Projecting Houston Texans Starting Lineup Pre-2014 NFL Draft
The finish line that is the 2014 NFL draft is in sight and the sprint is on. The intensity of speculation regarding the Houston Texans and their intentions for the first overall pick is at a rolling boil.
While much of the behind-the-scenes activity has been devoted to getting the draft board in order, the front office and revamped coaching staff assembled by Bill O’Brien is likely dealing with more mundane matters. This includes determining how many players on the current roster are capable of starting in the season opener.
A team does not go from Super Bowl contender to a 2-14 cellar-dweller largely due to the misfortune of injuries and the record-setting misdeeds of a scattershot quarterback.
Football Outsiders ranked the Texans at No. 18 in their Adjusted Games Lost ranking, meaning there were 17 NFL teams that were more affected by injuries. Matt Schaub and his four consecutive games with a pick-six exposed the fragile psyche of a squad that was less than the sum of its parts.
Most of those parts still remain, with Schaub, Ben Tate, Owen Daniels, Antonio Smith and Danieal Manning as the most notable absences. The offensive and defensive systems concocted by Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips have been replaced by those of O’Brien and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
Some would contend the bulk of these changes amounts to addition by subtraction. You can judge that for yourself after this preliminary projection of the 2014 starting lineup is reviewed.
*All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference (PFR) and Pro Football Focus (PFF, subscription required) unless otherwise noted. Salary data provided courtesy of Spotrac.com (subscription required for Premium Stats)
Most revealing statistic: 76 interceptions in 54 games over last four seasons (2010-13).
The Harvard graduate is the probable starter for the moment because general manager Rick Smith did not sign him for two years and $7.5 million to play second fiddle to Keenum or T.J. Yates. His nine years of mediocrity in the league are apparently more reassuring than the shallow experience of the other two challengers.
The debate over whether Houston should draft a quarterback with the first overall pick is still raging. In an April 22 appearance on Pro Football Talk Live, John McClain of the Houston Chronicle declared the decision is down to Johnny Manziel vs. Jadeveon Clowney.
If any single factor would tip the decision in the direction of a quarterback, it would be the presence of Fitzpatrick.
Brought in as a replacement for Matt Schaub, Fitzpatrick brings a resume that is notable for a single above-average season recorded in 2010 with the Buffalo Bills. His 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions somehow turned into a six-year, $59 million contract, with $24 million in guaranteed money. In return, he did nothing but keep the Bills at the bottom of the AFC East for his remaining three years in Buffalo.
The man is a true contradiction. He is as reckless with the football as he is intelligent. The owner of the highest Wonderlic score ever at his position is a gunslinger who hurls pickoffs at a rate that recalls the first high-cycle repeating firearm in history.
Eli Manning is the only passer to approach Fitzpatrick’s predilection for interceptions over the same four-year period. It took 64 games for Peyton’s brother to toss his 83 giveaways, leaving the per-game rate firmly in the grasp of the former Ivy-Leaguer.
If a quarterback is not chosen with the team’s first pick, one is certain to be taken in a later round. One of the leading prop bets for the Texans will be the over/under on how many turnovers it will take before the rookie inherits the starter’s role.
Foster is caught between two inexorable trends: Father Time and the decreasing role of the NFL running back.
Running backs have always had a short shelf life, estimated by the NFL Players Association at 2.57 years in a study that tracked players from 1987 to 1996. The shift in recent years from relying on a featured back to spreading the carries among multiple players has not extended careers.
It has only served to make runners less valuable.
The dollars devoted to the position further illustrate the trend. According to Spotrac.com, 38 free-agent wide receivers signed for an average of $3.23 million per year in the 2014 offseason. The 16 free-agent running backs averaged $1 million less, signing for $2.24 million per player.
Over the last 10 seasons, NFL teams have averaged between 110 to 117 rushing yards per game. Passing yardage has been on the rise for eight consecutive seasons, reaching an all-time average of 235.6 per game in 2013. Veteran league observers from Bill Barnwell of Grantland.com to Greg Cosell of Yahoo Sports have chronicled the diminished emphasis on moving the football via the ground.
The only exposure Bill O’Brien has had to professional football was as a member of the New England Patriots coaching staff. Bill Belichick shifted his offensive emphasis to the passing game after the 2006 season. O’Brien joined the staff as an offensive assistant in 2007, the year Tom Brady threw for 50 touchdowns.
From 2007 until last season, the Patriots have had just two backs rush for over 1,000 yards, BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2010 (1,008) and Stevan Ridley in 2012 (1,263). Most of the time they have relied on the “running back by committee” approach favored around the league.
The Texans do not have the horses for that, so Foster will still carry most of the workload. If O’Brien follows the template of his mentor, this will be the last season the leading rusher in the history of the franchise can count on a steady diet of 20 or more carries per game.
Fullback: Brad Smelley
Most revealing statistic: five snaps at fullback in NFL career.
