“The Amateur Ward”: AFC South Preview – Houston Texans
The Houston Texans were one of the pleasant surprises in 2015, as they won the AFC South Crown with a revolving door of Hoyer-Mallett-Yates-Weeden at QB. Hoyer led the quartet with 11 starts and a 19-7 TD-INT ratio under Bill O’Brien. A 9-7 season is not that bad, but it will certainly not win any division season in season out, as there is no way the Colts (8-8) will need five QBs to complete the season again. Luck is a stud, he just dealt with a plethora of early season injuries that caused him to miss eight games, thus the team had to turn to Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst, Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley at times to complete the season. So both the top two teams in the AFC South started numerous QBs in 2015, but that will change in 2016.
In a surprising move this past offseason, the Broncos saw Brock Osweiler walk to Houston, and Houston looks to finally have a franchise QB. What the Texans are getting with Osweiler, in the eyes of John Elway on his evaluation of what starting QBs need, is arm talent (strength), football intelligence and mobility. When most people think of arm strength, they think of how hard and far a QB can throw the ball, however, that is not what arm strength means. It means the movement of the hips, legs (most importantly the plant leg), opposite arm and the flick of the wrist to generate power, speed and spin on the ball. The combination of all these moving parts determines the torque, or how fast and far the ball will travel. Looking at Brock play, one will see he generates a ton of power on his throws because he rotates his hips, steps up in the pocket, and has a quick release and flick of the wrist, much like Elway did. When it comes to Brock’s football intelligence, he is quick to read plays and reacts, making the proper play, based upon what the defense shows. So far, Brock is two for two on meeting Elway’s criteria. Last criteria is mobility. Brock ran a 4.8 40 yard at the 2012 combine, but he is 6’7″ and is a lot quicker than he looks for his size. He isn’t Big Ben when it comes to moving around, but he can move to avoid the pressure and sack. All 3 criteria met. The one area of concern with Brock, and what showed last season, was his ability to beat defenders over the top with passes.
Brock has all the potential in the world and showed he could be very accurate at Arizona State. But when he played last season when Manning missed games due to inefficiency and lingering injuries (foot), he threw an interceptable pass every 21.2 attempts (27th in the league). That is not too bad, but what was concerning was he threw accurately only 76.2 percent of the time (22nd in the league). ProFootball Focus graded Brock as an average QB because he does not have a stand out trait that would allow him to get away with some of his accuracy issues. So, what should the Texans expect from Brock in his inaugural season (and first season as starter)? Bill O’Brien will mold the offense around his strengths and give him the opportunity to prove himself. If Osweiler is going to succeed in Houston, he needs to improve his accuracy, prove he can produce “the touch” on balls over a defenders fingertips and show he can truly throw all the necessary deep passes.
In short, if you asked me, I would say Osweiler will succeed in Houston because O’Brien does a good job with his QBs and Osweiler is a much better QB than Hoyer, and it’s really no comparison. He will have an All-Pro WR in DeAndre ‘Nuk’ Hopkins to throw the rock to, but will need help from the likes of Cecil Shorts III, Jaelen Strong, and Will Fuller. Shorts is a versatile receiver who can be used in all sorts of gadget plays or the Wildcat. He came to Houston in 2015 on a two year deal and served as the Houston’s slot receiver last season, and will serve a similar role this season. He posted 484 yards on 42 receptions for two touchdowns, and could see a few more receptions and TDs this season with Osweiler running the show, but will also compete for looks with Strong and Will Fuller. Jaelen Strong enters the 2016 season behind Fuller for starting receiver opposite “Nuk” and will need to prove early in the season that he can be effective in whatever role he is asked to play, or rookie Will Fuller could blow past him as the WR2 in Houston, further limiting Strong’s looks. Strong is a very intriguing second year receiver, who famously caught the ‘Jael Mary’ for Arizona State versus Southern Cal, and can get down the field, compete for the ball and is a big play threat. Strong was largely underestimated coming out of ASU because his QB play was awful, but if you look at his tape, he is a big receiver (6’2″) and has tremendous hands. He does not run great routes, and that is the problem. As we all know, if you cannot run well-defined routes, your time as a receiver in the NFL could be greatly limited. Strong only caught 14 passes last season, but scored thrice. There is definite sleeper potential, but the arrival Will Fuller could muddy his role. Will Fuller is going to be a project for the Texans, but he has great speed (4.32 40 at Combine), allowing him to stretch the field, but does not have the best hands. His upside is likely a Ted Ginn Jr.-like receiver. He is being tabbed starter opposite Hopkins, which puts him in line for a good number of chances for yards and scores, but needs to prove he utilizes his speed to keep corners honest while also hauling in passes. Houston will initially use Fuller outside, but as he gets more acclimated with Houston’s offense, put him in different slots on the inside and use Strong on the outside. Both Fuller and Strong have upside, but if fantasy owners want to gamble one way or the other, gamble on Fuller.
