In their 10th season of existence — and their first without having to contend with Peyton Manning — the Texans made it to the postseason. Even though they’d rarely beaten Manning, they had no interest in joining forces with him, opting instead to keep a less accomplished starter with a bum foot and an expiring contract. If the Texans are going to follow their best season in team history with an even better showing, they need to ensure that they have young depth at areas that have seen turnover in the offseason.
Offensive line: The biggest strength of the offense has lost 40 percent of its starting lineup, with right guard Mike Brisiel bolting for Oakland and right tackle Eric Winston surprisingly being cut. (He signed with the Chiefs.) Though it would have been even worse if center Chris Myers also had signed elsewhere, the Texans need to hope that the next man up can get the job done — and that they have capable help in the event they can’t. An infusion of youth at both positions will be critical to the continued success of the unit.
Receiver: Andre Johnson turns 31 in July. A hamstring problem limited him to seven regular-season games in 2011. Though the Texans don’t need to start thinking about a replacement for the third overall pick in the 2003 draft, they should start rounding up youngsters who possibly will develop into first-string talent. Especially since they’ve had a hard time finding a first-string option across from Johnson. The current No. 2 option, Kevin Walter, turns 31 a month after Johnson. They need an infusion of competent youth at the position, now.
Nose tackle: The Texans made an effective switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 without a classic nose tackle. Shaun Cody handled the transition well (after all, they didn’t trade him to the Eagles for a bag of cheese doodles), but the 3-4 won’t be as good as it can be without the rarest of football commodities — a large, fat man who can move like a point guard. Or at least like a shooting guard. The impact such a player could have on the Houston defense could be the difference between a playoff win and a Super Bowl victory.
Outside linebacker: Though the Texans have the talent to make the fans forget about Mario Williams, the fact that the Texans enjoyed quality depth behind the first pick in the 2006 draft made his absence due to injury last season easier to overcome — and it will make his permanent departure easier to handle. Still, injuries can happen to Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, too, and the Texans will have to be ready with a replacement who can step in and play, well.
Cornerback: Yes, the arrival of Johnathan Joseph helped make the Houston defensive backfield much better in 2011. But with Andrew Luck arriving in the division and Jake Locker likely to become the starter in Tennessee, they’ll need as many bodies as they can to cover receivers long enough to let the front seven get to the fresh-legged quarterbacks in the division.
The Texans will be the preseason favorites to win the AFC South again. The challenge will be to put together the kind of record that can earn a bye week and otherwise force other teams to come to Houston in the postseason. If they can do that, the Texans could be making the short trip to New Orleans in February.