Houston Texans 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

From 2014 to 2016, the Texans went 27-21, but were carried by their defense and started 8 different underwhelming quarterbacks over those three seasons: Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. Hoping to find their missing piece, the Texans were aggressive trading up from 25 to 12 in the 2017 NFL Draft to select Deshaun Watson, giving up a future first round pick in the process.

Watson appeared to be that missing piece as a rookie, completing 61.8% of his passes for an average of 8.33 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while adding 269 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, but then he tore his ACL in practice week 9 and missed the rest of the season. Dealing with an injury situation from hell, the Texans were also without their top defensive player JJ Watt for most of the season, as well as several other key starters, leading to the Texans finishing just 4-12.

In 2018, they were healthy and went on to win 11 games, but still seemed short of being a true contender, finishing 8th in first down rate differential at +2.99% and losing at home in their first playoff game against the Colts. Their defense was back to being dominant with Watt healthy, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed, but their offense was a middle of the pack unit, finishing just 17th in first down rate, even with Deshaun Watson making all 16 starts.

Watson was not the problem though and in some ways he played better in 2018, even though he was coming off of a serious injury. He completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.25 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while adding 551 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground, and finished 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. His best improvement came in his accuracy and his completion percentage jumped 6.5% as a result. 

Durability is always going to be a concern for Watson because of his playing style and even last season he played through a serious chest injury for much of the season, but as long as he can stay on the field, he has the talent to continue developing into one of the best all around quarterbacks in the league, still only going into his age 24 season. The Texans did improve their backup quarterback situation this off-season by signing AJ McCarron, who has a career 91.4 QB rating on 136 attempts in 13 games (3 starts), but they’d obviously still be in a lot of trouble if Watson was to get injured again.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

This biggest thing that held this offense back in 2018 was their offensive line, which has been a problem for years. Watson led the league with 62 sacks taken and was pressured on a league most 44.7% of his dropbacks last season, making his high completion percentage all the more impressive (he finished 5th in the NFL with a 57.9% completion percentage under pressure). The Texans started 8 different offensive linemen, but only one earned an average or better grade from PFF, guard Greg Mancz, who started just 4 games.

The Texans did make upgrading the offensive line a priority this off-season, signing Matt Kalil to a 1-year, 7.5 million dollar deal in free agency and using first and second round picks on offensive linemen, taking Alabama State’s Tytus Howard and Northern Illinois’ Max Scharping. All three players will compete for roles, but it’s unclear if any of them are going to move the needle upfront. Scharping was a solid value in the 2nd round, but Howard was a reach in the first round, after the Eagles moved up one spot ahead of them to select original target Andre Dillard, and Kalil missed all of 2018 with a knee injury and was a head scratching signing at that salary. Those three will be among 10 players potentially competing for jobs upfront this off-season. 

Kalil’s salary suggests he’ll start, probably at left tackle. He was a solid left tackle early in his career, making 64 of 64 starts for the Vikings from 2012-2015, but he’s had two of his last three seasons wiped out by injury and finished just 56th out of 92 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in his one recent healthy season in 2017. With Kalil now going into his age 30 season, it’s unclear who the Texans were competing with to sign him for 7.5 million dollars, especially since his deal doesn’t give the Texans any long-term option beyond 2019 on the off chance he does bounce back. He’ll likely be an upgrade over Julie’n Davenport, who finished 77th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles in 16 starts last season, but that could largely be by default and he could easily miss time with injury again. 

Right guard Zach Fulton’s salary also suggests he’ll start. He finished 65th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF last season in 13 starts, but the Texans signed him to a 4-year, 28 million dollar contract last off-season and his 7 million dollar salary for 2019 is fully guaranteed, so they don’t have much of a choice but to give him another shot. He was a better player in the first 4 years (46 starts) of his career in Kansas City before signing that contract, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s never been better than a middling starter.

