supposed to be the 3rd guy in the passing game last season, as the 2014 3rd round pick had a 54/559/4 slash line in 2016 with Brock Osweiler. The Texans gave him a 3-year, 21.5 million dollar extension last off-season, but he was limited to just 229 snaps in 5 games by concussions in 2017 and opted to retire this off-season rather than risk further injury. In his absence, the Texans did not have another pass catcher behind Hopkins and Fuller that topped 350 yards. Part of that was quarterback related, but they definitely lack other proven weapons. Hopkins and Fuller were their only wide receiver/tight ends to earn a positive pass catching grade from PFF last season.

With Fuller in and out of the lineup, Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller played 590 snaps and 426 snaps respectively at wide receiver last season, but they managed slash lines of just 29/330/2 and 19/162/1 respectively. Ellington is a 2014 4th round pick who missed 22 games in his first 3 seasons in the league before underwhelming in the first significant action of his career last season. Miller, meanwhile, is a 2016 3rd round pick and converted quarterback who has struggled mightily in 2 seasons in the league. He’s averaged just 4.58 yards per target on 57 targets and 0.55 yards per route run on 473 routes. Both Miller and Ellington could be pushed for their role by 4th round rookie Keke Coutee, a speedster who is having a strong off-season and is a natural fit with Deshaun Watson. Coutee is likely to be inconsistent as a rookie and he is undersized at 5-10 181, but he may prove to be their best option as the #3 receiver, given the alternatives.

In addition to Fiedorowicz missing 11 games with injury, the Texans were also without fellow veteran tight end Ryan Griffin for 9 games. Griffin struggled in his first significant passing game role in 2016, averaging 5.89 yards per target, and has not topped 20 catches in a season in any of his other 4 seasons, but the 6-6 255 pounder is a capable blocker. Fortunately, Griffin and Fiedorowicz missed action at different times for the most part, so they had at least one of them able to provide a blocking complement to passing down tight end Stephen Anderson for most of the season, but both Fiedorowicz and Griffin were out for weeks 14-17 and the Texans had to resort to using backup offensive linemen as blocking tight ends, including 6-5 310 pound backup center Kyle Fuller, who played 27 snaps at tight end week 17.

Anderson is a 6-2 230 pound converted wide receiver who ran routes on 318 of his 435 snaps, with 184 of them either coming on the slot (165) or out wide (19). Despite that, he managed just a 25/342/1 slash line and he can’t block either. A 2016 undrafted free agent who struggled the first significant action of his career in 2017, Anderson is unlikely to ever develop into much more than a situational player. Griffin should be healthier in 2018 and the Texans also added tight ends in the 3rd and 6th rounds of the draft, taking Central Florida’s Jordan Akins and Mississippi State’s Jordan Thomas, but both are considered raw and might not be much help as rookies. The Texans didn’t run a lot of two-tight end sets last season and that is likely to be the case again in 2018. Hopkins and Fuller figure to get the majority of the targets in a thin receiving corps.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

I mentioned earlier that Watson was pressured on a high percentage of his dropbacks (47.7%) in part due to how long he held the ball trying to set up plays downfield, but the offensive line was a big part of the problem too. They didn’t have a single offensive lineman earn a positive grade all season and Tom Savage was pressured on almost as many of his dropbacks (46.7%), despite getting the ball out almost a half second quicker (2.51 seconds from snap to attempt). On the season, they had the 2nd most sacks allowed with 54.

Basically starting from scratch up front this off-season, the Texans signed 3 free agent offensive linemen, signing Senio Kelemete, Zach Fulton, and Seantrel Henderson to contracts worth 28 million over 4 years, 12 million over 3 years, and 4 million over 1 year respectively, and they also used a 3rd round selection on Mississippi State’s Martinas Rankin. None of those players are left tackles though, so the Texans are expected to start 2nd year lineman Julie’n Davenport on the blindside.

Davenport was one of 5 players to start on the blindside last season and struggled on 238 snaps in 4 starts, but the Texans like the 2017 4th round pick’s upside and lack a better option. He could be better in his 2nd season in the league and it would be hard for him to be a downgrade over what they had at left tackle last season, but the Texans go into the season with arguably the shakiest left tackle situation in the NFL.

Breno Giacomini and Xavier Su’a-Filo led this offensive line in snaps last season, with 1095 and 1075 respectively, as both made all 16 starts at right tackle and left guard respectively, but both were horrendous, finishing dead last out of 83 eligible offensive tackles and 79th out of 80 eligible guards respectively. Both are no longer with the team, but the Texans do bring back Nick Martin (971 snaps), Jeff Allen (728 snaps), and Greg Mancz (560 snaps), who also struggled mightily last season. They’ll compete for roles with the newcomers.

