Houston Texans 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For many years, the Texans were led by a dominant defense. Normally dominant defenses are tough to maintain year-to-year because it tends to be very tough to keep together the amount of above average starters that you need to have dominant defensive play year in and year out, due to financial demands and injuries, but the Texans had six straight seasons in the top-9 in first down rate allowed from 2011-2016. For the first two of those seasons, the Texans had a complementary offense and as a result, they went a combined 22-10 and made the second round of the post-season both times. 

However, then the offense went through a four year stretch where it was arguably the worst in the league, wasting the final four of those dominant defensive years. Over those four seasons, they never finished better than 23rd in first down rate and they started nine different quarterbacks: Matt Schaub, Case Keenum, TJ Yates, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weeden, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, and Brock Osweiler.

They hired offensive minded head coach Bill O’Brien after the first dismal offensive season, but his presence didn’t seem to make things any better over the subsequent three seasons. The Texans still managed a couple playoff appearances, both times by winning 9 games and the pitiful AFC South, but their only playoff win came against a 3rd string quarterback, while their two losses both came by multiple scores in uncompetitive games. 

Needing to solve the quarterback position for the long-term, the Texans were aggressive in the 2017 NFL Draft, moving up from the 25th pick to the 12th to select Deshaun Watson, giving the Browns a future first round pick in the process. Additionally, in a separate trade, they sent the Browns a future second round pick to unload the contract of Brock Osweiler, who they signed the previous off-season in an ill-fated attempt to solve the quarterback position through free agency.

It was a steep price to pay, but the Texans seemed to have finally found their guy, as Deshaun Watson came out of the gates as not only one of the top rookie quarterbacks in the league, but one of the top quarterbacks in the league as a whole. That only lasted seven games though, as Watson tore his ACL in practice, ending his season and, with their once vaunted defense suffering a rash of injuries, the Texans fell all the way to 4-12, especially problematic because they wouldn’t have their own first or second round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. 

Those picks wound up being 4th overall and 35th overall and allowed the Browns to add cornerback Denzel Ward and running back Nick Chubb, who are now among the best young players in the league at their respective positions. However, even with that being the case, the Texans still seemed like they could potentially win those trades, if Watson was able to return from injury and continue giving them above average quarterback play. 

With their defense expected to be healthier in 2018 as well, the Texans seemed to be in decent long-term shape, despite the price they had to pay to resolve their quarterback situation, and, in fact, they went on to go 11-5 in 2018. Watson didn’t play quite as well as he did in his short stint as a rookie, but he remained an above average quarterback and their defense bounced back to a 3rd ranked finish in first down rate allowed. However, the Texans once again made little noise in the post-season, losing at home to division rival Indianapolis by multiple scores in the first round.

With Watson and the defense playing at a high level, the obvious weaknesses for the 2018 Texans were their offensive line and, largely as a result of their offensive line, their running game. The Texans clearly saw things the same way and were very aggressive in making a move for offensive line help. Having already used their 2019 1st round pick on an offensive tackle and their 2019 2nd round pick on a guard, the Texans then sent away their 2020 1st round pick, their 2021 1st round pick, and their 2nd round pick in a trade with the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil.

Tunsil was a talented young left tackle with the upside to be one of the best left tackles in the league, but he wasn’t someone who would seem to command that kind of price in a trade, especially with Tunsil getting to the end of his rookie deal and in need of a high price extension to be kept long-term. Making this move even sketchier, the Texans technically didn’t have a GM at the time, having let go of their GM in back-to-back off-seasons, effectively leaving full control over this roster to head coach Bill O’Brien, who had yet to prove himself as a coach at a level that would warrant that kind of control over the team.

Still, the Tunsil addition was obviously an upgrade in the short-term and the Texans offense jumped from 18th in first down rate the year before to 7th in 2019, easily the best offensive performance in recent memory for a team that had struggled on that side of the ball for so many years. However, suddenly the other side of the ball became a major problem, as they finally succumbed to the fate of all great defenses that can’t keep all their talent healthy and under contract long-term. 

In 2018, when the Texans had a dominant defensive season, their top-7 players, in some order, were JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Benardick McKinney, DJ Reader, and Johnathan Joseph. In 2019, Watt missed half of the season with injury and, though the Texans had gotten by without Watt in the past, they also had lost Clowney, Mathieu, and Jackson to free agency and trades the previous off-season. 

The result was a defense that fell all the way to 27th in first down rate allowed and, while the Texans still won 10 games, they required a significant amount of luck, winning 8 of 11 one score games, which would be unlikely to continue into 2020, and they once again made little noise in the post-season, going to overtime at home against an overmatched Bills team before getting blown out the following week in Kansas City.

Even at this point, things weren’t all that bad. For the same reasons it’s tough to be consistently good on defense, it’s also tough to be consistently bad on that side of the ball and the Texans still had their quarterback of the future in Deshaun Watson, which was the most important thing. They didn’t have their next two first round picks, but they played well enough in 2019 for that pick to land at 26th and if they continued playing well enough in 2020 that the picks they had to give up were later in the first and second round, that would take some of the sting away from losing those picks.

However, what’s happened over the past year or so for the Texans, who were already in a precarious position as a result of aggressive decision making, can’t be described as anything less than disastrous. For starters, the Texans’ defense continued to bleed talent, losing DJ Reader and Johnathan Joseph from their top-7 defenders in 2018, leaving just Watt and McKinney behind on a defense largely devoid of other talent, with so many resources spent trying to address other areas on the roster.

On top of that, Bill O’Brien, now formally the GM, made the inexplicable decision to get some of their draft capital back by sending away long-time #1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was their only high level offensive player for several years during their offensive struggles and then became arguably the top wide receiver in the entire league with Watson throwing him the ball. The Texans didn’t even get much for Hopkins, as the package they received in return for him was centered on the 40th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, in the same off-season as the Vikings were able to get a first round pick from the Bills for a less proven wide receiver in Stefon Diggs. 

