Houston Texans 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans won just four games in 2021, but in many ways they exceeded expectations by doing that. Once perennial playoff contenders as recently as 2019, the Texans lost a significant amount of talent over the subsequent few off-seasons, including dominant wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, long-time dominant defender JJ Watt, talented safeties Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu, and talented defensive linemen DJ Reader and Jadeveon Clowney, among other key players. The Texans were unable to find adequate replacements for most of these players either through free agency or the draft, a problem made harder by the fact that the Texans had just four picks in the first two rounds combined across the 2018-2021 drafts, as a result of an aggressive team building strategy that did not result in an extended playoff run. 

Making matters worse, star quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had already demanded a trade last off-season, had to sit out the entire 2021 season while his off-the-field legal situation played out. The 2020 Texans went just 4-12 and looked even worse on paper going into 2021, even before losing Watson, who was PFF’s 2nd ranked quarterback in 2020, despite the Texans’ lack of team success. Forced to turn to veteran journeyman Tyrod Taylor and raw 3rd round rookie Davis Mills in Watson’s absence, it wasn’t hard to see how this team would be among the worst in the league in 2021.

The Texans weren’t quite as bad as many expected, with projections giving them a good chance to finish the season winless, but they were still among the worst teams in the league and were arguably even worse than their 4-13 record suggested, as their only win in which they won the first down rate battle was their week one home victory over a Jaguars team that finished with an even worse record at 3-14. In their other victory over the Jaguars, Texans lost the first down rate battle by 8.02%, only winning the game because they overperformed on third down (10/18 vs. 3/14), which is not as predictive as early downs. In their upset wins over the Chargers and Titans, the Texans won the turnover battle by 3 and 5 respectively, but lost the first down rate battle by 2.86% and 9.47% respectively. 

Meanwhile, most of the Texans losses were not close, coming by an average of 17.2 points per game, leading to the Texans ranking dead last in overall efficiency, over five points worse than the next closest team, with their defense and offense both ranking dead last in efficiency. They might not have had the worst record in the league last season, but they’re still probably starting from a lower base point than any team in the league.

There is some good news, however. For one, Watson’s legal situation cleared up enough that the Texans were able to trade him to Cleveland for a huge return that included a trio of first round picks (2022-2024), despite lingering allegations and civil lawsuits against Watson. You never want to have to trade a player of Watson’s caliber in his prime, but given the circumstances, the Texans have to be considered winners of that trade. The added draft capital will be very valuable for a team that has lacked high draft picks in recent years and, when you add in their own 3rd overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft as a result of last year’s terrible record, the Texans have plenty of resources with which to rebuild.

The most important thing the Texans will have to do long-term now is to find a franchise quarterback. The Texans wisely sat out this off-season’s quarterback carousel, not giving up valuable draft capital to acquire an expensive veteran to quarterback a team that is otherwise taking a long-term approach to roster building, and not using a high draft pick to acquire a young quarterback who may not be any better than the one they already have in Davis Mills, who was the 8th quarterback chosen in a much deeper draft in 2021, but who could have been one of the first signal callers picked in a much weaker draft in 2022 had he returned to school for one more year.

In many ways Mills is the perfect quarterback for the Texans right now, as he could take a step forward and prove to be a long-term option and, if not, the Texans would almost definitely be picking near the top of a much better quarterback draft in 2023, which would allow them to get their quarterback of the future in a year. Either way, the Texans should have a lot more clarity on the position in a year, regardless of how the 2022 season plays out.

All in all, Mills had a rough rookie season, finishing 36th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF and completing 66.8% of his passes for an average of 6.76 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, but he did show some progress as the season went on, a good sign for a quarterback considered to have first round talent, who only fell because he started just 11 collegiate games. Across Mills’ first eight games, he completed 65.5% of his passes for an average of just 6.30 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, before completing 68.4% of his passes for an average of 7.36 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in his final five games.

