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

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (11-5) at Houston Texans (4-12)

The Titans lost to the Texans by nine points in Tennessee a few weeks ago, but that was a very fluky game in which the Titans won the first down rate battle by 9.47% and the yards per play battle by 2.25 yards per play, but lost because they lost the turnover margin by five, which is not predictive at all. In fact, teams that lose the turnover battle by 5 against a divisional opponent on average have a turnover margin of -0.1 in a same season revenge game.

The Texans have won four games, but they are still arguably the worst team in the league, as they have had some non-predictive things go their way in three of their four wins, with the exception being a week one win at home against a terrible Jaguars team, when the Texans were starting veteran Tyrod Taylor and had a much healthier offensive line. In their second win over the Jaguars a couple weeks ago, 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 win over the Chargers, the Texans won the turnover battle by 3, but lost the first down rate and yards per play battle by 2.86% and 0.49 against the Chargers. Meanwhile, in the Texans’ losses, they are getting outscored by 18.33 points per game. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on first down rate and yards per play, the Texans still rank 32nd on offense, 30th on defense, and dead last in mixed efficiency, about three points behind the second worst team.

The Titans have gone 5-2 in one-score games and are not the same offense without Derrick Henry, but Henry has not been their only absence in recent weeks and, aside from Henry being out, the Titans are as healthy on offense as they’ve been since Henry went down, with their whole offensive line back together and their top two wide receivers AJ Brown and Julio Jones in the lineup. They’re healthier than they were the first time they played the Texans and if they win the first down rate and yards per play battle by large margins again, that should translate on the scoreboard this time. This line is high, favoring the Titans by 10 on the road, but my calculated line is Tennessee -11.5 and the Texans have nine double digit losses this season, so there’s at least enough here for the Titans to be worth taking for pick ‘em purposes.

Tennessee Titans 24 Houston Texans 13

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -10

Confidence: Low

Houston Texans at San Francisco 49ers: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (4-11) at San Francisco 49ers (8-7)

The Texans have won four games, but are still arguably the worst team in the league. In three of their four wins, they have lost the first down rate battle and in two they have lost the yards per play battle, with the only game in which they won both being their week 1 win over the terrible Jaguars, back when the Texans had a much healthier offensive line. In their second win over the Jaguars a couple weeks ago, 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 Titans and the Chargers, the Texans won the turnover battle by 5 and 3 respectively, which is not predictive, but lost the first down rate and yards per play battle by 9.47% and 2.25 against the Titans and 2.86% and 0.49 against the Chargers, which are more predictive. Meanwhile, in the Texans’ losses, they are getting outscored by 18.55 points per game. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on first down rate and yards per play, the Texans still rank 32nd on offense, 30th on defense, and dead last in mixed efficiency, about 3.5 points behind the second worst team, the Jaguars. 

The 49ers, meanwhile, rank 5th, 12th, 25th, and 8th in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, special teams, and mixed efficiency, significantly better than their 8-7 record, as they have faced a tough schedule, have lost some close games (+43 point differential), and have had some issues with the turnover margin (-4 on the season). They’ll be without quarterback Jimmy Garopppolo in this one, but backup Trey Lance was the 3rd overall pick in this past draft and, while he didn’t play that well in his only career start in week five, he has reportedly made a lot of progress in practice in recent weeks. 

Lance will also have his most important offensive teammates, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, and left tackle Trent Williams, who have all missed some time this season, including Kittle missing Lance’s first start, while the 49ers’ defense has their key players as well, with edge defender Nick Bosa, interior defender Arik Armstead, safety Jimmie Ward, and linebacker Fred Warner all healthy and in the lineup. This line is pretty high, favoring the 49ers by 12, but it’s a significant shift from a week ago, when the 49ers were favored by 15. 

Garoppolo’s injury is part of that, but I also think that line movement is an overreaction to the Texans somewhat fluky win over the Chargers last week. Teams tend to struggle after upset victories like that anyway, covering at a 41.2% rate all-time after pulling off a double digit upset, as an upset win like that tends to trigger a line movement that more often than not proves to be an overreaction. My calculated line is still 15.5 and, if there are no major changes to either team’s COVID lists before gametime, I will strongly consider a bet on the 49ers around 12.

