Jeff Risdon. 27th July, 2009 - 9:09 pm
2008 record: 8-8, 3rd in AFC South
Key Stats: Turnover Ratio: -10, Sack Differential: -7, Point Differential: -28
Coming In: DE Antonio Smith, DT Shaun Cody, LB Cato June, QB Dan Orlovsky, QB Rex Grossman
Going Out: QB Sage Rosenfels, S C.C. Brown, CB Demarcus Faggins, DE Anthony Weaver, T Ephraim Salaam, LB Morlon Greenwood, S Will Demps
Key Rookies: LB Brian Cushing, G/C Antoine Caldwell, CB/KR Glover Quin, TE Anthony Hill
QB: Coach Gary Kubiak feels confident enough that Matt Schaub can stay healthy for a full season that they traded quality backup/erstwhile starter Sage Rosenfels away. It's a sizeable gamble, but durability is really the only hole in Schaub's game. Blessed with a stronger arm and better footwork than he ever showed during his college days at UVA, Schaub is a confident field general with very good accuracy over the middle and to his left. He has a strong chemistry with his receivers (notably Andre Johnson) and has enough athleticism to keep plays alive and avoid the sacks that torpedoed David Carr's career in Houston. He will throw more interceptions than Coach Kubiak desires, but that goes with the territory of having a playmaking quarterback. Schaub has struggled to stay healthy, having missed five starts in each of the last two seasons.
That makes having a quality backup a necessity, and the Texans have created a heated training camp battle for that spot between Rex Grossman and Dan Orlovsky. Both have been NFL starters, both have had some success, but neither is a reliable upgrade over Rosenfels, who was often great except for his propensity for turnovers. Expect Orlovsky to get the first call, as he controls his mistakes better and has better size and short-range touch.
RB: Steve Slaton was a revelation as a rookie, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and showing much more toughness than anticipated. He transitioned from the spread offense in college nicely, showing a rare ability to cut at full speed and keep his balance. He fits the one-cut zone blocking scheme perfectly. Slaton also impressed in the passing game, both with his hands and his blocking. His slight build raises durability questions and the need for a between-the-tackles power back to complement him. Oft-injured Chris Brown is the primary candidate, but he missed all of last season with a wonky back and has been very inconsistent. Ryan Moats returns as well, though he's smaller than Slaton and has not shown much burst. This team is crying out for a veteran power back, and don't be surprised if they hit the waiver wire after the second round of preseason cuts. Fullback Vonta Leach is a thumping lead blocker but almost never touches the ball. He almost always picks the correct target, and Slaton quickly developed an inherent knack for following in his wake and then cutting around Leach.
WR/TE: Andre Johnson is one of the two best wide receivers (with Larry Fitzgerald) in the NFL. There, I said it. He gets the edge over Randy Moss, Steve Smith, and Anquan Boldin because of his relative youth to go with his size, speed, hands, and attitude. Johnson led the league in both receptions (115) and yards (1575) and has markedly improved his yards per catch average with Schaub at the helm. He might not match the catch total, but so long as he's healthy you can put in pen 95+ catches for 1500+ yards and 8+ touchdowns.
Aside from Schaub, a major aide to Johnson's awesomeness is the development of Kevin Walter as a legit #2 receiver. Blessed with very good size and strength, Walter has become a very reliable pass catcher and route runner that takes attention away from Johnson. Walter is also an exceptional blocker downfield. With shifty David Anderson in place as a trusted #3, there is no shortage of firepower. Jacoby Jones has yet to fulfill his potential, but the young speedster has all the physical tools. This is an important season for Jones; if cannot beat out journeyman Andre Davis, he's probably not ever going to be more than a punt return specialist.
The Texans already had a very good tight end in Owen Daniels, who earned a Pro Bowl berth with his near-perfect hands and strong blocking. But they added two more capable prospects in the draft with Anthony Hill and James Casey. Hill is a giant target who spent most of his college career as a blocking specialist, the role he'll likely assume in Houston. Casey is the gridiron version of a Swiss army knife -- he can play split out, in-line, at fullback or h-back or even quarterback in a pinch (or Wildcat packages). Coach Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan should have fun messing with defenses by moving the athletic Casey all over the formation.
