Jadeveon Clowney is set to cash in as a free agent after making his third straight Pro Bowl
After going 4-12 in 2017, the Houston Texans bounced back in a big way this season, winning the AFC South with an 11-5 record. The playoffs didn't go the Texans' way, however, as Houston fell at home to division rival Indianapolis 21-7 in the AFC Wild Card game.
The good news for the Texans moving forward is the team seems well positioned to continue to improve and add to the roster. Houston is currently projected to have about $71 million in cap space, according to overthecap.com. That places the team sixth in the NFL in that regards.
That doesn't mean the Texans don't have some decisions that need to be made this offseason or the areas that need to be addressed. Here are the three biggest questions head coach Bill O'Brien and general manager Brian Gaine must deal with over the next several months.
3 Biggest Offseason Questions Facing the Texans
1. Jadeveon Clowney's free agency
Without a doubt this is the top priority. Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft is set to become a free agent and you have to think Houston wants to bring him back. After a rough start to his NFL career due in large part to injuries, Clowney has rounded into form and has been named to three straight Pro Bowls. He has 18.5 sacks over the last two seasons and he and a healthy J.J. Watt formed quite the duo up front for the Texans in 2018.
There's no doubt that Clowney, who will turn 26 on Valentine's Day, will cash in and again, Houston has more than enough cap space to meet his contract demands. The team just has to make sure that making him and Watt the two highest-paid players is the way it wants to go. Watt still has three years left on his six-year, $100 million contract extension and carries a cap hit of $15 million next season. Depending on how Clowney's new deal is structured, his could be just as high if not higher. But it also appears that the Texans can't afford to let Clowney to leave as a free agent, especially with Indianapolis, their division rival and the team that ended their season, among the teams with even more cap room (Colts projected to have $123 million, most in NFL) ready to pounce.
2. Offensive line
Watt was not the only player the Texans were happy to see make it through a healthy and productive season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson also had a nice bounce-back campaign in his return from a torn ACL. While he was not quite the same explosive, dynamic player he was as a rookie, the important part is that Watson started all 17 games and produced 32 total touchdowns (27 passing, 5 rushing) with just 13 total turnovers (10 INTs, 3 fumbles lost).
However, considering Watson was sacked 65 times in that span as well, it's a minor miracle he did make it through unscathed. Watson went down nearly four times per game, including three in the wild-card loss to Indianapolis, by far the most in the NFL. While he is a mobile quarterback (627 total rushing yards), Houston's offensive line has to do a better job of protecting its franchise quarterback. The line stayed relatively intact during the season (13 or more GS for all five starters), so the Texans may need to look to free agency and/or the draft for reinforcements.
3. Weapons around Watson
The offensive line is not the only unit that bears the blame for the Texans' issues on that side of the ball. While DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best wide receivers, if not players period, in all of the NFL, he can't do it alone. In the regular season, Hopkins was responsible for a third of the team's receptions (115 of 345), 38 percent of the receiving yards (1,572 of 4,165), and nearly half (11 of 26) of Watson's touchdown passes. The need to find a more reliable and productive option in the passing game is only underscored with the revelation that Hopkins played the second half of the wild-card game with a sprained shoulder.
Will Fuller and Keke Coutee both had their moments this season, such as the latter putting up a team-high 11 catches for 110 yards and the only touchdown in Saturday's loss to the Colts, but both have had trouble staying on the field. In 14 combined regular-season games, they combined for 60 that went for 790 yards and five touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas was added via trade in early November but the former Bronco played in just seven games before rupturing his Achilles in Week 16. Even prior to the injury, Thomas was having trouble finding his role in the offense (23 rec., 275 yds., 2 TDs) and now the 31-year-old veteran faces the challenge of returning from a significant injury. He's under contract for $14 million in 2019, but none of that money is guaranteed. If Houston brings him back, it will be on the team's terms at a significantly lower cost.
The Texans also could use more production from their tight ends. Ryan Griffin and rookies Jordan Akins and Jordan Thomas each played in at least 14 games during the regular season but combined for 61 catches, 745 yards and four touchdowns (all belonging to Thomas). In Saturday's loss, Griffin and Akins caught a grand total of three passes for 14 yards with Thomas not even recording a target.
However, that's still arguably more help than the running game minus Watson offered against Indianapolis. The running back trio of Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue and D'Onta Foreman combined for 29 rushing yards on eight carries (3.6 ypc). Miller did catch eight passes for 63 yards but the ground game's inconsistency really hurt Houston on Saturday.
Since joining the Texans in 2016 as a free agent, Miller has put up decent numbers. He has a 1,000-yard season (2016) and came close this season (973) while averaging a respectable 978 yards during his tenure. However, he's also averaged 4.1 yards per carry during that span with a total of 18 touchdowns (13 rushing, 5 receiving) in 44 regular-season games. What's more, take out Miller's four 100-yard games this season and he averaged less than 38 rushing yards per game with three total touchdowns in the 13 others (including the wild-card loss) combined. Miller has one more year on his contract remaining, which carries a cap hit of $7.2 million. That amount can be reduced to just $1 million if the Texans release the seven-year veteran. Is it time to move on?
Blue will be a pending free agent and Foreman, while he has shown promise, he played in just two games (and sparingly at that) in his return after tearing his Achilles in November 2017 as a rookie. Even if Houston re-signs Blue and keeps Miller, don't be surprised if the team at least looks around in free agency and/or drafts a running back.