Update: I have decided I want to leave this as low confidence.

San Francisco 49ers 31 Houston Texans 16

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -12

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at Houston Texans: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (8-6) at Houston Texans (3-11)

The Texans have managed to win three games, but none of their wins have been impressive and they are still arguably the worst team in the league. Two of their wins, including their win last week, came against the Jaguars, who are also arguably the worst team in the league. Their first win over the Jaguars came way back in week one when veteran Tyrod Taylor was starting at quarterback instead of raw rookie Davis Mills and when the Texans’ offensive line was much healthier. The second win came last week in a game in which the Texans lost both the first down rate and yards per play battle by significant amounts, only winning the game because they overperformed on third down (10/18 vs. 3/14), which is not predictive.

The Texans’ other win came in Tennessee against a Titans team that is at least capable, but the Texans also lost the yards per play and first down rate battle by significant amounts in that game, only winning because of a +5 turnover margin, which is also not predictive. On top of that, the Texans 11 losses have come by an average of 18.55 points per game. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, which is based on yards per play and first down rate and is more predictive than final scores, the Texans still rank just 32nd, 31st, and 9th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively, while their mixed efficiency not only is dead last in the league, but they are five points behind the second worst team. 

The Chargers are favored by 10.5 points here on the road, but they rank 10th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, about 16 points better than the Texans, and they travel pretty well because they don’t have much homefield advantage (22-14 ATS on the road since moving to Los Angeles) and the Texans are so bad that my calculated line has the Chargers favored by 13.5 (using a lesser adjustment for homefield advantage), so we’re still getting line value with them. 

A lot has been made about all the Chargers are missing due to COVID, including dominant center Corey Linsley, dominant edge defender Joey Bosa, talented starting wide receiver Mike Williams, and featured running back Austin Ekeler, but the Texans are also missing key players to COVID, with top wide receiver Brandin Cooks and top edge defender Jonathan Greenard both out, among others. 

If anything, the Texans’ losses may be more damaging, as they don’t have the talent on the rest of this roster to make up for the absence of two players who are arguably the two best on the entire roster at their respective positions. I am hoping this line will drop to 10 before gametime as bettors overreact to the Chargers’ COVID absences and ignore the Texans’ absences, but even at 10.5 I would take the Chargers for pick ‘em purposes. This is a low confidence pick for now, but could be updated if the line moves.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Houston Texans 10

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -10.5

Confidence: Low

Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (2-11) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)

Both of these teams are 2-11 and among the worst teams in the league, but the Jaguars are still the significantly better team, even if only by default. The Jaguars hold a slight edge in point differential (-160 vs. -179), despite the Texans holding a significant edge in turnover differential (+1 vs. -19), which is not a predictive metric. In more predictive metrics, the Jaguars rank 30th, 23rd, and 26th respectively in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency, while the Texans rank 32nd, 31st, and 19th respectively and are seven points behind the Jaguars in mixed efficiency. 

The Texans beat the Jaguars by double digits in Houston earlier this season, but that was way back in week one when the Texans had a healthier offensive line and were starting veteran Tyrod Taylor at quarterback rather than raw rookie Davis Mills. With Mills, the Texans have been even worse this season, losing all eight of his starts and by an average of 18.5 points per game, an average that would be even worse if the Patriots weren’t missing most of their offensive line in their 3-point win, a game in which the Patriots still won the first down rate battle by 8.67%, and if the Texans hadn’t scored 22 meaningless garbage points against the Rams in a game in which they were down 38-0 going into the 4th quarter.