Martin started 14 games at center last season and went in the 2nd round in 2016, but he missed his entire rookie season with an ankle injury and then finished 33rd out of 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in his first season as the starter. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league and the Texans will probably give him another shot as the starter, but Zach Fulton can also play center, as can Greg Mancz, who actually finished 9th among centers on PFF in the first 16 starts of his career in Martin’s absence in 2016, before struggling when he moved to guard in 2017, finishing 56th out of 80 eligible. Mancz went undrafted in 2015 and is a below average athlete, so his 2016 season could prove to be a fluke, but it would be a good idea for them to move him back to center, even as just a reserve.

Fulton and Kelemete are most likely to open the season as the starting guards. Fulton was their biggest free agent offensive line signing, as the ex-Chief cost them 7 million annually. The 2014 6th round pick struggled in 16 starts as a rookie, finishing 69th out of 78 eligible guards on PFF, but he’s made 30 starts since then and has been about an average starter in all 3 seasons. He’s played both guard spots, but also has 8 career starts at center and is an option to move inside.

Kelemete can also play multiple positions and is a candidate to move outside to right tackle, although his frame and arm length (6-3 303, 33 1/2 inch arms) suggests he’s better suited at guard. He’s made 22 starts in the past 3 seasons, 5 at right guard, 16 at left guard, and 1 at left tackle, but he’s earned negative grades in all 3 seasons and has never been a full-time starter, so he’s a projection to a larger role. His contract (4 million annually) suggests he’ll start, but that’s largely for lack of a better option.

Jeff Allen is also an option at guard, especially if either Kelemete or Fulton move to another position. Allen signed with the Texans on a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, but has been a massive bust in 2 seasons in Houston, finishing well below average in both seasons. Allen was PFF’s 19th ranked guard in his contract year in 2015, but he struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2012 and 2013, after going in the 2nd round in the 2012 NFL Draft, and then barely played in his third season in the league in 2014. Even in his one strong season in 2015, he made just 8 starts. He has the versatility to play both guard and tackle and could also be an option at right tackle, but he’s not a capable starter anywhere and he’ll likely be let go if he can’t lock down a starting job somewhere, owed 6.25 million non-guaranteed.

Henderson and Rankin are the primary candidates at right tackle. Henderson’s salary (4 million) suggests he’ll get a real shot at the job, but he’s played just 78 snaps in the past 2 seasons due to health problems and was not a good starter prior to the last 2 seasons, as the 2014 undrafted free agent finished 79th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie in 16 starts and then 56th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2015 in 10 starts. Rankin should be able to push him for the job at some point, but is expected to miss at least the start of training camp with a foot injury, which hurts his chances of winning the week 1 job, and some think he’ll have to move to guard long-term because of his lack of size and length (6-4 308, 33 3/4 inch arms).

Between Davenport, Fulton, Martin, Mancz, Kelemete, Allen, Henderson, and Rankin, the Texans have 8 offensive linemen competing for 5 spots upfront. They are probably more talented upfront than they were last season, but largely by default, as this was not a good off-season to need offensive line help, particularly offensive tackle help. Watson has plenty of talent, but he’s coming off of a major injury, will be under pressure regularly, and lacks depth in the receiving corps. He’ll make plenty of big plays downfield, but also figures to be pretty inaccurate and make some blunders as well. I don’t expect things to go as smoothly for this offense as it did in Watson’s 6 starts last season.

Grade: D

Running Backs

The offensive line also caused problems in the running game. Despite having a mobile quarterback under center for half the season and a pair a capable running backs, the Texans were a middle of the road rushing team in 2017, ranking 16th in the NFL with a 4.11 YPC average. Lead back Lamar Miller only averaged 3.73 yards per carry on 238 carries, but he still earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. He picked up 2.45 yards per carry after contact and had an above average carry success rate (45%). He didn’t have a carry longer than 21 yards and only broke 21 tackles on 238 carries, but he’s a consistently solid lead back.

Originally a 4th round pick by the Dolphins in 2012, Miller has averaged 219 carries per season in the past 5 seasons, 3 with the Dolphins and the last 2 with the Texans, and he has averaged 4.25 yards per carry and 26 touchdowns per season. He’s not a great pass catcher, but he’s also averaged 35.6 catches per season, including 36 last season, and has earned a positive overall grade on PFF in all 5 seasons. Still only in his age 27 season, Miller has only missed 5 games with injury in his career and should continue running well for at least another couple seasons.