For better or worse, the Texans are fully committed to Mills for the time being, only bringing in middling backup Kyle Allen this off-season, rather than adding a higher upside backup who could potentially push Mills for his job if he struggles. Allen has made 17 starts in four seasons in the league, but his career stats of 63.1% completion, 6.90 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions are very underwhelming and his only extended run as a starting quarterback came in a 2019 season in which he finished as PFF’s 38th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. Barring injury, Mills should be the season-long starter, with Allen likely only being an option if Mills struggles mightily. I don’t expect Mills to be the long-term solution for this team, but he at least has the upside to potentially be.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

One of the most questionable decisions the Texans made to put their roster in its current state was sending two first round picks and a second round pick to the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil before the start of the 2019 season. The Texans had badly needed left tackle help for years and Tunsil was an above average starter on a rookie deal, but he was not the type of elite player that usually returned multiple high picks in a trade and the Texans also gave him a top of the market extension worth 66 million over 3 years ahead of the final two years of his rookie deal, so he didn’t come cheap from a salary standpoint either.

Tunsil continued his above average play in his first two seasons in Houston, finishing 19th and 28th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2019 and 2020 respectively, after finishing 24th among offensive tackles in his final season in Miami in 2018, but with the Texans bottoming out in 2020, the second of the two first round picks the Texans surrendered happened to be 3rd overall in one of the best quarterback drafts in recent memory. The Dolphins didn’t need a quarterback, but were able to trade the pick to the 49ers for a trio of first round picks, so in some ways, it’s like the Texans surrendered four first round picks for Tunsil.

Making matters even worse, Tunsil spent most of 2021 sidelined with injury, playing just 262 middling snaps across 5 games. Still only in his age 28 season without a significant injury history, playing at least 14 games in each of his first 5 seasons prior to last season, Tunsil has obvious bounce back potential, but he’ll never be the kind of player who justifies the cost the Texans paid for him. With two highly paid years left on his contract, there has been some talk of the Texans potentially moving Tunsil to try to recoup some draft compensation, but he likely wouldn’t return much in a trade because of his salary obligations and, for better or worse, he’s the Texans’ best offensive lineman and they missed him badly when he was out last season.

Tunsil was not the only offensive lineman that the Texans used significant resources to acquire during the 2019 off-season, as they also spent their first and second round picks on a pair of offensive linemen in Tytus Howard and Max Scharping, and, like Tunsil, neither has been worth what the Texans paid for them. Howard struggled across 22 starts at right tackle in his first two seasons in the league and then wasn’t much better when the Texans moved him to left guard in 2021. 

Despite that, the Texans still picked up his 5th year option for 2023, which will guarantee him 13.202 million, a large sum for an offensive lineman yet to consistently put it together. The Texans decision to do that shows they still believe in his upside and it should lock him into a starting role for the next two seasons, but where he plays is still a bit of a mystery. He seems more comfortable at guard, but guard is a less valued position and his salary for 2023 would put him among the top-10 highest paid guards in the league, which he has yet to come close to justifying with his play. Barring a huge breakout year in 2022, he figures to be overpaid in 2023, regardless of what position he plays.

At least Howard is still a starter for this team, which isn’t necessarily true of Max Scharping, as he has struggled across 33 career starts, all at guard, earning below average grades from PFF in all three seasons, and he then saw the Texans add a couple of additional guards this off-season. Even if Howard is moved back to tackle, which is not a guarantee, Scharping will still need to compete with newcomers Kenyon Green and AJ Cann for starting roles. Green seems most likely of the three to start, as the Texans just used the 15th overall pick on him, but he isn’t locked into a starting role and isn’t a guarantee to make an immediate impact even if he lands the role.

Cann, meanwhile, is a veteran coming over from the Jaguars as a free agent. Cann was a long-time starter in Jacksonville, starting 94 games in 7 seasons, but he was pretty inconsistent and never played at a high level for a full season, maxing out as PFF’s 32nd ranked guard in 2016. Cann is also now going into his age 31 season and coming off of a year in which he struggled in four starts before going down for the season with injury, so he shouldn’t be locked into a starting role, but his 2-year, 8.5 million dollar contract suggests the Texans at least expect him to compete to start.