Earlier this week, the Jaguars were 3-point favorites at home and I thought I would end up betting on them at that number, especially after the news broke that the Jaguars would be firing highly unpopular head coach Urban Meyer, but Meyer’s dismissal has led to the Jaguars now being favored by 5 points. My calculated line still has the Jaguars favored by 9, but I think we lost line value with the line moving two points for the coaching change, as interim head coach Darrell Bevell is a very uninspiring replacement and is a big part of the problem with this offense. I may still bet on the Jaguars, but I want to wait and see what the COVID situation will be for both teams first and I hope we can get a better line before gametime.

Update: I am comfortable taking the Jaguars for a small bet. One thing I didn’t mention earlier is that the Jaguars are healthier now than they have been. They haven’t had a lot of injuries, but cornerback Shaq Griffin (two games missed) and center Brandon Linder (six games missed) are among the Jaguars’ best players on either side of the ball and both have missed significant time, with this week being the first time they will play in the same game since week 5. With the Urban Meyer situation behind them, they should be able to beat a horrendous Texans team with ease.

Jacksonville Jaguars 26 Houston Texans 17

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville -5

Confidence: Medium

Seattle Seahawks at Houston Texans: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (4-8) at Houston Texans (2-10)

The Texans are 2-10 and don’t have the worst record in the league, but they are undoubtedly the worst team in the league. Their first win came back in week one when their offensive line was healthier and it came against a Jaguars team that is also terrible, while their second win was a game against the Titans in which the Texans won the turnover margin by 5, an unpredictive metric, while losing the yards per play and first down rate battle convincingly, by margins of 2.2 and 9.47% respectively, which are much more predictive metrics.

Meanwhile, the Texans’ ten losses have come by an average of 18.3 points per game and that number could be even higher if the Patriots weren’t missing most of their offensive line in their 3-point win, a game in which the Patriots still won the first down rate battle by 8.67%, and if the Texans hadn’t scored 22 meaningless garbage points against the Rams in a game in which they were down 38-0 going into the 4th quarter. 

Overall, the Texans rank 32nd, 26th, and 21st in schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency respectively and, in mixed efficiency, they don’t just rank dead last in the NFL, but they are more than 6.5 points behind the next worst team. There was some hope they would play better when they got veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor back from injury, to replace raw rookie Davis Mills, but Taylor was barely an upgrade and was pulled in the middle of last week’s game so the team could get a better look at Davis Mills as a potential long-term starter, a chance he will get as the starter for the rest of the season.

It’s hard to see a circumstance where I would bet on the Texans and it would take a lot for me to even pick them against the spread, but this game is a situation where they make some sense as a pick, as they are in an incredible spot. The Texans lost 31-3 at home to the Colts last week, but teams tend to bounce back after a big loss as home underdogs like that, especially if teams are home underdogs again, as teams cover at a 59.0% rate all-time as home underdogs the week following a loss as home underdogs by 14 points or more. This is also the Texans’ third straight home game, a situation in which teams cover at a 55.2% rate.

Meanwhile, on the other side, the Seahawks have a much tougher game against the Rams on deck and could overlook the Texans or take their foot off the gas in the second half with a big lead and allow the Texans to backdoor cover this 8.5-point spread. Favorites of a touchdown or more cover at just a 42.7% rate all-time before facing an opponent with a winning percentage that is more than 50% higher than their current opponent’s winning percentage, which applies here. My calculated line actually has the Seahawks favored by 11 points, with the Texans being the worst team in the league and the Seahawks being much better than their record with Russell Wilson rounding back into form, and, because of that, I can’t take the Texans with any confidence, but they could make this more of a game than people are expecting.

Seattle Seahawks 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +8.5

Confidence: None

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: 2021 Week 13 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (6-6) at Houston Texans (2-9)

The Texans shockingly pulled the upset over the Titans in Tennessee two weeks ago, but that was a fluke win driven by a +5 turnover margin, which is not predictive. In more predictive metrics, the Titans won the first down rate and yards per play battle by significant amounts and likely would have won by multiple scores if not for all of the turnovers, despite the fact that the Titans are a middling team at best without Derrick Henry. The Texans’ only other win came against the lowly Jaguars, all the way back in week 1, when the Texans had a healthier offensive line. 