Greg Jones, the Texans’ fullback in 2013, is still an unsigned, unrestricted free agent. He played for $1 million last season, and the league-minimum salary for the 10-year veteran is $955,000. This makes his return to the team under any circumstances an unlikely proposition.
Smelley is the fullback of record on the depth chart posted at Ourlads.com. Lacking any other candidates on the roster besides Toben Opurum, the player with the embarrassing last name is our man of the moment. Further developments will be expected once training camp rolls around.
Most revealing statistic: highest average per reception (15.4) of any rookie wide receiver with 50 or more receptions per PFR.
Here are two skill positions Texans fans can be certain are in good hands, so to speak.
Andre Johnson is a model of modern athletic performance. Not only does he have the most receptions over the last two seasons, he has the more receptions at the ages of 31 and 32 than any other player in NFL history.
Johnson managed to catch 109 passes, the third best total of his career, while the quarterback situation was in complete flux. He will be playing under the same conditions this season, knowing Ryan Fitzpatrick is not the quarterback of the future. And having to help acclimate some newbie passer to the pressure cooker that is the NFL.
Hopkins showed he was well worth the 27th pick, and might have added a few more touchdowns if the offense had not been so unsettled. A test of Bill O’Brien’s coaching acumen will be getting Hopkins more involved in the vertical passing game, since he represents the team’s top threat in that area.
Although it is not a starting position, slot receiver is vital to the success of the Erhardt-Perkins offensive system. Wes Welker and now Julian Edelman were beneficiaries of the short parallel routes the Patriots love to run between the numbers.
Bill O’Brien made it a point to tell an invitation-only group of the Texans faithful that, “Slot WR is important in our offense. We don’t really have one right now.” That statement puts the target squarely on the back of Keshawn Martin, whose slow development in this role threatens his tenure with the team.
Most revealing statistic: 10th highest cap hit on 2014 roster.
The story here is pretty simple: general manager Rick Smith replaced an older, slightly more talented and much more expensive player with a younger, less expensive version. Owen Daniels was set to earn $6.25 million in 2014, while Graham will hit the cap for $3.2 million after signing a 3-year deal as an unrestricted free agent.
Daniels is recognized as a more explosive route-runner who would not waste his time applying anything that would resemble a block. Graham will at least put some effort into thwarting the intentions of a defensive opponent.
Combine that with a good pair of hands and the four-year age difference, and you have the new starting tight end of your Houston Texans.
Left Tackle: Duane Brown
Most revealing statistic: 32 quarterback pressures in 2013 (14 games started) vs. 22 pressures in 2012 (18 games started).
Brown fell back to earth in 2013 after earning All-Pro honors in 2012. He came into camp 20 pounds lighter than the previous season. It seemed to affect his hand punch, which is what an offensive tackle uses to straighten up a pass-rusher and rob him of his power.
A bad case of turf toe suffered in Week 2 also contributed to Brown's substandard play. That kind of injury can only heal with rest, and the 14 games he started is not what the doctor ordered. An offseason of rest should set Brown up for a return to his former excellence.
Left Guard: Ben Jones
Most revealing statistic: 1,032 combined snaps at offensive guard in in 2012 and 2013 (drafted at center after being named All-SEC second-team in 2011).
The buzz at training camp last season was how sixth-round draft choice David Quessenberry looked like a natural zone-blocking guard. Then he broke his foot and spent the season on injured reserve.
This forced Jones to fill in at backup guard just as he did in 2012. He may have to start this season since the Texans are going to do less zone blocking than in the past. Quessenberry may be able to adapt to a scheme that uses more angle-and power-blocking, but no one knows what he is capable of until he gets on the field.
Until then, Jones is a proven contributor that will do whatever is asked of him on the interior of the offensive line.
Center: Chris Myers
Most revealing statistic: Has started 96 consecutive games for the Texans per NFL.com.
Myers has been the steadiest offensive lineman on the team since joining the Texans in 2008. But his role during that time has been as an undersized, quick-footed zone-blocking center. Now 290-pound center will be expected to play a more straight-up game where his undersized frame could be a hindrance.
At this stage of his career, every trick in the book is part of his repertoire. If anyone can figure out how to make the best use of his skills, regardless of scheme, it's Myers.
Right Guard: Brandon Brooks
Most revealing statistic: Only NFL offensive guard in 2013 that weighed over 340 pounds.
When Brooks was drafted from Miami of Ohio, few believed his 350-plus pounds were suited to the lateral movement required by a zone-blocking scheme. After being injured most of his rookie year, he came on in 2013 as the most improved player on the O-line.
Since the new system calls for more direct blocking techniques, Brooks is primed to use his most abundant asset to its best advantage. He was already a handful when the goal was to move your opponent towards one sideline or the other. Now he can stop thinking about aiming points and just manhandle defenders at will.
The fact that Newton is still on this team and is the only offensive tackle on the roster outside of Duane Brown with any NFL experience amounts to a dereliction of duty by general manager Rick Smith.
