Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans: 2017 Week 6 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (0-5) at Houston Texans (2-3)

The Browns are 0-5 and tied for the 2nd worst turnover margin in the league at -7. Fortunately for them, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. For example, the Browns were -2 against the Jets last week and teams that post a -2 turnover margin, on average, have a turnover margin of -0.1 the following week. If you look at other numbers as well, there’s really no week-to-week correlation between turnover margins. That’s great news for a team that has actually moved the ball pretty well this season when they aren’t turning the ball over.

The Browns rank 25th in first down rate differential, which isn’t great, but it’s better than their record suggests and their -2.34% mark is not terrible. They have 8 more first downs than they’ve allowed (103 vs. 95) and they rank 15th in first down rate at 34.45%, above the league average. They haven’t won a game, but they’ve won the first down margin between in 3 of 5 games, including last week’s 17-14 home loss to the Jets, a game in which the Browns had 3 drives down inside the Jets’ 5-yard line that did not result in points (interception, fumble, failed 4th down conversion) and missed 2 field goals (39-yard and 52-yard). The Browns lost by 3 despite winning the first down battle 22-14.

Not only are turnover margins inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, but the Browns also made a smart, proactive decision to improve their turnover margin by benching quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has been responsible for 11 of the Browns’ 13 turnovers, despite playing just 81.1% of the team’s offensive snaps. In addition to the turnovers, Kizer was completing just 50.9% of his passes for an average of 5.35 YPA. The 2nd round rookie was a disaster in 5 starts and will be replaced by 2016 5th round pick Kevin Hogan, who has significantly outplayed him in limited action this season, completing 68.9% of his passes for 9.92 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. Hogan might not be great in his first career start, but going with him instead of Kizer increases their likelihood of winning this game.

Their big mistake might have been not going to Hogan sooner, as the Browns’ schedule has been pretty easy so far (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, NY Jets) and gets harder going forward. They get lucky this week though, as they head to Houston to face a Texans team that just lost their two best defensive players, defensive end JJ Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, for the season with injuries. The Texans’ offense is improved with rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson under center and 2nd year wide receiver Will Fuller playing well since his return from a broken collarbone, but they still have major problems on the offensive line and now have major problems on defense too.

They shouldn’t be favored by double digits against anyone. This line was -8.5 a week ago on the early line, but moved to 10 despite the losses of Watt and Mercilus because people are overreacting to the Browns’ loss to the Jets, a game the Browns likely would have won if they had played Hogan all game. The one concern with taking the Browns is that the Texans are going into a bye and teams are 65-24 ATS as 6+ point home favorites before a bye since 2002, but the Texans shouldn’t be favored by this many points and will have a very hard time covering as 10 point favorites without Watt and Mercilus. I have this line calculated at -5.5 in favor of the Texans, so we’re getting a ton of line value with the visitors. This is my Pick of the Week.

Houston Texans 23 Cleveland Browns 17

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +10

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans: 2017 Week 5 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) at Houston Texans (2-2)

The Texans dropped 57 points on the Titans last week, picking up 33 first downs in the process. That performance was night and day from their week 1 performance in a 29-7 loss to the Jaguars. The obvious difference is the quarterback, as week 1 starter Tom Savage was benched at halftime against the Jaguars and replaced with first round pick Deshaun Watson, but Watson’s career didn’t get off to a great start either. He struggled to move the ball in the second half against Jacksonville week 1 and then again in Cincinnati week 2, before taking a big step forward against a weak New England defense week 3.

Watson’s week 4 game was easily his best performance yet and a big part of that was the return of Will Fuller from injury. A first round pick in 2016, Fuller had an up and down rookie year, showing blazing speed, but struggling with drops, before missing the first 3 games of this season with a broken collarbone. He looked like a new receiver in his first game back and that, along with the improved play of Watson, helped lead to arguably the best single game offensive performance by any team all season. Fuller and Watson might not always be that good this season and they still have major problems on the offensive line, but they run the ball well with Watson under center and have a pair of talented outside receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller that Watson can hit off of play action. At the very least, their offensive outlook looks better than it did at the start of the season.