Runningback is going to be very interesting for the Texans in 2016 because they are not going to re-sign Arian Foster, who is coming off a torn Achilles and was ran into the ground by Houston. His production is going to be hard to makeup because he was a threat whenever he was on the field. He was a true, complete back that did it all for the Texans. He broke off huge runs and also contributed in the pass game, scoring seven times in seventeen games the past two seasons. The Texans brought in Lamar Miller from Miami who is a straight line speedster, but can also contribute in the pass game. He is more of a homerun hitter than Foster, as he has more elite speed, but Foster was the type RB who would carry the defense on his back to gain a few extra yards or more. Miller does not have the strength to drag defenders, and there are questions whether or not he can be a full-time starter as he never saw over 216 carries in Miami. Miami under-utilized Miami horribly as Miller can block as well as pass, and they never gave him the opportunity to use all his skills to move the ball. Houston brings him to be starter, and this creates a situation where the defense needs to respect the big play ability and explosiveness of Nuk and the upside of Fuller/Strong, while also keeping an eye on the speed of Miller. While Miller may not post the numbers Foster did in Houston, he could put up huge running numbers and will break a few long scores off with his legs as teams will not be able to stack the box versus him. The Texans offense is going to fast and furious, and defenses better be ready to get beat on and ran through. Miller is an RB1 in fantasy circles and could challenge for league lead in rushing yards if given enough touches.
Alfred Blue was given a chance to be the de facto RB1 in Houston after Foster went don’t with a torn Achilles, but after only averaging 3.8 yards per carry, the Texans moved on from this idea and went and got Miller in the offseason. Blue is Miller’s backup, and will not see enough touches to make a dent on the Houston offensive plans. he should also have been cut after sporting a Kansas City Chiefs jersey after the Texans ugly 30-0 loss to the Chiefs in the playoffs. There simply are not enough snaps nor looks for Blue to make an impact with Miller/Nuk/Strong/Shorts III all needing attention from Osweiler. Do not dare draft Blue unless you are in an insanely deep league and feel the need to cuff Miller.
The Texans tight end situation is horrible as they have the blocking TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, had Garrett Graham last season who only registered four receptions for 30 and one score, and now on Denver, and then there is the third year man, Ryan Griffin, who was hampered by injury and plagued by inconsistency last season, but posted 20 receptions, 251 yards and two scores. Griffin is the Week 1 starter for the Texans and is a name worth watching as he could see a steady number of receptions every with the quarterback situation now resolved and, and one who is not afraid to make the dump off pass to his tight end, or throw it to him a couple yards down the field. Where the tight end game for Houston is going to be interesting is the competition for the final TE slot on the team among a block first end Eric Tomlinson, and the two pass catching tight ends, with limited use in blocking Anthony Denham and rookie Stephen Anderson. The top two TEs, Griffin and Fiedorowicz are in no immediate danger of losing their gig, but if any of the other three tight ends fighting for a position start showing more upside than their two starters, then things could get muddied. It is too hard to trust any Houston TE in fantasy circles and is best to use a wait and see approach with this group.
