Deshaun Watson and the Texans seek a fourth AFC South title under head coach Bill O'Brien
The objectives entering Bill O’Brien’s sixth season as coach of the Texans are to improve their disastrous pass protection and dreadful pass coverage. The Texans are coming off an 11–5 season and trying to win the AFC South for the fourth time under O’Brien.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked 62 times, most in the NFL since 2006. A lot of resources have been devoted to keeping him healthy. Other than the offensive line, the most significant changes will be in the secondary. If the Texans don’t a better job of stopping quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck (Indianapolis) and Nick Foles (Jacksonville), they won’t be able to defend their division title against the hard-charging Colts. Luck led the Colts to two victories in Houston, including a 21–7 humiliation of the Texans in the Wild Card Round. When the Texans played at Philadelphia, Foles led the Eagles on a game-winning drive that ended with a field goal with no time remaining. The Texans want to avoid the roller-coaster ride of last season, when they started 0–3, won nine in a row and finished 2–2 before collapsing in the playoffs.
To address pass protection, the Texans signed veteran offensive tackle Matt Kalil and used first- and second-round picks on tackles Tytus Howard and Max Scharping. They also get back right tackle Seantrel Henderson, who began 2018 as the starter but suffered a broken ankle and didn’t play again. Henderson could begin this season opposite Kalil, but that’s not the ideal situation. Kalil missed last season at Carolina because of a knee injury. Another possible starter at left tackle is Julien Davenport, who was a disappointment in the starting role in 2018. At some point, Howard is going to be the starter, but he won’t be force-fed into the lineup. Scharping will pressure Henderson but also could begin his career at guard. Center Nick Martin is the only starter guaranteed of being back in the lineup. Another new starter should be Martinas Rankin at left guard. He was a third-round pick last year and should beat out Senio Kelemete.
Despite getting pulverized, Watson didn’t miss a start while returning from surgery that repaired a torn ACL. He had a terrific season, throwing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns and contributing another 551 yards rushing and five touchdowns. The coaches were impressed with his 68.3 completion percentage and 103.1 rating. They expect him to be even better this season against a first-place schedule.
The only receiver Watson can count on is DeAndre Hopkins, who has missed one game in his first six seasons. The other starters, Will Fuller (knee) and Keke Coutee (hamstring) in the slot, combined to miss 19 games. Hopkins has great hands and ball skills. His catch radius is substantial. He had 115 receptions for 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns on 163 targets. Fuller’s coaches and teammates salivate at the thought of him finally playing an injury-free season. He has 11 touchdown catches in 11 games with Watson the last two seasons. His outstanding speed takes pressure off Hopkins and helps clear the middle of the field for Coutee. After catching 28 passes as a rookie, Coutee showed why the coaches are high on him in the playoff loss to Indianapolis, catching 11 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown.
There’s a crowd at tight end. Jordan Akins (13.2-yard average) and Jordan Thomas (four touchdowns) enter their second seasons. Akins is a better route runner and receiver, but Thomas (6'5", 277) is an inviting red zone target who has improved as a blocker. They’ll compete for playing time with Kahale Warring, a surprise third-round pick.
Familiar running backs return in Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman. The coaches would like to use Miller more in the passing game, but the protection has been so bad that he’s been forced to stay in to protect Watson. Foreman had a wasted season returning from a torn Achilles tendon.
Because every starter in the front seven returns, the Texans should be exceptional against the run again. Pressuring the quarterback wasn’t much of a problem and shouldn’t be again, not with end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney being such disruptive forces. The issue was pass coverage, especially in the last four games of the regular season and the playoff loss to the Colts. Gone are safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Kareem Jackson; in are safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Bradley Roby. They also signed a slot corner, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and drafted cornerbacks Lonnie Johnson (second round) and Xavier Crawford (sixth).
Last year, Watt, Clowney and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus were coming off major surgery and spent most of the offseason and preseason undergoing rehabilitation. They enjoyed injury-free seasons. In his first healthy season since 2015, Watt registered 16 sacks and was excellent against the run. Clowney, who’s superb against the run, moves around on defense depending on what coordinator Romeo Crennel calls. He was designated as the franchise player and didn’t participate in the offseason program.
Nose tackle Brandon Dunn and right end D.J. Reader are solid against the run but are not pass rushers. Veteran Angelo Blackson and rookie Charles Omenihu should be part of the rotation up front. They’re hoping Omenihu provides some inside pressure. Inside linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham are ferocious against the run. McKinney works hard in coverage but can’t keep up with the faster backs. Cunningham has the speed and smarts to cover backs and tight ends.
The Texans’ best defensive back is second-year safety Justin Reid. He was a third-round pick who played like a No. 1 draft choice. He’ll start opposite Gipson, who had a knack for covering tight ends at Jacksonville. Gipson isn’t as versatile as Mathieu, but they don’t need him to be. A third safety will have to emerge to replace Andre Hal, who beat cancer last year, returned for the second half of the season and made some big plays before announcing his retirement. To bolster depth behind Reid and Gipson, the Texans added Jahleel Addae, who spent the last six years with the Chargers and started every game the last two seasons. Lining up at cornerback should be Roby, who signed a one-year contract worth $10 million, and Johnathan Joseph, 35. Aaron Colvin, a prominent free agent signing last year, was a disappointment during an injury-plagued season. They need him to excel in the slot as he did at Jacksonville. In the draft, the coaches wanted to get bigger and faster at corner. Johnson (6'2", 213) improved his 4.52 at the Combine to 4.39 at his pro day.
In special teams coordinator Brad Seely’s first season with the Texans, they made significant improvement. That improvement was seen in opponent starting field position (first in the league), opponent field position after kickoffs (first), opponent kickoff return average (third) and starting field position (second). Placekicker Ka’imi Fairbairn led the NFL with 150 points and consistently kicked off into the end zone. Rookie free agent punter Trevor Daniel beat out Shane Lechler. His gross (43.7-yard average) and net (39.1) didn’t impress, but he had 36 punts inside the 20, five touchbacks and 23 fair catches.
Based on the Texans’ investment in the offensive line and secondary, if they improve enough in pass protection and coverage, they’re capable of winning the AFC South again. Watson is an amazing talent who can throw and run. His maturity should help reduce the sacks. They could have one of the NFL’s most successful passing games if Fuller and Coutee stay healthy and one of the young tight ends develops into a formidable threat. If the Texans can develop a third pass rusher to go with Watt and Clowney, it’ll improve the coverage immensely. This is a talented team, but it still has holes and plays in a competitive division that should be strong from top to bottom.