This week, they face a banged up Kansas City team. The Chiefs are 4-0, but they’re going to be missing 4 week 1 starters with injury in this one, center Mitch Morse, guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, safety Eric Berry, and outside linebacker Dee Ford. The Chiefs have had some close calls so far this season and aren’t as good as their record suggests, but I still have them about 4 points better than Houston. This line is a pick ‘em, suggesting that the visiting Chiefs are about 3 points better. We’re not getting any real line value with the Chiefs, but they’re probably the smarter choice in a game that’s close to a toss up.

Kansas City Chiefs 17 Houston Texans 16

Pick against the spread: Kansas City PK

Confidence: None

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: 2017 Week 4 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (2-1) at Houston Texans (1-2)

I thought the Texans were one of the more overrated teams in the league going into the New England game and, now after their near win, I think they’re even more overrated. Deshaun Watson did a great job of extending plays, but he was going against a front 7 that’s one of the weakest in the league without Dont’a Hightower. He also showed bad judgement on several throws downfield, something that was an issue for him in his first start against Cincinnati and in his collegiate days at Clemson, where he was interception prone.

Watson led just one touchdown drive in his first start against the Bengals and that was on a long run he broke on the ground. The Titans have a comparable defense and should be able to keep him in the pocket much more easily than the Patriots. Watson could be a good quarterback someday, but he’s still very early in his development and his offensive supporting cast is one of the worst in the league. He should have a lot of trouble this week, especially since Tennessee defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is 21-2 against rookie quarterbacks in his legendary career.

The Texans’ defense could keep them in the game at home, but outside of their front 7 they just aren’t that good of a team. They have an average at best secondary, after losing AJ Bouye and Quintin Demps this off-season and losing Kevin Johnson to injury. The Titans, meanwhile, are one of the most well-rounded teams in the league and they and are a great value as mere 2 point road favorites here. I have this line calculated at -5.5, so this is my Pick of the Week, as the Titans basically just need to win straight up to cover here.

Tennessee Titans 23 Houston Texans 17

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -2

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Houston Texans at New England Patriots: 2017 Week 3 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (1-1) at New England Patriots (1-1)

Ordinarily, you have to pay a pretty high premium to bet on the Patriots at home. As a result, they are just 21-21 ATS as home favorites of 7.5 or more over the past 8 seasons, despite going 35-7 straight up in those games. The casual public loves betting on New England, so we don’t usually get good line value with them. However, in this game, I think we are getting a little bit of line value with them. The Patriots are favored by 14 points, which is a lot, but this is a matchup between one of the best teams in the league and one of the worst, so you can make a case for this line being a couple points higher.

The Texans get a lot of attention for their front 7, but, when you look at the rest of their roster, this is one of the worst teams in the league right now. They’re starting a rookie quarterback behind arguably the worst offensive line in football with no receivers to throw to after DeAndre Hopkins. Even on defense, they have issues in the secondary, especially with Kevin Johnson hurt again. That all could be a recipe for disaster against a New England team that doesn’t have any upcoming distractions.

The Patriots host the Panthers next week in a game in which the Patriots are expected to be favorites of at least a touchdown. Teams that are favored by a touchdown or more are 61-36 ATS since 2012 before being favored by a touchdown or more again, as good teams tend to take care of business without upcoming distractions on their schedule. That’s what I expect to happen here. New England is worth a small bet at 14 and should win this game by at least two scores.

New England Patriots 31 Houston Texans 13

Pick against the spread: New England -14

Confidence: Medium

Houston Texans at Cincinnati Bengals: 2017 Week 2 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (0-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-1)

When I saw this line was -3 in favor of the Bengals last week, I thought about locking in the pick a week in advance. Three points is usually the standard adjustment for homefield advantage, so that line suggested these two teams were about even. I had Cincinnati 4 wins better than the Texans in my season previews and several spots ahead of them in my rankings, so -3 would have been a great value. Non-divisional home favorites also tend to cover on Thursday nights because it’s tough for an inferior team to travel on a short week and face a relatively unfamiliar opponent. Teams are 27-13 ATS all-time as non-divisional home favorites on Thursday Night when both teams are on short weeks (excluding week 1 and games with teams coming off byes).

