2014 Preview: Houston Texans
Gordon McGuinness kicks off PFF's 2014 previews with a look at the Houston Texans.
2014 Preview: Houston Texans
With the first live football since the Super Bowl taking place last night, it’s time for us to start our run through of the 32 teams in the league, giving fans five reasons to be confident, and five reasons to be concerned for where the team is headed in 2014. We’re going in the same order as May’s NFL Draft, meaning we’ll be beginning with the Houston Texans.
2013 didn’t go as planned for the team that many had picked for postseason success in the summer of 2013, going 0-14 over the last 14 weeks of the season and seeing both their head coach and quarterback jettisoned, but they look to quickly bounce back. There’s excitement that comes with having the top pick in the draft, though, and landing Jadaveon Clowney, whom many believed to be the best draft prospect to have come along in the past decade, certainly gives fans hope. But what else can they expect as the new season begins?
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. J.J. Watt
As bad as things may have been at points for Houston in 2013 they can still boast, in our opinion, the best player in the NFL in defensive end J.J. Watt. A two-time PFF Stephenson Award winner, the Texans’ standout continues to make life an absolute misery for opposing offenses, finishing 2013 with a ridiculous grade of +99.8. What makes him so special, especially for a player at his position, is that he is so disruptive both against the pass and against the run. Through the past two seasons he has 161 total pressures, and has batted 21 passes, from 1166 snaps as a pass rusher, working out as some form of disruption on 15.6% of all his pass rushing snaps. Entering just his fourth season in the league, it’s fair to ask if we’ve even seen the best of him yet, and seems pretty clear that we are watching the early stages in the career of one of the all-time greats.
2. The Return of Brian Cushing
This is one that Texans fans will be crossing their fingers, knocking on wood, and just generally hoping for after seeing him miss 20 games in the past two seasons, but a healthy Brian Cushing would be huge for the Houston defense. While 2011 may be a long time ago now, especially in football terms, but if you can look that far back to the last time Cushing played a full season, you’ll find the player who was our third-highest-graded inside linebacker. Excelling against the run, in coverage and as a pass rusher, Cushing was every bit the player that the Texans have sorely missed for much of 2012 and 2013.
3. Reed Moves Inside
As well as hopefully adding the outside pass rushing presence that the team has lacked so much since the injury to Mario Williams in his final season in 2011 before leaving for Buffalo, the addition of Clowney allows the Texans to move linebacker Brooks Reed to the inside, a position which some feel he will be much more suited for. After flashing potential on the edge in his rookie year, Reed has struggled to make much impact as a pass rusher in each of the past two seasons, but has remained solid against the run. Taking away a lot of his responsibilities as a pass rusher should allow the Texans to get the most out of him, and he has the potential to form a solid partnership with Cushing on the inside.
4. Johnson Still Producing
There may have been questions about whether or not he’d be traded at some point this offseason but, with all of that now seemingly cleared up, we can focus on how good a player wide receiver Andre Johnson continues to be, despite entering his 12th season in 2014. The Texans added the talented DeAndre Hopkins in the first round of the 2013 draft, but it was Johnson who again led the way, pulling in 109 catches for 1,407 yards, and finishing the year with our seventh-highest grade at the position. He’s now finished in the Top 10 in every full season he has played since we began grading in 2007, and continues to perform like one of the best wide receivers in the game when he steps on the field.
5. Talent on the Offensive Line
Though there are questions marks at points on the offensive line, something we’ll cover later, it’s important to note that the Texans have three very talented players on their offensive line. At left tackle, Duane Brown had a torrid start to the year against San Diego, but recovered to have another stellar year, with eight of the 32 total pressures he allowed all year coming in that first game of the season. At center, Chris Myers had another impressive season, particularly as a run blocker, where only Travis Frederick had a higher grade. Most impressive, however, was the step forward taken by 2012 third-round draft pick Brandon Brooks. Stepping up as a starter for the first time in his career, Brooks finished the year as our third-best run blocker among all guards.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Quarterback Situation
It was a torrid year for the Texans’ quarterbacks in 2013, with Matt Schaub, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates combining to grade at -23.3 throughout the year. Heading into 2014, Ryan Fitzpatrick has been named the new starter, with neither Schaub nor Yates on the roster anymore, but how much should the Houston fan base expect in 2014? He wasn’t terrible in Tennessee in 2013, though he did have two particularly poor games against Seattle and Indianapolis, but the balance of his career doesn’t fill you with much hope. He’s seen at least 400 snaps in each of the past six seasons, and has never posted a season’s grade higher than +2.5, while having a career grade of -40.5. He has shown flashes in the past, but there just hasn’t been enough to convince you that he can be a viable starting quarterback for a full season.
2. Defensive Line Beyond Watt
Yes J.J. Watt is the best player in football, and yes that makes the Texans’ defensive line a tough prospect for opposing offenses. However, they really need someone else to step up on that line along with him. With Antonio Smith heading to Oakland in the offseason, they lost their only other lineman to finish last season with a positive grade, as well as seeing Earl Mitchell leave town too. That leaves the projected starters next to Watt as Jerrell Powe and Jared Crick, with Powe playing all of 41 snaps in 2013 and Crick grading at -8.9 on just 277 snaps. In reality, the best case scenario on the line for the Texans is that rookie Louis Nix III can step up when he gets on the field, otherwise it’s going to be all down to Watt again.
3. Newton’s Struggles on the Right
While we highlighted the strength of three of the players on the offensive line earlier, the play of right tackle Derek Newton (-28.3) in 2013 won’t fill Texans fans with much confidence heading into 2014. Our fifth-lowest-graded offensive tackle last year, Newton actually regressed from an already poor 2012 season (-15.8), and hasn’t shown much to make you believe that he can be competent at keeping pass rushers away from Fitzpatrick, or create running room for Arian Foster.
4. Mercilus Failing to Deliver
It’s not just because he was taken with the first pick in the draft that will have fans expecting so much from Clowney. The truth is that the Texans need him to impress early as a pass rusher, with very little outside pressure to speak of from the other starting outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus. A first-round pick himself back in 2012, Mercilus has failed to deliver since arriving in Houston and, despite posting nine sacks last season, his overall work as a pass rusher left a lot to be desired. Grading at -12.4, only fellow Texan Reed posted a lower pass-rushing grade among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013.
5. Overall Lack of Depth
When we went through the projected depth chart of every team in the NFL earlier this offseason, it became apparent that the Texans are in a precarious position regarding the depth on their roster. There’s very little known quality beyond any of the starters and, if a few players were to go down to injury, they are relying on rookies and players we have seen very little of so far to step up and fill the gap. That’s not an ideal situation, and something which may hurt them by midseason.
Follow Gordon on Twitter: @PFF_Gordon
Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.