2016 record: 9-7, won AFC South, lost in AFC Divisional Round

Key figures

Point differential: -49

Turnover ratio: -7

Bill O’Brien is back for his fourth season with the Houston Texans as head coach. His first three years all finished 9-7, and last year’s team won a playoff game despite wildly inconsistent offensive play and poor special teams. The league’s top-ranked defense in yards and first downs allowed took some personnel hits but gets back the league’s preeminent D-line talent in J.J. Watt.

Offensively, the team decided to go big and trade way up to get Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. It was a necessary move, and parting ways with malcontent free agent bust Brock Osweiler is addition by subtraction, notably for O’Brien’s coaching authority. There are decent weapons with DeAndre Hopkins and Lamar Miller but a lot of questions and not much depth. The bold move for Watson cost longtime GM Rick Smith the first and second-round picks next April, and it also upped the ante on winning now. Can the Texans finally get past the AFC Divisional Round?

Five Questions for the Houston Texans

- Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson at QB?

The long-term answer of who will replace Brock Osweiler is Watson. The Texans didn’t trade up from 25 to 12 overall, throwing in next year’s first-rounder, to draft the Clemson star and not play him. But in the short-term, expect Savage to at least begin the season as the starter.

Savage wasn’t bad in his limited run as a starter last year when Head Coach Bill O’Brien finally had enough of Osweiler. He has a strong arm, good anticipatory throwing skills and understands O’Brien’s complicated offense well. Durability is a problem, unfortunately. He lost his shot last year with a concussion, and his medical history isn’t encouraging. He should still be the long-term backup, and if Savage can start out hot it buys Watson valuable time.

Watson’s intangibles are off the charts, and that was a big selling point for O’Brien and GM Rick Smith. He’s the consummate leader of men and wears the challenge easily and naturally. Watson is cool under pressure and smart. Those are fantastic qualities which will certainly help him, but if he wasn’t great at throwing and running he wouldn’t be so well-regarded.

His consistent accuracy is a major selling point. Watson completed 67 percent of his passes all three seasons as the starter for perennial contender Clemson. He has a great sense of timing and touch, and can also move outside the pocket while keeping his eyes down the field and delivering strikes on reactive throws too. His lack of velocity (49 MPH at the Combine) is overplayed, but it was an issue at times in college, notably the red zone. He’ll need to be more careful with his throws over the middle, where he doesn’t always sense LBs and safeties moving about in coverage.

When he’s ready, Watson should become the franchise QB and face of the Houston offense. No matter which winds up playing, the Texans must get more reliable short and intermediate range passing. Osweiler was unreliable at best. For a team which has spun wildly on the QB carousel for years since Matt Schaub’s Lisfranc injury, the risk on Watson is a necessary one. Savage might hold him off for at least half this year, however.

- Who replaces the lost starters?

Not only was Houston the last team to sign an outside free agent, they waited over 6 weeks longer than any other team before finally bringing in their first. And that guy, Breno Giacomini, is (or should be) a backup offensive tackle.

The Texans are aiming to replace starting CB A.J. Bouye, starting free safety Quintin Demps and third outside LB John Simon, who played a lot, internally. Giacomini is in the mix to replace injured right tackle Derek Netwon, who will miss the 2017 season after tearing both patellar tendons on the same play.

It’s not as dire as it might first appear. Bouye began 2016 as the team’s No. 4 CB, while Demps was a journeyman veteran spiking late (he picked off 4 passes in December) in a contract year. The Texans are okay, and perhaps a lot better than okay, at corner with vets Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson, all former first-round picks and now all healthy. Youngster Robert Nelson appears ready to step up and take Bouye’s old No. 4 role, while fifth-round rookie Treston Decoud brings big size and decent potential.

Demps’ replacement could very well be Kareem Jackson, who is took reps at safety in OTAs and seems like a good candidate for a position switch. More accurately, he’s the best in-house candidate to play that role. Corey Moore flashed down the stretch and should play a bigger role in 2017 too. If K.J. Dillon can get back from an underwhelming rookie season cut short by a torn ACL, he’s got the thumping presence to seize the position. Andre Hal, a converted CB himself, isn’t special but provides serviceable play as the free safety.

