Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Houston Texans check in at No. 3.
The Texans have finally grown up. In the years prior to 2011, the franchise made small, incremental improvements from season-to-season but never fully got away from the two-steps-forward, one-step-back (or vice versa) routine. There was talent. There was potential. But the results never quite followed.
Until last season.
In 2011, potential was finally realized. The Texans went from pretenders to contenders, even as they suffered injury to key player after key player — Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams among them. They prided themselves on their “next man up” philosophy and it served them well, all the way to the AFC Divisional Playoffs, where they fought tooth-and-nail with a third-string quarterback (T.J. Yates) in tow. So in 2012, it will be about the Texans taking the next step — to become a Super Bowl contender for the first time in the franchise’s history.
After missing the last six regular-season games and both playoff games after undergoing foot surgery, Schaub says he’ll be 100 percent by the start of training camp. Schaub threw for more than 9,000 yards and 53 touchdowns in 2009 and ’10, playing all 16 games in both seasons. If he can play all 16 this year, the Texans will be bona fide Super Bowl contenders.
Houston returns the NFL’s top rushing tandem, Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Foster is coming off of back-to-back seasons of 1,200-plus yards and 10-plus touchdowns, while Tate rushed for 942 yards last season.
At receiver, the question remains if Johnson can play a full season — something he has failed to do in the last two years and in three of the past five. Last season, he played just seven games while battling a hamstring injury. The Texans’ offense proved that it can be productive without him, but it is clearly more dangerous with the two-time All-Pro in the lineup. Johnson and No. 2 receiver Kevin Walter aren’t getting any younger — both will be 31 when the season starts. After the Texans released Jacoby Jones, the No. 3 receiver spot is now up for grabs; expect rookies DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin as well as Lestar Jean to battle for that spot. Posey has plenty of ability and was able to post two 800-yards seasons despite playing mostly in a run-oriented offense at Ohio State. Martin has plenty of speed and might be the fastest receiver on the roster. Jean had an impressive training camp and preseason as a rookie last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. His route-running ability and knack for making acrobatic catches will make him hard to beat.
Tight end Owen Daniels should continue to be a reliable threat in the middle of the field. He’ll be joined by Garrett Graham, who will step in the place of former No. 2 tight end Joel Dreessen, who left via free agency for Denver.
The offensive line requires some rebuilding on the right side as the Texans cut tackle Eric Winston and lost guard Mike Brisiel to free agency. The left side is intact with tackle Duane Brown, guard Wade Smith and center Chris Myers all returning. Dererk Newton has been tabbed as Winston's replacement at right tackle, while Antoine Caldwell is in line to take Brisiel’s spot. Neither is a proven commodity as a starter. Rashad Butler and third-round pick Brandon Brooks provide depth on the line.
What a difference a year — and a new coordinator — made for Houston in 2011. In the Texans’ first year under Wade Phillips, the defense improved from 30th in the NFL in 2010 to second last year. Against the pass, the Texans went from worst in the league to third.
So what’s in store for Year 2 under Phillips? Expect the hits to keep on coming.
While the Texans waved goodbye to Williams — the former No. 1 overall pick who signed with Buffalo as a free agent — the loss may not be as significant as one would imagine. Williams is a premier pass-rusher, but the Texans accomplished much of their defensive success in 2011 with him on the sideline. He played just five games because of a torn pectoral muscle. Rookie Brooks Reed filled in for Williams admirably, picking up six sacks.
The Texans return their top four pass-rushers from a year ago — outside linebackers Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks) and Reed as well as ends Antonio Smith (6.5) and J.J. Watt (5.5). And being added to the mix is first-round pick Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles for Illinois in 2011.
Inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who was the team’s MVP last year, remains a stalwart in the middle of the Texans’ D, a high-energy player who sets the tone for the rest of the unit. The Texans did lose a locker room leader in the form of inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was traded to Philadelphia. Darryl Sharpton split time with Ryans and showed the ability to make plays, but he isn’t the same caliber of leader. The Texans signed Bradie James, who played for Phillips in Dallas and has extensive experience in his 3-4 defense, as a free agent.
With the exception of cornerback Jason Allen’s departure via free agency, the secondary returns virtually intact. Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph leads the way after a terrific first season with Houston. Kareem Jackson showed improvement in 2011 after a nightmarish rookie season, but he has to show that he can defend deep passes against quality receivers if the Texans are going to limit big plays. Danieal Manning returns to quarterback the defense at free safety.
