By John Clemeno
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Close observers of this franchise have seen it all before. The Texans must pick themselves up again, following a season of expectation that ended in failure. At one point, the Texans were 4-2 and in first place in the AFC South, before the team lost eight of nine games and finished at 6-10. It was a big punch to the gut after an encouraging 9-7 season in '09. Houston head coach Gary Kubiak, who has not taken the Texans to the playoffs in five years as head coach, has two more years on his contract extension, though it didn't look like he was going to survive 2010. His play-calling and decision-making were questioned after losses to the Colts, Chargers and Ravens. And the team had a habit of falling behind early in games, and losing games late. But owner Bob McNair likes Kubiak and stood by his man.
And there are things that Kubiak has done right. Like the offense, for instance. The Texans were ninth in the league with 390 points and have big producers at every skill position. Quarterback Matt Schaub, whom Kubiak targeted in his second season on the job, has emerged as a top passer, throwing for over 9,000 yards over the last two seasons. He's played in all 32 games in 2009 and 2010, a testament to the stability Houston enjoys on the offensive line, where tackles Eric Winston and Duane Brown, and center Chris Myers haven't missed a game to injury in three years. And speaking of that offensive line, it paved the way for running back Arian Foster, an undrafted free agent targeted by Kubiak, to lead the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns. At wideout, there are few better in the league than Andre Johnson, who led the NFL in receiving yards per game. There's some serious mojo going on here and it figures to get better when tight end Owen Daniels has a full season of good health, his first in three years.
But there are things that Kubiak hasn't done so well. Like build a defense. In 2010, Houston's defense gave up a league-worst 267.5 passing yards per game, and tied with Dallas for league-worst in most passing touchdowns allowed (33). The young secondary was burned often and the front line didn't generate enough of a pass rush to help. Someone had to pay for this and if it wasn't Kubiak, it had to be defensive coordinator Frank Bush. Bush was whacked after his only season as defensive coordinator and was immediately replaced by Wade Phillips. Texans general manager Rick Smith went all in at the draft, going defense with six of his eight draft picks. Any success the Texans have this year will be the direct result of defensive improvements.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (11) J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Will start immediately.
2. (42) Brooks Reed, LB, Arizona
A pass-rushing OLB in new 3-4.
2. (60) Brandon Harris, DB, Miami
Houston moved up to select pro-ready corner.
4. (127) Rashad Carmichael, DB, Virginia Tech
Opportunities exist at cornerback.
5. (144) Shiloh Keo, DB, Idaho
Versatile safety who can return punts.
5. (152) T.J. Yates, QB, North Carolina
Composed four-year college starter.
7. (214) Derek Newton, OL, Arkansas State
Scouts think he can play both tackle spots.
7. (254) Cheta Ozougwu, DL, Rice
Undersized end who will likely be tried at OLB.
Jonathan Joseph, CB (Bengals)
Big name upgrade at a position of extreme need.
Danieal Manning, S (Bears)
Texans make big splash in adding free agents to secondary.
Lawrence Vickers, FB (Browns)
Only experienced FB on roster entering training camp.
Amobi Okoye, DT (Bears)
Wade Phillips didn't see a big role for him in new 3-4.
Vonta Leach, FB (Ravens)
Texans lose Arian Foster's lead blocker.
Dan Orlovsky, QB (Colts)
Texans paying Matt Leinart good money to be Matt Schaub's backup.
PHILLIPS, FOR THE DEFENSE
Much of the blame for the Texans' 6-10 season lay at the feet of the team's defense. And more precisely its passing defense, which was last in passing yards per game, last in opposing quarterback rating, tied for last in passing touchdowns allowed, and next-to-last in passing yards per attempt. In comes Defense Doctor Wade Phillips, who has a history of success in improving porous defenses. The most recent example was 2004, when he became the defensive coordinator of the Chargers, a team that improved in touchdowns allowed, turnovers, yards allowed per game and points allowed per game. He's undertaken some radical facelifts after taking over in Houston, most notably moving Mario Williams from end to outside linebacker, and Brian Cushing from outside linebacker to inside. With an average defense, the Texans could become a playoff team in 2011.
KUBIAK'S LAST STAND
Can head coach Gary Kubiak survive a sixth straight season without making the playoffs? He survived the bloodlust of fans and local sports media last season, and has been kept around for another year (he has two years left on his contract). While the offense has excelled under Kubiak's leadership, he has continually failed in getting the right defensive personnel on the field or coaching on the sideline. There have been some hits in the drafts, but far more misses. Some of Kubiak's future will depend on the development of recent draft picks: Kareem Jackson (2010) getting better in man-to-man coverage; Glover Quin (2009) handling the transition to safety; Connor Barwin (2009) returning from injury to create a pass rush; Brooks Reed (2011) and J.J. Watt (2011) applying QB pressure as rookies. If the Texans fail to make the postseason, but the defense shows improvement, Kubiak may survive to coach the final year of his contract extension.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has undertaken a project of rebuilding one of the NFL's worst defenses in 2010 - a defense that arguably kept the Texans out of the playoffs. In particular, it was Houston's secondary that let the team down, giving up a league-high tying 33 receiving touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards allowed per passing attempt. The Texans got busy in the curtailed free-agency period, adding cornerback Jonathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning, giving Phillips two proven secondary performers. And Phillips decided that Glover Quin, considered the team's best cover corner the last two seasons, is a better fit at safety. Getting better play from 2010 first-round pick Kareem Jackson is paramount. With Joseph on board, Jackson figures to see opposing quarterbacks throw his side often. The Texans like his physicality, but he needs to improve his man-to-man technique. Personnel changes and re-deployment are a couple of things that could have an impact, but for the revamped secondary to be successful, the Texans need to get a more pressure on the quarterback - an area of the defense that has dogged the Texans in recent years. Phillips has taken a bold step in moving Houston's best pass rusher, Mario Williams, to outside linebacker. The return of Connor Barwin (4.5 sacks in 2009) from injury and the addition of first-round draft pick J.J. Watt are designed to create more QB pressure and help the secondary.
Rising: Owen Daniels was very productive in the final month-plus of the 2010 regular season after a season-and-three-quarters of injury and sub-standard production. Don't forget about him at draft day.
Declining: Kevin Walter has been losing targets to Jacoby Jones the last few years and after the Texans' re-upped Jones in the offseason, this could be the season Jones' potential surpasses Walter's steadiness.
Sleeper: Ben Tate enters his second camp fourth on the running back depth chart, but the Texans are giving him a good look this year. Health is the biggest concern.
Supersleeper: Connor Barwin, who had 4.5 sacks in his rookie 2009 season, returns as an edge rusher at outside linebacker after missing all of 2010.
Mario Williams, DE/LB
The Texans' sacks leader each of the last five years is moving to weakside OLB.
Brian Cushing, LB
Active body moving from outside to inside linebacker.
DeMeco Ryans, LB
Habitually among the NFL's leading tacklers.
RotoWire Rank: 23