This line has since moved to 5, so I am kicking myself for not locking it in at 3. Both teams looked bad last week, with the Bengals getting shutout at home by Ravens and the Texans getting sacked 10 times in a home loss to the Jaguars, but the oddsmakers clearly thought Houston’s performance was much more concerning, hence the line movement. I agree the Bengals have a much better chance of making week 1 look like a fluke than the Texans, but we still lose significant value with that line movement.

We are still getting some value with the Bengals though. I thought they were the clearly better team coming into the season and now Cincinnati gets cornerback Adam Jones back from suspension and possibly safety Shawn Williams and wide receiver John Ross back from injury, while Texans will likely be without middle linebacker Brian Cushing, right guard Jeff Allen, and their top-3 tight ends due to injury. That’s in addition to #2 wide receiver Will Fuller still being out with a broken collarbone and left tackle Duane Brown continuing to hold out.

Another wrinkle in this matchup is the Texans benching quarterback Tom Savage for first round rookie Deshaun Watson at halftime of last week’s loss. Watson was expected to take over for Savage at some point this season, but the Texans probably didn’t want to have to turn to him after just two quarters, so it’s fair to question his readiness, especially since he has to go on the road on a short week and face an above average defense. His second half performance last week was uninspiring and his mobility could be limited after suffering an ankle injury towards the end of the game last week.

That could prove to be a significant injury because his mobility is probably his best asset at this point, especially given how little time this offensive line figures to give him in the pocket. Without Brown and Allen, arguably their best two offensive lineman, the Texans probably have the worst offensive line in football. They also don’t have anything resembling a capable #2 receiving option after DeAndre Hopkins and will likely have to start a practice squad player at tight end. All this inexperience on the road on a short week could prove to be a major problem against a more established Cincinnati team and it’s really unclear how they plan on moving the ball.

The Bengals are getting healthier and should bounce back and win this game pretty easily, but 30% of games are decided by 4 points or less, so it’s tough to be really confident in Cincinnati as 5 point favorites, especially since the Texans’ defensive line should dominate the Bengals’ weak offensive line and could single handedly keep them in this game if they can give Andy Dalton trouble in the pocket. I still give the Bengals’ offensive line a better chance against Houston’s defensive line than I give the Texans’ offensive line against Cincinnati’s defensive line though. This is a low confidence pick which could become a medium confidence pick if the lines moves in a favorable direction.

Also, by request, I’m going to be posting lines I lock in early in the week during my Thursday Night writeups this season, so readers can lock them in before they move. These are not all my picks for the week, just picks where I think the line may move in an unfavorable direction (usually underdogs). The rest of the writeups will continue to be posted over the weekend as normal.

CLE +7.5 @ BAL (I’d take +7 too)

PHI +5 @ KC (I’d take this one down to +4)

WAS +3 @ LAR

Cincinnati Bengals 17 Houston Texans 9

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati -5

Confidence: Low

Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: 2017 Week 1 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (0-0) at Houston Texans (0-0)

The Jaguars went just 3-13 last season, but could take a big leap forward this season. Their record last season was largely the result of a -16 turnover margin (3rd worst in the NFL) and a 2-8 record in games decided by 7 points or fewer. They got better defensively this off-season with free agent additions Calais Campbell and AJ Bouye and they have several young defenders who could take a leap forward in 2017. They also used their 4th overall pick on running back Leonard Fournette, which significantly improves this running game.

A team’s turnover margin and record in close games tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so the Jaguars would have likely taken a step forward even without the added talent. They still have major issues at quarterback with Blake Bortles, but he won’t have as many chances to throw interceptions this season if the Jaguars play strong defense and run the ball frequently and they’ll probably also do a better job recovering fumbles, after recovering just 2 of 15 offensive fumbles last season. That should lead to them winning some of those close games and then some, in spite of their issues at quarterback.

Their opponents this week are an example of how teams can still be a threat for the playoffs even without competent quarterback play, as the Texans won the AFC South last season with Brock Osweiler starting most of the season. Houston starts this season with Tom Savage under center, who is only an upgrade over Osweiler by default. He isn’t much better than Bortles either, if he is at all. The Texans also have a less talented supporting cast around him than the Jaguars do around Bortles, despite winning the division last season.