The reason the Texans took a lesser draft pick in exchange for Hopkins is because Bill O’Brien also saw the Hopkins trade as an opportunity to finally improve his running game. That was an understandable goal, but not one that should have been achieved by acquiring David Johnson, three seasons removed from his last above average season and signed for a guaranteed 11.2 million, in a trade in which Johnson was viewed as an asset rather than a liability. Even stranger, the Texans then turned around and traded their own second round pick to the Rams for Brandin Cooks, a much lesser talent, and gave a big contract to free agent wide receiver Randall Cobb, an even lesser talent.

Watson still played at a high level in 2020 even without Hopkins, but with the rest of the roster being what it was, there wasn’t much he could do to make this team consistently competitive. The Texans went just 4-12, including a 0-4 start that saw the architect of this disaster, Bill O’Brien, let go before he could watch everything play out. The Texans still ranked 17th in first down rate over expected and, while their defense ranked 31st in first down rate allowed over expected, they were still a little better than their record would suggest with a -2.80% schedule adjusted first down rate differential, 28th in the NFL.

They faced an above average schedule and had terrible luck in close games, going 2-8 in one score games, which, when coupled with the fact that their offense was significantly better than their defense, seemed to predict something of a turnaround in 2021. However, it was hard to find reasons to be optimistic, with the Texans not possessing either their first or second round pick to rebuild with and having little long-term financial flexibility to add significant upgrades in free agency, with a shrunken salary cap and Watson now on an expensive long-term extension rather than his cheap rookie deal, signing for 156 million over 4 years.

Things then went from bad to worse when Deshaun Watson decided he had enough of this nonsense and demanded a trade, a surprising decision to say the least, given that Watson was less than six months removed from signing his extension, which he signed after the Hopkins trade. Overall, Watson has been one of the better quarterbacks in the league since returning from his injury, ranking 12th, 9th, and 2nd respectively among quarterbacks on PFF over the past three seasons respectively, making 47 of 48 possible starts, and completing a combined 68.7% of his passes for an average of 8.32 YPA, 85 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions and adding 5.20 YPC and 15 touchdowns on 271 carries on the ground. Only going into his age 26 season, Watson is the kind of player you’d never want to trade.

With the Watson uncertainty adding to the list of significant concerns for this team, the Texans had a very hard time convincing a premium coaching candidate to take over this team and the instead opted to hire David Culley from the Ravens, a respectable long-time position coach, but a 65-year-old who had never been even an offensive coordinator in 27 seasons in the NFL and who was not on any other team’s head coaching radar. 

Around the same time, long-time Texans star JJ Watt demanded a trade, not wanting to spend his twilight years on a team with no direction and the Texans opted to just release him outright, even though the 2-year, 28 million dollar deal with 20 million guaranteed that the Cardinals signed Watt to suggests that there may have been at least some trade market for Watt at his original 17.5 million dollar salary. It might have just been a late round pick, but the Texans need all the draft picks they can get at this point. Watt’s departure guts this once dominant defense even further, after they were already one of the worst in the league a year ago, and the Texans don’t even get the benefit of a compensatory draft pick.

As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, somehow it got worse from there. The Texans didn’t want to have to move Watson, but trading him would allow them to rebuild significant draft capital and the Texans reportedly had an offer of three first round picks for him at one point this off-season, which the Texans were prepared to accept, but not before waiting until closer to the draft to see if a better deal would materialize. That did not happen and in fact all deals for Watson disappeared once a significant amount of accusations of sexual harassment came out against Watson, leaving his NFL future in limbo as both the police and the NFL conduct their investigation, making him untradeable.

On top of all the other issues with this team, the Texans will have to prepare to not have Watson under center in 2021 and won’t even be able to get any compensation for him until the investigations wrap up and the punishment is handed out, at which point the three first round pick offer seems unlikely to return, barring the unlikely outcome of Watson being exonerated beyond a doubt. I held off doing this preview until close to the end because of the uncertainty at the quarterback position for the Texans, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Watson is highly unlikely to suit up for the Texans at all in 2021 and probably beyond, as the most likely outcome is Watson’s next start coming with a different team after a trade, whenever or wherever that may be.

At least in 2021, the Texans will be replacing Watson with a pair of quarterbacks, veteran Tyrod Taylor, who will likely serve as a bridge quarterback to 2021 3rd round pick Davis Mills, selected with the Texans’ only relatively high pick in this year’s draft, after having to send their first two picks to Miami to complete the Tunsil trade. With Taylor signed to a 1-year deal worth 5.5 million and Watson’s contract still on the books regardless of whether or not he plays, the Texans have a significant amount of their limited resources committed to the quarterback position and are still unlikely to get good play at the position. 

Mills has the long-term potential to be a starting quarterback in the NFL and perhaps an above average one at that, but he made just 11 collegiate starts due to injuries and the shortened 2020 season, so he’s hard to project to the next level. Mills could have been a first round pick in 2022 if he had returned to school and impressed, but he also faces steep odds to become a consistent starter as a third round pick, as quarterbacks who fall outside of the top-40 picks rarely develop long-term.

Mills will likely see starts so the Texans can at least get a look at him in what is otherwise likely to be a lost season, but Taylor is likely to at least be the starter at the beginning of the season. It’s familiar territory for Taylor, who began the 2018 season as the stopgap ahead Baker Mayfield and the 2020 season as the stopgap ahead of Justin Herbert. Neither of those starting stints lasted long, but neither time was Taylor’s fault, as he hurt his wrist in week 3 in 2018, was a late scratch in week 2 of 2020 due to a mishap with a pre-game injection that led to him being hospitalized, and, in his absence, watched both Mayfield and Herbert play too well to give back the job.

