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Predicting Houston Texans' Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free Agency

Jeffery RoyContributor IIIMarch 20, 2014

Predicting Houston Texans' Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free Agency

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    The first 10 days of NFL free agency in 2014 has been marked by a flurry of players changing addresses. Among the players who signed the 20-richest contracts, Vontae Davis of the Indianapolis Colts is the only one who re-upped with the same team he played for in 2013. 

    The Houston Texans, as befits the style of Rick Smith during his tenure as general manager, were the least active team in free agency until they inked Jerrell Powe to a contract of undisclosed terms on March 18. Now the roster has at least one defensive tackle on it. 

    Tight end Garrett Graham re-signed with the Texans after a visit to the Green Bay Packers, where the former Wisconsin Badger may have decided returning to the Sun Belt was the best antidote to the harshness of a Midwestern winter. This two-man tidal wave of activity took Houston out of the free-agent cellar. The St. Louis Rams are now down to a single signing after the trade of Rodger Saffold to the Oakland Raiders fell through due to a failed physical exam. 

    The Texans took their usual “addition by subtraction” approach and let most of their unrestricted free agents walk. During the 2013 offseason they lost starters Glover Quin, Connor Barwin and James Casey. The response was to add 35 year-old Ed Reed, a clubhouse lawyer with an ailing hip whose best days were behind him.

    This time their defensive lineup took an even bigger hit. Defensive end Antonio Smith, nose tackle Earl Mitchell, slot corner Brice McCain and inside linebacker Joe Mays flew the coop along with backup nose tackle Terrell McClain and special-teams standout Bryan Braman. 

    The only significant losses on offense were running back Ben Tate and tight end Owen Daniels. Their absences will still hurt because Tate was one of the most productive reserves at his position. Daniels, who was released in a cap-saving move, had been the starter since being drafted by the Texans in 2006 and is second only to Andre Johnson on the team’s career receptions list. 

    The most anticipated move that has not been made regards the status of Matt Schaub. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network has reported that the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders are interested in acquiring the two-time Pro Bowler. The idea that the two most poorly run organizations in the league would be willing to swallow his $14.4 million cap hit is conceivable but a stretch of the imagination.  

    What the Texans have done, or not done, in free agency has created more uncertainty than anything else. This will be reflected in several positions as we proceed through the lineup.

    OFFENSE

    Quarterback: Matt Schaub

    Running Back: Arian Foster

    Wide Receivers: Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins

    Tight End: Garrett Graham

    Left Tackle: Duane Brown

    Left Guard: Ben Jones

    Center: Chris Myers

    Right Guard: Brandon Brooks

    Right Tackle: Derek Newton

     

    DEFENSE

    Left End: J.J. Watt 

    Nose Tackle: Jerrell Powe

    Right End: Jared Crick

    Left Outside Linebacker: Brooks Reed

    Left Inside Linebacker: Jeff Tarpinian

    Right Inside Linebacker: Brian Cushing

    Right Outside Linebacker: Whitney Mercilus

    Left Cornerback: Kareem Jackson

    Right Cornerback: Johnathan Joseph

    Slot Cornerback: Brandon Harris

    Free Safety: Danieal Manning

    Strong Safety: D.J. Swearinger

Quarterback

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    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Until Houston pulls the trigger on the first pick or he changes uniforms, Schaub is the starter at quarterback by default. Those of us on the outside looking in can only guess what discussions or negotiations are ongoing in the executive offices of the Texans.

    Does Bill O’Brien believe in his heart of hearts he can restore Schaub to his glory days, when No. 8 was 15-1 from Week 7 of 2011 to Week 13 of 2012? If so, is Rick Smith willing to gamble whatever trade value Schaub has remaining on the hunch of a first-time NFL head coach?

    Alternatively, would the best plan be to release Schaub after June 1 and spread his $10.5 million of dead money over the next two years? If so, who will replace Schaub as the backup to a rookie from this year’s draft? Or who will take most of the first-team reps while O’Brien waits to grab his franchise QB in 2015?

    There are those of you asking, “But couldn’t T.J. Yates or Case Keenum be the answer to the last question?” It cannot be ruled out, but would fly in the face of owner Bob McNair’s claim there is enough talent here that the team "[expects] to be in contention next year." Both have had extended tryouts in the past and neither has shown anything more than flashes of ability here and there.

    Schaub is the man for the time being, but the process of reshaping this team has just begun. When the first ball of the regular season is snapped on Sept. 7, it should end up in someone else’s hands.

Running Back

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    John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    Foster is healthy once again and ready to be a force that crosses the boundaries of the football field and into the beyond.

    He let the world know he's been given the go-ahead to play:

    And for those wondering, I've been medically cleared by my doctor.

    — Arian Foster (@ArianFoster) March 16, 2014

    Foster did not disclose whether his back or hamstrings had improved to the satisfaction of his physician. That he had returned to Twitter after a year’s hiatus signified his thumbs were in tip-top shape.

    After announcing to the world on March 15 that the "renaissance man" was ready to once again impart his wisdom in 140-character nuggets, he let loose with 92 tweets the following day. Might this indicate his willingness to tote the rock with the sort of frequency that made him the league’s top workhorse back from 2010-12?

