Our 2019 NFL Preview finally heads south, or namely the AFC South, where the Houston Texans look to build upon winning their third Division Title in four years. After a slow start to the 2018 campaign which saw them drop each of their first three games, Houston slowly turned into a juggernaut, stringing together nine consecutive victories en route to an 11-5 record. Sophomore Quarterback, Deshaun Watson, emerged as a bonafide playmaker after his rookie year was ended prematurely due to a torn ACL, and coupled with All-Pro Receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, formed one of the most prolific combinations in the league. Now, it will be upon the young Signal-Caller to further refine his skill-set, while Bill O’Brien seeks better balance on both sides of the football following their defeat in the AFC Wild Card. So heading into 2019, will Watson continue to develop under O’Brien’s guidance? Will the Offensive Line come together and afford him more consistent protection? Will the Defense remain among the league’s best after a number of departures? Read on and find out, folks…
After the previous three years featured a proverbial rotating door at Quarterback, Houston finally decided to find their man in the 2017 NFL Draft, trading up to No. 12 to select Deshaun Watson (68.3%, 4,165 YDS, 6.67 NY/A, 26 TD, 9 INT, 63.0 QBR). It wouldn’t be long before the Clemson product became the Starter, quickly making an impact for the Texans, who went 3-3 with him under Center before an ACL tear suffered in practice ended his rookie campaign prematurely. With big things expected of him in 2018, Watson got off to a slow start, but eventually caught fire, guiding his side to a nine-game winning streak in which the Offense was nothing short of explosive. During that stretch, they averaged 27.0 Points on 366.6 Total Yards per Game, with the Sophomore Signal-Caller completing 69.4% of his Attempts for an average of 240.0 Yards per Game on 8.37 Yards per Attempt, with Sixteen Touchdowns and Six Interceptions, while also rushing for another 255 Yards and Two Touchdowns on Fifty-One Carries. Of course, this guy is very adept at making plays with his legs, rushing for 551 Yards and Five Touchdowns on Ninety-Nine Carries in 2019, though a good deal of those carries were brought on by necessity rather than design. That’s because Houston’s Offensive Line was very much a mess last season, leading to their Quarterback taking a league-worst Sixty-Two Sacks. How else can you explain the disparity between his Yards per Attempt (8.2) and Net Yards per Attempt (6.67), which accounting for yards lost from Sacks amounted to the greatest disparity among Starting Quarterbacks last year. Heading into 2018, both O’Brien and General Manager, Brian Gaine, knew that this could be an issue, with the club fielding three new Starters in the trenches, among them being Sophomores, Julie’n Davenport at Left Tackle and Nick Martin at Center. The renovation continued over the Offseason with Houston investing heavily in the Line during the 2019 NFL Draft, selecting a pair of Tackles, Tytus Howard and Max Scharping, at No. 23 and No. 55 respectively. If this group can come together and develop the requisite chemistry to properly work as a unit, then expect big things from Watson in his third season, for fewer Sacks will likely translate into more big plays.
Turnover at the Back
The other half of the equation for success in Houston is the Defense, which after ranking dead-last in Points Allowed in 2017 (27.3 P/G), managed to restore it’s standing as one of the league’s most consistent units. In 2019, the Texans allowed 19.8 Points (4th Overall) on 343.1 Total Yards (12th Overall), including 260.4 Yards against the Pass (28th Overall) on 6.5 Net Yards per Attempt (18th Overall), along with just 82.7 Yards versus the Run (3rd Overall) on 3.4 Yards per Carry (1st Overall). Furthermore, they were among the most productive in terms of Takeaways, creating Twenty-Nine (4th Overall), including an NFL-best Fourteen Recovered Fumbles, which helped lead to a very healthy Plus-13 Turnover Differential. Longtime Defensive Coordinator, Romeo Crennel, who briefly relinquished that role in 2018, did his best with a unit that was not without their weaknesses though; as dominant as they were against the run, the Texans were oftentimes shredded via the pass, and weren’t great when it came to stopping opponents on Third Down or in the Red Zone for that matter, allowing success rates of 40.1% (20th Overall) and 70.9% (29th Overall) respectively. It all came to a head in the AFC Wild Card Game, where they absolutely eviscerated by division rival, Indianapolis Colts, who carved them up for 422 Total Yards in a 7-21 defeat. So in an effort to shore up their porous Pass Defense, O’Brien, Gaine, and Crennel made a number of moves in the Offseason, most notably hitting Free Agent Pass-Rusher, Jadeveon Clowney (47 TKL, 16 TFL, 21 QBH, 9.0 SK, 1 FF, 3 FR, 1 TD, 1 PD), with the Franchise Tag, preventing the three-time Pro Bowler from departing for greener pastures. Alongside three-time Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt (61 TKL, 18 TFL, 25 QBH, 16.0 SK, 7 FF, 4 PD), Houston boasts arguably the most intimidating tandem in the league. Veteran Defensive Backs, Kareem Jackson (87 TKL, 5 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 17 PD) and Tyrann Mathieu (89 TKL, 5 TFL, 4 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 FR, 2 INT, 8 PD), did leave though in Free Agency, and with former Pro-Bowl Cornerback, Jonathan Joseph (58 TKL, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 1 TD, 13 PD) now in the twilight of his career, the mandate for reinforcements has never been greater. Sophomore Safety, Justin Reid (88 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 INT, 1 TD, 10 PD), will be expected to take on a greater role this season, while incoming Cornerback, Bradley Roby (50 TKL, 1 TFL, 2 FF, 1 INT, 12 PD), will be counted upon to man the boundary, where he will likely be flanked by 2019Second Round Pick, Lonnie Johnson, out of Kentucky.