Taylor also spent the 2019 season backing up veteran Philip Rivers, so he hasn’t played much in recent years, attempting just 121 passes over the past three seasons combined, but, prior to that, Taylor wasn’t terrible in three seasons as the starter in Buffalo (43 starts), completing 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 51 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. The Bills were a very run heavy team at that time though, as Taylor averaged just 28.1 pass attempts per game, and, while Taylor was part of that running game as well, averaging 5.57 YPC on 283 combined carries over those three seasons, he still overall had a below average usage rate. 

He also led well below average offenses in two of three seasons and, though he lacked talent around him, he isn’t in much better shape with the supporting cast he has in Houston. He’s a careful quarterback who won’t turn the ball over much, but he’ll also likely struggle to lead consistent drives. He might be good enough to be a starter in the NFL, but even if he is, he is a low end option at best and he’ll likely cede the job to the rookie sooner rather than later in a season in which the Texans figure to lose a lot of games regardless of who is under center. Even a surprise return from Deshaun Watson likely wouldn’t be enough for this team to be consistently competitive and that seems highly unlikely at this point anyway.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

David Johnson still remains on this roster, agreeing to a pay cut down to 5 million to remain on the roster. That is still too much money for Johnson, but he actually wasn’t that bad in 2020. After averaging just 3.60 YPC on 363 carries from 2017-2019, while missing 18 of 48 games, Johnson actually averaged 4.70 YPC in 2020, but he was still limited to just 147 carries in 12 games, he struggled to consistently keep this offense on schedule, ranking 41st out of 47 eligible running backs in carry success rate, and he benefited a lot from having Deshaun Watson in the backfield with him, which he almost definitely won’t have in 2021.

Johnson’s claim to flame is his 2016 campaign, when he had a 80/879/4 slash line and rushed for 4.23 YPC and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries, but that even that season he ranked just 17th among running backs on PFF in rushing grade, with his production largely being the result of getting significant touches on one of the best offenses in the league. He could remain an effective early down back in 2021, but his career 4.12 YPC is very underwhelming, his 0.94 yards per route run average in 2020 was well below his career 1.51 average, and now he heads into his age 30 season. He’s unlikely to have a huge positive impact on this offense.

Johnson also isn’t guaranteed a role because the Texans added several running backs this off-season. With limited draft selections in recent years and underwhelming results from the selections they have made, the Texans took to free agency this off-season to fill out this roster, even with limited financial flexibility, rather than just embracing the rebuild, rolling forward cap space, evaluating young players, and putting themselves in great position for a top draft pick in 2022. The result was the Texans signing a comically high amount of veterans on low end contracts, which will be a theme throughout this preview.. At running back, those additions were Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, and Rex Burkhead.

Formerly of the Broncos, Lindsay was actually one of their better signings and it’s surprising he was available in the first place, especially on only a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal. Lindsay went undrafted in 2018 and there have been a lot of questions about the diminutive 5-8 190 pounder from the start, but he seemed to answer those questions with back-to-back thousand year seasons in his first two seasons in the league, rushing for a total of 2,048 yards and 16 touchdowns on 416 carries (4.92 YPC), while finishing above average with carry success rates of 49% and 50% respectively.

However, that didn’t stop the Broncos from going out and signing veteran running back Melvin Gordon to a significant contract in free agency last off-season, limiting Lindsay to just 118 carries in 2020 and he didn’t fare as well when he was given opportunities. His 4.25 YPC was still decent, but he ranked dead last in the NFL in carry success rate at 40%, failing to keep the Broncos offense in schedule regularly. The Broncos could have kept him as a restricted free agent on a 2nd round tender for 3.384 million and ensured Lindsay would return in 2021, but instead they moved on him entirely, replacing him with a high draft pick, and allowing Lindsay to sign with the Texans.

Lindsay is not a threat in the passing game (0.94 yards per route run average for his career), but he could easily bounce back as a runner and be an asset on early downs for the Broncos. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him lead this team in rushing, although with multiple veteran options for the Texans to give carries to, even this team’s leading rusher might not finish with that high of an overall total. Still, Lindsay was a solid signing overall.

Ingram and Burkhead, meanwhile, come with less promise. Ingram is just a season removed from a thousand yard season in 2019, rushing for 5.04 YPC on 202 carries, and he has a 4.59 YPC average for his career, but he saw his YPC average fall to just 4.15 in 2020, despite playing on a good Ravens offense, and he managed just 72 carries on the season, frequently being a healthy scratch down the stretch. Ingram is going into his age 32 season now and once running backs start losing it, they tend to lose it quickly and never get it back, so while he could have a little something left in the tank as a rotational back, he could just as easily continue declining. He’s unlikely to be a factor on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal.

Burkhead can at least provide value on special teams, but he’s also unlikely to be a factor on offense, which has been the case for him throughout his career, with just 470 offensive touches in 82 games with a maximum of 94 touches in a season. Now going into his age 30 season and coming off of a torn ACL, he’s unlikely to be any more than he’s been in the past. This isn’t a bad backfield, with Johnson and Lindsay as the most likely lead backs, but it’s a weird mix of veterans on a team that won’t get a lot of benefit out of playing veterans in what is likely to be a lost season.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Laremy Tunsil is the poster child for the Texans’ questionable moves in recent years and with the Texans’ 2021 1st round pick landing at 3rd overall and the Dolphins flipping that pick for a trio of first round picks, the Texans essentially gave up the equivalent of four first round picks and a second round pick to acquire Tunsil, who they also had to extend on a 3-year, 66 million dollar deal that makes him the third highest paid offensive lineman in the league. 