Defensively, the Texans are very solid unit, led by franchise, all-NFL, and the most dominant defender in the NFL, JJ Watt. Let’s not waste anytime discussing what Watt can do, because there is nothing he cannot do. He blows up offensive lines, leaves QB in tatters on the turf, picks off passes, racks up defensive scores and scores on offense. Yes folks, Watt scores on offense. In 2014 he became the first defensive player since 1944 to score five total TDs (3 receiving), 2 defensive, and is not showing any signs of slowing. He also is the first defensive player to score three offensive TDs in a season. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him score another offensive TD this season. As a unit, Houston was a top four defense last season, with their lowest ranking being versus the run (10th). If you dig further into the Texans defense from 2015, you will see they finished eighth versus opposing teams WR1s, but 23rd versus WR2, and first versus all other The reason for this disparity between WR1 and 2 could be because Johnathan Joseph continued to play solid defense versus receivers, despite his age, but Kareem Jackson did take a step back as the season wound on. While Joseph may not be the corner he was in 2014, or earlier in his career, he was the best cover corner over the last 14 weeks of the season, causing opposing quarterbacks think again before trying to throw over the top of him; but instead throw short, underneath passes at Joseph as he is not a very good tackler. Kareem Jackson was victimized last season and will face competition from the more explosive second year Kevin Johnson who could be a special talent in the league within the next few seasons. Put this in perspective, Kevin Johnson had a yards per coverage snap ratio of 0.04 in his rookie, best for any corner in the league. He only allowed one catch for two yards versus him in 52 coverage snaps. Small sample size, but you see why the words ‘shutdown corner’ are being thrown around with him and why he will be huge in the Houston secondary in 2016. From a fantasy perspective Joseph and Johnson are worth drafting, and Joseph could see an uptick in passes defensed because Johnson is going to dominate opposing receivers and be a pick machine.
On the defensive line, the name to watch is Benardrick McKinney, a second year linebacker from Mississippi St. and one with a nice upside. He is a tackling machine and should begin to tap into his potential this season. He may never be a sack machine, but he will be an annual threat to post triple digit tackles every season playing on a line that was led in tackles by Brian Cushing last season. Cushing is a pure tackler who never really was known for his ability in coverage nor for sacks, but is always around the ball carrier and makes the play. He might be nearing the early twilight years of his career, but he is still a good bet to post around or above triple digit tackles and contribute a sack or two. Of the two interior linemen, McKinney is the better one to own in fantasy circles as he should post slightly better numbers in coverage and be a force up the middle. The key position for the Texans in 2016 is going to be right outside linebacker, JaDaveon Clowney, who plays opposite sack machine Whitney Mercilus and behind Mr. Watt, who we discussed earlier. Clowney showed potential late in the season last season, and the further he is removed from his foot surgery in the 2013 offseason, the more he should be able to explode off his repaired foot. He was the premier sack player in the college ranks, and had a few highlight reel plays where he blew up runningbacks and quarterbacks, with his most memorable hit on Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl. If he can get things going on defense and provide pressure on the quarterback and hunt runningbacks, the front seven of the Texans will be among the best in the NFL this season. This is a very dangerous unit and one on the rise.
The safety unit from the Texans could be overlooked, but they are a very defensively sound unit. Andre Hal allowed a mere 39.3 percent of passes to be caught when he was in coverage last season, good for second behind only the Steelers safety Michael Mitchell. Quintin Demps is an effective stopgap safety who will compete for the starting gig at strong safety with Eddie Pleasant who saw a good bit of time on special teams last season, but did see some time at the strong safety position. Demps should be considered the favorite as he is better versus the run yet both have concerns in coverage, but the diamond in the rough in fantasy circles is Hal because almost no one knows how effective he is in shutting down receivers coming his way. pleasant should see time as the hybrid LB/S in nickel packages.
Overall, the Texans have a nice shot at repeating as division winners, but will need to contend with a Colts team that will be out for revenge with a fully healthy Andrew Luck. The Colts offense nor defense are as explosive as the Texans, but their consistency at QB and ever present danger of Hilton, and even Gore should at least keep defenses decent. Next week, the preseason look-in continues with Indianapolis.
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