Deshaun Watson and the Texans look to maintain supremacy in the AFC South after undergoing some significant personnel changes
The Texans won the AFC South for the fourth time in five years and defeated Buffalo in the wild card round of the playoffs, but they spent the offseason getting ridiculed by fans and media.
Chairman/CEO Cal McNair fired general manager Brian Gaine in June and gave head coach Bill O’Brien control of personnel. O’Brien was the primary target of the venom after blowing a 24-point lead at Kansas City in the divisional round thanks to some questionable decisions. McNair responded by promoting O’Brien to general manager. That controversy was still raging when O’Brien made the most criticized trade in the history of Houston sports, sending All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for running back David Johnson, a second-round draft choice this year that was used on defensive tackle Ross Blacklock and an exchange of fourth-round picks. O’Brien made other moves like trading for receiver Brandin Cooks and signing receiver Randall Cobb.
Led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Texans have enough talent to win another division crown. If they do, the question is: Will they be good enough to advance beyond the divisional round for the first time in team history?
O’Brien is handing play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. Kelly has been with O’Brien since serving as a grad assistant under O’Brien at Penn State.
The best thing the Texans did last year was to improve an offensive line that should be better because of the stability factor. Last year’s draft picks, right tackle Tytus Howard and left guard Max Scharping, both earned starting jobs and played well. Once O’Brien was placed in charge of personnel, he acquired left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Kenny Stills from Miami for two first-round draft choices and a second-round selection.
In March, O’Brien got rid of Hopkins, who was good for at least 100 catches and 1,000 yards every season. Taking away Watson’s go-to receiver could set the offense back even with the additions. Even though Watson handled things well publicly and on social media, friends say he was infuriated with the trade. No one player will replace Hopkins.
Entering his fourth season, Watson has become an elite quarterback. It helps that his protection has improved. Tunsil signed a three-year extension worth $22 million per year. — $4 million per year more than any other offensive tackle. He helped Watson get sacked 18 fewer times in 2019. Watson created some of those sacks by holding the ball too long. He’s accounted for 64 touchdowns the last two seasons, including 52 passing, and has thrown 21 interceptions.
Watson still has a lot of weapons, including big-time speed at receiver. Will Fuller V, Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills all ran in the 4.3s at their combines. Watson has never had that kind of downfield speed to work with except when Fuller has been healthy. Fuller missed 14 games the last two years, including five last season. With Fuller in the lineup, the Texans averaged six more points per game. O’Brien needs Cooks to stay healthy. After four consecutive seasons with more than 1,000 yards, Cooks caught a career-low 42 passes in his last season with the Rams. He had concussion issues but missed only two games. When he’s on the field, he gives Watson blazing outside speed on both sides.
Cobb will play in the slot. In his one season at Dallas, he caught 55 passes for 828 yards. Expect Cobb to work the middle of the field.
Tight ends Darren Fells and Jordan Akins combined for 70 catches, 759 yards and nine TDs. At 6'7", Fells is a formidable red zone target. Akins is more of an H-back who gets the ball on short and intermediate routes.
The running game will again rely on a one-two punch, but it’ll be David Johnson rather than Carlos Hyde rotating with Duke Johnson. David Johnson was demoted at Arizona last season, but O’Brien thinks that he’ll fit well in the Texans running game. Both Johnsons are plus receivers.
A unit that finished 28th, including 25th against the run and 29th against the pass, needs a lot of improvement. The defense lost one important player, nose tackle D.J. Reader (Cincinnati). Brandon Dunn, who started 10 games on the nose in 2018 and came off the bench last season, replaces him. Dunn plays between ends J.J. Watt and Angelo Blackson.
Watt, who turned 31 in March, played only eight games last season because of a torn pectoral muscle and finished with four sacks. More than anything, the defense needs for Watt to stay healthy, as he did in 2018 when he had 16 sacks. Improving the pass rush is vital after the Texans recorded only 31 sacks last season, down from 43 in 2018. With no consistent pressure, the defense got bullied. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who turns 30 in July, is the second-best pass rusher. After leading the team with 7.5 sacks, he got a new contract. The Texans have a group of young outside rushers they’re counting heavily on — end Charles Omenihu and outside linebackers Jacob Martin and Duke Ejiofor (the latter missed all of 2019 with a torn Achilles). They hope Ross Blacklock, the top draft choice, will play end in the three-man front and slide inside in passing situations.
The strength of the defense is the linebackers, where all four starters return — Mercilus and Brennan Scarlett outside and Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham inside. Cunningham, who drops into coverage against tight ends and backs, is coming off his best season. McKinney excels against the run. They have depth inside with veteran Dylan Cole, who has trouble staying healthy.
After adding four new cornerbacks last season in veterans Bradley Roby, Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves III and second-round pick Lonnie Johnson Jr., that position didn’t get a lot of attention other than fourth-round pick John Reid, who’ll cover inside receivers. O’Brien elected not to bring back starting safety Tashaun Gipson and backup Jahleel Addae, leaving Justin Reid as the only safety guaranteed a starting job. In free agency, the Texans signed three safeties — Eric Murray, Jaylen Watkins and Michael Thomas — who’ve spent most of their careers as backups. If the DBs don’t improve the coverage, they’re destined to get bombarded again. It will help, of course, if the pass rush improves.
Special teams improved for a second consecutive season under coordinator Brad Seely. Coverage teams were exceptional, and they should be even better with the addition of Thomas, one of the league’s best special teams aces.
After leading the NFL in scoring in 2018 with 150 points, kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn totaled 100 last season. He overcame a slow start with punter Brian Anger as his new holder and missed only two field goals inside the 50. Signed as a free agent early in the season, Anger was outstanding with a 46.5-yard gross and a 44.5-yard net, tying him for best in the league. The Texans allowed a league-best 3.4 yards on punt returns. Receiver DeAndre Carter is nothing special on returns, averaging 22.0 yards on kickoffs and 9.7 on punts.
Trading Hopkins could backfire on O’Brien if the Texans fail to make the playoffs for the third time in his seven seasons. O’Brien has two coordinators calling plays for the first time, receivers with injury issues and a new running back who missed three games at Arizona last season and started only nine. The defense was awful for much of last season and must elevate the pass rush or the secondary will get toasted again. That being said, as long as the Texans have a healthy Watson and don’t have to ask him to do too much, they should be competitive and capable of winning the division again.