If Howard stays at guard, the Texans will likely stick with 2020 4th round pick Charlie Heck at right tackle, even though he struggled across 13 starts there last season, finishing as PFF’s 79th ranked offensive tackle out of 88 eligible. Heck didn’t show much as a rookie either, but it’s always a possibility he takes a step forward now in his 3rd season in the league, even if that’s far from a guarantee. If Howard moves back to right tackle, Heck would move to a swing tackle role and would be a top reserve along with the loser of the Green/Cann/Scharping battle for the two guard spots. The Texans also have Justin McCray, a versatile veteran who started 8 games for the Texans last season, albeit one who has mostly struggled across 27 career starts at various positions in 5 seasons in the league. 

At center, the Texans will likely stick with Justin Britt, who earned a middling grade from PFF across 11 starts last season. Britt was PFF’s 12th ranked center in 2016, but he hasn’t come close to being that good in any of his other seasons, finishing 23rd or worse at his position in every other season, and he’s had a lot of injury issues in recent years, playing in just 19 games total over the past 3 seasons. Now going into his age 31 season, durability will especially be a concern for Britt and he could start to decline when on the field as well. He could also remain a decent starter, but the Texans could need to turn to backup Jimmy Morrissey, a 2021 7th round pick who struggled on 258 rookie year snaps, if Britt gets hurt or struggles. The Texans did add to this group this off-season and they should be better with Laremy Tunsil likely to be healthier, but this is still an unsettled group that could easily have some problems this season.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Another one of the more questionable decisions the Texans have made in recent years to leave their roster in the state in which it is currently was their decision to trade DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals for a 2nd and 4th round pick, following the 2019 season. Trading Hopkins wasn’t a bad idea inherently and Hopkins has shown some signs of declining since joining the Cardinals and signing a big extension, but it was inexcusable for the Texans not to get back at least a first round pick for Hopkins, with six comparable or inferior wide receivers (Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams, Marquise Brown, AJ Brown, Odell Beckham) all being traded for at least a first round pick in the past four off-seasons, with Adams and Hill returning both a first and second round pick via trade. 

The reason the Texans didn’t get a first round pick for Hopkins is that they valued Cardinals running back David Johnson, who they also acquired in the trade, but he did not come close to being worth the difference in draft compensation between what the Texans got and and what they could have gotten from another team had the Texans not been enamored with Johnson. For comparison, the Packers and Chiefs received 1,150 and 1,100 points of draft capital for Adams and Hill respectively, while the Texans received 500 for Hopkins, a difference in draft capital worth equivalent to in between the 28th-31st pick.

Making the Hopkins trade even weirder is the Texans then turned around and traded a second round pick to the Rams for Brandin Cooks as a replacement #1 wide receiver. The pick they gave up for Cooks was later in the second round than the pick they received for Hopkins (40th vs. 57th) and Cooks was paid significantly less over the past two seasons than Hopkins made with the Cardinals (41 million vs. 21.15 million), but Cooks was not the top level receiver Hopkins had been for the Texans. That being said, Cooks has still been their #1 receiver over the past two seasons and managed to surpass 1000 yards in both seasons, despite underwhelming quarterback play in 2021. 

Cooks did benefit from receiving 134 targets in 2021, 13th most in the league, but his 7.74 yards per target average was still well above the team average and, in total, he’s surpassed 1000 yards six times over the past seven seasons. Still only going into his age 29 season, Cooks should continue playing well in 2021, even if he’s not a truly elite wide receiver, maxing out as PFF’s 20th ranked wide receiver in 2020 and finishing the 2021 season ranked 24th at his position. The Texans opted to keep him long-term this off-season, extending him on a 2-year, 39.764 million dollar deal ahead of what would have been the final year of his contract in 2022.

Part of the reason why Cooks received so many targets last season was that the Texans lacked another consistent receiving option. In fact, their 2nd leading receiver only had a 33/446/1 slash line. That receiver was 2021 3rd round pick Nico Collins, so he at least has some upside and could easily be better in 2022. The Texans also used a second round pick John Metchie in this year’s draft and he has upside as well. He’s coming off of a torn ACL in the college football playoffs, which has him questionable for the start of the season, but he has a good chance to at least carve out a role by the end of the season.

Veteran Chris Conley will likely keep the seat warm for Metchie while he develops and recovers from his injury, but Conley averaged just 0.96 yards per route run last season, so he’s a very underwhelming option. Even if quarterback play could be to blame for his struggles last season, he averaged just 1.06 yards per route run across his 7-year career, with a variety of different quarterbacks, so he’s unlikely to be much of a factor, especially now going into his age 30 season. The Texans also have fellow veteran Phillip Dorsett, but he has just 7 catches with three different teams over the past two seasons and is not even a lock to make this roster.

