Arian Foster could be asked to shoulder much of the Texans' offensive load for rookie head coach Bill O'Brien
There are collapses, and then there are the 2013 Texans, whose supposed offseason fine-tuning of the roster disintegrated into 14 consecutive losses and the NFL’s worst record at 2–14. Head coach Gary Kubiak didn’t survive to season’s end. The coaching staff was overhauled with Penn State’s Bill O’Brien hired as the new boss. O’Brien knows something about picking up the pieces after taking over for Joe Paterno in 2012 amid the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Quarterback Matt Schaub’s decline prompted a March trade to Oakland for a sixth-round draft pick. Injuries and a lack of mental toughness in close games — nine losses by a touchdown or less — victimized the defending two-time AFC South champions. The upside is that the Texans can’t get much worse. They’re healthy and still have talent. The rebuild began with several free-agent signings and 10 draft choices, most notably No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
The addition of free-agent quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick provides a veteran presence, but the reality is this is his third team in as many years and fifth in a 10-year career. He’ll provide experience, but the Texans will need him to groom an heir apparent, possibly rookie Tom Savage, a fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh. Fitzpatrick will be asked to make the smart plays, not turn it over and rely on the run game. Turnovers are the concern. He’s averaged 16.5 interceptions the past four seasons.
O’Brien is also listed as offensive coordinator. Expect to see some wrinkles from his New England days as an assistant to Bill Belichick, formations with multiple tight ends and no fullbacks. Four of the O-line starters return, including two-time Pro Bowl tackle Duane Brown, but pass protection was an issue. Expect a combination of zone and man blocking schemes under new offensive line coach Paul Dunn. The obvious emphasis will be to get the most out of running back Arian Foster, who played just half of last season and underwent back surgery. He’s still just 28, so there’s no reason to believe he can’t revert to 2012 form, when he produced a league-leading 17 touchdowns. Free-agent signee Andre Brown, who has had his share of injuries, was believed to be the leading candidate to serve as the No. 2 tailback, but he and Dennis Johnson were cut a few weeks into training camp. This opens up an opportunity for either Dennis Johnson, who was the team's third-leading rusher last season, or sixth-round pick Alfred Blue to seize the backup job. The team also signed veterans Ronnie Brown and William Powell to add to the backfield competition during camp.
Seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson turns 33 before camp, but he delivered 109 catches for 1,407 yards and five TDs in 2013. The problem is, without another capable receiver — at least one with speed — opposing teams will double Johnson to minimize his production. Last year’s No. 1 pick, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, had 52 catches for 802 yards but didn’t finish strong. Look for Hopkins’ numbers to improve and for him to be a more frequent target in the red zone. That would take a lot of the pressure off of Johnson. Too often in the past, opponents could sit on fade routes to Johnson inside the 20-yard line. Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey provide depth, and both will be given every opportunity to contribute more. The Texans will use three tight ends, sometimes on the field at the same time. Garrett Graham has the potential for a breakout season. He and Ryan Griffin are talented pass-catchers. Third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz is a solid blocker with decent hands.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was replaced by Romeo Crennel, a five-time Super Bowl winner who inherits a defense that generated a league-low seven interceptions and recovered just four fumbles. Crennel will change the 3-4 scheme by asking linemen to play two gaps. The previous expectation was to cover one gap and get up the field. The Texans were No. 3 in pass defense, but just 23rd in stopping the run and tied for 24th in points allowed. Crennel has one of the NFL’s best defensive ends in J.J. Watt, who has 36.5 sacks in his three-year career. But that number dropped from 20.5 to 10.5 last season as teams forced him to beat constant double-teams. Houston tied for 29th with just 32 sacks. Expect Watt to line up at different positions. The other end likely will be Jared Crick, a third-year pro who plays with a high motor. Rookie Jeoffrey Pagan is coming off shoulder surgery but could push Crick. Rookie third-round pick Louis Nix III will be counted on at nose tackle.
Clowney has the kind of freakish athleticism and pass-rush skills to make life easier for Watt. Clowney’s official position will be outside linebacker, but Crennel will use him in a variety of ways depending on the game situation. Whitney Mercilus had seven sacks in his first season as a starting outside linebacker. Brooks Reed moves inside next to Brian Cushing, a defensive leader who has missed 20 games the past two seasons due to injuries. Keeping Cushing on the field as an every-down linebacker is vital.
Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson return for their fourth season starting together. Joseph typically covers the opponent’s best receiver but has been inconsistent. Jackson has made strides but still gets hit with too many penalties. Depth is a concern. Former second-round pick Brandon Harris has yet to live up to his selection. He likely will become the nickel back. Strong safety D.J. Swearinger and free safety Shiloh Keo are back, but expect them to be pushed by free-agent additions Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis.
Punter Shane Lechler turns 38 during camp but is still one of the NFL’s elite with a 47.6-yard average last season and 34 punts inside the 20. Placekicker Randy Bullock made 26-of-35 field goals in his first season, though four of the misses were from 50 yards or more. Martin is an excellent kickoff returner with a 26.3-yard average, but he managed just 8.8 yards per punt return, primarily because of bad blocking. The Texans need to improve on kick coverage. They were 28th in both kickoff return average (25.7) and punt return average (12.3).
The lack of a quality quarterback in a league that requires superior play at the position will hold this team back at times. Fitzpatrick will show flashes, but with the great plays come the demoralizing ones. Still, Foster, Johnson, Watt, Cushing and hopefully Clowney give this team building blocks to bounce back to respectability. If healthy, Foster is too talented to have another subpar season. Clowney and Watt should be a headache for opposing offensive lines. Teams that run the ball and can play defense are always competitive. There will be more close games, and expect Houston to win its share of them this time.
The Texans are fortunate to be in the AFC South, where Tennessee and Jacksonville are also in rebuilding modes and have similar quarterback concerns. It’s a bit too optimistic to expect a worst-to-first rebirth and unseating of defending champion Indianapolis. But Texans fans have reason to expect progress. As far-fetched as it may seem, considering last year’s debacle, finishing around .500 isn’t out of the realm of possibility.