However, while he obviously hasn’t been worth that price tag, he is one of few the consistently above average left tackles in the league, finishing 22nd among offensive tackles on PFF in 2019 and 30th in 2020, after finishing 24th in 2018 in his final season with the Dolphins, who selected him 13th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2021 and for the next few years. Though not worth his absurd price tag, he has had a noticeable impact on this offense.

The rest of this offensive line is a middling group at best, however. Tytus Howard starts opposite Tunsil, selected 23rd overall in 2019 with a rare first round pick that the Texans have actually kept, but he’s been underwhelming thus far, earning middling grades from PFF in both seasons in the league, across 22 career starts. Only going into his age 25 season, he could have further untapped potential, but he was also considered a reach when the Texans selected him and he hasn’t done much to dispel that notion thus far. I would expect him to at least be a capable starter, with upside for more, though he’s far from a guarantee to make good on that upside.

The Texans also used a second round pick in 2019 an on offensive lineman, taking Max Scharping 55th overall, but he’s also been disappointing so far, finishing 61st among 89 eligible guards on PFF as a rookie across 938 snaps (14 starts) and 77th among 92 eligible guards on PFF in 2020 across 454 snaps (8 starts). He could be better in year three, but he would need to take a big step forward to be better than a middling starter and he’s not guaranteed to remain in the starting lineup either. 

The Texans didn’t bring back free agent right guard Zach Fulton, who was a solid starter across 16 starts, but they did bring in a pair of veterans in Marcus Cannon and Lane Taylor to compete for roles upfront. The Texans traded for Cannon despite a 7.15 million dollar salary, so he seems to be the favorite for one of the two jobs. He’s been a solid starter throughout his career, with 69 starts in 9 seasons prior to 2020, but he sat out all of 2020 after opting out and now is in his age 33 season, so it’s very questionable whether he can continue playing at the level he was playing at previously, when he was PFF’s 37th ranked offensive tackle in 2019. Moving to guard after mostly playing tackle thus far could extend his career, but he’s a shaky starting option.

Lane Taylor was also a solid starter in his prime (50 starts in 8 seasons), but he’s a shaky starting option as well, having missed all but 3 games over the past two seasons due to injuries and now going into his age 32 season. He finished 34th among guards in 14 starts in his last healthy season in 2018, but I would expect his best days to be behind him. Signed only on a 1-year, 1.2125 million dollar deal, it seems more likely he’ll slot in as veteran depth rather than as a starter. The Texans also have talented swing tackle Roderick Johnson, who has shown promise in 6 starts since being drafted in the 5th round in 2018, as a depth option.

Fellow veteran off-season addition Justin Britt is expected to start at center, after the Texans moved on from highly paid center Nick Martin this off-season. Martin was PFF’s 33rd ranked center out of 39 eligible in 2020, so it wouldn’t be hard for Britt to be an upgrade, but he’s an underwhelming starting option as well. He’s also been mostly a solid starter in 86 starts in 7 seasons in the league, but injuries have limited him to 8 games over the past two seasons.

Britt was a middling starter in 15 starts in his last healthy season in 2018, but now he’s in his age 30 season, so his best days could easily be behind him. Signed to a 1-year, 3.2 million dollar deal, Britt is yet another low end veteran addition by the Texans this off-season. This isn’t a bad offensive line, but it’s an underwhelming group outside of Tunsil and they are relying on several aging veterans with recent injury histories.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The Texans lost DeAndre Hopkins last off-season and this off-season they again lost their #1 wide receiver, with Will Fuller signing with the Dolphins on a 1-year, 10.625 million dollar deal this off-season. Losing Fuller isn’t as big of a deal as Hopkins, but it’s not a small loss either as Fuller was PFF’s 10th ranked wide receiver, averaged 2.28 yards per route run, and posted a 53/879/8 slash line in just 11 games, although he did miss the final five games of the season with a PED suspension, which probably had something to do with why Fuller wasn’t retained this off-season.

The Texans bring back veterans Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, who were added to stop the bleeding after losing Hopkins last off-season, but Fuller wasn’t really replaced. Keke Coutee was the #4 receiver last year and has averaged a somewhat promising 1.53 yards per route run in three seasons in the league since being drafted by the Texans in the 4th round in 2018, but he’s never played more than 338 snaps in a season due to injury and players ahead of him on the depth chart, so he’s pretty unproven and could easily get hurt again, having already missed 25 of a possible 48 games. 

The Texans could just bump Coutee up on the depth chart and play him as one of their top-3 wide receivers to replace Fuller. Other options include veteran off-season addition Chris Conley and 3rd round rookie Nico Collins. Collins obviously has the higher upside, but could be too raw to contribute as a rookie, while Conley is a middling option at best. He’s averaged 1.33 yards per route run and 1.54 yards per route run over the past two seasons respectively, but that’s pretty underwhelming and his career average is just 1.08 across six seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2015. Whoever wins the #3 receiver job, they will obviously be a big downgrade from what Fuller gave them in 3 wide receiver sets.

Brandin Cooks will likely be the nominal #1 wide receiver, a role he has some experience in. With Fuller missing a significant chunk of last season with suspension, Cooks actually led this team in receiving with a 81/1150/6 slash line, with 34/509/3 of that coming in the five games Fuller missed. That, of course, was with Deshaun Watson under center and, while it isn’t out of the ordinary for Cooks to surpass a thousand yards, as he’s done so in five of seven seasons in the league, he’s always benefitted from playing with a great quarterback or at least being on a great offense, spending his career with Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and the Sean McVay/Jared Goff Rams before the Texans traded for him last off-season. 