The Texans added Dont’a Foreman in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft as insurance and he saw a significant role as the #2 running back as a rookie, but he tore his achilles in November, ending his season after 10 games. He averaged 7.8 carries per game in those 10 games, which would be 125 carries over the course of the season, and he averaged 4.19 yards per carry on those carries, but the injury is obviously a major complication in his development. He might miss the entire off-season and is questionable at best for week 1. Even if he returns for the start of the season, he could easily not be 100%.

Miller played 68.7% of the snaps in 16 games last season and will likely see a significant share of the snaps again. Not only is Foreman coming off the injury, but he doesn’t do much on passing downs and their only other experienced running back is 3rd string back Alfred Blue, a 2014 6th round pick who has averaged just 3.64 yards per carry on 523 carries in 4 seasons in the league and re-signed for the minimum this off-season. This is a solid running back group overall and they should have more room to run with Deshaun Watson back from injury, as defenses will have to focus on him.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As good as the offense played in Watson’s 6 starts, the Texans went just 3-3, as their defense had key injuries. Right as Will Fuller returned and this offense took off, the Texans lost JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus for the season in a week 5 loss to the Chiefs. The Texans only had the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury last season, but the Texans arguably had the most impactful injuries of any team in the league, with Watson, Watt, and Mercilus all going down for the season.

From week 5 on, they allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.67% rate, which would have been 30th in the NFL over 16 games. Between that and their offensive struggles down the stretch, it’s a bit of a surprise they were even able to win one of their final 9 games, beating an equally banged up Arizona team week 11.The Texans finished 4-12 last season, but could easily be a lot better in 2018 if they have better health.

Watt was obviously the biggest defensive loss, as he’s a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year. From 2012-2015, Watt was the most dominant player in the NFL. He finished #1 overall among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including 3 seasons as PFF’s highest graded overall player, and anchored one of the top defenses in the league. He had a total of 67 sacks and a ridiculous 139 quarterback hits in 4 seasons, despite primarily rushing from the interior, and also played well against the run. However, since the end of the 2015 season, he’s had a groin surgery, two back surgeries, and a knee surgery and he’s played a total of just 8 games.

In 2016, he struggled even before going down, as he returned too early from off-season back surgery, but he was on his way to another dominant season in 2017 before breaking his knee. He didn’t have a sack, but had 5 hits and 10 hurries on 125 pass rush snaps and was PFF’s 2nd ranked 3-4 defensive end through 4 weeks. He should still be in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, but it’s fair to question if he’ll ever be as dominant as he once was. That being said, even if he’s at 90% of his peak, he’s still one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL and his return will have a big impact on this defense.

In his absence, nose tackle DJ Reader actually led this defensive line in snaps, despite only playing 58.4% of the snaps in 14 games. Reader played well, finishing 16th among defensive tackles. The 6-3 335 pounder is primarily a run stuffer, but he hasn’t been a bad pass rusher in limited action. He has 2 sacks, 6 hits, and 28 hurries on 434 pass rush snaps in 2 seasons in the league. Now going into his 3rd season in the league, Reader could play a larger role even with Watt coming back, as none of their other defensive linemen stood out in Watt’s absence.

Christian Covington was their only other defensive lineman who played well last season with Watt out and he played just 166 snaps in 7 games before going down for the season with a torn bicep. A 6th round pick in 2015, Covington earned negative grades on 170 snaps and 415 snaps respectively in his first 2 seasons in the league, but was a dominant run stuffer in limited action last season, finishing 15th among 3-4 defensive ends in run stuffing grade despite the limited action. He’s inexperienced and a projection to a larger role, but he should be the favorite for the 3rd starting job on this defensive line, at least in base packages.

Second year lineman Carlos Watkins should also have a significant role as a rotational player, even he doesn’t start. Watkins only played 328 snaps as a 4th round rookie last season, but he wasn’t bad and could be better in his 2nd season in the league. On a defensive line that doesn’t have much pass rush outside of Watt, Watkins could play a lot of snaps in sub packages as an interior rusher. He didn’t touch the quarterback as a rookie, but did have 12 hurries on 188 pass rush snaps. That would leave Joel Heath and Brandon Dunn, bottom of the roster talents, competing for a rotational role. Watt’s return upgrades this defensive line significantly and, while they lack a 2nd interior pass rusher opposite him, they should be a stout defensive line against the run.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Whitney Mercilus is not as big of a name of Watt, but his injury was a big loss for this defense too. Prior to last season, he finished in the top-6 among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons, totaling 19.5 sacks and 20 hits. The 2012 1st round pick got off to a slow start to his career, getting negative grades from PFF in his first 3 seasons, but he finally delivered on his potential in 2015 and 2016. He played just 203 snaps last season before tearing his pectoral, but he should be able to bounce back in his age 28 season. Unlike Watt, who has a significant injury history, Mercilus missed just 2 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league prior to last season.

