In Bill O’Brien’s first three seasons, the Texans have been amazingly consistent — three consecutive 9–7 records, including the last two AFC South titles and a playoff victory last year. And they have closed each season going 3–1 down the stretch.
J.J. Watt returns to a defense that ranked first last season, but the Texans lost three starters in free agency on that side of the ball, and they still have a problem at quarterback.
In Tom Savage — not first-round pick Deshaun Watson — the Texans will have a new starting quarterback for the fifth consecutive season. Savage follows Matt Schaub (2013), Ryan Fitzpatrick (2014), Brian Hoyer (2015) and Brock Osweiler (2016). The one-year experiment with Osweiler was a disaster. The Texans paid dearly — $37 million guaranteed — to get Osweiler, and they sacrificed a second-round pick in 2018 to convince Cleveland to take him off their hands. Then the Browns accepted the Texans’ No. 1 pick next year to swap spots in the first round, allowing them to move from 25 to 12 to select Watson. So, Osweiler is out. Savage is in. Watson is on the bench — watching, learning and waiting.
O’Brien will be calling the plays this year. Offensive coordinator George Godsey was forced out after the Texans finished 29th in yards and 31st in the red zone.
Savage replaced Osweiler late last season and would have started in the playoffs if not for a concussion suffered in the last regular-season game. Savage has a strong arm, can make any throw, knows O’Brien’s system and can handle his tough-love coaching. Entering the last year of his contract, Savage will be under a lot of pressure. He’s started two games, has never thrown a touchdown pass and has been injured each season. If he struggles early, fans and media will create a huge controversy by demanding that Watson play.
The plan is not to rush Watson into the lineup. If Savage is benched or injured, veteran Brandon Weeden could be the first option. Watson will be a spectator until O’Brien is comfortable that he knows enough of the system not to risk slowing his development.
In O’Brien’s first three seasons, the Texans have run the ball more than any team in the league. They’ll rely heavily on a ground-and-pound mentality featuring veteran Lamar Miller (1,073 yards rushing) and rookie D’Onta Foreman, a third-round pick who rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season at Texas. Miller shouldered the workload with a career-high 268 carries. Foreman is expected to excel between the tackles. Tyler Ervin, a change-of-pace back in his second season, should become a weapon out of the backfield.
The receivers should be happier with Savage because he can throw any route. DeAndre Hopkins never seemed to click with Osweiler, finishing with 78 catches for 954 yards and four touchdowns. Hopkins seems to have a good on-field rapport with Savage. Hopkins has terrific hands and an impressive catch radius that’ll help the quarterback’s accuracy. Savage should benefit from expected improvement by two second-year receivers, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, first- and third-round picks last year. Fuller is a tremendous deep threat but drops too many passes. He’s got to improve his route running. With a year to learn, Miller is expected to contribute in the slot.
For the first time under O’Brien, the tight ends figured prominently in the passing game. C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin combined for 104 catches for 1,001 yards and six TDs. At 6'5" and 6'6", respectively, Fiedorowicz and Griffin are inviting targets who prefer to run routes down the middle, and they don’t shy away from contact.
The run blocking and pass protection were inconsistent and must improve. The left side with tackle Duane Brown, the team’s best lineman, and guard Xavier Su’a-Filo was better than the right side, where guard Jeff Allen was a disappointment after signing as a free agent. Right tackle Derek Newton went down with ruptured quad tendons in both legs and won’t be back anytime soon, if at all. Chris Clark was forced to start, and he was the worst lineman the Texans had. Kendall Lamm should start at right tackle until rookie Julién Davenport is ready. Center Greg Mancz, forced into the lineup when rookie Nick Martin suffered a season-ending ankle injury during training camp, was a nice surprise as a run blocker and pass protector. Martin returns, frothing at the mouth to win back the starting job, which could cause Mancz to move to right guard.
Mike Vrabel, who did an outstanding job coaching linebackers, was promoted to coordinator. Romeo Crennel was named assistant head coach after guiding the defense to its No. 1 ranking.
When Watt was healthy in the first two games, the Texans were 2–0 and recorded nine sacks. With Watt done for the season after a second back surgery, it took them seven games to record nine more. Still, switching Jadeveon Clowney from outside linebacker to right end was a brilliant move. Healthy for the first time, Clowney dominated against the run, recording 12 tackles for a loss to go with six sacks. He is strong, quick and disruptive. With Watt and Clowney as bookends for second-year nose tackle D.J. Reader, who replaced Vince Wilfork, the Texans believe they can have the league’s best defensive line.
The defense is also strong at linebacker. Whitney Mercilus patrols the right side and is one of the best in the league because he can rush the passer, stop the run and drop into coverage. In his second season, Benardrick McKinney became a force on the inside and was the only player in the NFL with at least 100 tackles and five sacks. He’s physical against the run, filling the gaps and penetrating. He’s underrated as a pass rusher but struggles in coverage against backs with speed and quickness. Brian Cushing, entering his ninth season, is the heart and soul of the defense and sets the tempo. He’s still a force against the run but doesn’t have the speed for coverage. One reason the Texans used a second-round pick on linebacker Zach Cunningham is because he has sideline-to-sideline speed and can cover running backs on pass routes. John Simon left as a free agent, and they have to find a replacement who can set the edge opposite Mercilus. The leading candidate is Brennan Scarlett.
Cornerback Kevin Johnson was doing a terrific job in coverage and against the run until he suffered a season-ending foot injury. Johnson’s return should help offset the loss of A.J. Bouye, who stepped in and played so well that Jacksonville gave him $13.5 million per year to switch AFC South teams. Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson have been starters at cornerback since 2011. Jackson moves inside when Johnson plays in nickel situations. Safety Quintin Demps, who led the team with six interceptions, was a free-agent casualty. The Texans have five safeties, including part-time starters Corey Moore and Andre Hal as well as highly regarded K.J. Dillon, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
Coverage and returns have been a perennial problem. Larry Izzo was a first-year special teams coordinator in 2016. Wes Welker has been hired to assist Izzo and help with receivers. Too bad they can’t suit up.
The kicking game is in good hands with punter Shane Lechler entering his 18th season. He still has power but relies more on direction and hang time. Placekicker Nick Novak missed only three field goals inside the 50 but lacks the leg strength to consistently kick off into the end zone. Running back Akeem Hunt, the best kickoff returner, may not make the team. The best punt returner is Fuller, but he’s a starter and too fragile for double duty.
The plan is to win a third division title in a row, try to get home-field advantage in the playoffs and contend for the Super Bowl. That’s the plan, but, on paper at least, the Texans have too many holes to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. And it may even be wishful thinking to win a fifth AFC South title in seven years, because the rest of the division, particularly Tennessee, improved in free agency and the draft. The running game and defense had better be prepared to compensate for more trouble at quarterback.