In Brian Gaine’s first offseason as GM, he signed nine free agents and added eight draft choices to a team that was destroyed by injuries in coach Bill O’Brien’s fourth season. Twenty players, including 13 starters, were placed on injured reserve, including rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. The result was a 4-12 record -- O’Brien’s first losing season -- and a demotion to the AFC South basement after back-to-back titles.
Owner Bob McNair understood the injury situation and gave O’Brien a four-year extension. O’Brien and Gaine developed a close relationship when they worked together on the previous four drafts and free-agent periods. In June 2017, Gaine left for Buffalo for what amounted to a six-month job in the Bills’ personnel department. When Gaine returned to replace Rick Smith, the organization was rewarded with harmony at the top. If problems are solved in need areas like the offensive line and secondary, the Texans are capable of returning to the playoffs but should be a year away from Super Bowl contention.
So much of the Texans’ offensive fortunes depend on Watson’s health. He’s on schedule to return from surgery to repair a torn ACL in early November, but he has to stay healthy. With O’Brien coaching Watson, overseeing the game plan and calling plays, the offense was excellent. In Watson’s six games as a starter, the Texans averaged 34.7 points, including 39 in his last five. Watson was on pace to throw 43 touchdown passes. He is smart, mobile and athletic. He’s got a good arm, makes smart decisions and has impressive pocket presence. When he was lost for the season, the Texans were third in rushing. Without him, they were 31st.
Without Watson, the line was exposed. This group should have four new starters, with center Nick Martin as the only full-time starter back. Guards Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete and right tackle Seantrel Henderson were signed as free agents. Left tackle Julien Davenport started four games as a rookie and was one of five players to start at the position. The line can’t be worse than last season, but there are questions -- either talent- or health-related -- about every projected starter and backup.
The top three running backs -- Lamar Miller, D’Onta Foreman (returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon) and Alfred Blue -- are back to compete for playing time. They lack breakaway speed and big-play capability. If he’s healthy, Foreman might beat out Miller. Foreman is a powerful runner between the tackles and has speed to get outside. He’s an underrated receiver. Miller is a splendid receiver who can pass protect better than anyone in the backfield. Miller and Foreman will get the bulk of the carries.
DeAndre Hopkins earned All-Pro recognition last season after snagging 96 passes for 1,378 yards and an NFL-best 13 TDs. Despite persistent double teams and defenses trying to beat him up at the line of scrimmage, he excelled with terrific ball skills, great hands and a nasty physical disposition when fighting for the ball. No matter who plays quarterback, Hopkins continues to excel. He was the only Texans receiver or tight end who stayed healthy. When Hopkins and Will Fuller, the fastest receiver on the team, played four games with Watson, the Texans averaged 40.5 points. Fuller, who was out twice with injuries, caught 13 passes from Watson, and seven went for touchdowns. Unlike his rookie year, Fuller didn’t have a problem with drops.
Bruce Ellington makes big plays as the slot receiver, but he couldn’t stay on the field, either. He could be pushed by rookie Keke Coutee. Ryan Griffin is the leading candidate to replace retired tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, but he’s had problems staying healthy, too. Because of injuries, Griffin has caught more than 20 passes only once. He’s a big target who gets open down the middle, but he absorbs a lot of punishment. Veteran Stephen Anderson, a tight end who isn’t much of a blocker, will be pushed by two draft choices, Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas.
Romeo Crennel, the assistant head coach, is back as coordinator after helping Mike Vrabel is his one season in that role. They were first in defense in 2016, Crennel’s last season in charge. Vrabel and inside linebacker Brian Cushing are gone. Ends J.J. Watt and Christian Covington and nose tackle D.J. Reader, all of whom finished the season on injured reserve, are back. Watt turned 29 in March, and he’s started only eight games -- and finished six -- the last two seasons. No one knows if Watt can return to that elite level that helped him get voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times. At this point, the Texans just need for him to stay on the field.
Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney has been terrific the last two seasons but has yet to play even half a season with Watt because of injuries to both players. Clowney is outstanding against the run and drops down to end in passing situations. Without Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, Clowney drew consistent double teams.
Mercilus, the team’s most underrated player, returns from a torn pectoral muscle that cost him 11 starts. He can rush, stop the run and drop into coverage effortlessly. Benardrick McKinney, the leading tackler, and Zach Cunningham are entrenched inside. McKinney stuffs the run, sometimes pressures the quarterback but can struggle in coverage against fast running backs. The Texans value his leadership, especially with Cushing no longer on the roster, which is one of the reasons why McKinney was signed to a five-year, $50 million contract extension ($21 million guaranteed) in June. Cunningham, a second-round pick last year, got better as his rookie season progressed. He plays hard against the run and excels on coverage. If Crennel moves Clowney to end full time, that opens up a spot at outside linebacker. The competition should be between veteran Brennan Scarlett and rookie Duke Ejiofor.
The team’s two biggest free-agent additions, cornerback Aaron Colvin and safety Tyrann Mathieu, should start for a secondary that was torched without a consistent pass rush. Third-round pick Justin Reid, the team’s top pick, should get a lot of playing time. He can be a deep safety or play around the line of scrimmage. He’s got the speed, athleticism and ball skills to make big plays. Free safety Andre Hal, who led the team with three interceptions, could lose his job to Reid. Hal is undersized and is best in off coverage. Mathieu signed a one-year contract for $7 million. He brings much-needed leadership that’s been missing. This was the first offseason he hasn’t been forced to rehab an injury. The Texans need for him to play around the line of scrimmage, make plays against the run and pass, and, most important, stay healthy. Colvin was one of the league’s better slot corners at Jacksonville. He signed with the Texans because he wanted a chance to start outside, where he’s in competition with veterans Johnathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson.
Punter Shane Lechler turns 42 in August and is coming off a season in which he posted a 49.0-yard gross and a 41.3-yard net. He sometimes struggles with directional punting that leads to poor coverage. Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn gets distance on kickoffs but must become more consistent on field goals. Snapper Jon Weeks is consistently exceptional -- not one bad snap in eight seasons. One reason Brad Seely is the Texans’ third special teams coach in five years is to improve coverage and returns. The coverage teams have been undisciplined, unintelligent and unproductive, and the return teams have been underwhelming.
If Watson can stay healthy, the Texans are capable of winning any game. His three losses as a starter were one-score games, including three-point defeats at New England and Seattle. Improvement in the offensive line is paramount and not just for Watkins’ benefit. The running game needs to become more productive and consistent. The defense could have three new starters in a secondary that should benefit from a more effective pass rush. If the Texans aren’t hammered by injuries again, they should be good enough on both sides of the ball to get back into the mix for a spot in the postseason.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC South
(J.J. Watt photo by Ryan Kang/AP)