Cooks has also never finished higher than 20th among wide receivers on PFF, so he’s not quite an elite receiver. All that being said, he’s still an above average receiver in his prime, still only in his age 28 season, having averaged a 1.83 yards per route run average and a 9.32 yards per target average that are both impressive regardless of who is throwing you the ball and he’s always played on offenses that spread the ball around, never surpassing 129 targets in a season. Cooks could easily surpass that in 2021 as he figures to get plenty of volume in this offense, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him surpass that thousand yard mark again, even if much of it is garbage time yardage when the game is out of reach. 

Randall Cobb has also surpassed 1000 yards before, but it happened only once all the way back in 2014 and he’s failed to reach that mark in his other nine seasons in the league. Cobb might still be getting by on his performance from earlier in his career, as he averaged 2.22 yards per route run in his first four seasons in the league from 2011-2014, but he obviously got a lot of benefit from playing with Aaron Rodgers, and even Rodgers or the other good quarterbacks Cobb has played with since (Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson) have been unable to save him from a middling 1.41 yards per route run average over the past six seasons. Injuries sapping his athleticism are likely in part the culprit and he’s missed a total of 30 games over 10 seasons in the league.

Cobb’s best recent season came in 2019 with the Cowboys, when he averaged a 1.77 yards per route run average and had a 55/828/3 slash line with Dak Prescott, which led to the Texans giving him a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal last off-season, but he predictably disappointed in year one of that contract. His 1.65 yards per route run average wasn’t horrible, but he managed just a 38/441/3 slash line in 10 games and that was with Watson. With a downgrade at quarterback and Cobb going into his age 31 season with a significant injury history, things are unlikely to be better for Cobb in 2021. He is nominally their #2 receiver, but I wouldn’t expect much production out of him, even if he stays healthy and takes some of Will Fuller’s targets.

The Texans didn’t target their tight ends in the passing game much last season, with just 18.7% of targets (102 targets) going to tight ends and I wouldn’t expect that to change much in 2021. Those targets were mostly split across three tight ends who all saw somewhat significant action, Darren Fells (538 snaps), Jordan Akins (405 snaps), and Pharaoh Brown (270 snaps). Brown led the bunch with 1.48 yards per route run, but he did that in limited action and the 2017 undrafted free agent had only played 212 snaps in his career prior to last season, so it would be unexpected for him to take a significant step forward in a bigger role in 2021.

Akins was a 3rd round pick by the Texans in 2018, but he’s been pretty underwhelming in his career with a 1.19 yards per route run average. His 2020 season was his best season as he averaged 1.36 yards per route run and also took a step forward as a blocker, leading to him finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked tight end. That was in relatively limited playing time though and he struggled in more extended action the year before, finishing 34th out of 44 eligible tight ends on PFF across 655 snaps. Darren Fells is no longer with the team, leaving Akins a clear path to a bigger role as the #1 tight end, but he’s far from a guarantee to continue playing as well as he did last season in that role. A fourth year breakout year is possible, but unlikely, especially since Akins was an old rookie and is already in his age 29 season.

The Texans also have 2019 3rd round pick Kahale Warring and 5th round rookie Brevin Jordan, who could take over some of Darren Fells’ playing time, but Jordan is a raw rookie, while Warring has shown very little thus far in his career, missing his entire rookie year with injury and playing just 52 snaps last season, while averaging just 0.76 yards per route run. He is probably closer to being left off this final roster than earning a role, but he could be kept around for his upside. This is a pretty underwhelming receiving corps behind Brandin Cooks.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

I mentioned earlier that the Texans let go of JJ Watt for nothing this off-season. Watt only had 5 sacks in 16 games last season for a terrible defense and was going into his age 32 season, so there is some sentiment that his loss might not be a big deal for this defense, but he still finished last season as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender across 1,013 snaps, despite his underwhelming sack total, and his lack of production was as a result of lack of talent around him on defense, as Watt was double teamed more than any edge defender in the league. Without him, things are going to be that much tougher for a defense that already struggled mightily in 2020.

The Texans still have fellow long-time edge defender Whitney Mercilus, but, while Mercilus was one of the better edge defenders in the league in his prime, finishing 8th among edge defenders on PFF in 2015 and 15th in 2016, he is now very much on the decline, going into his age 31 season, and was a big part of the problem for this Texans defense in 2020. Mercilus hasn’t earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season since an injury cost him most of 2017, but things got significantly worse for him in 2020, as he finished as PFF’s worst ranked edge defender out of 124 eligible. 

Mercilus still did have 4 sacks, but benefitted from having Watt’s presence opposite him and had terrible peripheral pass rush stats, with 8 hits and a 6.0% pressure rate, while consistently getting run over in the running game. Mercilus isn’t totally over the hill yet and could potentially bounce back to being a middling rotation player, but that might be his best case scenario at this point and he could easily continue struggling, especially without Watt around. His 6.5 million dollar salary is guaranteed for 2021, but if it wasn’t, he likely would not have been brought back.

Benardrick McKinney is another long-time Texans defender, who I mentioned earlier was a big part of the Texans’ defensive success in 2018, but he declined significantly in 2019, missed most of 2020 with injury, and this off-season was sent to Miami in a swap of highly paid veterans that sends edge defender Shaq Lawson to Houston. The Texans have made some very questionable moves lately, but I actually like this one, as edge defenders are more valuable than off ball linebackers like McKinney and Lawson can be an above average member of a rotation to help the Texans replace Watt.

Lawson has never surpassed 571 snaps in a season, but the 2016 1st round pick has earned above average grades from PFF in four straight seasons across 483 snaps per season. He used to mostly just be a solid run stuffer, but he’s added pass rush ability over the past three seasons, totaling 14.5 sacks, 35 hits, and a 11.8% pressure rate. He’s never finished better than 21st among edge defenders on PFF for a season and he might not quite have lived up to being a first round pick, but he gives the Texans a much needed edge defender who can both get to the quarterback and stop the run.