The Texans went 9-7 last season, but that was largely as a result of a 8-2 record in games decided by 7 points or fewer. They finished the season 26th in point differential at -49 and 26th in first down rate differential at -1.48%. Arguably the worst offense in the league, the Texans managed a league low 23 offensive touchdowns they allowed 10 more offensive touchdowns than they scored. The Jaguars, despite being 6 games worse in the standings, were just -5 in offensive touchdown margin. Jacksonville has a better receiving corps, better running backs, and a better offensive line with Houston left tackle Duane Brown still holding out. With right tackle Derek Newton out for the season for injury, the Texans have arguably the worst offensive line in the league right now without Brown.

The Texans obviously get JJ Watt back from injury after he missed almost all of last season and he makes a tough trio with Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney, but the Jaguars duo of Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson is impressive as well and they also have young defensive ends Dante Fowler and Yannick Ngakoue providing rush off the edge. In addition, the Jaguars also have a significantly better back 7, with Houston losing top defensive backs Quintin Demps and AJ Bouye in free agency, the latter of whom is now on the Jaguars.

In spite of that, the Texans are favored here by 4.5 points, suggesting they are significantly better than the Jaguars. I think it’s the other way around and that we’re getting significant line value with the Jaguars. The Texans are also in a tough spot because have to turn around and play another game in 4 days when they go to Cincinnati for Thursday Night Football. Favorites are just 58-84 ATS before Thursday Night games since 2008, including 2-4 ATS in week 1. Even if the Texans win here, I think it’s unlikely to be by more than 4 points, considering how many close games these teams play. About 30% of games are decided by 4 points or fewer, so 4.5 is a more sizeable line than you’d think. This is my Pick of the Week.

Jacksonville Jaguars 17 Houston Texans 16 Upset Pick +190

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +4.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Houston Texans 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans played 7 different quarterbacks in 2014 and 2015 combined, but won 9 games in both seasons thanks to a strong defense. They thought they found their solution at the quarterback position and their missing piece last off-season when they signed ex-Bronco Brock Osweiler to a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal, but he turned out to be as bad as any quarterback they played in 2014 or 2015. He completed just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions in 14 starts and was briefly benched for backup Tom Savage for weeks 15 and 16, before Savage suffered a concussion that ended his season. Osweiler finished the season 32nd out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The Texans’ defense was excellent again in 2016, as they finished 3rd in first down rate allowed, but their offense finished 2nd worst in first down rate and they were lucky to win 9 games and make the playoffs again. They were arguably the worst team in the league to make the post-season, even though they did win a home playoff game against the Derek Carr-less Raiders. Their 9 wins came by a combined 44 points and they didn’t win a single regular season game by double digits. Their 7 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 93 points, giving them a -49 point differential, 7th worst in the NFL. They also finished 7th worst in the NFL in first down rate differential and had a -10 offensive touchdown differential, 5th worst in the league. Their 23 offensive touchdowns scored were the lowest in the league by any team, but they were able to make the playoffs thanks to a weak division, a lot of close wins, and a strong defense.

The Texans turned to desperate measures this off-season to get out of the 16 million dollars in guaranteed money they owed Brock Osweiler this season, sending Osweiler, a 2nd round pick in 2018, and a 6th round pick in 2017 to the Browns for a 4th round pick in 2017, effectively buying some of the Browns’ cap space. When the move was made, many saw it as the Texans clearing cap space to try to sign Tony Romo once the Cowboys released him, but Romo ended up retiring and joining CBS, leaving the Texans with Tom Savage atop their depth chart going into the draft.

On draft day, after the Bears and Chiefs both traded up to grab quarterbacks in the top-10, the Texans moved up to 12 in another trade with the Browns to secure their quarterback, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, sending their 2018 1st round pick to the Browns to move up 13 spots. All in all, the Texans used their first round pick this year and their first and second round pick next year to go from Brock Osweiler to Deshaun Watson at quarterback in an effort to hopefully finally solidify the quarterback position. It’s a very risky set of moves.