The Texans also didn’t get much out of the tight end position last season. Pharaoh Brown led the team with 605 snaps played by a tight end, but he was mostly a blocker, so he, Jordan Akins, and Brevin Jordan all saw about equal action as a receiver, with none having much of an impact, totaling slash lines of 23/171/0, 24/214/0, and 20/178/3 respectively. Brown should return in his blocking role, but last season’s underwhelming production was the best receiving year of his career, so he’s unlikely to make a significantly bigger impact in that aspect this year.

Without any significant off-season additions at the position and with Jordan Akins no longer with the team, the Texans are likely expecting more out of Brevin Jordan, who they selected in the 5th round last year. He showed some promise and led all Texans tight ends with 1.19 yards per route run, but he played limited action and is a projection to a larger role. The Texans also used a 5th round pick in this year’s draft on Teagan Quitoriano, another developmental tight end, but he’s highly unlikely to open the season as higher than the third tight end on the depth chart and could be behind veteran blocking specialist Antony Auclair as well. The Texans still don’t have a clear #2 receiving option behind Brandin Cooks, but they do at least have some young players with potential.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Texans vastly overvaluing David Johnson in the DeAndre Hopkins trade was the primary reason that trade was a mistake, rather than the decision to trade Hopkins itself. Not only did the Texans value Johnson equivalent to significant draft compensation, but they also took on his terrible contract, which should have made Johnson worth negative draft compensation, and paid Johnson 15.85 million over the past two seasons. In return, Johnson gave them just 1,458 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns in 25 games across those two seasons, before not being brought back as a free agent this off-season.

Johnson was one of five running backs to make starts for the Texans in 2021, with none having much of any success, on a team that finished the season ranked dead last in the NFL with a 3.39 YPC average. The Texans didn’t make any big investments at the position this off-season, but running back is a position where you can often find effective players for cheap. Of the five backs who started for them last season, two of them (Royce Freeman and Rex Burkhead) remain and the Texans have also added veteran free agent Marlon Mack and 4th round rookie Dameon Pierce, who both come with upside.

Mack is a former starter and was a 1,000 yard rusher with the Colts in 2019, but he tore his achilles in 2020 and lost his job to young phenom Jonathan Taylor, limiting Mack to just 32 carries total since that 1000+ yard season in 2019. Mack is still only going into his age 26 season and is now another year removed from his injury, so he has plenty of bounce back potential. His 0.83 yards per route run average shows his struggles in the passing game, but he has averaged 4.38 yards per carry on the ground in his career and has experience as a lead back, a role he could easily reprise in Houston, without much competition. Pierce would be my second pick to lead this team in rushing, even though he’s a 4th round rookie, as mid-round rookies often have an impact at the running back position.

Freeman and Burkhead, meanwhile, are low upside veterans without much of a track record. Freeman has averaged 3.84 yards per carry on 353 carries in 61 games in four seasons in the league, while averaging just 0.82 yards per route run, and Burkhead has averaged 3.96 yards per carry on 462 carries in 98 games in nine seasons in the league, with just a 3.50 YPC average last season on a career high 122 carries. Burkhead at least is useful on passing downs (1.65 yards per route run for his career), but, now in his age 32 season, he’s an underwhelming option even in the passing game. Mack and Pierce have upside, but this is still one of the most wide open and unimpressive running back groups in the league.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

Arguably the biggest bright spot for the Texans last season was the emergence of young edge defender Jonathan Greenard, a 3rd round pick in 2020. Greenard only played 414 snaps total, missing five games and playing sparingly early in the season, but he played so well when on the field that the Texans had to give him more action later in the year. He led the team with 8 sacks, which is impressive considering his playing time and lack of opportunities to rush the passer on a team that was frequently trailing, and he added another 7 hits and a 12.6% pressure rate. 