The Texans also brought in Jordan Jenkins in free agency, another one of their short-term veteran signings, but Jenkins is comparatively one of their more talented signings. Jenkins, who signed on a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, was never more than a solid rotational player with the Jets, but he was mostly consistent across five seasons with the team after being selected in the 3rd round in 2016, with 22.5 sacks, 27 hits, and a 10.3% pressure rate, while playing solid run defense, and seeing 41.5 snaps per game in 72 games. He doesn’t have a high upside, but he’s still only in his age 27 season and should continue being a solid rotational player.

Jenkins and Lawson could be the nominal starters and lead this edge defender group, hopefully shrinking Whitney Mercilus’ role in the process. The Texans also still have holdovers Jonathan Greenard (265 snaps) and Jacob Martin (375 snaps). Neither played well last season, but Greenard at least has the upside to be significantly better in his second year in the league, after being selected in the 3rd round in 2020. Martin, meanwhile, is a 2018 6th round pick who has struggled across 820 career snaps in three seasons in the league. This actually isn’t a terrible group, but they don’t have a high end player at the position without Watt and their depth is a bit suspect as well, especially if Mercilus can’t bounce back and Greenard doesn’t take a step forward.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

As if the DeAndre Hopkins trade wasn’t already bad enough, the player the Texans selected with the draft pick they received for Hopkins, interior defender Ross Blacklock, struggled mightily in year one, finishing dead last out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF across 254 snaps. That doesn’t mean he won’t still develop into a starter someday and he could be a lot better in year two, but he has a long way to go and could easily continue struggling this season. 

Blacklock was far from the only problem though, as the Texans played five interior defenders at least 250 snaps and they all finished well below average on PFF. Charles Omenihu (546 snaps) and Brandon Dunn (451 snaps) both remain on this roster from last year’s group and the Texans added a bunch of uninspiring veterans to compete for roles as well, including Maliek Collins, Jaleel Johnson, DeMarcus Walker, and Vincent Taylor.

Omenihu probably has the most upside of the bunch, as the 2019 5th round pick held up across 443 snaps as a rookie, before finishing 109th out of 139 eligible interior defenders across 546 snaps in 2020. Dunn, on the other hand, finished 134th among 139 eligible interior defenders across 451 snaps last season and has never earned more than a middling grade or played more than the 451 snaps he played last season in his seven seasons in the league. At best, he’s a solid rotational run stuffer, but his pass rush is non-existent with a 3.4% pressure rate for his career.

Maliek Collins was the most highly paid of the free agent interior defenders that the Texans signed, coming over on a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal. It’s a head scratching move though, especially in a deflated free agent market, as Collins was PFF’s 132nd ranked interior defender out of 139 eligible across 505 snaps last season. Collins has had some better seasons in the past, but he’s never been more than a solid starter and he’s finished well below average on PFF in three of five seasons in the league. 

Collins isn’t a bad pass rusher, with 14.5 sacks, 28 hits, and a 7.3% pressure rate for his career, but he struggles mightily against the run. The 2016 3rd round pick is still only in his age 26 season, so it’s possible he has a little bit of untapped potential and even if he doesn’t, he is a decent bet to bounce back in 2021, but he could easily still remain a below average option as a heavy rotational player. He doesn’t upgrade this group in a significant way.

Fellow free agent addition Jaleel Johnson also has pretty significant experience, but like Collins he is coming off of a terrible season, finishing 135th out of 139 eligible interior defenders across 654 snaps in 2020. He’s also only signed to a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal, so he won’t be guaranteed a role. Johnson was a 4th round pick in 2017, but he had never played more than 408 snaps in a season prior to last season and he’s earned a below average grade from PFF in all three seasons in his career in which he’s seen any sort of significant action.

Their other free agent additions, DeMarcus Walker and Vincent Taylor, on the other end, have very limited experience. Taylor was a 6th round pick in 2017 and has played just 644 snaps in his career, while never surpassing 207 snaps in a season. Walker was a 2nd round pick in 2017 by the Broncos, but due to a combination of injuries, ineffectiveness, and better players ahead of him on the depth chart, Walker has only played 725 snaps in 36 games in four seasons in the league, including a career high 384 snaps in 2020, when he finished 100th out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF. He’s shown some promise at least as a pass rusher, with a career 9.5% pressure rate, and he’s the closest thing the Texans have to a potential diamond in the rough, but that’s largely by default, in what looks like almost definitely the worst interior defender group in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Benardrick McKinney missed most of last season, so he won’t be missed that much, but his backup Tyrell Adams finished 87th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on 812 snaps in his absence and, while Adams is gone, his possible replacements are an underwhelming bunch that includes veterans Kevin Pierre-Louis, Christian Kirksey, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Joe Thomas. Pierre-Louis has shown promise in recent years, especially in coverage, but he’s seen snap totals of just 213 and 506 respectively, with the latter being his career high by a significant amount, and now he’s going into his age 30 season, so it would be a surprise if he was anything more than a solid situational linebacker at best.

Grugier-Hill and Joe Thomas are also career backups. Grugier-Hill has never topped 351 snaps in five seasons in the league and the 2016 6th round pick hasn’t shown much promise in his limited action. Thomas played 631 snaps in a season once, but that was back in 2016 and he finished 64th out of 97 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. Aside from that season, the 409 snaps he played in 2020 are the most he’s had in a single season and he fared horribly, finishing 77th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers. Now in his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to be significantly better in 2021, especially if forced into a larger role.