OL: A lot here hinges on the development of left tackle Duane Brown, who had his ups-and-downs as a rookie in 2008. Brown proved a decent run blocker and quickly picked up on blitzes, but he just flat-out whiffs with disturbing alacrity. He led the league in missed blocks that led to sacks with 10, and two others he blew led to interceptions from hurried throws. Brown is a sound fit for the zone blocking scheme with his quick feet; he just needs to learn to keep his head up and stay balanced. Right tackle Eric Winston has emerged as a legit Pro Bowl talent and team leader. Displaying the proper balance of nastiness and technique, Winston is one of the best all-around right tackles in the game. His lead-by-forceful-example style is very well-received in the locker room.
The interior line will look a little different than a year ago. One of the biggest training camp battles is for the starting center spot, between Chris Myers and rookie Antoine Caldwell. Myers is undersized and does little to compensate for it, but he's been in the zone scheme for years and rarely misses a line call. Caldwell is bigger but plays small, and is probably best served as the sixth lineman during his rookie campaign. He played every line spot except left tackle at Alabama and is athletic enough to do the same in the NFL. Caldwell is certainly the center of the future, and the team would not mind him seizing the job from Myers this summer. Left guard Chester Pitts parlayed his excellent ads into a career revival, as he has morphed from a hanger-on to a pretty solid blocker. Teammates respect him for his tenure with the team and his dedication to improving his game. Right guard Mike Brisiel doesn't fit the mold of the zone blocking scheme, but his mauling style and feistiness complement Winston quite well. Drafting Caldwell was savvy, because with the departure of Ephraim Salaam the Texans have absolutely zero depth up front. Last year that was not a problem as everyone stayed healthy, but that is extraordinarily unlikely to happen again.
DL: The Texans finally have themselves a legitimate defensive end rotation with a great deal of potential. Mario Williams is quickly becoming an elite player on the right side, certainly already achieving that status as a pass rusher. His athleticism for his size is amazing, and he?s learned how to harness that physical prowess into football technique. Williams has all the moves -- speed, power, inside, outside, twists -- and he closes on the quarterback as fast as anyone. Teams did find some success running right at him late in the year, as he appeared hellbent on rushing the passer even on obvious running downs. New defensive line coach Bill Kollar must work with him in that regard, as that is the primary malady that scuttled a pretty talented Bears defensive line two years ago. If he can shore that up, Williams should be a legit candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Signing Antonio Smith from the Cardinals to man the other side is a very good move. Smith is rock solid against the run, but he proved an adept complementary pass rusher during the Cards' playoff run. That playoff experience could be a major asset for this young defense, scant as it may be. With their second round pick the Texans plucked Connor Barwin, an athletic greenhorn with loads of upside but very little experience. The converted tight end shares many of the attributes of a young Mike Vrabel, but you might recall Vrabel struggled so much early on that the Steelers let him walk. Barwin should see snaps as a nickel pass rusher while the coaches spoon-feed him on base downs and technique. I like his potential but expecting more than five sacks and a score of tackles is setting him up for disappointment. That's still a major upgrade from what Houston has had at defensive end, and the acquisition of Smith gives Barwin time to learn on the job. Behind Barwin is high-motor Tim Bulman, who netted four sacks in limited duty playing primarily inside on nickel downs.