Greenard finished as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender in pass rush grade and, though he was not as effective against the run, he still finished as PFF’s 11th best edge defender overall. Greenard is still pretty unproven, having only played 265 snaps as a rookie in 2020 prior to last year’s relatively low snap count, but he has plenty of upside and undoubtedly should get a bigger snap count in 2022. It would not be a surprise at all if he broke out as a Pro-Bowl caliber player for years to come.

Greenard should have plenty of opportunity to earn a bigger role, as just one other of the Texans top-5 edge defenders in terms of snaps played last season remains on the roster (Jordan Jenkins, 282 snaps), but the Texans did bring in some reinforcements, signing veterans Jerry Hughes (2 years, 10 million), Rasheem Green (1 year, 3.25 million), Mario Addison (2-year, 7.7 million), and Ogbo Okoronkwo (1-year, 3.25 million). All in all, those players are likely to be an upgrade on the players they are replacing, all of whom were middling at best.

Hughes is the most proven of the bunch, consistently earning above average pass rush grades across nine seasons with the Bills, totalling 52.5 sacks, 69 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate in 144 games. Hughes has never been as good as a run stopper and his sack count dropped to just two last season, but he still managed a 13.1% pressure rate as a part-time player, while earning PFF’s 15th ranked pass rush grade by an edge defender. Heading into his age 34 season, there’s always a possibility Hughes drops off completely this season, but he could easily continue being effective as a situational pass rusher. He’s also been incredibly durable, missing just one game in the past decade, which is likely a good sign for his chances of continuing to be effective into his mid-30s.

Addison also is an aging veteran who comes over from the Bills, but he hasn’t been as effective as Hughes in recent years, earning middling grades over the past four seasons, and now he heads into his age 35 season, so he may not have much left in the tank. He did have seven sacks last season, but added just one other quarterback hit and his 11.0% pressure rate was noticeably more middling than Hughes’ pressure rate, on the same defense. He’ll probably still have a role, at least in the beginning of the season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be a game day inactive down the stretch if the Texans are in the middle of another lost season and want to give younger players more opportunity.

Green and Okoronkwo are younger players and both should have at least a rotational role. Green is a hybrid player who can line up both outside and inside in passing situations, which he will likely continue doing with the Texans, but he’s mostly struggled throughout his 4-year career, earning below average grades from PFF in all four seasons. He had 6.5 sacks last season, but did so largely on volume, as he ranked 17th among all NFL defensive linemen with 847 snaps played, but had just a 6.6% pressure rate and finished in the just the 18th percentile of defensive linemen on PFF in overall grade. He’s still only going into his age 25 season and could be more effective in a smaller role in Houston, but that’s not a guarantee.

Okoronkwo, meanwhile, could prove to be a steal. A 5th round pick by the Rams in 2018, Okoronkwo has barely played, totalling 528 snaps in four seasons in the league, but that was mostly because he was buried on the depth chart on a talented defense and he made the most of his limited action, playing at a high level against the run and pressuring quarterbacks at a 12.5% rate. Okoronkwo played a career high 255 snaps last season, totaling 2 sacks, 3 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate, and finished in the 86th percentile among edge defenders on PFF. He’s a projection to a larger role and he won’t have as much talent around him in Houston as he did with the Rams, but could easily be an above average player on 400-500 snaps.

With Greenard seemingly about to break out and four other players being added to the position this off-season, veteran Jordan Jenkins could find himself the odd man out, especially since none of his scheduled 3 million dollar salary is guaranteed. A third round pick in 2016 by the Jets, Jenkins has mostly been a solid rotational player throughout his career, but he’s missed 10 games over the past two seasons and is coming off the worst season of his career, finishing in the 9th percentile among edge defenders on PFF. He’s still only going into his age 28 season, so he has some bounce back potential, but he wouldn’t be more than a solid rotational player even if he did bounce back. With Greenard and Okoronkwo having breakout potential and Jerry Hughes potentially still having some pass rush juice, this is actually a solid position group overall, but they figure to rotate players heavily and not all of their options will be effective.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Texans aren’t as deep on the interior of their defensive line, so Rasheem Green could line up inside more often than on the edge. Aside from adding 5th round pick Thomas Booker, the Texans didn’t address this position this off-season, so they’ll be counting on getting more out of holdovers Maliek Collins (628 snaps), Ross Blacklock (457 snaps), and Roy Lopez (502 snaps). Collins is the only one of the trio to even earn a middling grade from PFF, but he’s been inconsistent throughout his 6-year career, finishing well below average on PFF in three of those seasons, including just a 4th percentile finish in 2020. 

