Houston Texans 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans went 10-6 in 2019, but they weren’t as good as their record suggested, finishing middle of the pack with a -7 point differential and a +0.01% first down rate differential, winning 10 games primarily due to a 8-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, something that will likely not continue into 2020. The Texans won a playoff game, but even at home they needed a huge comeback just to narrowly defeat an equally underwhelming playoff qualifier in the Buffalo Bills and then the following week they got blown out in Kansas City in a 51-31 loss that had the second most lopsided first down rate differential of any game in the league all year at 29.82%.

The Texans’ offense was not the problem, as they were actually improved from 2018, when they were a better overall team. In 2018, they finished 17th at 35.67% in first down rate, but they moved up to 8th at 38.35% last season. The problem was their defense, which plummeted from 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.68% in 2018 to 26th in first down rate allowed at 38.33% in 2019. I’ll get more into their defense later, but they look likely to continue to struggle on that side of the ball, so they’ll need a lot from their offense to be legitimate contenders in 2020.

With Deshaun Watson at quarterback, the Texans will always be at least serviceable on offense, as he’s one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. A rookie year torn ACL threatened to derail the 2017 12th overall pick’s career, but Watson has bounced back with strong years in both 2018 and 2019. Not only has Watson played at a high level over the past two seasons, but his two seasons are close to identical.

In 2018, he ranked 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.25 YPA, 26 touchdowns and 9 interceptions with 551 yards and 5 touchdowns on 99 carries (5.57 YPC), and in 2019 he ranked 9th and completed 67.3% for an average of 7.94 YPA, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with 413 yards and 7 touchdowns on 82 carries (5.04 YPC). Still only in his age 25 season, Watson could take another step forward in 2020.

Perhaps most important for Watson is that he hasn’t missed a single game to injury since returning from the ACL tear. Watson’s playing style and his propensity to take off and run lead to him significantly taking more hits than your average quarterback, which increases his changes of getting injured, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he made it through the year without a significant injury again. If Watson does miss time, the Texans would have to turn to career backup AJ McCarron (86.2 QB rating on 173 pass attempts in 6 seasons in the league), who would obviously be a huge downgrade, as Watson is one of the top young quarterbacks in the league.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

As good as Watson is, he’ll need help from his supporting cast if this offense is going to be as good as it was last season. Like many teams with quarterbacks on cheap rookie deals, the Texans have been aggressive spending money to try to maximize their Super Bowl chances while Watson is still inexpensive, as they have the 4th highest payroll in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, in spite of Watson’s inexpensive deal. On offense, they have the 5th highest payroll in average annual salary and the 4 teams above them are all paying their quarterbacks 25 million or more annually.

How the Texans have spent that money is questionable, however. Head coach Bill O’Brien took over as the de facto general manager last off-season and he has definitely made his mark on this team with trades and free agent signings, but it’s hard to argue the result of all of his moves has been positive. No trade was more head scratching than his decision to send #1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 4th round pick to the Cardinals for David Johnson and a 2nd round pick this off-season.

Hopkins was not only the Texans’ #1 receiver, but he’s been one of the top receivers in the entire league for years, finishing in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Over those 5 seasons, Hopkins has averaged a 103/1352/9 slash line per 16 games, despite having routinely horrible quarterback play for years before DeShaun Watson. With Watson, he has averaged an 111/1422/10 slash line per 16 games in 37 starts. He’s also missed just one game with injury in 7 seasons in the league and has shown he can continue playing at a high level through injuries and constant double teams.

Only going into his age 28 season with 39.915 million over 3 years left on his deal, Hopkins should not have been moved for any less than the first and third round pick the Giants got for Odell Beckham last off-season. The only way the Texans got comparable value to what the Giants got is if they value David Johnson equivalent to the 28th overall pick and Johnson arguably is a negative value, as he has a 11.2 million dollar guaranteed salary and may have cost the Cardinals a draft pick to get rid of in a salary dump if the Texans hadn’t come along with valued him like a first round draft pick.