In Mercilus’ absence, middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney was actually 2nd among linebackers in pass rush snaps with 229. Of those 229 snaps, 99 came as a traditional edge rusher, with coverage linebacker Eddie Pleasant taking his spot inside, while the other 130 came as a middle linebacker. McKinney looks like an edge rusher at 6-4 260 and has had some issues in coverage in his career, but he struggled mightily as a pass rusher, totaling just 3 sacks, 4 hits, and 12 hurries.

With Mercilus coming back, he’ll likely be used more traditionally as an every down middle linebacker, but should still blitz somewhat frequently. A 2015 2nd round pick, McKinney is still only in his age 26 season and has earned a positive grade against the run in all 3 seasons in the league, with his best season against the run coming last season, when he finished 5th among middle linebackers on PFF in run grade. He isn’t great in coverage, but he’s adequate enough to play every down. The Texans locked him up this off-season ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, giving him a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension this off-season that makes him the 4th highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL.

Zach Cunningham will also play every down inside. A 2nd round rookie in 2017, Cunningham finished as PFF’s 16th ranked middle linebacker on 812 snaps, despite beginning the season as a reserve behind McKinney and veteran Brian Cushing. Cushing was limited to 163 snaps in 5 games by injury, suspension, and poor performance, so Cunningham took his job and ran with it. With Cushing no longer on the team, Cunningham is locked in as an every down player and could develop into one of the better middle linebackers in the league.

Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney will also continue playing every down in this linebacking corps, after playing 895 snaps in 2017. The 1st overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney came into the league with a massive upside, but his career got off to a rough start because he was limited to 146 snaps in 4 games by knee injuries as a rookie. He bounced back though, finishing in the top-9 among 3-4 outside linebackers in the 3 seasons since and missing just 5 total games with injury.

Over the past two seasons, he’s played 85.2% of the snaps in 30 games and totaled 15.5 sacks and 25 hits, while playing well against the run. Last season was the best of his career, as he finished 5th at his position and played all 16 games. Still only going into his age 25 season, Clowney has gotten better in every season in the league and could easily continue getting better. He did have off-season knee surgery, which isn’t ideal, but it’s not expected to sideline him for training camp.

Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Clowney could push to be the highest paid defensive player in the league. He has the upside to be worth it, though he needs to get more disciplined after being penalized 22 times in the past 2 seasons and he needs to keep staying on the field. Already making 12.306 million on his 5th year option, Clowney would likely be franchise tagged if they can’t reach a long-term agreement with him ahead of free agency next off-season.

Brennan Scarlett will likely remain the top reserve outside linebacker, although he played just 302 snaps in 11 games last season even with Mercilus out. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, Scarlett also struggled as a rookie on 113 snaps. He could be pushed for his job by 6th round rookie Duke Ejiofor, but he’s unlikely to be a huge upgrade. Depth is a problem in this linebacking corps, but they have a strong starting 4 of every down players, as long as everyone is healthy.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Texans also had major issues in their secondary. In fact, even with the injuries to Watt and Mercilus, the Texans’ secondary still might have been their worst defensive unit. The Texans clearly saw it as a weakness too, as they signed Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu to deals worth 34 million over 4 years and 7 million over 1 year respectively and then used a 3rd round pick on Stanford’s safety Justin Reid. Safeties Andre Hal and Marcus Gilchrist started 16 games and 13 games respectively last season and both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus, but Gilchrist signed with the Raiders this off-season while Hal is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with lymphoma this off-season.

Mathieu played both slot cornerback and safety with the Cardinals in his first 5 seasons in the league, but the Texans were planning on playing him every down at safety even before Hal’s diagnosis. At one point, Mathieu looked like he was going to be one of the best slot defensive backs in the league, but he tore his left ACL after finishing 2nd among cornerbacks in 13 games as a rookie in 2013 and then tore his right ACL after finishing 1st among cornerbacks in 14 games in 2015. Mathieu also missed 6 games with a shoulder injury in 2016 and 3 games while working back from the ACL tear in 2014.