Collins has especially struggled against the run in his career, though he’s been somewhat impressive as a pass rusher, totaling 17 sacks, 34 hits, and a 7.5% pressure rate in 88 career games. That pressure rate jumped to 8.5% in 2021 and the Texans opted to retain him on a 2-year, 17 million dollar extension this off-season, so clearly they believe he can keep that up, but he could just as easily regress (his pressure rate was 4.4% in 2020) and he figures to not be much of a factor against the run regardless.

Lopez and Blacklock, meanwhile, are both recent draft picks who haven’t shown much in their brief careers, but still potentially have upside. Blacklock, the 40th overall pick in 2020, would seem to have the most upside, but he was horrendous as a rookie, finishing dead last among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF and, while his pass rush ability improved to middling in 2021, his run defense continued to be a significant problem. He could take another step forward in his third year in 2022, but he has a long way to go to even be a middling rotational player. That’s even more embarrassing for the Texans when you consider that he was selected with the second round pick acquired in the DeAndre Hopkins trade. 

Lopez, meanwhile, was a 6th round pick in 2021 and struggled both as a run stopper and a pass rusher as a rookie. A late round pick, it’s very possible Lopez never develops into a useful contributor, but he’ll get another shot in a thin position group in 2022. It’s very possible the Texans add at least one more veteran free agent to this group this off-season, but for now, this looks like a very thin and underwhelming position group, especially if Maliek Collins regresses after a solid season in 2021 and if neither of their young players takes a step forward.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Texans’ off ball linebackers were very underwhelming last season as well. The only player at the position who earned even a middling grade from PFF was Zach Cunningham, who played just 493 snaps before being cut mid-season for disciplinary reasons. Kamu Grugier-Hill (778 snaps), Christian Kirksey (790 snaps), and Neville Hewitt (325 snaps) all saw action for the Texans last season and all three return this season, but none played well enough to be locked into a starting role in 2022 and the Texans added a pair of players to the mix this off-season, signing Jalen Reeves-Maybin to a deal worth 7.5 million over 2 years and using a 3rd round pick on Alabama’s Christian Harris.

Reeves-Maybin was only middling last season in the first significant action of his career (615 snaps), after playing 685 underwhelming defensive snaps across his first four seasons in the league prior to last season, as mostly a special teams player, so he’s an underwhelming option as well. Kirksey is the only one of the bunch with any real track record of success, but his last above average season on PFF was in 2017, before an injury plagued stretch that has limited him to just 33 of 65 possible games in four seasons since. 

Kirksey did play 13 games last season, but he now heads into his age 30 season, so he’s not a reliable option going forward. Hewitt and Grugier-Hill, meanwhile, have never earned an above average grade from PFF for a season in which they were a starter. Harris is the only one of the bunch with any real upside, but it’s unclear how much action he’ll see as a rookie. Even with some off-season additions, this is still a very underwhelming linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

One bright spot of the Texans’ season last year was the emergence of slot cornerback Tavierre Thomas, a former 2018 undrafted free agent who was primarily a special teamer in his first three seasons in the league with the Browns, playing 237 defensive snaps total, but who proved to be a diamond in the rough in his first season in Houston. He only played six snaps in the first three games of the season, but he was made the primary slot cornerback in week 4 and finished the season as PFF’s 12th ranked cornerback, while allowing the 2nd fewest yards per route run of any slot cornerback in the league (0.50). He’s a complete one-year wonder and could easily regress in 2022, but he’s the heavy favorite to keep the slot cornerback job.

The downside of Thomas’ emergence on the slot was that the Texans had to move natural slot cornerback Desmond King to the outside, where he struggled mightily, finishing as PFF’s 116th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible. King earned an above average grade from PFF in each of his first four seasons prior to last season, so he has obvious bounce back potential on the slot, but he doesn’t have a clear path to playing time anywhere, with the Texans adding a pair of outside cornerbacks this off-season. It’s possible the Texans give King a look at safety this season.