Draft picks Tytus Howard and Max Scharping both played tackle in college, though it wouldn’t be a surprise if the latter moved inside in the NFL because of his arm length. Howard will likely be in the mix to start at right tackle week 1, where he would replace free agent departure Kendall Lamm. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Howard struggle as a rookie though and most expected him to go in the 2nd or 3rd round. Davenport could also compete at right tackle, but the 2017 4th round pick has shown very little in two seasons in the league and likely isn’t a roster lock. 

Also in the mix at right tackle is Seantrel Henderson, who was re-signed to a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season. He started at right tackle week 1 last season, but missed all but 11 snaps with a broken ankle and has played just 89 snaps in the past 3 seasons. The 2014 7th round pick made 26 starts at right tackle in the first 2 seasons of his career and is still in his age 27 season, but he also earned below average grades in both of those seasons and could easily struggle again if he manages to win the job.

If Scharping moves inside to guard, he could compete with incumbent left guard Senio Kelemete, who finished 59th out of 88 qualifying guards in a career high 14 starts last season. He earned average grades from PFF as a spot starter with the Saints from 2015-2017 (22 starts), but he may be overstretched as a full-time starter. Kelemete could also be pushed for his job by 2018 3rd round pick Martinas Rankin, who struggled mightily at tackle as a rookie and is now moving inside to guard, and veteran Greg Mancz, who wasn’t bad in 4 spot starts last season. Mancz was also a solid starter at center in 2016, making 16 starts as an injury replacement, though his experience at guard is more limited (11 career starts).

Mancz could also be an option at center, but it’s likely the Texans will continue starting Nick Martin. Martin was underwhelming last season, finishing 22nd among 39 qualifying centers on PFF, but he played every snap and the 2016 2nd round pick has made 30 starts at center over the past 2 seasons. He was underwhelming in 2017 as well, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a bit of a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2019, now in his contract year. The Texans added talent to this unit this off-season and it would be hard for them to be worse than last season, but there’s a lot of uncertainty upfront and this looks likely to be weakness again.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

The Texans also didn’t get much from their running backs in 2018. They ranked a decent 19th in YPC as a team with 4.28, but that was buoyed by a 5.57 YPC average on 99 carries by Deshaun Watson. Lead back Lamar Miller averaged 4.63 YPC on 210 carries, but did a poor job of consistently keeping this offense on schedule, finishing 35th out of 47 qualifying running backs with a 44% carry success rate. He had about 10% of his season rushing total on one carry, so that distorts his average a little bit. Meanwhile, #2 back Alfred Blue averaged just 3.33 yards per carry on 150 carries with a 41% carry success rate, 39th among qualifying running backs.

The Texans didn’t do anything to address the running back position this off-season, only using a 7th round draft pick on fullback Cullen Gillespia, so they’ll once again be relying on Lamar Miller as their lead back. Miller is unspectacular, but he’s about as reliable as they come, topping 150 carries in 6 straight seasons (one of 3 running backs to do so over that stretch), averaging 4.31 YPC, totalling 203 catches in 92 games, and missing just 4 games due to injury. He’s also somehow only still in his age 28 season, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank, and much of his struggles consistently keeping this offense on schedule last season were due to the offensive line’s inconsistent run blocking. He’s a good bet for another 200 or so carries in 2019, but could be inefficient on a per carry basis again if the offensive line continues to struggle. 

The Texans will also be hoping to get more from third year running back D’onta Foreman, whose 2018 season was ruined by injury. It would be hard for the Texans to get less from him in 2019, as he actually lost rushing yardage on the season with -1 yard on 7 carries, but the 2017 3rd round pick showed promise as a rookie before tearing his Achilles late in the season, averaging 4.19 yards per carry on 78 carries and he could easily bounce back in 2019 if he’s healthy, which he never was last season. He could see a significant role as a rotational running back, though he doesn’t do much in the passing game (13 catches in 27 career games in college and just 6 catches as a rookie in 2017). With little depth behind Foreman, they need him to bounce back.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The most valuable player the Texans have on offense around Deshaun Watson is #1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who finished last season with a 115/1572/11 slash line, finishing in the top-5 in the NFL in all 3 categories. A first round selection in 2013, Hopkins has averaged a 95/1327/9 slash line in the past 5 seasons, despite having underwhelming quarterback play for much of that, and he has 153 catches for 2123 yards and 17 touchdowns in 22 career games with Deshaun Watson (111/1544/12 slash line over 16 games). Still very much in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Hopkins is arguably the best wide receiver in the entire NFL. 

