Welcome to the Inside Slant, where each week I'll talk to a writer from around the AFC South.
I have a rule when it comes to writing: be smart or be funny. Only the best can be both. Steph Stradley, also known as "The Texans Chick," fits the bill.
Steph Stradley can be found at her Houston Texans blog at the Houston Chronicle, her personal blog StephStradley.com or on Twitter @StephStradley. She's absolutely a must-read and a must-follow for fans of the Texans and the NFL alike.
BR: What's the mood in Houston after a bunch of rough, but ultimately necessary, offseason departures?
SS: Both a bit sad because of the business/emotions side of things but still very optimistic. A number of the players fans knew would be hard-to-impossible to keep, given how many teams had more money to spend: Mario Williams, Joel Dreessen, Mike Briesel, Jason Allen.
A couple of players were shocks: DeMeco Ryans and Eric Winston, though some knew that their cap numbers were problematic, especially Ryans given the limited downs he played in Wade Phillips' 3-4. Both of those players are very likable and hard working, and it is weird to think of them with other teams.
There's a bit of relief among fans that running back Arian Foster and center Chris Myers were re-signed. Foster was a huge part of the offense the last two years, and was a savior for the Texans with injuries to Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson last season. Chris Myers is one of the glue pieces for the Texans offense.
The replacements for Winston and Briesel have been working under the Texans offense for a while. There wasn't an easy alternative for Myers. Keeping Myers likely means less disruption in reconstituting the Texans offensive line and running the offense.
The Texans and the players are selling to their fanbase that there are a number of young backup players on the current Texans roster who will succeed if given an opportunity to play. One of the reasons why the 2006 Texans class was so good is unlike some rookies, so many of those players got into the starting lineup right away due to need after a 2-14 season with a barren roster.
BR: If the Texans do ______ between now and training camp, they'll be the unquestioned favorites in the AFC South. (fill in the blank).
SS: The obnoxious answer is "nothing." The Texans have the most stable situation in the AFC South. An experienced coaching staff who is used to working together and who run proven systems on both sides of the ball. Many young, returning talented players who know the system. The most experienced quarterback in running their particular system compared to unstable and/or inexperienced quarterbacks in the rest of the AFC South.
They won the AFC South and a playoff game with a backup backup quarterback last year, so yeah, this would make people think they'd be the unquestioned favorites going into next year.
The less obnoxious answer is to do bargain shopping for free agents who fit the offensive and defensive systems, and to find impact players in the draft. The salary-cap-burdened offseason hurt the Texans' depth, and the following positions are ones to particularly watch: OLB, CB, WR, TE, DT, RB, T, G, K, QB.
BR: How confident are you that Schaub and Johnson play 16 games each in 2012? Am I right in thinking that's the key for this team to hit the next level?
SS: I've never confident about any of the key players making it through 16 games. I do not believe either one of them are particularly injury-prone. Matt Schaub's injuries over the years have been fluky/the result of illegal hits. Andre Johnson does not have a history of hamstring issues, and is generally one of the more fit players on the team.
Will be interesting to monitor Schaub's recovery from his foot injury. He has been playing golf, will be getting screws removed from his foot in April, and will be limited some against full practices as a precaution.
I think Schaub is more necessary to the ongoing success of the Texans than Johnson. T.J. Yates filled in remarkably for a rookie running a difficult offense, but the offense didn't put up points at the same rate once Schaub was out of the season last year.
In addition, the Texans had one of their more efficient games in the entire league with Johnson out of the lineup last year in their blowout win against the Titans on the road.
Schaub isn't the flashiest quarterback in the league, but he knows the Texans offense very well and can make it run with a variety of players in the offense. He allows the Texans to do more.
A healthy Andre Johnson puts a lot of pressure on opponents and often gets the ball during difficult situations but isn't as essential to the Texans winning games as Schaub.
Ultimately, the Texans were able to get to the playoffs last year, despite the Schaub and Johnson injuries, due to the vast improvement of their defense. Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips has improved many defenses in the past, and unlike his previous fix-up defenses, this talented unit is much younger.
Prior to last year, Schaub and the Texans offense had very little help from the defense to win games. Last year, even with injuries, the Texans could win in a variety of ways, either by blowing out the other team or holding them down to few points or both. That wasn't an option in previous years.
So, yeah, every team wants their starting quarterback and their No. 1 receiver to stay healthy for the whole season to have the best chance to win. The Super Bowl is often won by the team that was healthy at key positions by the end of the year.
Injuries to ILB Brian Cushing or CB Johnathan Joseph would be the sort that could derail next-step plans.