Taking over for Vince Wilfork in the middle of the defense will be a combination of D.J. Reader and rookie Carlos Watkins, who followed Reader at Clemson. The overall depth of the line with J.J. Watt coming back is outstanding, as Reader proved capable in limited duty and Watkins is tailor-made for the scheme too.

Rookies will replace the other free agent departures, and that includes the aforementioned Watson at QB at some point. Second-round pick Zach Cunningham will take over Simon’s role…sort of. Cunningham is more of a lightweight inside backer, one with outstanding instincts and range. His presence should allow aging Brian Cushing to move to the OLB role, at least in certain packages. Veteran Sio Moore is a good pickup too, provided he is healthy. If Giacomini isn’t the answer at right tackle, fourth-round pick Julie’n Davenport might be. A small-school standout from Bucknell, Davenport looks the part and moves quite well but needs technical coordination and experience.

- What does J.J. Watt’s return do for the league’s stingiest defense?

J.J. Watt played just three games before a back injury ended his season. Despite losing the best defensive player on the planet, Houston’s defense still wound up allowing the fewest yards and first downs.

Watt is back and altered his training regimen so he’s not so over-muscled. He returns as the most impactful pass rushing defensive end in the league, a disruptive terror who can attack from either side of the formation. His presence commands the primary blocking attention and helps the supporting cast thrive.

Jadeveon Clowney finally looked like the No. 1 overall pick when he moved into Watt’s role as rush end in Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 scheme. He was healthy for the first time and it showed. Clowney earned second-team All-Pro honors by nicely emulating Watt, but in his own way. Still healthy, Clowney now gives Watt a bookend. He also has the athletic versatility to stand up and rush at his old OLB position. With the criminally underrated Whitney Mercilus a double-digit sack artist at OLB and Cushing still effective with his gung-ho, straight-line blitzes, Houston’s pass rush looks to be elite.

The versatility of the standout players cannot be overstated. Watt can play anywhere but the nose up front. Clowney can play on either side at either end or OLB. Mercilus moves all over the second level to seize his most favorable matchup. With Benardrick McKinney a reliable between-the-tackles ILB and rookie Cunningham’s range, that frees Cushing to also move around. Cushing was at his best playing the strongside rush OLB in his rookie season, and he now can move back to that. New defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, promoted when Crennel retired to the press box, is a rising star who has ample weaponry at his disposal in the front seven. They’re the most talented front 7 in the league if McKinney can continue to eradicate the run and Cunningham upgrades the short-range coverage, and both are eminently capable of that. Keep an eye on undrafted rookie LB Dylan Cole, who could start by the end of the season.

- Can the offense score more touchdowns?

Veteran kicker Nick Novak was fantastic last season, but there is a mixed blessing in having the placekicker making so many field goals. Novak made, and attempted, more field goals inside 35 yards than any other kicker.

That speaks to the struggles pushing the ball in the end zone, a recurring issue for O’Brien’s offenses in Houston. The Texans ranked 31st in red zone TD percentage, an abysmal showing. They also finished near the bottom (t-27th) in yards per point, a very basic measure of offensive scoring efficiency

Better QB play can only help, but the problems last year extended well beyond Osweiler. Lamar Miller just wasn’t good in the red zone, unable to break that critical first tackle and find room on the shorter field. He’s more effective when safeties have to respect the pass more and he can get bigger creases that last a half-count longer. The run blocking, notably from center Greg Mancz and right guard Jeff Allen, didn’t help. The team also lacks a reliable big-bodied receiver, and the WR blocking is subpar as well.