The rest of this receiving corps was a weakness last season though. Will Fuller had a 32/503/4 slash line in 7 games, but then he tore his ACL and in his absence no one else topped 305 yards receiving on the season. The Texans didn’t make any big additions this off-season and will instead be counting on better health from Fuller and 3rd receiver Keke Coutee, who had a 28/287/1 slash line in just 6 games last season. 

Both players have upside, especially Fuller, who has 45 catches for 782 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 career games with Deshaun Watson (65/1137/16 slash line over 16 games), but both have significant injury histories as well, with Fuller missing 17 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and Coutee having chronic hamstring problems dating back to his collegiate days, part of why he fell to the 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. It’s concerning that the Texans didn’t do anything to improve their depth behind Fuller and Coutee this off-season. 

The one addition they did make to their receiving corps this off-season was 3rd round tight end Kahale Warring. His addition coincided with the release of veteran Ryan Griffin, who was 3rd on the team in receiving last season with a 24/305/0 slash line, but he averaged just 0.84 yards per route run and was not much of a blocker either. With Griffin gone, the Texans are going with a youth movement at the position, with 2018 3rd round pick Jordan Akins and 2018 6th round pick Jordan Thomas also in the mix for snaps, after playing 388 snaps and 470 snaps respectively as rookies last season. 

Neither Akins nor Thomas showed much though, averaging 1.17 yards per route run and 1.38 yards per route run respectively and underwhelming as blockers. Warring enters the league pretty raw, with just 51 catches in his collegiate career, so it’s possible the Texans don’t get much more out of any of their tight ends again in 2019. This receiving corps could easily be better in 2019 than 2018 with better health and some young talent, but this group remains a concern.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

As mentioned, the Texans were led by one of the best defenses in the league last season. A huge part of their defensive success is the edge defender trio of JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans have to get creative to get three all on the field at the same time, frequently playing JJ Watt as a defensive end in 3-4 base packages, with Clowney and Mercilus as 3-4 outside linebackers, and also using both Clowney and Mercilus as off ball linebackers occasionally in obvious passing situations, with Clowney seeing snaps as a blitzer from the middle linebacker spot and Mercilus leading all edge defenders with 168 coverage snaps in 2018. 

Watt used to be primarily an interior defender earlier in his career, but he’s played more and more on the edge in passing situations in recent years, as the Texans feel it’s a better use of his pass rush ability. It hasn’t really matter where he’s played, as he’s finished in the top-2 at his position on Pro Football Focus in each of his past 5 healthy seasons, including #1 ranked seasons in 2013 and 2014. In total, he has 92 sacks, 176 hits, and a 13.4% pressure rate in 104 career games. He’s going into his age 30 season and missed close to two entire seasons with injury (he played just 8 games in 2016 and 2017 combined), but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was one of the best defensive players in the league again in 2019. 

Like Watt, Mercilus missed most of 2017 with injury, going down with a torn pectoral in the same game Watt broke his leg, and he was a welcome re-addition last season as well. He had just 4 sacks, but added 11 hits and an 11.4% pressure rate. A first round pick in 2012, Mercilus was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s earned an above average pass rush grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons dating back to 2015 and he has 24.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate in 52 games over that stretch. 

Mercilus has also been relatively durable aside from the 2017 pectoral tear, missing just 2 games in his other 6 seasons. Still only in his age 29 season, he should have another solid season in 2019. He did struggle mightily in coverage last season, allowing 23 completions on 25 targets with no pass breakups, and the 258 pounder is not a natural coverage athlete, so it’s possible they scale back his coverage role this season, but the Texans like lining him up in different spots and using him in different ways.