Moving Hopkins didn’t even really free up much money given Johnson’s salary and yet the Texans still went out and spent heavily to replace Hopkins, signing slot receiver Randall Cobb to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal and trading away their own second round pick to get Brandin Cooks and the 47 million over 4 years remaining on his contract. All in all, the Texans went from paying DeAndre Hopkins 12.5 million in 2020 to paying David Johnson, Randall Cobb, and Brandin Cooks 29.325 million combined, and they got to move up 17 picks in the second round. As a result, the Texans have the most expensive offensive supporting cast in the league and yet still lack a clear #1 wide receiver.

Cooks and Cobb will compete for targets and playing time with holdovers Will Fuller and Kenny Stills. Cooks is the closest thing they have to a #1 receiver and he actually topped 1000 yards in 4 straight seasons from 2015-2018, but he benefited from playing with Drew Brees and Tom Brady and never finished higher than 24th among wide receivers on PFF during that stretch. He also has a concerning concussion history and was limited to just a 42/583/2 slash line in an injury plagued 2019 season. Still only in his age 27 season, Cooks has bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2020, but he also legitimately could be one concussion away from having to retire. Even if he does stay healthy all year and bounce back, he’s still a significant drop off from Hopkins.

Cobb is the only natural slot option, so he’s likely locked in to that role. Cobb has been primarily a slot receiver throughout his career, running 84.5% of his routes from there in 9 seasons in the league. Cobb had strong impressive seasons early in his career with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, putting up slash lines of 80/954/8, 91/1287/12, and 79/829/6 in 2012, 2014, and 2015 respectively, but his 55/828/3 slash line last season in his first and only season in Dallas in 2019 was his best yardage total since 2015, as he averaged a 55/549/3 slash line over a 3 year span from 2016-2018. Injuries have been part of the problem as, while he stayed relatively healthy last season, injuries frequently limited him throughout his final years in Green Bay, even when on the field. Now Cobb is going into his age 30 season and could be on the decline. He should remain a useful slot receiver, but he probably won’t match last year’s numbers.

That leaves Will Fuller and Kenny Stills to compete for the other outside receiver job, with Stills as the heavy favorite. Fuller has shown #1 receiver ability in the past, as the former first round pick has averaged a 68/1056/10 slash line per 16 games in 22 games with DeShaun Watson, even with Hopkins dominating targets opposite him. The problem is he’s never played more than 14 games in 4 seasons in the league, including 20 games missed over the past 3 seasons combined. Now going into his age 26 season, it’s certainly conceivable he could have a breakout year with Hopkins gone, but of course he’ll have to finally stay healthy, which is far from a guarantee.

Fuller likely starting opposite Cooks would leave Kenny Stills as the 4th receiver. Stills is highly paid for a 4th receiver, with a 7 million non-guaranteed salary for 2020, so there’s some speculation the Texans will try to trade him or potential release him outright, but he’s worth keeping as depth, given the injury history of the Texans’ top-3 wide receivers and Stills’ ability to play both outside and on the slot. Stills has been a capable receiver throughout his 7-year career, finishing average or better on PFF in 5 of 7 seasons and averaging a 43/671/5 slash line per season, including 44th ranked finish on PFF on 587 snaps and a 40/561/4 slash line in 2019. 

Stills’ salary is significant for a player who probably won’t have a defined role going into the season, but the Texans aren’t desperate for immediate cap space and they should be in win now mode with DeShaun Watson running out of cost controlled years on his rookie deal and Stills could easily end up seeing a fair amount of targets when all is said and done regardless of his week 1 role. The Texans also have 2018 4th round pick and slot specialist Keke Coutee in the mix for a reserve role and he’s shown some promise in limited action in two years in the league, though injuries have limited him to just 605 snaps in 15 games total. Now buried on the depth chart, I wouldn’t expect much from Coutee statistically in 2020, unless Stills is moved, but he’s a good depth option to have.

Another good reason to keep Stills is the Texans figure to run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets to make up for their lack of tight ends. Jordan Akins and Darren Fells split time at tight end last season and played together in two-tight end sets, but they were limited to 1.07 yards per route run and 1.09 yards per route run respectively. Akins also struggled as a blocker, though blocking specialist Fells wasn’t bad in that aspect. The Texans didn’t make any additions to this tight end group this off-season, but they do have some upside in a young position group.