    The offensive system preferred by Bill O’Brien does not rely on a soloist when it comes to the running game. It is more of an ensemble approach, where the carries are spread out among a stable of backs. The New England Patriots represent the offensive template, and they had LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley each rush for over 700 yards in 2013.

    Right now, there is no one that can realistically share the workload with Foster. There is no experienced fullback either, just two guys named Brad Smelley and Toben Opurum. The market for fullbacks is depressed as the position loses its importance every year, which could allow free agent Greg Jones to return for a friendly price.

Wide Receiver

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    At least one position group has no doubt about it.

    “Ageless” is the most cliched descriptor applied to Johnson. When you catch 109 passes for over 1,400 yards at the age of 32 in a two-win season, it does have a ring of authenticity to it.

    Circumstances pushed Johnson into more of a possession-receiver role, other than his three touchdowns in the first half against the Indianapolis Colts. The Erhardt-Perkins offense run by Bill O’Brien relies on midfield slants on almost every passing down, and they are just the kind of pattern that will continue to make Johnson the No. 1 receiver.

    DeAndre Hopkins and his 52 catches for 802 yards yielded just two touchdowns, but a 15.4 average per reception. This is precisely the vertical aspect his presence was expected to provide.

    Quarterbacks who operate within the Erhardt-Perkins framework do not look for the for the 7-8-9 deep routes very often. In fact, the system does not rely on the standard route tree at all.

    Each pattern has a simple name and multiple variations that can be run off it. Deep routes are run mostly to keep the defense honest. This has not prevented its most famous practitioner, Tom Brady, from having at least one touchdown of 80-plus yards in five of the last six seasons. Matt Schaub, by comparison, had just one touchdown in that range during his entire career operating Gary Kubiak’s version of the West Coast offense.

    Hopkins would love to be the target of such bombs from whomever O’Brien chooses to be his field general.

Tight End

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The king is dead. Long live the king!

    Owen Daniels, the Texans’ starter for the last eight seasons, has been forced into exile. His heir was in the right place at the right time to take over for the premier tight end in the team’s short history. Releasing Daniels freed up $4.5 million in cap space, more than enough to pay for Graham’s raise.

    Graham shares several similarities with Daniels, including size (6’3”, 245 lbs), alma mater (Wisconsin) and a lack of durability. Daniels was available for 100 of 128 regular season games, a 78.1-percent rate. Graham has suited up for 41 of 64, an even lower rate of 64 percent.

    This will have to improve if Graham expects to merit his three-year, $11.25 million contract. Rob Gronkowksi may be the most physically imposing tight end in the history of the NFL, but he keeps ending up in the operating room. His title as the best tight end in the league has been seized by Jimmy Graham, who has missed just two games in four seasons.

    In 2013, Graham was on his way to a year that would have matched Daniels’ best if he had not missed the last five games with hamstring problems. You cannot keep your throne if you cannot stay off the trainer’s table.

Offensive Line

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The Texans scoring dipped by 140 points in 2013, and the offensive line took a lot of the heat. Instead of playing like a unit that sent three members to the Pro Bowl in 2012, they played like Hawaii was on their minds instead of the man in front of them.

    Duane Brown came into training camp 20 pounds lighter, and lost the punch that previously stopped defensive linemen in their tracks. Wade Smith could not keep his feet under him and ended up on the ground too often. This lack of balance is why he lacked a contract offer from his team of the last four years.

    Chris Myers was the only one of the three whose play remained at a high level. His partner in excellence was right guard Brandon Brooks, who learned how to do the zone-blocking dance with his 325-pound frame.

    The one lineman who was singled out time and again for the inadequacies of the offense was right tackle Derek Newton. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), no other players at his position had fewer saving graces. His only plus category was screen blocks, which was a meager 1.5. 

    Yet Newton must still be listed as the starter because there is not another experienced tackle on the roster. Rookie Brennan Williams underwent microfracture surgery at the close of training camp in 2013, The corresponding risks according to the National Institutes of Health include “cartilage breakdown over time” and “increased knee stiffness."

    Ryan Harris and Andrew Gardner both played swing tackle last season, but both are free agents and may not be offered contracts. David Quessenberry is recovering from a broken foot that put him on injured reserve for all of 2013, but it is hoped he might be healthy enough to compete for Wade Smith’s old spot.

    That makes Ben Jones the only sure bet for left guard. He has taken over 1,000 snaps over the last two seasons at both guard positions and will be considered a stopgap until a more accomplished player takes over for the former center.

Defensive Line

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The assumption is defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will continue to play a base 3-4 defense, with the expectation that one or more linemen will play a two-gap technique. This unit is a patchwork affair, with two backups lining up alongside the most disruptive interior lineman in the game.

    After Earl Mitchell and Terrell McClain agreed to terms with other teams, the Texans were left without a nose tackle. Jerrell Powe, who was drafted by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in 2011, was signed on March 18 to fill the breech. Powe has played sparingly in his three seasons, with only 176 snaps and eight tackle in 12 games.

