STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Texans are coming off a euphoric 2011 season, in which the franchise qualified for its first postseason appearance and won its first division title. The feel-good atmosphere eventually ended for the Texans, who were one foot away from the AFC Championship Game. The foot weíre talking about wasnít a unit of measure, but rather the fractured Lisfranc joint in Matt Schaubís right foot. In a conference that looked to be there for the taking, losing Schaub was the biggest reason for Houstonís second-round elimination at the hands of Baltimore.
The season was good enough for team owner Bob McNair to talk about extending the contract of head coach Gary Kubiak, who surprisingly ranks sixth in the league in tenure. A potent offense has been a characteristic of Houston teams under Kubiak, and that continued in 2011. The big-name skill-players return on offense, led by Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. Lately, itís been a run-first attack, which was second in the NFL last season. Foster was re-upped in the offseason and the developing Ben Tate rushed for 942 yards in 2011. We will see some change on the depth chart in the receiving game, as the Texans are looking for reliable targets beyond Johnson. Tired of waiting for Jacoby Jones to polish his game, the Texans cut him loose and will look at a pack of wideouts during training camp.
Ever since Schaub has been behind center for this team, Houstonís offense has been able to solve all defensesÖexcept its own. The Texansí defense had not performed well, particularly against the pass, and was a prominent reason for the teamís disappointments in recent seasons. That all changed in 2011 when Kubiak brought in Wade Phillips to be his defensive coordinator. In one season, the defense went from 29th in points allowed to fourth. And that was without linebacker Mario Williams for much of the season. The challenge facing Phillips in Season Two will be replacing both Williams and DeMeco Ryans. Ryans, the teamís defensive signal-caller, was traded away to Philadelphia, while Williams was lured by the lucrative free-agent dollars tossed at him by Buffalo. While trading Ryans was a stunner for some players, he had lost the playmaking crown to Brian Cushing, and there are younger players ready to replace his production. First-round draft pick Whitney Mercilus will join a raft of pass rushers who helped the Texans finish sixth in sacks in 2011.
The Texans can execute through the air or on the ground, whatever it takes. And now that theyíve added a pressuring defense, one that gets to the quarterback, they are beating teams and finishing games. Theyíll be in a position for another postseason appearance and will be one of the AFC contenders for a Super Bowl berth.
Shayne Graham, K (Ravens)
Houstonís offense creates a situation for placekickers to be productive, so it bears watching whether Graham or rookie Randy Bullock wins the job.
Whitney Mercilus, LB, Illinois (Round 1, 26th overall)
Mercilus led the NCAA with 16 sacks last year and will be part of a dynamic three-man rotation at outside linebacker along with Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed.
DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State (Round 3, 68th overall)
Posey made more news during his senior year off the field than on, serving two separate five-game suspensions, but he did catch113 balls as a sophomore and junior. Heís first in line to replace Jacoby Jones.
Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State (Round 4, 121st overall)
Martin scored touchdowns in five different ways as a Spartan, including punt and kickoff returns.
Mario Williams, DE/LB (Bills)
The Texansí defense didnít miss a beat after his injury in 2011. First-round pick Whitney Mercilus and rising stars Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed leave the pass rush in good hands.
DeMeco Ryans, LB (Eagles)
It was a surprising move to trade away the teamís defensive leader, but Brian Cushing is ready to step in. As it was, Cushing had taken over the mantle as the teamís leading tackler.
Jacoby Jones, WR (Ravens)
The clock finally ran out on Jones, who never developed as a receiving threat and muffed too many punt returns. It was time.
Neil Rackers, K (Redskins)
Rackers had a successful two-year run in Houston, but had a few misses late in the season.
The Texans have a productive running game, which often rendered the passing game an afterthought in 2011. But when they need to throw the ball, there are few receivers better in the game than Andre Johnson. But what happens if Johnson gets injured or schemed out of the game by a defense? It wasnít pretty in 2011 when Johnson missed nine games. Kevin Walter caught just 39 passes Ė the fourth straight season heís had a decrease in receptions and targets. And Jacoby Jones was a big disappointment. How big? Enough for him to be released. Change is in the air. The Texans drafted two wideouts, signed another three undrafted free-agent receivers, and return a few promising holdovers that didnít get a lot of snaps in 2011. And we shouldnít forget about Owen Daniels. He had a two-year spell dealing with knee and hamstring injuries, but appears to be back to his pre-injury form.
KEEPING SCHAUB HEALTHY
There was a time, before Arian Foster arrived, when Houstonís offense ran solely on the arm of quarterback Matt Schaub and in the hands of his receivers. And this was a time when the Houston defense wasnít making plays and winning games for the team. Keeping Schaub upright was paramount for any chance of success. In 2011, Schaub didnít need to be as important or proficient, thanks to the leagueís second-ranked rushing game and second-ranked defense (yards allowed). But as we saw toward the end of the regular season and into the postseason, the quarterback play suffered without Schaub. The offensive line returns four of the five players that finished up 2011 as starters. The line has been a remarkably stable bunch for the past three seasons, though the Texans will need to replace right tackle Eric Winston, who hadnít missed a game in five years.
WELCOME TO THE NEW IDPS
With the loss of Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, the Texans will be without two playmakers and franchise stalwarts. However, it also means there will be some new IDP options to consider on the Houston defense. Williams, Ryans and Brian Cushing received a lot of ink, but there were some up-and-comers in 2011, too. Linebackers Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed give the Texans ready replacements as playmakers. Barwin led the team with 11.5 sacks, and Reed immediately made contributions when he filled in for Williams and registered at least one sack in five straight games. On the defensive line, second-year end J.J. Watt developed nicely. He finished with 5.5 sacks in the regular season, and then added 14 tackles and 3.5 sacks in two playoff games.
RISING: Ben Tate is no threat to replace Arian Foster as the lead back, but proved to be a capable fill-in, with no drop off when given the opportunity.
DECLINING: Kevin Walter will enter training camp as the No. 2 wideout, but the Texans have their eyes on a few young receivers.
SLEEPER: James Casey will be alone at fullback after Lawrence Vickers left for Dallas in the offseason.
SUPERSLEEPER: Keshawn Martin will get the first crack at replacing Jacoby Jones as a return man and is also in the mix for a spot at wideout.
Brian Cushing, LB
The teamís leading tackler will become the groupís signal caller.
Connor Barwin, LB
Led the team with 11.5 sacks and will play some end and linebacker on both sides.
Brooks Reed, LB
Had 6.0 sacks in the regular season, then added another four in the playoffs.
RotoWire Rank: 2