The interior line simply has to play better if this team is going to make a leap forward. The two returning starters, Amobi Okoye and Travis Johnson, are both first round picks that haven't played to that level with any sort of consistency. Okoye is still quite young despite entering his third season, and at times he has shown the quickness and slinkiness to get into the backfield. But too often he gets pushed around too easily, failing to hold at the point of attack (see the Colts game, where seventh round rookie Jamey Richard manhandled him), and he netted just one sack last year while battling a wonky ankle. This is a big season for Okoye, and how well he rises to the occasion will go a long way in determining whether this defense is just okay or a pretty good one. Travis Johnson has been more of a disappointment, as he seems too content to just stay engaged with blockers. He also will miss camp time after sports hernia surgery, which could cost him some regular season time and perhaps his starting gig. Shaun Cody comes over from Detroit having been a disappointment, chronically battling minor injuries and only playing well in garbage time and preseason games. He is at least aware of what the offense is doing, which is questionable with Johnson. The team is high on DelJuan Robinson, who stood out in OTAs and presents a smaller (that's relative at 296 pounds), quicker option up front. Frank Okam has the beef (6"5", 345) but rarely saw the field in a less-crowded defensive line as a rookie due to a combination of a lack of lateral movement and field awareness.
LB: Linebacker is home to one of the most overrated players in the league in Demeco Ryans. Don't mistake that statement as me saying "Demeco Ryans is not a good football player," because he is a solid starting middle linebacker and quite good in pass coverage. But his tackle totals are loaded with cleanup tackles made five yards downfield, and he has forced just three turnovers (one interception, two fumbles that his team recovered) in three years. Ryans has not had a lot of help, but that should change at least a little this year. Cato June is built like a safety (he played there at Michigan), but he's lightning-quick to the ball and has a very high football IQ. His experience and hitting power are welcome additions to the weakside backer spot. June should do wonders for Xavier Adibi, a youngster who was universally compared to June during the draft process. Zack Diles played well on the strong side before losing time to an injury, though like Ryans he makes almost all of his plays several yards downfield.
The Texans seized upon the opportunity to upgrade by taking USC product Brian Cushing with their first round pick. A throwback-style player with a weightlifter's physique, Cushing adds much-needed size and intensity to the SAM position, where he will usurp Diles as the starter. Cushing showed the ability to rush the passer and make plays against the run close to the line well enough in college, though the Pac-10 was largely devoid of NFL offensive talent during his career. The knock on Cushing is his ability to stay healthy (see my Draft Balloons column), a fate that befalls many weight room aficionados. If he can beat that rap, Cushing should immediately upgrade the chronically weak run defense and help Ryans make more of an impact. He looked tentative in pass coverage during Senior Bowl week, which could lead to a platoon where Cushing plays the base downs and June (or Diles) plays as the nickel backer. Either way, the chasm that has been linebacker depth in Houston is now filled with a pretty good cast of players. Undersized, but capable.
DB: This has long been a glaring weakness, and though it's not as egregious as prior editions this secondary remains a problem. Corner Dunta Robinson is now two years removed from a major knee injury and should be back to near his old self. The problem is, that old self was one of the most overrated players in the league, and Robinson is now the Webster's definition of "perturbed" after getting hit with the franchise player tag despite pleading against it. Still, Robinson is a solid cover man blessed with both confidence and a short memory, very desirable attributes for a corner. The other starter looks like Jacques Reeves, who acquitted himself nicely last year after coming over from the Cowboys, where he was one of the worst players in the league. Reeves improved enough to not draw snickers from fans or "throw me the damn ball every play because this stiff is on me" looks from the wide receiver across from him, but he's a marginal #2 cornerback on his better days. Fred Bennett and Antwaun Molden are waging a battle of lesser evils for the nickel job. Bennett has regressed mightily since the first month of his rookie season in 2007, though he did finish 2008 relatively strong. Molden appears to have physical talent, but the learning curve from Eastern Kentucky to the NFL has been rough. Molden is also coming off an injury that will force him to miss the beginning of camp, further slowing that progress. Rookie Glover Quin has the confidence and size to challenge for the spot as well. Late round pick Brice McCain impressed in OTAs and could earn some playing time as well, though he's on the short side of short.