    Crick filled in at both defensive end positions in 2013, spelling Antonio Smith most of the time. The book on the former Nebraska Cornhusker is that he is pretty stout against the run but is a liability on passing downs. At 280 pounds, he lacks the bulk to tie up two blockers when necessary.

    What can be said about J.J. Watt that has not been repeated time and again? If Crennel wants him to two-gap and keep a couple of linemen busy, he is certainly up to the task. Watt has been fighting off double-teams quite successfully over the last two seasons.

    But Crennel is not foolish enough to waste Watt’s ability to penetrate when lined up in the gap instead of over his man. Another player will have to draw the double team, and that someone is not on this team at the moment.

Linebackers

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    The linebacker corps was the thinnest unit on the Texans coming into the 2013 season, and the situation has taken a turn for the worse in 2014.

    Joe Mays was signed during training camp and immediately became the starter next to Brian Cushing at inside linebacker. Daryl Sharpton was still recovering from a hip injury that had tormented him for most of the 2012 campaign. Once Sharpton recovered, he would split time with Mays at the left inside spot until Cushing went down for the year in Week 7.

    From then on, the inside positions became a revolving door. Jeff Tarpinian, Justin Tuggle and Mike Mohamed pitched in as needed, but Mays and Sharpton took most of the snaps. Now Mays has signed with the Kansas City Chiefs and Sharpton is an unrestricted free agent with little hope of re-signing with Houston due to his extensive injury history.

    This would have been the right time to move outside linebacker Brooks Reed into one of the inside positions. The talk about switching Reed stretched back to OTAs in 2013, as reported by Nick Scurfield of the Houston Texans website. Nothing ever came of it because the outsiders were just as strapped for bodies as the insiders.

    Here we are again, facing another offseason with too many holes and not enough plaster to fill them. Whitney Mercilus and Reed are the only two outside linebackers with a hint of pass-rushing ability, the other being no-names such as Ricky Sapp and Paul Hazel. Trevardo Williams is still effectively on injured reserve and is trending to be another bust along the lines of Sam Montgomery.

    Andy Reid was able to take Romeo Crennel’s defense and turn the Chiefs into a playoff contender in 2013 because outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston were phenomenal rushers off the edge. Unless Reed and Mercilus take a giant leap in their performance, Bob McNair's claim of jumping back into the playoff mix will become a hollow boast.

Cornerbacks

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    Larry French/Getty Images

    The Seattle Seahawks victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII demonstrated one of the simplest facts about defensive strategy in the NFL. If your team can put pressure on the opposing quarterback with four pass-rushers, the numbers are in your favor and you should be able to play any coverage your little heart desires.

    If your quartet of pass-rushers cannot pull this off, and your preferred scheme is Cover-1, your defense is dead meat. The safety that is shading the box will be caught out of position more often than not, and the deep safety will be out on an island with too much real estate to cover.

    This was the Houston Texans in 2013, a team that allowed the third fewest passing yards in the league but the fewest completions per touchdown (9.9). This is a very bad statistic. Every other defense in the NFL required the opposing offense to complete at least 11 passes for every touchdown they scored.

    The corners were constantly put in man coverage with little or no safety help. Wade Phillips refused to play much zone coverage, and when he called the switch it was so obvious the quarterback could make the hot read that much quicker.

    It didn’t help that Johnathan Joseph still seemed to be hampered by the double sports hernia that afflicted him in 2012. If those maladies are a thing of the past that would certainly help matters. But only if Crennel can conjure up a pass rush out of thin air.

    Kareem Jackson made tremendous strides in 2012, only to fall back into bad habits come 2013. The quarterbacks he faced had all day to run through their progressions, so Jackson had to start reading the receivers instead. That’s fine if you’re Deion Sanders, but mere mortals have to spy on the passer a little bit so they know when to turn their attention to the receiver.

    Brandon Harris will not have it much easier this season than Brice McCain did last season. Harris did improve over the course of the 2013 schedule, and will have many more opportunities in 2014 to prove he is not a wasted second-round draft choice.

Safeties

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    Mr. Manning, Mr. Swearinger, welcome to the world of Cover-2. Mr. Manning will remember the Tampa-2 version from his days as a Chicago Bear playing for Lovie Smith. There will not be as much help from the middle linebacker in the short zones as you might have experienced in your Chicago days.

    But one deep safety will no longer be responsible for covering the largest part of the field. Each safety will cover half of the deep zones and will roll in the direction of the play to help out the corners.

    These days the corners need an extra hand when a receiver who is 6’2” is considered to be of average height. Since you can’t bring a ladder to break up a pass to 6’5” Calvin Johnson or 6’4” A.J. Green, having another player come over to assist can make a world of difference.

    Now, Mr. Swearinger, you will have to stop thinking about how much fun it is to decapitate the man you are tackling. The big hit may get you on ESPN, but it can also get you a flag and a fine. Just wrap him up with a nice form tackle and take him to the ground.

    Otherwise, he might run right through you. Do you remember Rashad Jennings of the Oakland Raiders? Yes, you’ll never forget that one and neither will we.

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