The Texans spent a fifth-round draft pick on Texas A&M placekicker and Houston-area product Randy Bullock to replace Neil Rackers. Bullock won the 2011 Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top collegiate kicker. Unfortunately a groin injury suffefed during training camp put an end to Bullock's first NFL season before it even got started, leaving veteran Shayne Graham in the placekicking role, at least for now. Free agent signee Donnie Jones will start out the year as the team’s punter since incumbent Brett Hartmann violated the league’s substance abuse policy and will be suspended for the first three games. Manning will once again handle kick return duties, but the punt return job is wide open after the team cut Jones.
Final Analysis: 1st in the AFC South
After years of unrealized potential, the Texans finally showed last year that they can be the bully and win big games, even in dire circumstances. There are question marks in key spots on offense, particularly on the offensive line, but chances are the Texans will still be explosive on that side of the ball as long as Schaub and Foster remain healthy.
Defensively, there’s no reason to believe the pass rush can’t be as good or better in Year 2 under Phillips. The front seven is full of young, energetic guys, but the loss of Ryans means a new leader will need to step up (off the field more than on).
Bottom line: This is still the best team in an underwhelming AFC South. The Texans should be looking at a second consecutive divisional title and perhaps a run to the AFC title game — or, if things break right, maybe even New Orleans.
Related: 2012 Houston Texans Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
J.J. Watt’s productive rookie season not only won over a lot of Texans fans, but his teammates as well. Linebacker Connor Barwin took to his Twitter account in the days after the team’s wild card win over Cincinnati (in which Watt had an interception return for a touchdown) and gave Watt a new nickname: The Milkman. “JJ Watt’s new nickname is ‘The Milk Man’ ....because he always delivers! (and he’s white).” Barwin wasn’t done, following with the tweet: “He also really likes milk...he even orders it at restaurants.”
They may call Watt “The Milkman” now, but there was once a time where they called him “Pizza boy.” Watt was a tight end at Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin. He walked-on at UW and spent a summer as a Pizza Hut delivery man to offset the costs of losing his scholarship. He eventually earned a scholarship once he proved his worth to head coach Bret Bielema and became one of the top defensive linemen in the country before the Texans drafted him in 2011.
The Texans set a team record last year with 44 sacks, which ranked sixth-best in the league. The Texans should hover around that mark or even exceed it this year with most of their pass-rushers returning and the addition of rookie Whitney Mercilus.
No ‘Hard Knocks’
The team was offered a chance to appear on the HBO series “Hard Knocks” during its training camp but passed. Head coach Gary Kubiak is the private type when it comes to the team, thus there will be no cameras in the locker room or coaches’ offices at Reliant Stadium this fall.
On The Nose
Defensive tackle Shaun Cody became a hit with fans with his “On the Nose” show that appeared on the Texans’ web site last season. Cody, who is quick-witted and self-deprecating, filmed episodes that included a guest appearance from defensive end Antonio Smith dressed in full ninja attire (Smith’s sack dance is called the ‘Ninja Assassin’) and owner Bob McNair. Cody’s a comedian off the field but has been solid for the Texans on it as the nose tackle in their 3-4 alignment.
Earl Mitchell, who split time with Shaun Cody at nose tackle last year, put on 21 pounds in the offseason to get up to 301 after playing at 287 in 2011. He has transformed his body quite a bit since being a 250-pound tight end in high school before switching to the defensive line at the University of Arizona.
Who has the strangest pregame ritual? According to defensive end Antonio Smith, it’s linebacker Brian Cushing. In a live chat with fans this offseason, Smith said Cushing eats grass before games. “When we’re on the field in warm-ups, he grabs a chunk of grass, chews it and spits it out.”
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12:Dallas Cowboys
No. 11:Denver Broncos
No. 10:Detroit Lions
No. 9:Chicago Bears
No. 8:Atlanta Falcons
No. 7:Baltimore Ravens
No. 6:Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5:New York Giants
No. 4: New England Patriots
No. 3:Houston Texans
No. 2: Thur., August 30
Order your 2012 Houston Texans Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
Related: 2012 Houston Texans Schedule Analysis