Despite all they gave up to get him, Watson is far from a lock to be the week 1 starter and is expected to work behind the veteran Tom Savage for most of the off-season. Conventional wisdom suggests Watson will get a shot at some point this season, given how much the Texans gave up for him and given that Savage is probably the least qualified starting quarterback in the league, but head coach Bill O’Brien’s system is not easy to learn and Savage has an advantage having been in the system for 3 years already. The 2014 4th round pick has just 92 career pass attempts and has completed just 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.39 YPA, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interceptions. He’s a backup caliber talent. Watson, meanwhile, could struggle as a rookie given the complexity of the offense and his tendency to force throws and get intercepted. He has good upside long-term, but isn’t NFL ready.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

One of the reasons giving up those 3 valuable picks to change quarterbacks this off-season is so risky is because it hurts their ability to address other glaring needs, particularly on the offensive line. Quarterback play was a big part of the problem for the Texans last season, but so was offensive line play and they didn’t address the offensive line outside of using their 4th and 7th round picks an offensive linemen who are unlikely to be able to contribute as rookies. Without a pick in the first 2 rounds next year, the Texans could have issues upfront for a while.

Derek Newton was a capable starter at right tackle for them, but he tore both of his patellar tendons on the same play last season and missed the final 10 games of the season. About as bad of a knee injury as you can imagine, Newton is not expected to play at all in 2017 and his future is very much in doubt. Veteran journeyman Chris Clark took over the starting job after he got hurt and predictably struggled, finishing 73rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles. He’s best as a swing tackle, but the only competition the Texans have for him is 4th round rookie Julie’n Davenport, who is very raw out of Bucknell and wouldn’t be an upgrade as a rookie.

Making matters worse at the offensive tackle position, left tackle Duane Brown is going into his age 32 season. A top-24 offensive tackle in each of the past 7 seasons, Brown finished last season 14th among offensive tackles and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but could easily decline over the next couple seasons. On top of that, Brown is reportedly unhappy with his contract and wants to cash in one more time, despite being owed 19.4 million over the next 2 seasons. So far he’s only missed voluntary off-season activities, but it’s definitely a situation to monitor, given how important he is to this offense.

The Texans have issues at guard as well, where both left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and right guard Jeff Allen struggled last season, finishing 57th and 65th respectively among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. That’s a disappointment because the Texans spent significant resources to bring both players in. Allen signed a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal with the Texans last off-season, coming over from Kansas City. Allen was a second round pick by the Chiefs in 2012 and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, before missing most of 2014 with injury. However, upon return from that injury, he finished 16th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts in 2015, which was apparently enough for the Texans to give him a big contract. It’s not a surprise that he struggled in his first season in Houston given how unproven he is. He could easily continue struggling this season.

Su’a-Filo, meanwhile, was drafted by the Texans with the first pick in the second round in 2014. He was the player the Texans drafted instead of quarterback Derek Carr because they were worried about the optics of selecting David Carr’s brother, given that David was a bust as the #1 overall pick with the Texans in 2002. Passing on Derek proved to be as big of a mistake as selecting David, as Derek has become one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Oakland and Su’a-Filo has yet to develop into a starting caliber player on a team that has struggled for consistency at the quarterback position.

After barely playing as a rookie, Su’a-Filo has made 24 starts in the past 2 seasons, but has been a bottom-20 guard on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. The Texans don’t have another option so they are holding out hope that he can turn into a capable starter in the final year of his rookie deal, but that is far from a guarantee. The Texans do get center Nick Martin back, after the 2016 2nd round pick missed his entire rookie season with an ankle injury, though backup Greg Mancz was serviceable in his absence last season. Martin has more upside though and should have no problem winning his job back. Whether or not he develops into a starting caliber player remains to be seen though. Outside of aging left tackle Duane Brown, the Texans have a lot of problems on the offensive line.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

As bad as the Texans’ passing game played in both 2014 and 2015, with 7 different quarterbacks playing, they were significantly worse statistically in 2016. Their team QB rating of 73.3 was 3rd worst in the NFL ahead of only the Jets and the Rams and was at least 12 points lower than their QB rating in each of the previous 2 seasons. In 2014 and 2015, they were at least able to get the ball to #1 receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but who put up slash lines of 76/1210/6 and 111/1521/11 in those 2 seasons respectively.