Christian Kirksey has the most starting action of the bunch, with 65 career starts, including all 32 starts from 2016-2017 when he was an every down player, but he never finished higher than 26th among off ball linebackers on PFF and his three seasons since 2017 have been plagued with injuries and poor play, with the latter likely being the result of the former. He’s played just 20 of 48 possible games and has earned well below average grades from PFF in all three seasons, including a 85th ranked finish out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on 548 snaps in 2020. He’s not totally over the hill in his age 29 season, so he might have some bounce back potential if he can finally stay healthy, but it seems like injuries have significantly sapped his effectiveness.

Fortunately, the Texans do still have one solid linebacker in Zach Cunningham, who is one of the few remaining players from their dominant 2018 defense that is still playing about the same level. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Cunningham has never been a dominant linebacker, maxing out as PFF’s 22nd ranked off ball linebacker, but he’s also earned middling or better grades from PFF in all four seasons in the league, while making 59 starts and playing 55.7 snaps per game in 62 games. 

In his prime in his age 27 season, I wouldn’t expect that to change in 2021, so, even though he isn’t a dominant linebacker, he is by default the Texans best linebacker by far and one of their top defensive players overall. However, even Cunningham, one of their few homegrown talents, doesn’t make the previous Texans regimes look better, as he’s highly overpaid on his 4-year, 58 million dollar extension, which makes him the third highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL. He’s not an elite linebacker and doesn’t elevate this group enough for them to even be a middling group overall.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Texans’ secondary was also a weakness in 2020 and that could easily continue in 2021. One player who didn’t struggle was top cornerback Bradley Roby, who earned PFF’s 25th ranked grade among cornerbacks, but he was limited to just 10 games, primarily due to a PED suspension, which cost him the final five games of the season and will carry into week one of 2021. Roby has never been a top level cornerback, topping out at 23rd among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017, and he’s only twice exceeded 684 snaps in a season, as he spent his first four seasons as primarily a reserve and has missed 13 games over the past three seasons since becoming a full-time starter, but he’s also earned an average or better grade from PFF in six of seven seasons in the league. 

Still in his prime in his age 29 season, he should remain a solid starter and one who will hopefully give them more than the 10 games he’s given them in each of the past two seasons, even if he’s already out for week one. The rest of this cornerback group was not as good, however, as Vernon Hargreaves and Eric Murray played 980 snaps and 941 snaps respectively and finished 128th and 97th respectively out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF. 

Neither will be guaranteed a role in 2021 and Murray especially should find himself buried on the depth chart, with the Texans signing Desmond King in free agency to be an upgrade on the slot. A 5th round pick in 2017, King burst onto the scene as one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league, finishing 9th and 2nd among cornerbacks on PFF on 717 snaps and 801 snaps in his first two seasons in the league respectively. 

He hasn’t played well as the past two seasons, finishing 32nd among cornerbacks in 2019 on 584 snaps and 50th in 2020 on 709 snaps, so he hasn’t proven to be a consistently high level player, but he’s still an experienced slot cornerback who should be at least solid and has the upside to be even more. Signed on only a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal, King looks like a steal and was probably the Texans’ best addition this off-season. He should be an upgrade over Murray, who has mostly been a reserve in his career and has never earned more than a middling grade in five seasons in the league.

Hargreaves, on the other hand, has much less competition for his role and is much more likely to remain a starter. Hargreaves was actually a 1st round pick by the Buccaneers back in 2016 and he has a decent amount of experience, with 52 starts in 57 games, but he’s finished below average on PFF in all five seasons, including a 127th ranked finish out of 135 eligible in 2019 and 128th out of 136 eligible in 2020. He’s still in his age 26 season, so he may have some untapped upside, but at this point theoretical upside is the best thing he has going for him.

Hargreaves’ biggest competition for the role will likely be 2020 4th round pick John Reid, who underwhelmed in 145 rookie year snaps, and veteran free agent acquisition Terrance Mitchell, yet another low end veteran added by this team. Mitchell made all 16 starts for the Browns last season and was a middling starter, but he had made just 22 starts in five seasons prior to last season as primarily a reserve and he’s never earned more than a middling grade from PFF. He could continue to be a solid starter, which would make him an upgrade over Hargreaves, but that’s not a guarantee and he’s not locked into a starting role.

At safety, the Texans bring back starters Justin Reid and Lonnie Johnson, who actually weren’t a bad duo, both earning about average grades on PFF. For Reid, it was actually a down year, as the 2018 3rd round pick finished 27th among safeties on PFF as a rookie and 14th in 2019 and he could easily bounce back and have a strong year again in his 4th season in the league in 2021. Reid is still very young, only going into his age 24 season and has already made 40 starts in 44 games in 3 seasons in the league. He’s a rare talented young player on this roster.

Johnson, on the other hand, struggled mightily as a rookie in 2019, after being selected in the 2nd round, finishing dead last out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 531 snaps, but the 6-2 213 pounder fared better after being moved to safety full-time in 2020. He was still only a middling starter and, with limited experience at safety, he’s not a guarantee to repeat that season, but he also could keep getting better and develop into an above average starter, as the former high draft pick still has a huge upside. The Texans’ secondary is probably their best defensive unit by default, but that says more about the rest of this defense than it does about this secondary.

Grade: B

Kicker/Punter

The Texans had mediocre special teams overall in 2020, finishing 21st in special teams DVOA. There were some positives, but place kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn wasn’t really one of them, as they finished below average in place kicking DVOA and place kicking DVOA is almost entirely influenced by the place kicker themselves. Fairbairn wasn’t terrible, finishing 22nd among 36 eligible kickers on PFF, but his 37/40 on extra points and 27/31 on field goals left something to be desired. 

