Coming off the first playoff berth and 10-win season in franchise history, the Texans can’t help but feel it should have been better.
They were 7-3 when Matt Schaub suffered a foot injury, ending his season and throwing the potential for a deep playoff push out the window. T.J. Yates proved himself capable last year, but the Texans were at such a higher level than capable that the disappointment was palpable
They finished last year ranked in the league’s top 10 in scoring on both sides of the ball, and have added parts to the defense that could make it better.
And with General Manager Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak getting contract extensions, there’s a clear sense that the Texans are on the verge of something big.
When you can let players such as former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams walk with no return, it’s clear that they’re building a sustainable franchise, and could be a factor for years to come.
You’d be tempted to start with the league’s second-ranked defense, full of young, fast parts.
But then you’d be overlooking the fact the Texans have arguably the league’s best running back in Arian Foster and a receiver that might be the best at his position in Andre Johnson. Johnson has to stay healthy, and his contribution largely depends on the health of quarterback Matt Schaub, but when all things are equal, there’s not a better RB-WR tandem in the league.
So yeah, back to that defense.
The Texans transformed themselves under coordinator Wade Phillips, remaking themselves into an aggressive, effective side with young stars throughout.
The linebackers in particular are impressive, with Brooks Reed, Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin peaking together. Adding a solid veteran in Bradie James (familiar with Phillips from their Dallas days) makes it an exceptional group.
Then they drafted more pass rush in Whitney Mercilus, adding yet another tool for Phillips to work with.
They have playmakers on every level of the defense too, as defensive end J.J. Watt, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph make it the kind of group it’s hard to game plan against.
The main thing the Texans have to worry about is health.
Matt Schaub insists he’s fine after last year’s foot injury, and Andre Johnson missed nine games with hamstring problems before offseason surgery on his left knee in June. If both hold up, they’re automatically contenders.
Otherwise, the Texans have reasonable concerns on the offensive line, where the right side is populated by your guess is as good as mine.
After offering up right tackle Eric Winston in order to keep free agent center Chris Myers, they created competition where there was none.
They hope Rashad Butler can own the right tackle job, and Antoine Caldwell can blossom into a starting right guard, but there are reasonable questions about both.
Butler has good feet and can pass protect, but he’s a little light in the seat, and isn’t strong at the point of attack. Caldwell hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and has been inconsistent, but maybe being in a contract year gets his attention.
Tackle Derek Newton and guard Brandon Brooks are pushing them for jobs, and it’s not a sure thing that they won’t win them.
For a team as successful as they were, they sure weren’t bashful about getting rid of guys.
Because of the way Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin and J.J. Watt played, you can’t imagine them exactly missing Mario Williams. Think about that for a second. Williams signed a six-year, $96 million contract with the Bills, and it’s as if it wasn’t an issue for them.
They also traded middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans to the Eagles for a sack of beans (actually a fourth-round pick and a swap of thirds), primarily because they didn’t think he fit Wade Phillips’ defense. But he wasn’t the same player as before his torn Achilles, and that was a factor as well.
They also released right tackle Eric Winson (who signed with Kansas City) and let right guard Mike Brisel walk (Oakland), breaking up a very good offensive line.
They also took the dynamite to special teams, ridding themselves of kicker Neil Rackers and punter Matt Turk, along with return man Jacoby Jones.
They drafted a kicker in the fifth round (Randy Bullock), and brought in journeyman Shayne Graham to compete with him. Donnie Jones is the new punter, and they’re taking the cast of thousands approach to the return jobs, hoping between rookie Keshawn Martin, oft-injured speedster Trindon Holliday and veteran running back Justin Forsett they can find some production.
They also saw enough out of quarterback T.J. Yates to make him the backup, eliminating the need for Matt Leinart.
So yeah, there were changes.
It’s easy to see Andre Johnson and gloss over the position, but his health makes you wonder about the position as a whole.
Primarily because once you get past veteran Kevin Walter, there’s not another wideout on the roster that’s caught a single NFL pass.
Two of those jobs should go to draft picks, third-rounder DeVier Posey and fourth-rounder Keshawn Martin. Throw in a group of young players such as Lestar Jean, Jeff Maehl, Trindon Holliday and Juaquin Iglesias.
Jean in particular has the chance to emerge, but this is a wide open position waiting for someone to take over.
It’s hard to imagine a player with more pressure on him this year than Matt Schaub.
He’s 31, and was playing at a high level when he went down with the foot injury last year. He’s also entering the final year of his six-year, $48 million, and there are no indications the Texans are going to do anything but wait.
He wants to stay, they like him, but he’s going to have to prove himself worth a long-term investment.
Play hard, Matt.
If he’s well, the Texans have proven they can score. They’ve proven they can stop people.
It’s as talented a roster, top to bottom, as any in the league.
Now it’s up to them to stay healthy and deliver on that potential.