In 2016, that fell to 78/954/4. Part of that was the fault of Hopkins, who fell to 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-12 in both 2014 and 2015, but the Texans need to do a better job of getting the ball to him. They completed just 52.0% of passes thrown to him last season and he’s too talented for that to happen. Even if Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson struggle in 2017, Hopkins is still a good bet to top last year’s numbers. Still only going into his age 25 season, the 2013 1st round pick is going into the final year of his rookie deal and figures to become one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league on his next contract. He’s too valuable to this offense to lose, so the Texans might not have any choice but to pay up.

Hopkins would benefit from another receiver stepping up to take some of the pressure off of him, something he hasn’t had since Andre Johnson played opposite him during his rookie year. The Texans drafted Will Fuller in the first round last year with that in mind, but he struggled as a rookie, catching just 47 passes on 92 targets (51.1%) for 635 yards and 2 touchdowns. He finished 93rd out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and Fuller still has the upside to become a dangerous deep threat long-term, but he also has small hands and doesn’t make contested catches, so it’s possible he never reaches his upside.

After Hopkins and Fuller, the Texans leaders in receiving yards last season were tight ends CJ Fiedorowicz (54/559/4) and Ryan Griffin (50/442/2) and running back Lamar Miller (31/188/1). Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong played 379 and 300 snaps respectively behind Hopkins and Fuller and managed slash lines of just 15/99/1 and 14/131/0 respectively. Part of that was a result of quarterback play, but both struggled mightily as well.  Strong was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and Miller was a 3rd round pick in 2016, so they have some upside, but it’s very possible neither ever develops into a useful pass catcher. They’ll compete with Keith Mumphrey, a 2015 5th round pick who has also struggled mightily in limited action in his career, for playing time behind Hopkins and Fuller.

To mask their lack of depth at wide receiver, the Texans will probably use two-tight end sets whenever possible. CJ Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin played 678 and 507 snaps respectively last season. Griffin is a mediocre tight end at best, struggling throughout his career both as a run blocker and a pass catcher and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 6th round in 2013. Fiedorowicz, on the other hand, has developed into a solid all-around tight end.

After a miserable rookie season in which he finished 63rd out of 67 eligible tight ends, the 2014 3rd round pick jumped to 29th among tight ends in 2015, despite just 17 catches, because of strong run blocking ability. In 2016, he improved again, finishing 17th at the position and finishing 2nd on the team with 54 catches. At 6-5 265, Fiedorowicz is an unexplosive athlete, but has developed into a reliable underneath option and can win on the goal line. He’s not the difference making 2nd option this offense needs though, so this underwhelming receiving corps needs a breakout year from Fuller opposite Hopkins.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Texans’ passing game was so bad in 2016 that they struggled mightily to move the ball despite a decent running game complement. The Texans averaged just 4.08 YPC, 19th in the NFL, but that’s pretty impressive considering opposing defenses were stacking the box without fearing the passing game and considering they finished 6th in the league in carries with 456. It’s also a higher average than the Texans have had in any season since 2013. Playing strong defense and running the ball is their most obvious path to success, so the Texans are obviously hoping their running game can remain effective in 2017.

Lamar Miller remains as their lead back, after rushing for 1073 yards and 268 touchdowns on 5 carries (4.00 YPC) in the first year of a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal in 2016. Miller was explosive in the first 4 seasons of his career in Miami, but never had more than 254 touches in a season. In Houston, he had 299 touches in just 14 games and seemed to wear down by the end of the season. He averaged just 3.72 yards per carry after week 7 and dealt with several nagging injuries. The Texans will probably limit his touches more in 2017 in an effort to keep him fresher. Still only going into his age 26 season, Miller should have another solid season as the lead back. He has a career 4.42 YPC average on 906 carries.