Beyond that, he actually outperformed his career averages of 91.9% on extra points and 84.6% on field goals, so he could regress a little in 2021. He also finished 13th among kickers in 2018, but that was sandwiched between seasons in which he finished 33th among 37 eligible kickers and 33rd among 38 eligible kickers respectively, so he’s been inconsistent at best in his career. Despite that, the Texans added no competition for him this off-season, so he seems locked into his job.

Fairbairn has also never been great on kickoffs and that was the case again in 2020. Despite that, kickoffs were a bit of a strength for the Texans in 2020, as they finished with above average kickoff DVOA, in large part due to the play of their other special teamers. Those special teamers also helped out on punts, which is the other aspect in which the Texans finished with an above average DVOA. 

Punting was actually their biggest special teams strength last season, as punter Bryan Anger had a solid season in his own right, finishing 9th among punters on PFF. Anger is unfortunately no longer with the team though and his replacement Cameron Johnston seems like an obvious downgrade, never finishing higher than 23rd among punters on PFF in three seasons in Philadelphia. The Texans will need to elevate their play around the punter even more to continue having a strong punt coverage unit. Both Johnston and Fairbairn are underwhelming options.

Grade: C+

Return Specialists

The Texans struggled in both aspects of the return game last season, ranking 20.1 in yards per kickoff return at 27th and 21st in yards per punt return at 7.9, while finishing below average in DVOA in both aspects. Their returners were largely to blame, but the Texans should get a big boost from free agent addition Andre Roberts, who is one of the most accomplished return men of the past decade and seems likely to return both kickoffs and punts for the Texans in 2021. Since entering the league in 2010, Roberts has averaged 9.0 yards per punt return on 195 attempts and 25.8 yards per kickoff return on 221 attempts, with five return touchdowns and four finishes in the top-7 among return men on PFF the past five seasons. 

Roberts’ age is a bit of a concern, now in his age 33 season, but he still finished 7th among return men on PFF in 2020, while averaging 30.0 yards for kickoff return and 9.5 yards per punt return. Hw should have another strong season in 2021, even if he isn’t quite as good as he’s been in the past. His biggest competition for both roles is Keke Coutee, but he averaged 19.4 yards per kickoff return and 6.9 yards per punt return in the first return action of his career last season, so it would be a big surprise if he won either of these jobs from Roberts.

Grade: A-

Special Teamers

As I mentioned, the Texans got solid play from their special teamers last season. They lost a trio of key players this off-season in Peter Kalambayi (196 snaps), Michael Thomas (177 snaps), and Brennan Scarlett (158 snaps) and all three of them finished with average or better grades from PFF, but this group could actually be better in 2021, as the Texans went out and signed six experienced special teamers this off-season. Tavierre Thomas (334 snaps) was their biggest addition, as he finished 50th among special teamers on PFF in 2020 and 7th in 2018, with a down year in 2019 in between. 

Hardy Nickerson has averaged 218 snaps per season on special teams in four seasons in the league, earning an average or better grade from PFF in all 4 seasons, including back-to-back above average seasons. Kamu Grugier-Hill has averaged 245 snaps per season in five seasons in the league and has earned an above average grade in all but one season. Neville Hewitt has averaged 223 snaps per season in six seasons in the league and has earned an above average grade in all but one season.

Tae Davis and Joe Thomas are more underwhelming options, but they probably won’t have to play big roles in this group. In addition to the aforementioned additions, the Texans also bring back Buddy Howell, who finished 36th among special teamers on PFF across 244 snaps in 2020, taking a big step forward from more middling play in 2018 and 2019, as well as middling options Keion Crossen (259 snaps), AJ Moore (186 snaps), and Cornell Armstrong (189 snaps). This is unlikely to be one of the better special teamer groups in the league, but they could easily be above average and they should be an upgraded group from a year ago.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Texans are really in a strange position. They have the most expensive roster in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, which typically correlates with winning, but it’s hard to imagine them winning a significant amount of games. Part of that is their highest paid player, Deshaun Watson at 39 million annually, is unlikely to suit up for them this season, but even if he did, the rest of this roster is not in good shape, despite the money committed to it. 

After Watson, their next highest paid players are Laremy Tunsil (22 million annually), Brandin Cooks (16.2 million annually), Zach Cunningham (14.5 million annually), and Whitney Mercilus (13.5 million annually), who are all unlikely to live up to their salary in 2021. Including Watson, those top six players make a combined 105.2 million annually, which jumps to 134.7 million annually when Bradley Roby, Shaq Lawson, and Randall Cobb are included. Beyond that, this team has a complete lack of cheap young talent filling out this roster, as a result of bad drafting and picks that were traded away. 

Rather than trying to find diamonds in the rough of the young players they do have, the Texans opted to supplement this roster with a bunch of low end veterans, with 41 players signed to one-year deals this off-season, including about 30 or so who seem likely to make this final roster, which just drives the price tag for this roster up further compared to filling out the roster with rookie contracts, costing them future cap space, and depriving them of the opportunity to evaluate young players who are under contract beyond this season.

The common narrative is that the Texans are the worst team in the league, which could be true, but if anything it’s worse than that, as they have just enough veteran talent that they could win enough games to put themselves out of position for a high draft pick and, with so many snaps going to veteran on one-year deals, this season is likely to accomplish very little in terms of clarifying the long-term direction of this roster. I will have a final prediction for the Texans at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21: The Texans may get some benefit from their special teams, which is more predictive than I realized, but this is obviously still one of the worst teams in the league.

9/4/21 Update: The Texans aren’t likely to go 0-17 as some think because they weirdly spent this off-season adding veterans on one-year deals who could potentially help them win a couple games, rather than giving young players playing time and bottoming out, but it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise to see them end up with the #1 overall pick even if they do pull some upsets and I don’t expect them to be favored in any of their games this season.

Prediction: 2-15 4th in AFC South

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