Coach Bill O’Brien knows he can’t expect the kind of improvement the Texans made in his first season, but it doesn’t mean they can’t challenge Indianapolis for the AFC South title and compete for a wild-card berth. Despite playing four quarterbacks and starting three, the Texans improved by an NFL-best seven victories to 9–7 and missed the playoffs on the last Sunday of the season. They added 13 veteran free agents and seven draft choices in an effort to increase firepower on both sides of the ball. They let go of the best player in franchise history, receiver Andre Johnson, and it better not backfire. They could have as many as eight new starters, including five on a defense that improved dramatically during a 4–1 finish that teased a football-crazed city that hasn’t had a team advance as far as the AFC Championship Game since the Oilers after the 1979 season.
If the Texans won nine games with three different starting quarterbacks, imagine what they’re capable of accomplishing if they develop stability at the most important position.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (Jets) and Case Keenum (Rams) were traded, and they took eight of the nine victories with them. In the first two starts of his career, Ryan Mallett was 1–1 but underwent season-ending surgery on a torn pectoral muscle. His competition is Brian Hoyer, a journeyman who went 7–6 as a starter in Cleveland last season. Like Mallett, Hoyer played for O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey in New England. Hoyer, the most mobile of the group, has just 17 games of starting experience, but that’s 15 more than Mallett. Last year’s fourth-round pick, cannon-armed Tom Savage, is still watching and learning.
Whoever wins the job will miss Johnson, who was released and signed with AFC South rival Indianapolis after 12 exceptional seasons in Houston. DeAndre Hopkins emerged as a bona fide No. 1 go-to guy in 2014 with terrific ball skills and excellent hands. Opposite Hopkins, the Texans might take a receiver-by-committee approach. They have more candidates than the Republican party in third-round pick Jaelen Strong, veteran free agents Cecil Shorts and Nate Washington and holdovers Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson.
The coaches also need more production from the tight ends. Starter Garrett Graham and backups C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin combined for 32 catches. All have their strengths and weaknesses. Solving the quarterback issue might help the tight ends’ productivity.
O’Brien and Godsey like to run the ball as much as possible. Arian Foster, who battled a hamstring injury, and rookie Alfred Blue combined for almost 1,800 yards rushing and scored 16 touchdowns. The coaches need to do a better job of managing Foster’s touches. They used him as a receiver a lot, including in the slot, because he has such superb hands; but that exposed him to more punishment. Blue, a between-the-tackles runner entering his second season, should be able to take some of that load off Foster.
New offensive line coach Mike Devlin earned an impressive reputation with the Jets as someone who makes his players more physical and technically sound. As a group, the line played well, but individually, only right guard Brandon Brooks could pound his chest. He’s a mauler with nifty feet, and he’s improved every season. With long-time center Chris Myers having been released, Ben Jones moves from left guard. Xavier Su’a-Filo, last year’s second-round pick, should replace Jones. They need to develop depth they can count on, especially in the interior of the line.
Did the defense finally figure out coordinator Romeo Crennel’s complicated system down the stretch, or was the impressive performance on that side of the ball an aberration? During their 4–1 stretch drive, they ranked fourth in points allowed, second in total defense and first in third-down conversions. Overall, the Texans set a franchise record by forcing an NFL-high 34 turnovers one season after they recorded 11, the fewest since the merger in 1970. Can the defense keep up that pace, especially if it has four or five new starters?
The most famous new face belongs to mammoth nose tackle Vince Wilfork, coming off another Super Bowl victory with New England. He plans to settle in next to J.J. Watt. Wilfork is supposed to tie up two blockers and stuff the run before turning over the pass rush to younger players such as Watt, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Crennel used Watt in inventive ways — moving him up and down the line — but he needs help from the infirmary. Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, who missed much of his rookie season with a knee injury, is coming along nicely from microfracture surgery, but he’s got a long way to go to be ready for the opener against Kansas City. When he gets back on the field, no one has a clue about how effective he can be or if he can stay healthy.
Inside linebacker Brian Cushing played most of last season, but he wasn’t the same three-down player he was before he underwent two knee surgeries. The coaches are hoping he’s regained his speed and agility.
It would elevate the defensive performance if outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus improved on last season’s career-low five sacks. He’s a weak-side rusher who must be more productive. He’s moving to the other side to take on tight ends. He sets the edge well and can drop into coverage, but he has to be more physical at the point of attack.
There’s been a revolving door at safety but not at cornerback, where Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are together for a fifth consecutive season. They play hard against the run, cover well and are seasoned veterans. Kevin Johnson, the first-round pick, should be the nickel corner.
One of the biggest free-agent acquisitions was free safety Rahim Moore. The coaches wanted more of a centerfielder, and Moore had four interceptions for Denver last season. He’s got range and brains and needs to become the captain of the secondary in place of Kendrick Lewis, who bolted for Baltimore after Moore was signed.
There was nothing special about the Texans’ special teams last season, though kicker Randy Bullock (30-of-35 field goals, 130 points) and punter Shane Lechler (46.3-yard gross, 38.7 net) aren’t the problem. O’Brien is threatening to use starters if coverage and returns don’t improve. In a reserve role at Philadelphia, Chris Polk returned only 11 kickoffs but averaged 30.9 yards, including a 102-yard touchdown. Ideally, he makes the roster in the backfield and becomes a weapon on kickoff returns. If not, receivers Damaris Johnson and Martin can compete for the return job. Neither deserves it. The only thing the Texans can count on is long snapper Jon Weeks, who does an outstanding job.
Missing the playoffs on the last day of the season means fans and media — as well as owner Bob McNair — are expecting the Texans to make the playoffs. It’s a reasonable expectation, but it won’t be realistic if they suffer injuries where they lack quality depth. This is a well-coached team with a lot of talent and a favorable schedule that has a good chance to improve on last season’s nine victories.