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Houston Texans: 2021 Preseason Predictions and Preview

David Johnson, Houston Texans

Practically starting over from scratch, the Texans will get worse before they get better

The 2020 season was disastrous for the Texans, and 2021 could be worse. They also experienced the most tumultuous offseason in franchise history.

After winning four AFC South titles in five years, the Texans plunged to 4–12 and fired head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien after an 0–4 start. After the season, quarterback Deshaun Watson demanded to be traded and threatened to miss the offseason program and sit out the season. Owner Cal McNair hired New England personnel director Nick Caserio as general manager to clean up the mess. Caserio hired David Culley, 65, as the head coach, and Culley is one of the franchise’s 17 new coaches. Caserio had planned to trade Watson before the draft, but then the quarterback was the subject of more than 20 civil suits accusing him of sexual misconduct and assault, prompting the NFL to launch an investigation. When Caserio used his first draft choice on quarterback Davis Mills to go with veterans Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Finley, it signaled his plan to move on from Watson at some point. Caserio started his rebuild by acquiring 37 veterans through trades and free agency, including 36 on one- and two-year contracts. The plan was to add competition for starting jobs, provide depth and improve special teams.

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OFFENSE

Watson's situation remained unsettled at the opening of training camp. Part of the reason the Texans signed Taylor was the familiarity with Culley, who was Taylor's quarterback coach at Buffalo in 2017 when the Bills made the playoffs. Even though Houston will likely lean more on the running game, Taylor must stay healthy. The last two times he earned starting jobs — with the Browns in 2018 and the Chargers in 2020 — he suffered early-season injuries. At some point, Culley will have to see if Mills develops.

Will Fuller V, who signed in free agency with Miami, is one of the league’s better deep threats, and there’s no veteran who can replace his speed. Brandin Cooks is the Texans’ best receiver coming off a 1,150-yard season, but he could see a lot of double coverage. Keke Coutee, who can play inside or outside, played better than any time in his first three seasons near the end of 2020 when Fuller was suspended for the last five games. Rookie Nico Collins (6'4", 215) has size and speed (4.42) on the outside but could need time to develop after opting out last season. The team acquired Anthony Miller from the Bears right before the start of training camp. A second-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Miller was never able to follow up a productive rookie campaign when he caught seven touchdown passes as he has totaled four over the past two seasons combined. Meanwhile, Randall Cobb, who missed the last six games because of injuries, was traded to Green Bay at the start of training camp.

The Texans have seven tight ends. Jordan Akins is a returning starter. He lines up all over the field and is always on the move. Akins is poised to have the best season of his career in the last year of his contract. Rookie Brevin Jordan, a three-year starter at Miami (Fla.), is an Akins clone who could come off the bench or earn a few starts in two-tight end sets. Veteran Pharaoh Brown was a pleasant surprise last season, blocking well and making some clutch catches. Ryan Izzo was acquired in a trade with New England and figures to earn a lot of playing time.

The running game should be improved with two new backs to compete for playing time with David Johnson, last season’s leading rusher. Mark Ingram II and Phillip Lindsay both surpassed 1,000 yards in 2019. Like Johnson, they’re solid receivers who’ll enhance the passing game.

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Six new offensive linemen were acquired in the offseason, three of whom could start under new position coach James Campen. The line is set at tackle with Laremy Tunsil on the left and Tytus Howard on the right. The inside positions are question marks. Left guard Max Scharping is a two-year starter coming off a mediocre season. He has some experience at center, where Justin Britt should be the starter. But Britt didn’t play last season while rehabbing a knee injury. There’s competition for starting jobs at guard between Justin McCray and Lane Taylor.

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DEFENSE

One of new coordinator Lovie Smith’s priorities is finding players who can force turnovers. The Texans forced a league-low nine in 2020, second fewest in the NFL since 1980. For the first time since 2010, the Texans’ base defense will be a 4-3. The defense will look strange without end J.J. Watt, who asked for and received his release and then signed with Arizona.

Caserio added 19 veterans on defense, including 13 in the front seven. The only holdover linebacker or lineman who’s guaranteed a starting spot is Zach Cunningham, the leading tackler who’s making the transition from inside in the 3-4 to the middle. He can run and cover, and he should fit nicely in Smith’s scheme that requires linebackers to make sideline-to-sideline plays. The Texans have six new linebackers, all veterans. Christian Kirksey and Kevin Pierre-Lewis, both veteran free agents, have starting experience and could secure spots on the outside.

The Texans have to improve a run defense that was the worst in the NFL last season. Switching to a four-man front created new positions for outside linebackers Whitney Mercilus, Jacob Martin and Jonathan Greenard, each of whom has moved to end. None may start. Mercilus is an experienced pass rusher. Martin has flashed at times. Greenard didn’t contribute much as a rookie. The coaches are hoping ends Shaq Lawson, Jordan Jenkins and DeMarcus Walker, all of whom signed as veteran free agents, will help against the run and elevate a pass rush that recorded only 34 sacks. Lawson, Jenkins and Walker have been effective as pass rushers, but they need to turn it up for the Texans on a consistent basis. Two returning players who should be better in a four-man front are Charles Omenihu and Ross Blacklock, who play inside and outside. The defense is desperate for new tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Taylor to stuff the run on the inside.

Even though five veterans were added to the secondary, expect fewer changes in the starting lineup. Bradley Roby, who’ll miss the first game to complete his six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, is the team’s best cornerback, and he’s nothing special. Vernon Hargreaves III, the slot corner, started every game, played better than most expected and signed a one-year contract to return. Of the new cornerbacks, Terrance Mitchell seems like the most likely to earn a starting job. The secondary has three solid safeties in Justin Reid, Eric Murray and Lonnie Johnson Jr. Reid is the best of the defensive backs, a three-year starter with Pro Bowl ability, but he has to stay healthy.

SPECIALISTS

The special teams improved last season with the exception of the return game, a perennial problem. The Texans signed free agent receiver Andre Roberts to improve field position for the offense. The 11-year veteran has been voted to the last three Pro Bowls. New punter Cameron Johnston got the only three-year contract of the 33 veterans who were signed. That shows what high expectations the coaches have for a punter who had a 46.7-yard gross and a 40.6 net last season. As for the other specialists — kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn and snapper Jon Weeks — they’ve been terrific for years. Weeks, entering his 12th season, has never had a bad snap.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Texans will get worse before they get better. They’re in rebuilding mode, and they could be the worst team in the NFL — not bad enough to become the first 0–17 team but bad enough to get the first pick in the draft. Because Caserio signed and traded for so many veterans, drafted five prospects and let go or got rid of players who had contributed to division title teams, the Texans could have a 70- to 75-percent roster turnover. They could have six new starters on offense and seven on defense. Or even more. This is a team in transition that could threaten the worst record in franchise history — 2–14 in 2005 and 2013.

Prediction: 4th in AFC South