The Texans also like lining Jadeveon Clowney in different spots, though he also saw 29 coverage snaps in 2018. The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney had durability problems early in his career, but he’s missed just 3 games with injury over the past 3 seasons and has played close to every snap in those games, averaging 56.3 snaps per game. He doesn’t have the big sack totals, with a career high of 9.5 sacks in a season and just 24.5 sacks in the past 3 seasons, but he’s added 35 hits and a 10.9% pressure rate in those 3 seasons and is a great player against the run as well. 

Clowney finished the 2018 season as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender, a career best, and could still keep getting better, only going into his age 26 season. The Texans made the obvious decision to franchise tag Clowney this off-season, keeping him off the market with a 15.967 million dollar salary for 2019, but they are reportedly not close on a long-term extension. Assuming he doesn’t hold out, he should continue being a part of a dominant edge defender trio.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

With JJ Watt playing primarily on the edge in 2018, DJ Reader, Angelo Blackson, Brandon Dunn, and Christian Covington led the team in snaps by an interior defender, with 639, 429, 347, and 257 respectively. Covington is no longer with the team, but he had the smallest role of the four and the Texans have an obvious replacement for him in 2017 5th round pick Carlos Watkins. Watkins has played just 371 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but has shown some potential and should have a bigger role in his 3rd season in the league.

DJ Reader will likely continue to lead the way. He plays on the nose in the Texans’ base 3-4 defense, but the 347 pounder isn’t just a base package run stuffer, with a 7.8% career pressure rate and an average of 583 snaps played per season over the last 2 seasons. The 2016 5th round pick has earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league and finished last season 41st among interior defenders on PFF. Still only in his age 25 season, Reader could keep getting better in 2019 and beyond. He’ll be owed a steep pay increase on his next contract, owed just 2.025 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019.

Brandon Dunn will likely continue starting at defensive end opposite JJ Watt in base packages (10 starts in 14 games in 2018). The 2014 undrafted free agent has developed into a solid run stuffer, which is what he’s primarily relied on for, but he gets no pass rush, with just 4 pressures on 171 pass rush snaps last season. Angelo Blackson isn’t much better as a pass rusher, with a 4.4% pressure rate in 2018, but he’s relied on as an interior pass rusher out of necessity. The 429 snaps he played last season were a career high and the 2015 4th round pick will play a similar role in 2019, after being re-signed on a 3-year, 12 million dollar contract this off-season. This is a strong group in base packages, especially when JJ Watt plays defensive end, but they lack interior pass rush, with nose tackle DJ Reader arguably being their best interior pass rusher. 

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Starting middle linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham return, after playing 919 snaps in 16 games and 753 snaps in 14 games respectively last season. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cunningham has made 27 starts in 2 seasons in the league and has been solid in both seasons. He’s better as a run stuffer than in coverage, but he holds his own in coverage as well. He could easily take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019.

McKinney also is better against the run than he is in coverage, but he earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus for both last season and finished a career best 8th among off ball linebackers on the season. Also a former 2nd round pick, McKinney has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league and has made all 48 starts over the past 3 seasons. He might not quite match his career best season in 2019, but he should be one of the better off ball linebackers in the league again. 

Depth is a problem for the Texans at this position though, with only former undrafted free agents Dylan Cole and Brennan Scarlett behind McKinney and Cunningham on the depth chart. Cole is a 2017 undrafted free agent with 326 career snaps, while Scarlett went undrafted in 2016 and has played just 523 career snaps. Mercilus and Clowney do play some inside linebacker in certain situations, but they couldn’t play the position every down, so the Texans would be in trouble if McKinney or Cunningham suffered a serious injury.