DeAndre Hopkins is a very good wideout, a legit No. 1 receiver with size, speed and strength. Yet he wasn’t great without the threat of the deep ball to create space either. Speedy first-round pick Will Fuller proved essentially worthless at any route less than 15 yards. His balky hands make him the ultimate crapshoot, but when the field is long he has the speed to stretch it. Fellow rookie Braxton Miller still has a lot to learn in route running. They’re a very dangerous young trio from outside the 35 yard line, but when the field is shrunken and the defenses don’t have to stretch as far, they’re not as effective as they need to be. This team sorely needs either Fuller or Jaelen Strong, thus far a wasted third-round pick, to emerge as a bigger threat on 5-to-12-yard passes.

Tight ends Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz can help here. They’re a solid working-class combo, but a career year of 65 receptions and 8 TDs from either would do wonders for the offense at large. So would more consistent line play, and help is on the way there in the form of Nick Martin. The 2016 second-round pick missed his rookie season with injury, but he’s now healthy and will start at either center or guard, his natural position at Notre Dame. Mancz was very good in pass protection but an ineffective run blocker at center, while Jeff Allen was one of the league’s biggest free agency flops after coming from Kansas City. If Allen can bounce back, and he has that potential, and venerable left tackle Duane Brown isn’t impacted by his current contract holdout, the line could look better despite the major question at right tackle.

- Will the special teams improve?

It might seem odd to quibble with the special teams when the placekicker finished second in the league in scoring and the punter finished 7th in gross average and even won a Special Teams Player of the Week honor during the season. Yet in binge watching the Texans right after the season ended (I am the editor for USA Today's Texans Wire and needed to study the team in depth), the poor play from Larry Izzo’s unit consistently stood out.

There is no problem with the aforementioned punter, Shane Lechler. I will fight anyone who argues with me that Lechler isn’t the greatest punter in NFL history. It’s not even close in my estimation. He still has the booming leg even at 40 and the directional ability is still there too. He will occasionally outkick his coverage, but that says more about the coverage.

Ah, the coverage units. To call them bad is being charitably kind. There were constant breakdowns in lane integrity and assignments. It often looked like they didn’t practice. The problem was exacerbated with Novak’s weak leg on kickoffs. He had the lowest percentage of touchbacks of any regular kicker at under 33 percent in a league where 60 is average. That meant more opportunities for opposing teams to attack those shoddy cover units.

The blocking wasn’t much better, though there’s a chicken vs. egg argument on the poor return game. Tyler Ervin flopped as a rookie kick return man and might not keep his roster spot in his second year if he doesn’t improve. He was marginally better on punt return duty but didn’t break tackles. Will Fuller did break one punt return for a touchdown but is too valuable to the offense to risk in fulltime return duty. None of the returners got much help from the blocking, which seemed slow and uncoordinated too often.

No team lost more yards of aggregate field position on kickoffs than Houston. That’s a problem a team with inexperienced QB play does not need once again.

Forecast: Three straight 9-7 seasons make the prevailing winds pretty easy to read. There are reasons to be bullish, namely getting J.J. Watt back to the league’s stingiest defense and making a needed change at QB. There are also reasons to really worry, and QB play is only one of them. I think too many underestimate just how dominant this defense can be, and if the offense can limit turnovers and start scoring touchdowns instead of kicking so many field goals this is still handily the best team in the AFC South.

The schedule pits four of the first six at home, including two division foes. Then the team catches a make-or-break string after the bye with a cluster of games against teams they probably should beat but could just as easily lose. The five-game stretch from Week 9 to Week 13 (IND, @LAR, ARI, @BAL, @TEN) is the key. If the Texans can prevail in 4 or all 5, this is a 10-12 win playoff contender. If they can’t win at least 2, they’re sunk and those picks they traded to Cleveland in the 2018 NFL Draft will be in the first 10 picks of the first and second rounds.

Houston’s defense once again finishes in the top 5 in yards allowed, but this time they also finish closer to the top in scoring D. A slight uptick in offensive play, led in part by the maturing WR corps, is enough for Bill O’Brien to author another 9-7 season. But in 2017, that’s not enough to win the division once again.