In all of their other games, the Texans have lost, in many cases by a wide margin. Six of their nine losses have come by double digits and they have an average margin of defeat of 17 points per game. That martin of defeat would be even higher if the Patriots weren’t missing most of their offensive line in their 3-point win, a game in which the Patriots still won the first down rate battle by 8.67%, and if the Texans hadn’t scored 22 meaningless garbage points against the Rams in a game in which they were down 38-0 going into the 4th quarter. In schedule adjusted efficiency, the Texans rank 32nd, 26th, and 22nd on offense, defense, and special teams respectively, with a mixed efficiency that not only ranks dead last in the lineup, but by six points behind the next worst team.

The Texans have been better since getting quarterback Tyrod Taylor back from injury, replacing raw rookie Davis Mills under center, and they have not lost by double digits with him in the lineup, but he’s only played four full games and the Colts are the toughest team he has faced thus far. The Colts are just 6-6, but their +57 point differential is much better than their record (7th best in the NFL) and they haven’t lost by more than one score since the first three weeks of the season, when they were dealing with significant injury issues, with their two best offensive linemen (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith) and quarterback Carson Wentz playing at much less than 100%. All three are healthy now.

On top of that, all of the Colts losses since their injury plagued 0-3 start have been to teams likely to make the post-season and all three were winnable, while their easiest four games have all resulted in wins, by an average of 14.8 points per game. In schedule adjusted efficiency, the Colts rank 7th, 27th, and 4th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and, now healthier, they are an even better team than their 12th ranked mixed efficiency suggests. They should be able to win by multiple scores against the Texans, even in Houston, even with the Texans having Tyrod Taylor back.

Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of line value in the past week, with the Colts going from 7-point favorites on the early line to 10-point favorites this week. It’s not even really clear why, as the Texans lost to the Jets by one score as small favorites and the Colts lost to the Buccaneers by one score as small underdogs. It’s possible the odds makers and the public just realized that seven was a bad line and that the Texans’ win over the Titans was a complete fluke, but either way, we have lost significant line value. My calculated line has the Colts favored by 12.5, so we are still getting some line value, but I would need this line to drop back down below 10 to consider betting on the Colts. This should be a blowout, but I need a little bit better of a line to be confident betting on it.

Indianapolis Colts 30 Houston Texans 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis -10

Confidence: Low

New York Jets at Houston Texans: 2021 Week 12 NFL Pick

New York Jets (2-8) at Houston Texans (2-8)

The Texans won last week in upset fashion, going into Tennessee and knocking off the previously 8-2 Titans, who were favored by 10 points in that game. However, the Titans have not been as good as their record has suggested this season and they have been even worse than that since losing feature back Derrick Henry, so that win isn’t as impressive as it seems, especially since the primary reason the Texans won is they managed to win the turnover battle by 5, in a 9-point Texans win. Turnover margin is highly non-predictive on a week-to-week basis, so the Texans definitely won’t be able to count on that every week and, in more predictive metrics, the Texans lost the first down rate battle by 9.47% and the yards per play battle by 2.2 yards per play.

That was also the Texans first win since back in week one, when they beat a Jaguars team that has proven to also be one of the worst in the league. In between, the Texans lost 8 straight games, with the average margin of defeat coming by 18.3 points per game. Even that doesn’t show quite how bad the Texans were during that stretch, as that average margin of defeat would be a lot higher if the Patriots weren’t missing most of their offensive line in their 3-point win, a game in which the Patriots still won the first down rate battle by 8.67%, and if the Texans hadn’t scored 22 meaningless garbage points against the Rams in a game in which they were down 38-0 going into the 4th quarter.

Even with last week’s win, the Texans still rank 32nd, 31st, and 24th in offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency, adjusted for schedule, and, in terms of mixed efficiency, the Texans don’t just rank dead last in the NFL, but they are about 4.5 points than any other team in the league. Their win last week also puts them in a bad spot, as teams tend to struggle the week after pulling a huge upset, covering the spread at a 41.7% rate all-time after a win as double digits underdogs, including 40.3% after a win as divisional double digit underdogs. 

