STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Texans won't easily forget what happened in 2013. A team buoyed by Super Bowl thoughts in training camp lost 14 straight to finish out the season. In between the rosy summer and those dismal final days of December, the team's quarterback play fell off the cliff, the starting running back needed back surgery, and the head coach was unavailable for a week after suffering a mini-stroke. The end result being the quarterback traded, the head coach fired, and the team earning the first-overall pick in the draft. This isn't the first time the franchise has had to regroup. Big things were expected in 2005 and 2010, but those teams flamed out, too. Last year's epic fail, in which the Texans won 10 less games than they did in 2012, was the biggest fall of the three major collapses. Usually, when teams perform this poorly, ownership razes the place and starts anew. But that's not the case here. The current team is better positioned to rebound than those other editions.
A month after firing head coach Gary Kubiak and just days after their regular season ended, the Texans hired prized coaching prospect, Bill O'Brien, formerly of Penn State and the New England Patriots. Tellingly, ownership retained GM Rick Smith. That suggests that the team's brass feels that coaching, not talent acquisition, was the problem and that a complete roster overhaul is not needed for the team to return to the postseason. The starting lineup on both sides of the ball is littered with home-grown talent, produced in drafts engineered by Smith. The front office sees a team that won 22 games and qualified for the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, but it also sees a team that went 6-8 in December and January of those seasons. The Texans, under Kubiak, weren't prepared to play the brand of football a team needs in order to flourish late in the regular season and in the playoffs. That's a coaching thing. O'Brien's been through that in New England and thrived in a thankless task at Penn State.
O'Brien has playmakers on both sides of the field, though he'll be lacking at the most important position, quarterback. There was some thought the Texans might go with a signal-caller early in the draft, but they waited until the fourth round to select Tom Savage. He's expected to sit and learn in 2014, while free agent Ryan Fitzpatrick starts.
Defensively, the Texans have another New England connection with the hire of coordinator Romeo Crennel, who will use the 3-4 base defensive alignment Houston has been running the past few seasons. Crennel inherits one of the NFL's most disruptive forces in defensive end J.J. Watt. Plus, the coach will get a new toy in first-overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, a pass-rushing defensive end who will transition to a hybrid end/outside linebacker role.
Andre Brown RB, Giants
Replaces Ben Tate as Arian Foster's top backup.
Ryan Fitzpatrick QB, Titans
The place-holder quarterback for 2014 at least.
Chris Clemons S, Dolphins
Represents a cheaper and healthier option than the released Danieal Manning.
Jadeveon Clowney DE/LB, South Carolina (Round 1, 1st overall)
The No. 1 overall pick figures to be used as an OLB in the team's 3-4 scheme.
Tom Savage QB, Pittsburgh (Round 4, 135th Overall)
Enters an unsettled signal-caller situation and could conceivably see action as the season progresses.
Ben Tate RB, Browns
Houston loses quality depth at running back, while Tate moves into a starting gig.
Matt Schaub QB, Raiders
The quarterback position remains the team's biggest question mark.
Owen Daniels TE, Ravens
Seemed to either be injured or playing his way back from injury over the last few seasons.
WHAT ABOUT THE ONCE-FEARED DEFENSE?
Most of the focus last season was on the inept play of Houston's quarterbacks, which masked a falloff on defense. Losing linebacker Brian Cushing and safety Danieal Manning hurt, as the Texans were 25th in the NFL in points allowed. In J.J. Watt, the Texans roster the premier defensive lineman in the league. Under new coordinator Romeo Crennel, the challenge will be to keep key personnel healthy and determine how to most effectively introduce first-overall pick Jadeveon Clowney into the mix. Free agent safety Chris Clemons will help on the back end, which had two inexperienced players lining up for much of the 2013 season. Ultimately, the Texans defense will improve if they do better in the takeaway/giveaway department (last in NFL at minus-20) and do a better job in the red zone. It's in those areas where the Texans were lacking, and not in yardage allowed.
IS ANDRE JOHNSON SERIOUS?
Wideout Andre Johnson sat out a voluntary minicamp held by the Texans prior to the NFL draft. While it created a mild stir given his usual participation in such activities, the workouts were voluntary and his absence was easily explained away. However, not long afterward Johnson went public with his frustration and openly wondered if Houston is "still the place for me." Moreover, the veteran wideout talked about not showing up for the team's subsequent organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. While Johnson stopped short of demanding a trade, he's evidently less than thrilled with the state of the franchise and seems reluctant to endure another rebuilding experience. Johnson and new coach Bill O'Brien have had some dialogue since the wideout spoke up, so perhaps things will work themselves out, but at press time the situation remains fluid.
NEW REGIME, NEW SYSTEMS, NEW SKILL PLAYERS?
Coach Bill O'Brien comes to town with a reputation as an offensive guru, so there's some interest to see if this will result in any new fantasy producers. The most notable possibility is at quarterback, where Ryan Fitzpatrick will begin the season as the team's starter. Fitzpatrick has holes an average arm and a propensity to throw interceptions but he's smart and a leader. O'Brien has experience as a quarterback coach, which will help, but the running game is still penciled in as Houston's strength. That is, if Arian Foster can stay healthy. Andre Brown and/or Alfred Blue could thus emerge as fantasy factors if Foster wears down at all. Meanwhile, O'Brien likes to run multiple tight ends, which could be good for the potential value of Garrett Graham, Ryan Griffin and C.J. Fiedorowicz. The wild card is Andre Johnson. If he forces his way out of town, there's a ripple effect.
Rising: Garrett Graham was re-signed for three years to work under a coach who uses tight ends, while incumbent starter Owen Daniels was released.
Declining: Randy Bullock missed nine of his 35 field goal attempts last season and could face competition in training camp.
Sleeper: DeAndre Hopkins had ups and downs as a rookie, but figures to take a developmental step up in his sophomore season under an offensive-minded coach.
Supersleeper: Sixth-rounder Alfred Blue will be in the mix behind an overused Arian Foster, who's coming off a back injury.
J.J. Watt - DE
Sack total took a dip (to 10.5) in 2013 but still a top IDP candidate.
Whitney Mercilus - LB
Has recorded 13 sacks over his first two seasons.
Brian Cushing - LB
The team's defensive signal-caller needs to stay healthy after back-to-back injury-plagued seasons.
RotoWire Rank: 13