This article is part of our Team Previews series.
An offseason autopsy revealed that the Texans needed to get better offensively, while emphasizing quickness and athleticism. To that end, there's been key turnover at the team's skill positions, specifically free agent additions at quarterback and running back, as well as the drafting of two versatile wideouts.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
THE BROCK STAR QUARTERBACK
In two seasons as coach, Bill O'Brien has seen the following QBs lead his team: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and T.J. Yates. Credit goes to O'Brien for earning 18 wins and making a playoff appearance with that bunch, but he can't waste the Texans' competitive window any longer. With that in mind, the team sought more than a journeyman but also someone who wouldn't require extensive development. Looking around the free agent landscape, Brock Osweiler fit the criteria. He's the most important piece of the team's makeover on offense. Still, there are questions here, given his relative lack of experience. His biggest body of work came in 2015 when he started seven games subbing for the injured Peyton Manning. There were some good moments but also some stumbles. Osweiler's second-half marks in completion percentage (53.9) and QB rating (73.3) raise eyebrows. But he's got a strong arm and makes all the NFL-caliber throws. Plus, the Texans have supported him with a top-tier RB and boast one of the best receivers in the NFL.
HOW MUCH BETTER CAN HOPKINS GET?
If DeAndre Hopkins can break out as the team's lone elite offensive threat in 2015, how high can he go complemented by an improved running game and a field-stretching wideout who averaged 20 yards per catch at Notre Dame? Hopkins averaged 95 yards per game while catching 111 balls last year but could stand to improve his catch rate of 58 percent. The reasons behind the suppressed catch percentage were equal parts bracketed coverage and inadequate QB play. This season, it's easy to envision the presence of first-rounder Will Fuller forcing less double teams on Hopkins, as well as safeties playing up in the box in order to stop RB Lamar Miller. In theory, that should open up space for Hopkins. But football isn't theoretical. New offensive weapons need to perform. A speedy threat, like Fuller, needs to catch passes; the team's largely unproven signal-caller Brock Osweiler needs to make accurate throws; new bodies on the O-line need to open holes for Miller. Thus, there are plenty of moving parts that need to coalesce before we can start projecting Antonio Brown or Julio Jones-like numbers for Hopkins.
IS MILLER READY FOR A CLOSEUP?
No longer able to rely on Arian Foster, the Texans entered the offseason in need of a new lead back. It didn't take the team long to find one in former Dolphin Lamar Miller, who torched Houston for 236 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in Week 7 last year. Miller's dynamic performance, which included an 85-yard touchdown run and a 54-yard touchdown reception, was evidently embossed in the mind of coach Bill O'Brien. In Miller, he sees a three-down back, who will be the perfect catalyst in a revamped Houston offense that will be more athletic and capable of making big plays all over the field. But is Miller up to the task of being a bell-cow back, a la Foster? Miller averaged just 2.6 yards per carry during the fourth quarter last season, suggesting he wears down over the course of a game. And for whatever reason, the Dolphins routinely underutilized Miller, who averaged just 12.1 carries per game in 2015. Just twice over four seasons has Miller carried more than 20 times in a game. Either the Dolphins know something the Texans don't, or Houston is getting a back motivated to prove Miami wrong.
KEY JOB BATTLE
Finding a reliable second target at wide receiver, one that can take defensive attention away from DeAndre Hopkins, was an offseason goal for the Texans. Two wide receivers, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, were selected in the first three rounds of the draft. The two rookies join established veteran Cecil Shorts and second-year wideouts Jaelen Strong and Keith Mumphrey. All are healthy. Fuller, who was Houston's first-round draft pick in 2016, is the likely starter, but can the rookie develop quickly? Miller, the team's third-round pick in 2016, and Mumphrey are at the end of the depth chart right now. Both Miller and Mumphrey will also compete as returners on the special teams. Strong showed up to offseason activities in much better shape than a year ago, when head coach Bill O'Brien called him out for poor conditioning. Shorts is in the final year of his contract, but is the most experienced of the lot, which may carry some weight on a team that qualified for the postseason in 2015.
The Texans have cycled through several modest QB talents in recent years. Coming off a playoff season, they can't afford to wait for a draftee to develop. So, they split the difference, adding a young, big-armed free agent. Enter Osweiler, who landed a four-year, $72 million deal after seeing valuable action in big-time situations for Denver in 2015.
RISING: Lamar Miller
Miller averaged just over a dozen carries per game in the last three years as Miami's starter, but the Texans see a much larger role for him. He's now the lead back in a run-heavy offense, helmed by an inexperienced QB.
FALLING: Cecil Shorts
The remake of the offense, a plan that included drafting two wide receivers in the first three rounds, doesn't bode well for Shorts. Both new wideouts saw minicamp reps as punt returners, Shorts' other notable skill.
SLEEPER: Ryan Griffin
The tight end position has been undervalued under Bill O'Brien, but it got more attention when Griffin returned from short-term IR in 2015. With Garrett Graham now gone, Griffin picks up extra targets.
THE INJURY FRONT
Cecil Shorts, WR – Shorts finished the 2015 season with a minor hamstring injury, but is healthy as the Texans prepare for training camp. Health, though, isn't his biggest obstacle. An influx of competition at the wide receiver position leaves his 2016 role unclear.
Jadeveon Clowney, LB – Just as it looked like Clowney was breaking out late in 2015, a foot injury forced him to miss the final game of the regular season and Houston's playoff loss to Kansas City. He reports being 100 percent entering training camp and will look to build off the flashes shown last season.
Ryan Griffin, TE – He missed organized team activities and minicamp to rehab an ailing Achilles. While the tight end position has been mostly invisible during the Bill O'Brien era, Griffin is the leading target among the group.
J.J. Watt, DE – The two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner didn't disappoint in 2015, registering a league-leading 17.5 sacks and 76 tackles, good for second among defensive linemen. He's the great disruptor on defense, a player for whom opponents need to scheme.
Whitney Mercilus, LB – Former first-overall pick Jadaveon Clowney is the subject of a lot of ink (or bytes), but it's Mercilus who's been Houston's best pass-rushing linebacker. The 25-year-old had his best season in 2015 with 12.0 sacks and averages 8.5 per season over his four-year career.
Brian Cushing, LB – Another year removed from multiple knee surgeries, Cushing was as active as ever in 2015, leading the team with 110 tackles, ranking 20th among linebackers in the NFL. The knees may not hold up for too much longer, but Cushing will continue to be the unit's captain in 2016.
Brock Osweiler – QB (from Broncos)
Paid big bucks to help improve on mediocre QB play over last two seasons.
Braxton Miller – WR (Rd. 3, No. 85 – Ohio State)
Another young wideout to develop as a weapon for Osweiler.
Arian Foster – RB (FA)
Workhorse out of backfield, but injuries have taken a toll.
Nate Washington – WR (to Patriots)
Team added younger options at wideout to complement Hopkins.
Garrett Graham – TE (to Broncos)
Caught 49 balls in 2013, but not a favorite of coach Bill O'Brien.
Brian Hoyer – QB (to Bears)
Game manager who doesn't win games by himself.