That effect could be even more pronounced in this game, as the Texans’ season is still lost at this point and last week’s win over the Titans was the equivalent of the Texans’ Super Bowl. It’s hard to imagine them giving anywhere near that level of effort this week against a fellow 2-8 team in the Jets. The Jets are also one of the worst teams in the league, but their mixed efficiency, which ranks 29th in the league, is still about six points better than the Texans.

The Texans did get a boost a couple weeks ago when veteran starting quarterback returned from injury and replaced overmatched rookie Davis Mills under center, so the gap between these two teams isn’t quite as big as their mixed efficiency rankings show, but Taylor is still a borderline starting caliber quarterback at best, so it’s not enough of a boost to justify the Texans being favored by 2.5 points in this matchup, especially given that they figure to be flat. My calculated line has the Jets favored by 1 point, even before taking into account that the Texans are in a bad spot. I would need a full field goal to bet on the Jets confidently against the spread, but the money line at +120 is a good value, as the Jets should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game, and the Jets are still the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: This line has moved up to a field goal on Sunday morning. This is likely because Corey Davis was ruled out for the Jets, but I made this pick and this calculated line (Jets -1) with that in mind. The Texans don’t deserve to be favored by a field goal over anyone, even before you take into account that they could be flat after winning their “Super Bowl” last week. I know the Texans beat a same caliber Jaguars team week one at home with Tyrod Taylor under center, but the Texans’ offensive line was a lot healthier in that game with their two talented offensive tackles Laremy Tunsil and Marcus Cannon. Without them, the Texans have struggled to block anyone. If you can get the full field goal, I would recommend a small bet.

New York Jets 23 Houston Texans 20 Upset Pick +130

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +3

Confidence: Medium

Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: 2021 Week 11 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (1-8) at Tennessee Titans (8-2)

Expected by many to be the worst team in the league this season, the Texans surprisingly won their week one game by double digits, but everything has been downhill since then. Their win no longer looks impressive, as their opponents, the Jacksonville Jaguars, have proven to also be one of the worst teams in the league and, on top of that, the Texans haven’t won since, losing 8 straight games with most of them not being close, averaging a margin of defeat of 18.3 points.

The Texans are coming off their bye week and got starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor back from injury in their last game before the bye, for the first time since week 2, but the Texans still lost to the lowly Dolphins even with Taylor back in the lineup. It was primarily Taylor’s strong play that led the Texans to their week one victory, but the career journeyman can’t be counted on to play that well for an extended period of time and, while he was out, the Texans lost left tackle Laremy Tunsil to injury, knocking out arguably their best player and one of their few building blocks. At least until Tunsil returns, it’s hard to find situations where the Texans would be worth picking.

This seems like one of them though. The Titans are 9-2, but most of their wins have been close, with just two of their wins coming by double digits, relevant considering they are 10-point favorites in this matchup. Their offense also isn’t nearly as good without injured feature back Derrick Henry and, to a lesser extent, injured wide receiver Julio Jones. The Titans have won both of their games without Henry, but their offense did not perform effectively in either. 

They beat the Rams convincingly on the scoreboard, winning by 12 for one of their two double digit wins on the season, but the Titans also gained just 3.5 yards per play and it would have at least been a much closer game if the Titans’ defense did not get two pick sixes, which won’t happen every week. That game was then followed up last week to a near loss at home to the Saints, who were missing several key offensive players. They should move to 10-2 with a win here, but I would question if their offense can be effective enough to win this game by double digits, even against a terrible Texans defense. 

My calculated line still suggests we should take the Titans, but the Titans are also in a terrible spot, with a much bigger and tougher game against the Patriots on deck next week. Favorites of a touchdown or more cover at just a 42.5% rate all-time before facing an opponent with a winning percentage that is 50% higher or more than their current opponent’s winning percentage and that is the case in this matchup. I definitely would not recommend betting the Texans, but this seems like a rare case where they make a little bit more sense for pick ‘em purposes, as the Titans are likely to look completely past the Texans, on a long winning streak, with a huge matchup on deck.