Safety could remain a sore spot as well. Eugene Wilson played well enough in coverage during his first season in Houston, but he's not much of a playmaker. He sees the field well and doesn't get beat deep or bite on fakes. Wilson would be a pretty good starter as part of a better overall unit, but he doesn't do enough to merit the "centerpiece of coverage" role that he assumed in Houston. The other starting safety is up for grabs, a camp battle between Nick Ferguson, Dominique Barber, Brandon Harrison, and Troy Nolan. Ferguson was largely terrible last season, earning the adjectives "brutal, unmitigated disaster, and the worst part of the worst secondary" from various publications. But it says a lot that nobody could beat him out of the starting lineup. Barber (Marion's little brother in both age and stature) is the best of the lot in run support, but he never caught on to how to play zone pass coverage. His play picked up at the end of 2008 and should net him the starting job, though a little birdie tells me the team really likes rookie seventh rounder Nolan, who would upgrade the coverage over Barber.
This secondary has been consistently terrible, having allowed an NFL record for opposing quarterback for a three-year and five-year period and never ranking above 28th in that stat in their history. An improved pass rush will help, but this is still a weak point that isn't likely to rank above about 24th. Of course, when you've been as bad as the Texans have, 25th just might be good enough to make the playoffs.
Special Teams: The Texans are in pretty good shape here. Kris Brown remains a very reliable field goal kicker, though his distance on kickoffs isn't as consistent as years past. He's an original Texan, and few kickers are better at directional kickoffs. Jacoby Jones emerged as a very exciting, very effective punt return. He runs at warp speed from the second he catches the ball until something runs into him, often resulting in highlight-reel collisions and Houston coaches looking away in trepidation. If he can limit the fumbles and learn to take the occasional three-yard plunge return instead of trying to break every one for a touchdown, Jones will be among the best in the league. Andra Davis is a capable kick return man, though if he isn't able to stick at wide receiver he might not make the team. The blocking on the return units reflects the problems of using an undersized defense and having poor running back depth.
Houston could use a replacement punter, as Matt Turk has hit the proverbial wall. Turk's leg strength has diminished and his hang time is inconsistent. They have an interesting battle for long snapper, where Clark Harris played quite well in relief of suspended Bryan Pittman. James Casey can also do the job, and it's not without mention that they are both battling for the same tight end spot too. If Casey secures a role in the offense, expect Harris to stick, but if Casey emerges as the long snapper, that means he's not ready to contribute on offense and the Texans will be disappointed.
3 Keys To The Season:
1. Getting off to a strong start. Last year a pretty good Texans team got bombarded by a tough early schedule, not to mention a hurricane-related early bye, and was 0-4 and out of it. The early schedule this year (NYJ, @TEN, JAX, OAK) is much more favorable, but they still have to play them.
2. Matt Schaub's health. With him at the controls, this offense is among the best in the league. Without him, and he's not been reliable in that regard, it's probably not good enough to overcome a defense that isn't there yet.
3. The impact of the newcomers on defense. Brain Cushing, Antonio Smith, Cato June, and Connor Barwin are all upgrades in talent at their spots and improve the depth, but they must blend well and make a real impact from Day One.
Forecast: You're going to read a lot of previews that peg the Texans as a playoff team, thanks to the high-powered offense and the upgrades on defense. I concur that this is an improved team and the starting eleven on offense are definitely playoff-caliber. But I'm concerned about the defense, particularly the secondary and the up-the-gut run defense. That's a dreadful combination of weak points -- teams can play catch-up by throwing the ball all over the field, but they can also milk leads by pounding Houston with the run. I think the Texans fate lies in how well they fare against AFC South foes; if they can manage 3-3 or better, they should bang out enough wins to be in the Wild Card mix, but anything less than that and they're not going to have much to show for their improvement. I don't like those odds in combination with the lingering questions, though I can certainly see them breaking through for 10-11 wins. Expect a lot of outcomes in the 31-27 range, with the Texans split on which side is theirs. Houston finishes 8-8 once again.
- Jeff Risdon is RealGM's senior football writer. He may be reached at Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com