Overcoming a 2–5 start, finishing 9-7 and winning the AFC South was not enough for the Texans in Bill O’Brien’s second season. Getting embarrassed by Kansas City 30-0 at home in the AFC Wild Card game convinced O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith that changing the complexion of the offense was vital. With a J.J. Watt-ignited defense ranking third in the NFL and boasting six starters drafted in the first or second round, Smith and O’Brien went to work on the other side of the ball. The transformation began at quarterback. In his two seasons, O’Brien had played nine quarterbacks and started seven. The game of musical chairs at the most important position on the team had to stop. Owner Bob McNair told Smith to do whatever he believed it would take to rectify the problem.
When Los Angeles and Philadelphia sacrificed a plethora of draft choices to get quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz with the first two overall picks, the Texans were relieved it cost only money to pirate Brock Osweiler from Denver with a four-year, $72 million deal, including $37 million guaranteed. The early returns on Osweiler were positive in every respect.
O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey, who calls the plays, like Osweiler’s size and toughness. They say he moves well for a quarterback who’s almost 6-foot-8 and looks more suited for a basketball court. He’s fearless in the pocket, works hard to learn the system, is a charismatic leader, has an above-average arm, makes almost every throw and works overtime to get better. The coaches want him to produce consistently and avoid turnovers. Houston’s quarterbacks last season combined for 28 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. They’d settle for that kind of ratio from Osweiler in his first season.
Once Osweiler signed, Smith turned his attention to adding talent and speed at running back and receiver to complement Pro Bowl receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 111 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. With the signing of running back Lamar Miller in free agency and the drafting of receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller and running back Tyler Ervin, the metamorphosis has been stunning. With the influx of speed, the Texans should be able to run wide — not just between the tackles. They should be able to throw more routes down the field.
Lamar Miller brings game-changing speed and breakaway ability to the backfield. Alfred Blue returns to his well-suited backup role. Ervin and Akeem Hunt combine with Miller to give the Texans what may be the fastest backfield in the NFL.
The offensive line has to perform better than last season when injuries caused chaos up front as players switched positions out of desperation. Center Ben Jones and right guard Brandon Brooks left in free agency. They’ve been replaced by Nick Martin, a second-round pick who should slide in easily at center, and Jeff Allen, a free agent from Kansas City who helped beat the Texans twice last season. Left tackle Duane Brown, their best and most consistent lineman for years, is coming off surgery to repair a quad tendon and is hoping to be ready for the start of the season. Right tackle Derek Newton is a four-year starter who’s never been consistent as a pass protector. Left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo settled in last season after escaping O’Brien’s doghouse, and the Texans went 6–2 once he cracked the starting lineup for good.
Tight end wasn’t addressed during the offseason because the coaches like C.J. Fiedorowicz’s blocking and Ryan Griffin’s receiving.
Watt, who was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the third time in five seasons, didn’t get any help in the offseason. He played through injuries, underwent three operations, and he’s ready to improve on last season, when he recorded 17.5 sacks, 50 quarterback hits, 29 tackles for a loss and eight deflections. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel moves him up and down the line trying to create mismatches. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork might have one more season in him as a run stuffer, but he’s no threat to get the quarterback. Rookie D.J. Reader and veterans Christian Covington, Brandon Dunn, Jeoffrey Pagan and Devon Still are competing for playing time.
Other than Watt, the strength of the defense is the linebackers. Whitney Mercilus registered 12 sacks and gave Houston a second pass rusher. He’s developed a variety of moves to get the quarterback. Jadeveon Clowney was injured too much and contributed only 4.5 sacks, but he played hard and did well against the run. John Simon, who starts on the strong side, is physical against the run and added five sacks. For the first time since 2011, inside linebacker Brian Cushing was able to start 16 games. He’s still a ferocious tackler and defensive leader, but he can’t chase plays the way he used to. Benardrick McKinney, a second-round pick last year, played well against the run and pass over the second half of last season. He’s a hard-nosed player who challenges linemen and showed some pass-rush skills and coverage ability.
For the sixth consecutive year, Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph are the starting corners. They can play man or zone coverage. Joseph usually draws the best receiver. Jackson, who could transition to free safety later in his career, moves inside in nickel situations. Last year’s first-round pick, Kevin Johnson, is the first corner off the bench and plays outside. Johnson is the most physical player in the secondary. He can run and hit but must learn to not bite on so many moves and give up big plays. Free safety Andre Hal is developing into a ball hawk after making the move from corner. Strong safety is wide open with Quintin Demps, Eddie Pleasant and rookie K.J. Dillon competing for playing time.
The return game has been awful. The Texans are hoping Ervin, the rookie running back, can remedy that problem, especially on punt returns. Receiver Keith Mumphery was a decent kickoff returner last season. The coaches want a return game that can improve field position. The coverage teams were mediocre at best. Punter Shane Lechler, entering his 17th season, still gets distance but must improve his hang time. Maybe that’s no longer possible since he’ll be 40 when regular season begins. Kicker Nick Novak missed three field goals, all from the 50 and beyond. Novak re-signed, but the Texans also brought in undrafted free agent Ka’imi Fairbairn, the Lou Groza Award winner from UCLA. Snapper Jon Weeks, selected for the Pro Bowl, is the team’s best and most consistent special teams player.
With moves made in free agency and the draft, the Texans believe they’re in position to successfully defend their third AFC South title in five years. If Osweiler develops the way the coaches believe he will, and the infusion of speed pays off, and they don’t suffer too many debilitating injuries, they’re capable of winning their first playoff game since the 2012 season. The Texans still have too many questions to call them a Super Bowl contender, but they should remain in the hunt in the AFC South.