Grade: B+

Secondary

While not much is changing for the Texans in the front seven, they had some big losses in the secondary. Safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Kareem Jackson were their top-2 defensive backs in terms of snaps played last season with 1,045 and 985 respectively and both signed elsewhere this off-season. Safety Andre Hal and cornerback Kevin Johnson only played 237 snaps and 65 snaps respectively last season, but they both have prior starting experience and are also no longer with the team. 

Not only did Mathieu and Jackson play significant snaps last season, but they also played at a high level, finishing 20th among safeties and 4th among cornerbacks respectively on Pro Football Focus last season, so they won’t be easy to replace. Mathieu was replaced by ex-Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson, who signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. Gipson was released by the Jaguars ahead of an 8.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so it’s a surprise he was able to get a deal that basically guarantees him 15.5 million over the next 2 seasons. 

Gipson has started 87 games in the past 6 seasons, including all 48 in the past 3 seasons, but he’s been an inconsistent player. He finished last season as PFF’s 40th ranked qualifying safety, but he’s finished as high as 15th among safeties in 2014 and as low as 94th among 101 qualifying safeties in 2016. He’s not a bad starting option and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, but he’s not reliable and he’s an obvious downgrade from Mathieu. He’ll start next to second year safety Justin Reid, who finished as PFF’s 28th ranked safety on 906 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018. He should have another solid season in 2019. 

Jackson, meanwhile, is being replaced by ex-Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby, who signed a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal this off-season. A first round pick in 2014, Bradley Roby earned average or better grades from PFF in each of the first 4 seasons of his career, playing about two thirds of the snaps as the 3rd cornerback behind the talented duo of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. With Talib traded to the Rams last off-season, Roby became an every down cornerback and matched up with opponents’ top outside receivers more often than not, but he got exposed in that role, allowing a 117.3 QB rating into his coverage and finishing 102nd among 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. Giving him 10 million dollars on a deal that doesn’t even give the Texans an option to keep him beyond 2019 if he bounces back doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and he could easily struggle again. 

Roby will start outside opposite Johnathan Joseph. Joseph is coming off of an impressive season, finishing 12th among cornerbacks on PFF, but the 13-year veteran is going into his age 35 season and could see his abilities fall off a cliff in the next season or two. Joseph has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 10 straight seasons, but last season was his highest ranked season since 2015. I don’t expect him to be as good again in 2019 and there’s a chance he declines significantly.

At slot cornerback, the Texans are counting on a bounce back year from Aaron Colvin. Colvin was signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar contract in free agency last off-season, becoming one of the highest paid pure slot cornerbacks in the league, but ended up playing just 317 snaps in 8 games and finishing as PFF’s 120th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifiers. His 7.75 million dollar salary for 2019 is guaranteed, so the Texans don’t have any choice but to give him another shot, but he’s still only going into his age 28 season and has bounce back potential if he’s healthy. The 2014 4th round pick earned average or better grades from PFF in each of his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he’s had injury problems dating back to college, including a torn ACL that caused him to fall in the draft and an ankle injury that ended his 2016 season. 

With Joseph getting up there in age, the Texans used a 2nd round pick on Kentucky’s Lonnie Johnson as a long-term replacement. Johnson is a workout wonder, but wasn’t a standout player in college and may need a couple years to develop. He’s unlikely to start the season higher than 4th on the depth chart, but could be forced into action if Colvin gets hurt again or Joseph declines significantly. With Mathieu and Jackson gone and Joseph likely to regress, this could be a very average secondary in 2019.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Texans were a good, not great team last year, with 11 of 16 games decided by a touchdown or less (6-5 record). They should be similar this season. On defense, their secondary likely won’t be as good in 2019 as it was last season, while their offense has more talent around the quarterback, but still some significant questions, especially on the offensive line. They’ll be in contention for a playoff spot, even with a tough schedule in a suddenly tough AFC South, but I think they are behind at least the Colts in the division. 

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in AFC South

Team Score: 74.71 (16th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 73.63

Defensive Score: 75.78

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

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