Jeff Risdon. 13th August, 2007 - 4:49 pm
Last season: 6-10, last in AFC South
Coming: QB Matt Schaub, WR Keenan McCardell, CB Jamar Fletcher, LB Shawn Barber, T Jordan Black, RB Ahman Green, LB Danny Clark
Going: QB David Carr, DE Antwan Peek, WR Eric Moulds, DT Seth Payne, RB Domanick Williams (Davis), CB Lewis Sanders
Key Rookies: DT Amobi Okoye, WR Jacoby Jones, CB Fred Bennett
What I like: The Texans finally have the core of a solid defense, led by last year?s rookies Mario Williams and Demeco Ryans. LB Ryans won Rookie of the Year by racking up at least 6 tackles every week and netting double digits 9 times. He also showed a good aptitude in pass coverage. Williams showed flashes of why the Texans drafted him #1 overall, and this season he?ll be playing RE exclusively, which will only help his development and confidence. Adding Ryans in the middle allowed WLB Morlon Greenwood to blossom into a very good run defender, and newcomer Shawn Barber adds range and veteran savvy. This year?s 1st rounder, Amobi Okoye, is just 20 but he has all the makings of a disruptive force at DT. He reminds me a great deal of Michael Dean Perry. The rest of the defensive front is solid and there is decent depth. CB Dunta Robinson is very good in run support and has played like a legit #1 cover man at times.
Trading for QB Matt Schaub was a necessary evil, as former starter David Carr clearly wasn?t going to be the man with this team. Schaub has looked quite adept in his brief opportunities in Atlanta, and he?s more of a risk taker and playmaker than Carr. WR Andre Johnson led the league in receptions last season, and he has all the tools to be an elite playmaker. With Schaub at the controls, Johnson will get more opportunities to showcase his downfield and open field running ability. He?s been relegated to squealing his tires, but this hot rod is poised to sprint to elite status. TE Owen Daniels was a pleasant surprise, and he?s very good at finding holes in zones. I like RT Eric Winston, a nasty physical player who can become the leader the OL has lacked since this team began. The special teams units are all well-coached and the overall athleticism and depth of the team has improved.
What I dislike: The Texans still have a decided lack of playmakers, particularly at the offensive skill positions. They?re trying Ahman Green at RB, but he?s clearly lost a couple of steps and the RB-challenged Packers made little effort to keep him. His backup is chronic disappointment Ron Dayne. No team in the league has a slower, less-inspiring duo than those two. And the situation at WR is even worse. After Johnson there?s not a WR on this team who would be in the top 4 on the depth charts of 25 other teams. Veteran signee McCardell is about 6 years past his prime and 2 years past usefulness. Rookie Jacoby Jones offers promise, but he comes from a D-II school and has a bad habit of catching the ball with his pads. It won?t help that the offensive line is still among the 3 worst in the NFL, particularly up the middle. Last season Johnson ranked next to last in WRs in yards per reception, and made 24 consecutive receptions that gained 10 yards or less in one stretch. The lack of pass protection up the middle means he?ll be running lots of 8 yard outs and 6 yard curls once again. The Texans saddled the departed Carr with a lot of the blame for the pea-shooting attack, but with the porous line, the lack of a breakaway threat at RB, and nobody besides Johnson or Daniels to catch the ball in an unimaginative scheme, there?s plenty of blame left on this roster.
The secondary also suffers from a lack of playmakers, or even capable starters. Robinson is a decent CB, but he?s not improved one bit from his strong rookie season and struggled badly with nimble wideouts. He?s netted just 3 INTs the last two seasons, the 3rd lowest total for any CB who has started at least 25 games over that span. The other CB will be either Demarcus Faggins or Jamar Fletcher, and neither of those guys inspires fear in offensive coordinators. The overall depth at corner is improved though, and the potential is there for a solid coverage unit. Neither starting safety, C.C. Brown nor Glenn Earl, is anything more than a marginal talent. As good as Ryans and Greenwood are, neither LB forces many turnovers or blitzes well. The unproven pass rushers up front must gel quickly and consistently impact the game or else the Texans will give up boatloads of yards and points in the passing game. Through the first 7 weeks of last season the team was on pace for the worst pass defense in NFL history, and wound up as one of the 5 worst all-time. They won?t be that bad again, but they also won?t be any better than about 28th out of 32 teams in 2007.
Best case: Schaub is the answer at QB and frees up Andre Johnson to emerge as the gamebreaking WR he can be; the OL gels, providing better protection and sustaining holes for the RBs; the pass rush develops into a force and helps the weak secondary make plays and look competent; K Josh Brown finds the range from 45+ yards again; the youngsters on defense continue to improve and impress. The Texans get a stretch where they can legitimately expect to win 5 out of 6 games, starting Week 4 @ATL and finishing before their bye week @OAK. Going 4-2 or better in that stretch means a .500 finish could be in the works.
Worst case: The OL doesn?t improve and Schaub faces the same pressure that drove Carr into shellshock; the committee of RBs plods to less than 3.5 yards per carry; no WR other than Johnson catches more than 60 passes for the 4th year in a row, and Johnson again ranks near the bottom in yards per catch; the defense doesn?t force more turnovers or sacks; the pass coverage remains historically inept; no PR or KR threat emerges and Josh Brown proves his 2006 struggles were no fluke. A winless September (KC, @CAR, IND, @ATL) is distinctly possible, and that might cause this young, leaderless squad to flounder and regress to being one of the 3 worst teams in the league.
Prediction: The defense should be good enough to keep the Texans competitive most weeks, and it?s hard to imagine the OL won?t improve enough to at least allow a couple of big plays each week. The problem is that the poorer teams on the schedule (MIA, OAK, CLE, ATL, KC, TB) all have pretty good defenses, and the teams on the schedule with poorer defenses (IND, TEN, NO) all have more than enough offense to compensate. I just don?t see how this team can compete against solid defenses, and the secondary issues will allow other teams to outscore them too often. The Texans sputter to a 5-11 finish, thus earning a shot at drafting a true playmaker like Darren McFadden and vaulting into legit playoff contention in 2008.