In Need of Depth
With the aforementioned Watson thriving in his second season in the league, a huge reason for his success has been the presence of All-Pro Receiver, DeAndre Hopkins (115 REC, 1,572 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 11 TD), who reached a new level in 2018. The 26-Year Old recorded career-highs in a slew of categories, including Receptions (115), Receiving Yards (1,572), Receptions per Game (7.2), Yards Per Game (98.3), Yards per Target (9.7), and Catch Percentage (70.6%). Furthermore, he logged seven 100-Yard Games, including three straight to close out the Regular Season in which he erupted for 421 Yards on Thirty-One Catches. However, as prolific as he was, by the end of the season there weren’t many options for his Quarterback, with fellow Receiver, Will Fuller (32 REC, 503 YDS, 15.7 Y/R, 4 TD), tearing his ACL in a late October win over the Dolphins, and his replacement, veteran Demaryius Thomas (59 REC, 677 YDS, 11.5 Y/R, 5 TD), who was acquired at the Trade Deadline from the Broncos, tore his Achilles after seven games with the club racking up just Twenty-Three Receptions for 275 Yards and Two Touchdowns. With Hopkins topping 100 Catches for the second time in his career, no other player on the roster managed to accumulate more than twenty-eight apart from Fuller, whose vertical speed served as a perfect foil to his teammate. Now with Thomas, coupled with veteran Tight End, Ryan Griffin (24 REC, 305 YDS, 12.7 Y/R), departing in Free Agency, and Fuller continuing to rehab from knee surgery, the Receiving Corps sorely lack depth and looks every bit as one-dimensional as it currently appears on paper. The Texans did not address this need in the Draft or in Free Agency, instead looking in house to Keke Coutee (28 REC, 287 YDS, 10.3 Y/R, 1 TD) whom they selected in the Fourth Round of the 2018 Draft out of Texas Tech. However, the Sophomore sprained his ankle in the team’s Preseason Opener leaving his availability for the Season Opener at the New Orleans Saints up in the air.
2019 Forecast: 9-7
2018 served as validation for the Houston Texans, who made good upon the promise that they showed during the first half of the previous campaign in which a then-rookie, Deshaun Watson transformed the Offense. However, in earning their third AFC South Title since 2015, there is still plenty of work to be done if this team is indeed going to take the next step and become routine challengers for a Lombardi Trophy. First and foremost, Watson must continue to improve, and a major way that will happen is if the Offensive Line develops into a consistent, quality unit. O’Brien had to cringe every time his Quarterback was sacked last season, particularly given his history of injury. For the second season in a row, Houston has invested in the Line, and it will be necessary that they start seeing a profit on those investments. A solid Defense that figures to be retooled in the Secondary will likely keep them in most games, while the prolific DeAndre Hopkins has proven that he can dominate on any given Sunday. With that said, it’s all going to come back to the Line, with Davenport, Myers, and the rookies being counted upon to keep their Quarterback clean and healthy. With the AFC South appearing to be improved across the board, this team won’t win the Division by default as they’ve done in past years, and with a First Place Schedule in front of them, they could find it rather difficult to improve upon the 11-5 mark they posted a year ago. In the end, expect Houston to be a factor in the AFC, though they’re going to need some more work if they’re going to join the realm of the league’s elite anytime soon.