Those two outside cornerbacks are Derek Stingley and Steven Nelson and both have a good chance to make a positive impact. Stingley was the 3rd overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and, while he was a polarizing prospect, struggling through injuries in 2020 and 2021 after being arguably the top cornerback in college football as a freshman in 2019, he comes with a sky high upside and could develop into one of the top cornerbacks in the league if all goes well. He comes with a lot of downside as well, but it’s not hard to see him making an impact as a rookie.

Nelson, meanwhile, is a proven veteran who is still only going into his age 29 season and should continue being an above average starter, after earning an average or better grade from PFF in each of the past six seasons (84 starts), including a career best 7th ranked finish in 2019. At the very least, he’ll be a capable starter for a team that got poor play from all of their outside cornerbacks last season and he could easily prove to be a steal on a 2-year, 9 million dollar contract. The Falcons also took a flyer on ex-Falcons cornerback Kendall Sheffield this off-season, but the 2019 4th round pick struggled mightily in his first two seasons with the Falcons, before being limited to just 53 snaps last season, so he’s unlikely to make much of an impact. If he even makes the team, he would be a reserve along with Desmond King.

Part of why King might have a better chance of playing at safety is because the Texans have an unsettled position group there, but the Texans did use a second round pick on safety Jalen Pitre and he figures to have the inside track to at least one of the starting roles, even if he’s far from a guarantee to be effective as a rookie. At the other spot, veteran Eric Murray may be the favorite, but he struggled in 11 starts last season, finishing 90th out of 98 eligible safeties on PFF and he’s never been more than a middling player in any of his six seasons in the league.

Justin Reid (780 snaps) and Lonnie Johnson (542 snaps) didn’t return from last year’s safety group, but both earned below average grades from PFF, so neither will be a big loss. Without those two, Murray will likely see competition from free agent addition MJ Stewart, a former bust of a 2nd round pick cornerback by the Buccaneers who flashed in limited action as a safety for the Browns in 2021. He’s never played more than 342 snaps in a season in four years in the league, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and has always had talent, so it’s possible he ends up as a late bloomer, even if he’s obviously a projection to a larger role.

The Texans also bring back reserves Terrence Brooks (180 snaps) and Jonathan Owens (168 snaps). Brooks is a career special teamer who has never surpassed 280 defensive snaps in a season, but Owens is a 2018 undrafted free agent who at least showed some promise last season, albeit in a very limited role. Having played just 10 defensive snaps in his career prior to last season, he’s extremely inexperienced, but he may be worth a longer look if the Texans’ other safety options struggle this season. The additions of Nelson, Stingley, and Pitre should make this group better by default, but, at the same time, their top player a year ago, Tavierre Thomas, could easily regress after his out-of-nowhere breakout season in 2021.

Grade: B-

Special Teams

By far the biggest strength of this Texans team last season was their special teams unit, ranking 9th in special teams DVOA, and this unit should remain their biggest strength in 2022, with their key players from a year ago all returning. Ka’imi Fairbairn and Cameron Johnston return as kicker and punter and Tremon Smith and Desmond King return as kick returner and above average, after posting solid averages of 25.6 yards per return and 9.1 yards per return respectively last season. Smith is also an elite core special teams player, ranking in the top-50 special teamers on PFF last season, along with Neville Hewitt and MJ Stewart, who also return in 2022. This should remain an above average unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Texans should be better than a year ago, but they’re starting from a lower base point than most realize. Their -172 point differential last season was 3rd worst in the league and would have been even worse if they didn’t still manage to have a +3 turnover margin, which made them the only team in the league with a positive turnover margin and a point differential worse than -60. Turnover margins are not predictive on a week-to-week or year-to-year basis and, in terms of efficiency ratings, which are much more predictive, the Texans ranked dead last in 2021, more than five points worse than the next worst team last season.

On top of that, even though they’re improved, they’re mostly improved by default, as this remains one of, if not the weakest roster in the NFL, with below average units at most position groups. They figure to be among the worst teams in the league again this season and have a good shot at the #1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, which isn’t necessarily a bad result because this is a team still rebuilding that needs to find a franchise quarterback. Even in a best case scenario, it’s very hard to see this team competing for a playoff spot in 2022, especially not in the loaded AFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC South

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