He played all 16 games for the first time in 5 seasons in the league last season, but he was not nearly the same player as he was at his peak, finishing 45th among cornerbacks on PFF, which led to the Cardinals releasing him rather than paying him 11 million non-guaranteed. Still only his age 26 season, Mathieu has some bounce back potential and could benefit from mostly playing in just one spot, but he’s undersized at 5-9 185 and may be breaking down physically. It’s unclear if he’ll ever be the same player he was in 2013 and 2015 again, but he should still be a solid starter at the very least for the Texans as long as he can stay on the field.

With Mathieu playing safety every down, fellow free agent acquisition Aaron Colvin will play the slot, where he played 565 of his 700 snaps in 2017 with the Jaguars. A 4th round pick in 2014 who fell in the draft because he was injured, Colvin played just 281 snaps as a rookie because of the injury, but he was about a league average starter in 15 starts in 2015 and then earned the first two positive coverage grades of his career in the past 2 seasons on the slot. At 8.5 million annually, he’d be the highest paid pure slot cornerback in the NFL, so he’ll probably get a shot outside as well.

Kareem Jackson, Jonathan Joseph, and Kevin Johnson were their top-3 cornerbacks last season with 868 snaps, 746 snaps, and 579 snaps respectively, but Jackson is expected to move to safety this off-season, while both Joseph and Johnson earned negative grades from PFF in 2017. Jackson had a negative coverage grade last season, but he was PFF’s #1 ranked cornerback against the run, so it makes some sense that he’d get move to safety despite his lack of size at 5-10 190. Jackson has made 108 starts at cornerback in 8 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2010, playing both outside and on the slot, and he has been about a league average starter, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and moving to safety could prolong his career. His primary competition for playing time will be 3rd round rookie Justin Reid.

Jackson moving to safety would leave Joseph and Johnson as the primary cornerbacks outside cornerbacks in sub packages and possibly the starters depending on how they use COlvin. Joseph was a capable starter for years, finishing above average in 9 straight seasons on PFF from 2008-2016 and making 14 starts over that time period, but he finished below average last season for the first time since his 2nd season in the league in 2007 and now is going into his age 34 season. He appears to be on the decline. Johnson, meanwhile, was a first round selection in 2015 and has yet to pan out. He was underwhelming on 817 snaps as a rookie and has missed 14 games with injury in the past 2 seasons. Going into his age 26 season, he still has upside, but he was PFF’s worst ranked cornerback in 2017 and may just end up being a bust.

If Jackson stays at safety, their only other real option at outside cornerback in sub packages besides Johnson and Joseph is free agent signing Johnson Bademosi. Bademosi was primarily signed for his special teams ability, but his contract is worth 6.25 million over 2 years, suggesting they expect him to compete for a role on defense as well. He’s made just 6 starts in his career, but they’ve all come in the past 2 seasons and he was not bad. The Texans could also move Jackson back to cornerback and start Reid at safety, but he could struggle as a rookie. This secondary is improved, but it’s still a weakness on an otherwise strong defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Texans’ offense was incredible last season in the 4 games in which Deshaun Watson, Will Fuller, and DeAndre Hopkins were healthy, but they’re unlikely to be as good over a 16 game season, even if all 3 of them stay healthy all season. Not only did we only see them together for 4 games, a very limited sample size that could prove to be a little fluky, but Watson is coming off of a major injury, their offensive line is still terrible, and they still lack pass catching options around than Fuller and Hopkins. The Texans also are unlikely to have as low of a drop rate as they did with Watson in the lineup in 2018, so Watson could struggle to complete more than 60% of his passes.

Accuracy isn’t everything for quarterbacks with mobility and big arms (Cam Newton comes to mind as a quarterback who has been successful without a high completion percentage), but even Newton has had an up and down career. You could look at several different 4-6 game stretches in his career and see an elite quarterback, but you could look at several other 4-6 games stretches in his career and see a low level starter at best. Watson flashed as a rookie, but I would pump the breaks about being too excited about him just yet. That’s not to say the Texans can’t be an above average offense this season, but I don’t know if they’re quite at the elite level they flashed last season.

The Texans should also be better defensively, with Watt and Mercilus returning and improvements in the secondary, though there’s some uncertainty about whether or not Watt can return to his peak form. They have the upside to be a Super Bowl contender if everything goes right and they should at least compete for the division title, even in a tougher than usual AFC South. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Texans should be better in 2018, after dealing with serious injury problems last season. They have the upside to be a contender if Watson bounces back from injury and proves his play last season was not a fluke and if JJ Watt returns to form, but those are two big ifs, especially the former, given that Watson won’t catch the league by surprise as much this season and is unlikely to have the same drop rate from his receivers. They still have issues on the offensive line and in the secondary that could keep them out of the post-season in suddenly strong AFC South.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in AFC South

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