Jordan Akins probably has the most upside, as he was a 3rd round pick in 2018. He hasn’t shown much in two years in the league, playing 388 middling snaps as a rookie before a disappointing year in a larger role in 2019, but he still has upside and could be better in his third season. The Texans also used a 3rd round pick in 2019 on a tight end, taking San Diego State’s Kahale Warring, but he missed his entire rookie year with injuries. Warring still has obvious upside, but he entered the league really raw and it’s unclear what the Texans can expect from him in his first career action. 

Warring will likely push both Akins and Fells for playing time, though Fells’ blocking ability makes him more likely to be locked into a role. Even if Fells does see significant playing time, I wouldn’t expect much from him as a receiver, as his 34 catches in 2019 were the best in his 7-year career and now he’s going into his age 34 season. The Texans also used a 6th round pick on a tight end in 2018 on Jordan Thomas, although he struggled mightily on 470 snaps as a rookie, finishing 45th out of 50 eligible tight ends on PFF, and then he barely played last season (67 snaps) even with Warring hurt, so he’s unlikely to lock down a role in 2020 and is probably not a roster lock either. I don’t expect much from the Texans’ tight ends, but there’s no denying their wide receiver depth, even if they’re lacking an obvious #1 option after the bizarre DeAndre Hopkins trade.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Given how much they are paying him and how much they valued him in the DeAndre Hopkins trade, it’s hard to imagine the Texans aren’t going to make David Johnson their feature back. Johnson has experience in this role and in 2016 was one of the top running backs in the NFL, rushing for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.23 YPC), while adding a 80/879/4 slash line through the air and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back overall, despite being in just his 2nd season in the league. If it was guaranteed that Johnson would do that again, the Texans’ trade for him might be justifiable, but the problem is he hasn’t come close to matching that 2016 season in 3 seasons since.

Johnson missed almost all of 2017 with injury, was not nearly the same player in 2018, rushing for 3.64 YPC and 7 touchdowns on 258 carries and adding a 50/446/3 slash line through the air, and then again struggled in 2019, averaging 3.67 YPC and being limited to just 94 carries, missing three games with injury and then being benched upon his return. Johnson didn’t have much in the way of a supporting cast in Arizona over the past two seasons, so his low production isn’t all his fault, but it’s also fair to point out that Johnson had an incredible supporting cast on one of the best offenses in the league in 2016. 

Johnson is a useful passing down back, totaling a 36/370/4 slash line last season even in limited action and earning an above average pass catching grade from PFF, but he’s earned middling grades as a runner aside from his outlier 2016 season and is unlikely to bounce back, now 4 years removed from his best season, in his age 29 season. The Texans also already had a useful passing down back in Duke Johnson and they paid a fairly high price to acquire him from the Browns last off-season, sending away a 3rd round pick. Now with David Johnson coming in, his role is unclear.

Duke Johnson was already being underutilized compared to what the Texans paid to get him, as the Texans ended up turning to street free agent signing Carlos Hyde as their lead back last season, while limiting Johnson to 83 carries. Even Johnson’s 44/410/3 slash line was lower than his 59/543/2 average in 4 seasons in Cleveland. Johnson has a 4.44 YPC average for his career, but he’s never topped 104 carries in a season, so he was overvalued when the Texans gave up a 3rd round pick to acquire him and that trade doesn’t look better now that Johnson spent 2019 behind Carlos Hyde and now will play behind David Johnson.

Duke Johnson will likely have an even smaller role in 2020 than 2019 and may be used as a true backup, only coming in when David Johnson needs a breather. With little depth at the position behind the two Johnsons, Duke Johnson is locked into the #2 back role, but it’s unclear how much that role will be utilized. Even if he hasn’t had a good year since 2016, the Texans seem determined to use David Johnson as a feature back. I wouldn’t expect much from him aside from volume.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The biggest area in which the Texans have improved around DeShaun Watson in his career is on the offensive line, which was one of the worst in the league in Watson’s first two seasons. The Texans made significant investments in this unit last off-season, spending premium picks to add three new starters, drafting right tackle Tytus Howard in the first round, left guard Max Scharping in the second round, and trading a 2020 first round pick, a 2021 first round pick, and a 2021 second round pick to the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, and the moves paid off. 