The Texans drafted D’Onta Foreman in the 3rd round of the draft and he could be Miller’s primary backup this season. Foreman’s main competition for the job is Alfred Blue, who averaged 4.20 yards per carry on 100 carries last season. Blue is a mediocre runner though, averaging just 3.64 YPC on 452 career carries, since going in the 6th round in 2014. It’s possible all 3 backs see work, but Foreman is a much more talented runner than Blue and should overtake him on the depth chart before the end of the season. It’s not a bad stable of running backs.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Texans defense played at a high level again in 2016, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed and keeping this team competitive in games despite terrible play by the offense. What’s most impressive is their defense played at such a high level despite basically getting nothing from 3-time MVP JJ Watt. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 defensive end in every season from 2012-2015, Watt struggled on 157 snaps in 3 games last season upon return from off-season back surgery and then needed another surgery after week 3 that ended his season. Back surgery is nothing to take lightly, but off-season reports have been good and he should be the favorite for Comeback Player of the Year, even if other players are more likely to win Defensive Player of the Year. The 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Watt is still only going into his age 28 season, so he theoretically should still be in the prime of his career.

In Watt’s absence, fellow former first round pick Jadeveon Clowney had a breakout year and picked up a lot of the slack. The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney was limited to 17 games in his first 2 seasons in the league by injury, but played 14 games last season and finished 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Clowney has primarily been an outside linebacker in his career, but has the size at 6-5 270 to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages and did so with regularity last season with Watt out. Even with Watt back, they still have a need for Clowney to play inside in sub packages, though the Texans are thinner at outside linebacker after losing key reserve John Simon. Wherever he lines up, Clowney’s best football could still be ahead of him, still only going into his age 24 season. He has a ton of natural talent and could be a perennial All-Pro if he can stay healthy.

With Clowney playing outside linebacker part-time, Vince Wilfork (507 snaps), Christian Covington (415 snaps), and DJ Reader (404 snaps) led the defensive line in snaps played last season. Wilfork remains unsigned, ahead of his age 36 season, and he struggled last season anyway, but both Covington and Reader played well in limited action, particularly against the run. Covington struggled on 167 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2015, but graded out above average last season. Reader, meanwhile, was just a 5th round rookie last season, but also graded out above average. In base packages, they will start with Watt on this 3-man defensive line. Fourth round rookie Carlos Watkins could also have a rotational role as a rookie. It’s a much improved defensive line with Watt back from injury and they have some nice situational pieces as well.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Along with Clowney, fellow former first round pick Whitney Mercilus had a big year in Watt’s absence last season, finishing 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. The 26th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Mercilus graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, but has broken out over the past 2 seasons, finishing in the top-8 at his position in both seasons. Mercilus, Clowney, and Watt will wreak havoc in passing situations, but it’s unclear who the 4th player will be rushing the passer with them.

If Clowney rushes the passer from the interior in sub packages, Brennan Scarlett, their new top reserve outside linebacker with Simon gone, will have to rush off the edge opposite Mercilus in sub packages. That’s a very likely scenario though, considering the Texans don’t have another capable interior pass rusher. A 2016 undrafted free agent, Scarlett was underwhelming on just 113 snaps as a rookie, but the organization likes him and he has a shot to win a situational role. He should be a big downgrade from Simon, who was quietly a solid player for the Texans over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average and topping 500 snaps in both seasons. He signed with division rival Indianapolis on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal this off-season.

At middle linebacker, Brian Cushing and Benardrick McKinney remains as starters, though Cushing could be pushed for his job by 2nd round rookie Zach Cunningham. McKinney was also a second round pick, getting drafted in 2015. He flashed on 411 snaps as a rookie and then finished 18th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season, while making all 16 starts. The big 6-4 246 pounder was surprisingly impressive in coverage last season. Going into his age 25 season, his best football could still be ahead of him.

Cushing also had a solid season, finishing 23rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He did miss 3 games with injury, which have always been an issue for him. His worst stretch of injuries came in 2012-2013, when he played just 12 total games in 2 seasons combined. He played 30 games in 2014-2015, but didn’t look like his old self, grading out below average in both seasons. Last season’s solid play was a bit of a surprise, but it’s no guarantee to continue in 2017, given that he is going into his age 30 season and given his injury history.

Owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in 2018 with Cunningham waiting in the wings, this is likely Cushing’s final season in Houston. Cunningham was a borderline first round talent who slipped to pick #57, so the Texans made the wise decision drafting him, even if he doesn’t fill an immediate need. Cushing will probably hold Cunningham off this season, but Cunningham should be a starter for them at some point. With Watt coming back from injury, this should be an improved front 7, but they still have depth issues in sub packages with John Simon signing with the Colts.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Simon wasn’t their only off-season loss on defense, as AJ Bouye and Quintin Demps signed with the Jaguars and Bears respectively. They finished last season 3rd among cornerbacks and 12th among safeties respectively, so they will be big losses for the Texans. While their front 7 should be better with Watt back, their secondary could easily be a lot worse. The Texans don’t have an obvious replacement for Demps at safety, but Corey Moore was their 3rd safety last season, so I would expect the 2015 undrafted free agent to get the first crack at the job.

Moore didn’t play well last season though, finishing 60th among 90 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus on 392 snaps, in the first significant action of his career. He’s a weak starting option. He will face competition from KJ Dillon, a a 2016 5th round pick who played just 19 underwhelming snaps as a rookie before tearing his ACL. Eddie Pleasant (1 start in 5 seasons in the league) and Robert Nelson (0 starts in 3 seasons in the league) are also options. Whoever starts figures to be a major downgrade from Demps.

Andre Hal is locked in as the other starting safety, but largely by default, as he finished 55th among 90 eligible safeties in 11 starts last season. The 2014 7th round pick has made 22 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has graded out below average in both seasons. He’s unlikely to be much better in 2017. He wouldn’t be starting for a lot of teams, but he’s the Texans’ best safety with Demps gone. Safety figures to be a real position of weakness in 2017 on a defense that will have to be good to make up for the lack of talent on offense.

Fortunately, they are deeper at cornerback, even without AJ Bouye. Bouye played so well last season that they’re obviously going to miss him, but he was actually just their 4th cornerback at this time last year and only saw starts because their top-3 cornerbacks, Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and Kevin Johnson, all missed time with injury. Johnson’s injury was the most severe, as he played just 286 snaps in 6 games before breaking his foot and missing the rest of the season. He was probably the best of the trio too, grading out the highest among the three on Pro Football Focus in limited action. A 2015 1st round pick, Johnson graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but looked on his way to a breakout season in 2016 before the injury. He’ll probably open the season as the 3rd cornerback, but he has a ton of upside and could push both Jackson and Joseph for their starting jobs.

Jackson missed just 2 games with injury, but he hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season since 2012, always missing time with nagging injuries (13 games missed in 4 seasons). He finished 35th among cornerbacks last season, but has also graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, so he’s been inconsistent throughout his career. Now going into his age 29 season, he’s in the tail end of his prime and could begin to decline soon. He could also have another couple solid seasons as a starter left in him though.

Joseph has had the better overall career, grading out above average in 8 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, but he’s also going into his age 33 season and finished behind Jackson in 2016, ending the year as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback. He also missed 3 games with injury. That was a big dropoff from 2015, when he finished 9th in one of the best seasons of his career. Joseph is going into his 12th season in the league in 2017 and will be a free agent after the season, so he could easily decide to retire next off-season. He and Jackson could both have solid seasons again, but that’s far from a guarantee, so they will need Jackson to be healthy and continue developing. Their secondary could be a lot worse this season.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Texans get JJ Watt back from injury and getting rid of Brock Osweiler was addition by subtraction, but their quarterback situation still isn’t good and they sold 3 key defensive players in John Simon, AJ Bouye, and Quintin Demps, none of whom were properly replaced. They also didn’t add much in the draft or free agency in terms of players who are actually going to help them this season. They have major issues in the receiving corps, on the offensive line, at quarterback, and in the secondary and lack sub package depth upfront after Mercilus, Watt, and Clowney. They still have a disruptive front 7 and should have a strong defense once again, but not strong enough to make up for their offensive issues. Their division should be tougher this season and they’re unlikely to be as good in close games as they were last season (8-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less). I think it’s unlikely this team makes it back to the post-season in 2017.

Final update: The Texans will open the season without left tackle Duane Brown, who is holding out. That’s the last thing this offense needs. The Texans should have a strong defense this season, but their issues in the secondary can’t be ignored and their offense figures to struggle barring a miracle rookie season by Deshaun Watson. He’ll make starts at some point because Tom Savage won’t win many games.

Prediction: 5-11, 4th in AFC South