Tennessee Titans 23 Houston Texans 14

Pick against the spread: Houston +10

Confidence: None

Houston Texans at Miami Dolphins: 2021 Week 9 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (1-7) at Miami Dolphins (1-7)

The Texans’ season got off to a good start, as they won their week one game by multiple scores, but they have yet to win a game since. It also hasn’t been close most of the game, as they have been outscored 220-82 since that week 1 game, giving them a point differential of -122 which is the worst in the league. That margin looks even worse if you take out a 25-22 point loss to the Patriots, in a game in which the Patriots were missing most of their offensive line but still won the first down rate battle by 8.67%, and if you take out the meaningless 22 points they scored in garbage time against the Rams last week, after trailing 38-0 through 3 quarters.

The good news for the Texans is they will get quarterback Tyrod Taylor back this week, for the first time since the first half of their week 2 game against the Browns. That game was actually 10-10 at the time Taylor went down, with all of their subsequent struggles coming with raw rookie quarterback Davis Mills under center. Taylor doesn’t return to quite the same roster around him, with left tackle Laremy Tunsil, arguably the Texans’ best player, being the most notable absence, but with Taylor back under center, the Texans at least have a serviceable starting quarterback and they have had some success with him this season, so it was surprising to me that this line didn’t shift more than it did, with the Texans still being 5.5-point underdogs in Miami.

The Dolphins have also lost seven straight games since winning week one. They haven’t gotten blown out quite as much as the Texans have, but they still have lost by an average of 13.7 points per game and their win wasn’t as impressive as the Texans’ week one win. They did beat a more competitive team in the Patriots, while the Texans’ win came over the lowly Jaguars, but the Texans at least won convincingly, while the Dolphins won by just one point in a game in which the Patriots lost a pair of fumbles and won the first down rate and yards per play battle. If not for one of those two fumbles, the Dolphins could easily be winless right now.

The Dolphins were 10-6 a year ago, but a dropoff always seemed inevitable, as they faced a very easy schedule and they benefited from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+11), opponent’s field goal percentage (3rd lowest at 73.91%), and 3rd/4th down conversion rate allowed (33.02%), which was actually lower than the 34.07% conversion rate they allowed on 1st/2nd down (4th highest in the NFL). The Dolphins also aren’t getting any key reinforcements back this week, unlike the Texans, who get Taylor back. 

We’re still not getting much line value with the Texans, who, even with Taylor back, have such a bad roster that they are still a few points behind the Dolphins in my roster rankings and they are on the road as well, but with Taylor back the Texans are at least bettable in the right situation. This seems like that situation, as the Dolphins have to play a much tougher opponent next week (Baltimore) and they have to do it on a short week. 

Favorites cover at just a 41.5% rate all-time before Thursday Night Football, while favorites of 5+ cover at just a 42.8% rate all-time before facing a team with a winning percentage that is over 60% higher than their current opponent’s winning percentage, both of which should work against the Dolphins this week. I am hoping we get a +6 because I’m not sure I am going to bet on the Texans at +5.5, but I still may end up taking them at that number if we can’t get a better number. This is a low confidence pick for now, but that could easily change.

Update: It doesn’t look like we are getting 6 and, in fact, this line has dropped to 5 in some places. Taylor is a significant upgrade under center for the Texans and should make them more competitive than they’ve been without him, but when you consider that they have lost by multiple scores in 6 of their last 7 games, with the exception being a game against a team missing their whole offensive line, even capable quarterback play is unlikely to save this team. The Texans are still the pick for pick ’em purposes, but I don’t think they’re bettable unless we happen to get 6.

Update: Tua Tagovailoa is surprisingly inactive for the Dolphins, meaning they will start Jacoby Brissett under center. That doesn’t make a difference though, because they’re comparable quarterbacks, so nothing changes here.

Miami Dolphins 20 Houston Texans 17

Pick against the spread: Houston +5.5

Confidence: Low