The Texans still allowed 49 sacks (8th most sacks allowed in the league) and Watson was still pressured on 38.4% of his dropbacks (6th in the NFL), but that was down from a league leading 62 sacks and a league leading 44.7% allowed pressure rate in 2018 and Watson’s tendency to hold the ball (3rd longest time in pocket per play in 2018 and 2nd longest in 2019) is partly to blame for how often he is sacked and pressured. This offensive line was also significantly improved in the run game from 2018 to 2019, which is a big part of the reason why the Texans ranked 9th in the NFL with 4.63 yards per carry.

The Texans return all five starters this year and could be improved even more because of continuity and young players taking a step forward. Laremy Tunsil figures to benefit the most from continuity because he arrived in Houston from Miami just about a week before the start of last season. Even still, Tunsil finished 18th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and allowed just 3 sacks, but he also led all offensive linemen with 18 penalties, probably in large part due to his relative unfamiliarity with the team. 

It’s not hard to see how Tunsil could have a significantly better season in 2020 just by cutting those penalties in half, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tunsil improved in other areas as well, as he’s a former first round pick still only going into his age 26 season. Tunsil has made 58 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-24 among offensive tackles in each of the past two seasons and could easily have his best year yet in 2020, especially if he can get his penalties down. The Texans are obviously banking on him improving long-term, not only giving up several premium draft picks to acquire him, but also extending him long-term on a 3-year, 66 million dollar deal that is almost fully guaranteed and makes him the highest paid offensive lineman in the league in average annual salary.

Second year players Tytus Howard and Max Scharping could also take a step forward. Scharping wasn’t terrible in 14 rookie year starts, but he still finished below average on PFF, ranking 61st out of 88 eligible guards, while Howard was more of a middling starter, but was limited to just 488 snaps in 8 games by injury. Both profile as long-term starters and could easily be better now that they have a year under their belts. At the very least, the Texans should benefit from Tytus Howard likely being healthier.

Right guard Zach Fulton and center Nick Martin are the relative “long-timers” on this offensive line, though Fulton is entering just his 3rd season with the team. Fulton was signed to a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal as a free agent two off-seasons ago in one of the Texans’ first big moves to improve this offensive line and, while he hasn’t quite lived up to his contract, finishing below average on PFF in both seasons (28 starts), he’s still been an upgrade for a team that once had the worst offensive line in the league. Fulton has made 74 starts in 6 seasons in the league and was a more capable starter earlier in his career in Kansas City, but I would expect him to be below average again in 2020, even if just slightly. Fulton is locked into a starting role to begin the season at least, without clear competition, but it’s possible 4th round rookie Charlie Heck could push him for his job before season’s end. 

Martin is also locked in at center, having finished 18th and 19th among centers on PFF over the past two seasons respectively, after the 2016 2nd round pick missed his rookie year and struggled in his 2nd season. Having developed into a consistent starter and still only in his age 27 season, I would expect more of the same from Martin in 2020. The Texans also have solid depth with tackle/guard Brent Qvale (15 career starts), guard Senio Kelemete (37 career starts), and guard/center Greg Mancz (28 career starts) available as reserves. This is an unspectacular line overall, but they could be easily a solid unit and they should be better than last season overall, even if just because of continuity and experience.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, the Texans’ defense declined drastically from 2018 to 2019, falling from 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.68% to 26th at 38.33% The reasons why are pretty clear. In 2018, their top-7 defensive players in some order were JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Benardick McKinney, DJ Reader, and Johnathan Joseph. In 2019, Clowney, Mathieu, and Jackson were elsewhere, Watt was limited to 469 snaps in 8 games by injury, McKinney was unable to match his career best year from 2018, and Joseph declined significantly, falling from 12th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his age 34 season in 2018 to 64th in his age 35 season in 2019. 

Watt should return healthy for 2020, but the defensive exodus continued this off-season, as Joseph is now with the Titans and DJ Reader signed with the Bengals, following a dominant 2019 season in which he ranked 6th among interior defenders on PFF. Without any key additions made on defense this off-season to replace all their lost talent, expect this unit to continue struggling, even if they get a healthy season from Watt.

