Schedule: @KC, BAL, @PIT, MIN, JAX, @TEN, GB, BYE, @JAX, @CLE, NE, @DET, IND, @CHI, @IND, CIN, TEN
Additions: RB David Johnson (Trade), WR Brandin Cooks (Trade), S Eric Murray (FA), WR Randall Cobb (FA), S Jaylen Watkins (FA), DL Ross Blacklock (Draft)
Losses: WR DeAndre Hopkins (Trade), DL D.J. Reader (FA), CB Johnathan Joseph (FA), RB Lamar Miller (FA), RB Carlos Hyde (FA)
I’m at the point where I don’t really care who’s on the Texans. I fully expect Deshaun Watson to drag them to the playoffs no matter what. Last year, I picked them for 7 wins, only to watch him carry a sorry team to the division title and a playoff win. Even with another underwhelming supporting cast, there’s no reason to think he won’t have them playing in January once again.
GM Bill O’Brien seems really committed to making life hard for both Watson and HC Bill O’Brien. After trading away the Texans’ future last offseason, O’Brien got to work on the present. I don’t care about any supposed contract squabbles—especially since he has been a model soldier in Arizona—DeAndre Hopkins is worth more than a second and expensive contract. To go and trade a second for Brandin Cooks weeks later somehow made it even worse. Maybe in 2021 O’Brien will try to go back and trade away Andre Johnson to complete the time treachery trifecta.
One possible silver lining of moving Hopkins is that it could push Watson to be even better. Getting rid of his top target can sometimes make a quarterback trust his reads more and create an overall scarier attack. Considering the weapons around him are still dangerous, it’s possible. Cooks and Randall Cobb join Will Fuller and Kenny Stills to create an intriguing receiver room. No one will replace Hopkins single-handedly, but few, if any, quartets match their qualifications. Even if Fuller misses his standard 6 games, they’ll be solid. Tight end Darren Fells showed great chemistry with Watson, seemingly always finding the right spot when his quarterback scrambled. A couple younger, more explosive guys behind him will earn some playing time, too.
The crown jewel of the Hopkins’ return, David Johnson, will have to ball out for that trade to look like anything less than robbery. With Lamar Miller and Carlos Hyde gone, opportunity won’t be an issue. It’ll be up to him to prove his 2016 season wasn’t a fluke. Running backs have always produced in this offense, so he should continue that trend. As for whether he’ll return to form, I doubt it. Let’s not forget that DJ was straight-up benched last season despite supposedly being healthy. He’s another guy I expect to be much more valuable in fantasy than real life.
Even after substantial offseason investments, Houston’s offensive line flopped last season. With youth along the line and all five starters returning, I think the 2020 iteration will look closer to what fans hoped for last year. A costly acquistion, left tackle Laremy Tunsil has been a flag magnet. Outside of that, though, he has solidified Watson’s blindside just as the team hoped. The team is hoping for jumps from 2019 picks Max Scharping and Tytus Howard. Veterans Nick Martin and Zach Fulton will also need to play better. As a whole, this group is a borderline strength for the team and any uptick in their play will help make up for the outgoing talent.
With Watson at the helm, offense isn’t the worry. That would be the defense, which was awful in most categories last year. Bottom-10 against the run in 2019, they could drop even further without D.J. Reader. He’s arguably the best nose tackle in the league, so replacing him won’t be easy. First crack will go to Brandon Dunn, who spent the past few years rotating in behind Reader. Rookie Ross Blacklock and possibly former Raider bust P.J. Hall should get some snaps as well.
The rest of the Texans’ defense is full of big-name and generally highly-regarded players. As I said, though, they were below-average in virtually every metric last season. A guy like J.J. Watt can still wreck games, but don’t confuse him for his old MVP candidate self. Just seeing him suit up for 16 games would be a win in my book. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham are both well-compensated, but I’m not sure they’re as great as some think. Still, inside linebacker is far from a weakness.
Edge rusher Whitney Mercilus is another guy whose name goes further than his play. If he’s the top pass rusher on your team, the result will be something like Houston’s 31 sacks last year. Someone needs to step up beside him, and Jacob Martin seems to be the leading candidate. Acquired in the Jadeveon Clowney deal, Martin has 6.5 career sacks in very limited snaps. The Texans need him to keep that efficiency in a larger role, or quarterbacks will once again have all day to pick apart the secondary.
While I like the defensive backs, they’re not good enough to compensate for a weak pass rush. Between Bradley Roby, Lonnie Johnson, Gareon Conley, Vernon Hargreaves, and rookie John Reid, Houston has no shortage of noteworthy names at cornerback. By November or December, they should have a solid outside duo and nickel corner from that group. Safety is even more exciting, with Eric Murray coming from Cleveland to start alongside Justin Reid, a guy I really like. Reserves Jaylen Watkins and A.J. Moore give the team a lot of flexibility to run dime packages.
I actually think O’Brien is a competent coach. It isn’t just Watson getting them to the playoffs, as his teams are always well-prepared. The problem is his front office experiment has left the roster with a bunch of big-time names, but not enough big-time talent. Dealt the NFC and AFC North plus Chiefs and Patriots, Houston has a challenging road ahead. Knowing Watson, though, he’ll make that road look more like a stroll in the park.
What’s your record prediction for the Texans? What did I get right or wrong? Sound off in the comments.