Reader will be most closely replaced by 2nd round rookie Ross Blacklock, who the Texans took with the pick they got for DeAndre Hopkins. Blacklock projects as an above average starter long-term and could have gone in the first round, but it’s going to be difficult for him to replace Reader as a rookie, both as a pass rusher in sub packages and as a run stuffing nose tackle in sub packages, as Reader was above average in both aspects of the game last season. 

Charles Omenihu (443 snaps), Angelo Blackson (427 snaps), Brandon Dunn (399 snaps), and Carlos Watkins (265 snaps) all return from last season and it’s possible Eddie Vanderdoes could earn a role if he’s healthy, after playing 78 snaps in 3 games down the stretch last season. All five of those players earned below average grades last season though, so I wouldn’t expect much from this group as a whole without Reader and it’s possible the rookie Blacklock could be their best interior defender by default.

Omenihu probably has the best shot of the holdovers to develop into a solid starter or heavy rotational player, as the 2019 5th round pick wasn’t horrible as a rookie and flashed as a pass rusher, with 3 sacks, 4 hits, and an 8.3% pressure rate. He should at least have a sub package role as a situational interior pass rusher in 2020 and he has a good chance to exceed last year’s snap total in his second season in the league. 

Omenihu is a projection to a larger role and needs to get better against the run, but he should continue being a factor as a pass rusher and has the upside to develop into a starter long-term. Carlos Watkins may also have some upside, as he was a 4th round pick in 2017, but he’s been mediocre on 636 career snaps and is already in his age 27 season, so he’s running out of time to develop into anything other than a bottom of the roster talent. Even in a thin group, Watkins is not guaranteed a role.

Brandon Dunn is the biggest of the bunch at 6-2 310 and would be the most natural fit on the nose in base packages, as he’s been a capable run stuffer for most of his career. He has also never topped 416 snaps in 6 seasons in the league, he has a career 3.7% pressure rate, and he struggled in all aspects of the game last season, so he’s an underwhelming option. Fellow veteran Angelo Blackson also struggled mightily last season, finishing 122nd out of 125 eligible interior defenders on PFF, and he hasn’t been much better than that on an average of 308 snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league.

Vanderdoes is the wild card of the bunch as he was a 3rd round pick in 2017 by the Raiders, but he struggled on 464 snaps as a rookie, missed all of 2018 with a torn ACL, and then was waived/injured at final cuts after suffering a concussion in the pre-season before the 2019 season. The Texans claimed him to the practice squad and called him up later in the season. Still only in his age 25 season, it’s possible he could still develop into something long-term if he’s healthy, but it’s hard to know what to expect from him. This looks like a very weak group going into the season.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

JJ Watt is the saving grace is this defense, assuming he can stay on the field, which has hardly been a given over the past few seasons. The 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Watt burst onto the scene with one of the most dominant 4-year stretches ever by a defensive lineman from 2012-2015, as he finished in the top-2 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in all four seasons and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards along the way, tying him with Lawrence Taylor for most all-time. 

Over that stretch, Watt totaled 69 sacks, 142 hits, and a 15.0% pressure rate, despite primarily rushing from the interior, and he dominated against the run as well, while playing 61.9 snaps per game in 64 of a possible 64 games. Unfortunately, the injuries have really piled up over the past 4 seasons, as he suffered season ending injuries early in 2016 and 2017 that limited him to 374 snaps total in 8 games and then, after playing in all 16 games in 2018, he again missed significant time with injury last season. 

Watt has still played at a relatively high level when on the field, now primarily playing on the edge. He’s had 21.5 sacks, 38 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in 32 games and he finished 2nd among edge defenders on PFF in his one healthy season in 2018 and was PFF’s 5th ranked edge defender through week 8 when he went down last season. However, it’s fair to wonder if all of Watt’s injuries will start to pile up and slow him down, especially now going into his age 31 season. Even a diminished JJ Watt would likely be one of the better defensive ends in the league and the Texans will obviously take that if he can stay on the field, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and it’s far from a guarantee he makes it through the season.

With Watt injured and his former running mate Jadeveon Clowney traded last off-season, Whitney Mercilus took on a much larger role in 2019, going from 785 snaps to 950 snaps and, most importantly, going from 367 pass rush snaps to 591 pass rush snaps. That didn’t really lead to more pressure though. His sack total jumped from 4 to 7.5, but his quarterback hits fell from 11 to 6 and he had just 5 more total pressures on the season, dropping his pressure rate from 11.4% in 2018 to 8.0% in 2019. 

Mercilus has been an average or better starter for years and he finished 9th and 15th among edge defenders in 2015 and 2016 respectively, but he missed most of 2017 with injury, fell to 71st and 63rd respectively in 2018 and 2019, and now is going into his age 30 season. He could remain an average or better starter for another couple seasons at least, but his best days are likely behind him.

Brennan Scarlett (491 snaps) and Jacob Martin (220 snaps) saw significant action last season with Watt injured, with Scarlett working primarily as a base package player and Martin serving as a situational edge rusher. Both return to the team in 2020 and will compete for reserve roles behind Watt and Mercilus with third round rookie Jon Greenard, who could easily play a role even as a raw rookie. 

Scarlett has never been much of a pass rusher (7.6% career pressure rate) and he’s averaged just 254 snaps per season in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s been capable against the run and has the versatility to drop into coverage and play some off ball linebacker as well, something he could do situationally in 2020 if he can’t secure consistent playing time on the edge. 

Martin, meanwhile, has only played 445 snaps in two seasons since being drafted in the 6th round in 2018, but he’s shown some pass rush potential, with 6.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate in his career. He doesn’t hold up against the run, but his youth and pass rush ability make him a strong candidate to secure a sub package role. If Watt can stay healthy, this is a strong group with adequate depth, but that depth would really be tested if Watt were to miss time again.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, off ball linebacker Benardrick McKinney was one of their best defensive players on their dominant 2018 unit, but regressed in 2019. He still finished 25th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, his 4th time finishing in the top-25 in 5 seasons in the league, but that was a steep dropoff from his 9th ranked in 2018. McKinney is still young, in his age 28 season, but his 2018 season looks like an outlier when you look at his career, as he’s otherwise never finished higher than 19th among off ball linebackers on PFF. He should remain an above average starter, but I would be surprised if he regained his 2018 form.

Zach Cunningham will be the other starting off ball linebacker inside in their 3-4 defense, playing both base packages and nickel packages, but coming off the field for a 6th defensive back in dime packages. A second round pick in 2017, Cunningham has been underwhelming in coverage thus far in his career, but he’s still earned an average or better grade from PFF overall in all 3 seasons anyway because of his ability against the run. He’s finished above average on PFF among off ball linebackers against the run in all 3 seasons, including a 4th ranked finish in 2019. Still not 26 until December, Cunningham still has time to get better in coverage, but even if he doesn’t he’s still a solid starter all things considered.

The Texans don’t have much depth at this position, which is why Brennan Scarlett may also see situational snaps as an off ball linebacker, especially in situations where they need a coverage upgrade on Cunningham. Dylan Cole (136 snaps), Tyrell Adams (108 snaps), and Peter Kamalbayi (91 snaps) all struggled mightily in 2019 and are not roster locks even at a thin position. The Texans will have to hope that McKinney and Cunningham remain healthy again, otherwise they could be in a lot of trouble at this position.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Texans’ secondary is the unit that declined the most from 2018 to 2019, as they lost Tyrann Mathieu, who ranked 20th among safeties on Pro Football Focus in 2018, and Kareem Jackson, who ranked 5th among cornerbacks, and they didn’t adequately replace them. Not much has changed in this unit from 2019 to 2020, so they should continue to struggle. The only personnel change is they released safety Tashaun Gipson, even though 3.25 of his 6.5 million dollar salary was already guaranteed, and they replaced him with ex-Brown Eric Murray on a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. 

Gipson was an underwhelming starter in 2019, but Murray is unlikely to be an upgrade, as the 2016 4th round pick has made just 12 career starts at safety (3 starts at slot cornerback) and has been underwhelming on 1,568 career snaps in 4 seasons in the league. The Texans aren’t paying him a ton, but he’s still overpaid, as he’s clearly a below average starting option. His salary and lack of an alternative likely locks him into a starting role though.

Murray will start next to Justin Reid, who is probably their best defensive back overall. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Reid took over as a starter in week 6 of his rookie year, finishing 27th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, and then he jumped up to 14th among safeties on PFF in 15 starts in his second season in the league. He profiles as a potential Pro-Bowl caliber talent long-term and could take another step forward in 2020, now in his third season in the league.

At cornerback, the Texans have spent significant resources trying to replenish their talent after not only losing Kareem Jackson last off-season, but also watching cornerback Johnathan Joseph decline last season and then leave in free agency this off-season. So far, none of their moves to replace Jackson and Joseph have panned out. They used a 2nd round pick on Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson in the 2019 NFL Draft and then watched him finish dead last out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF as a rookie on 531 snaps. They traded a 3rd round pick at last year’s trade deadline to acquire former 2017 first round pick Gareon Conley after two and a half disappointingly average seasons in Oakland and he ended up not being much better in 412 snaps with the Texans. 

They also signed ex-Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season and then re-signed him for 31.5 million over 3 years this off-season, even though he was just a middling starter in 10 starts in an injury plagued 2019. Roby’s contract likely makes him the de facto #1 cornerback, even though he’s only finished in the top-50 among cornerbacks on PFF in 2 of 6 seasons in the league and has never finished higher than 23rd in a single season. He’ll likely remain an adequate starter in 2020, but he was definitely overpaid this off-season.

Roby being the top cornerback leaves Gareon Conley and Lonnie Johnson to compete for the #2 cornerback job. The 3rd round pick the Texans gave up to acquire Conley at the deadline last year suggests they view him as a starter long-term, but they also declined his 5th year option for 2021, worth 10.244 million guaranteed for injury only, so perhaps they’ve already soured on him a little bit. 

Conley is still young, going into his age 25 season, he still has upside, as a former 24th overall pick, and he hasn’t been bad in 26 career starts so far, but he’s not locked into a starting role. Even as badly as Lonnie Johnson played as a rookie, the Texans are likely still high on his upside long-term and he could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season, even if it’s just by default. If he ends up in the starting lineup, it might say more about Conley than it says about him though.

Slot cornerback snaps are also up for grabs in three cornerback sets. Bradley Roby began last season moving inside to the slot in sub packages and the Texans could do that again with Conley and Johnson outside if they feel those are their best three cornerbacks, but Roby is better outside, so it’s more likely the Texans either stick with Vernon Hargreaves, who played the slot down the stretch last season after being signed mid-season from the Buccaneers, or even possibly that they go with 4th round rookie John Reid.

Normally starting a 4th round rookie isn’t recommended, but Reid is a natural fit on the slot, where he played extensively in college, and he’s significantly less raw than more 4th round picks, already in his age 24 season. He also doesn’t have great competition in Hargreaves, who has developed into an above average run stuffer in 4 seasons in the league since the Buccaneers drafted him 11th overall in 2016, but little else, struggling in coverage in all 4 seasons in the league, including a 126th ranked finish out of 135 eligible cornerbacks overall on PFF in 2019. Still in his age 25 season, the potential is still there, but he’s running out of time to develop. Regardless of how it shakes out, cornerback is obviously not a position of strength for the Texans and they have a below average starter at one of the two safety spots as well.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

It’s hard to argue the Texans haven’t gotten significantly worse in recent years, losing players like DeAndre Hopkins, DJ Reader, Kareem Jackson, Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, and Johnathan Joseph over the past two off-seasons without adequately replacing any of them. They still have DeShaun Watson and they still have capable skill position talent around him and their offensive line has gotten a lot better, but their defense has gotten a lot worse very quickly and has become very dependent on JJ Watt, whose age and injury history are a significant concern. 

They won 10 games last year, but they played more in line with an 8-8 team and this year they look likely to be worse than that. They’ll win some shootouts, but they’re going to have a hard time making the playoffs, even with a third wild card being added and the AFC being a weaker conference. In the AFC South, I have the Texans clearly behind both the Colts and the Titans. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 75.50

Defensive Score: 72.23

Total Score: 73.87 (3rd in AFC South)

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