Why is Ryan Harris still unsigned? He played for the Texans at the league minimum last season...and would likely do so again. He is not going to get any cheaper, and could be snatched up by another team in the meantime.
If the hope is Brennan Williams will have a miraculous recovery from his microfracture surgery, that is a foolishness of the highest order. Dr. Kenneth R. First explained during one of his regular appearances on Sports Radio 610 in Houston that this kind of surgery could indicate a degenerative condition.
If Williams cannot answer the call, is spending another draft choice the solution? Or is Quessenberry going to jump in and save the day? Another season of watching Newton give up the edge time and again is too much to ask.
To paraphrase fellow Houstonians Z.Z. Top, “He’s bad, he’s nationwide…”
Watt is not only the most popular athlete in Houston, he is the most popular defender in the NFL. The NFLPI, the marketing and licensing arm of the NFL Players Association, ranks Watt 11th in sales, placing him at the top of all defensive players.
His exploits on the field are just as superlative, even in the dregs of compiling the worst record in the league. He might ask for a little help by way of the draft, somebody else to draw the occasional double-team so more of those pressures could turn into sacks.
Watt would never say that in public, but it will certainly be a bargaining ploy when contract talks commence. To accomplish what he does with such a motley group of defensive cohorts is astounding. What it will cost to keep him in a Texans uniform will be equally astounding.
Powe is here because familiarity breeds contentment. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel coached him in Kansas City and is fully aware of his limitations.
The top nose tackle in the draft, Louis Nix of Notre Dame, is a two-down player just like Powe. If the Texans go hunting for a true 3-4 defensive lineman, they will target a 300-pound end who can shade the center rather than go heads-up like a classic NT.
The 0-technqiue guy will be Powe, and this translates to someone who will only be needed for 20-30 snaps per game.
Should that big 5-technique end get drafted, Jamison will go back to what he does best. That is coming in to give the big guys a breather and rushing the passer on obvious passing downs. If that need goes unsatisfied, everything changes.
Jamison has always been a situational player, and has never been asked to give maximum effort for more than a few plays per games. In this rebuilding year, he may have to play more downs than at any time in his NFL career. This will test his durability, something that he has not exhibited in the last two seasons.
He could share the role with Jared Crick but still end up with more playing time than ever before. For someone who made it into the NFL as an undrafted free agent, he is used to traveling in uncharted waters.
Left Outside Linebacker: Draft choice
Hello, Khalil Mack. If Rick Smith prefers Mack over Jadeveon Clowney, this is the place to play him.
This would free up Brooks Reed to move inside, where his tackling skill and ability to shed blockers would be better utilized. It would also keep Whitney Mercilus on the open side of most formations, the best spot to maximize his speed.
The book on Mack says he can play either side of the formation, and the strong side is tougher to handle. The Sam linebacker has to cover the tight end, pass rush against what is usually the biggest offensive tackle and sort his way through more traffic.
If the Texans go defense with the first pick, Mack is the safer selection. Clowney may have more potential, but it will take longer for him to blend into a 3-4 defense. This team does not have that kind of time.
Left Inside Linebacker: Brooks Reed
Most revealing statistic: 35 quarterback hurries, more than Brian Orakpo, Clay Matthews or Trent Cole.
Can anyone recall when Peter King predicted Reed would be the Defensive Player of the Year in 2012? King got the right team but the wrong player.
Reed is plenty quick for his size but a bit too stiff to be a hotshot pass-rusher. You have to be able to get low, open your hips and instantaneously transfer speed to power. The QB hurries stat demonstrates Reed's ability to penetrate, however, he has yet to learn how to consistently slip past blockers and get to the quarterback.
He will be better working with Brian Cushing in the read-and-react style that is the foundation of Romeo Crennel’s defense. It may not rival the pairing of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis with the San Francisco 49ers, but it has a chance to be in the discussion.
Right Inside Linebacker: Brian Cushing
Most revealing statistic: Defense allowed 254.3 yards per game before 2013 injury, 338.7 in final 12 games per PFR.
For two seasons in a row, Cushing goes out with an injury and the defense goes down. Can one player be that critical, or is it merely a coincidence? He is not the best linebacker in any single aspect, but he nonetheless is a terrific all-around player.
What the Texans miss with Cushing gone is a LB with the mobility and hostility to go sideline to sideline and administer teeth-rattling hits and someone who on pass defense combines coverage with solid pass-rushing skills.
Most of all, his consistency is invaluable to the comfort level of other Texan defenders. You can play with a little more recklessness when you know Cush is patrolling the middle of the field.
Right Outside Linebacker: Whitney Mercilus
Most revealing statistic: Ranked seventh in quarterback pressures among 3-4 outside linebackers per PFF.
This would be the destination for Clowney if he ends up with the Texans. Keeping Mercilus in the same position as last season means the team will go in a different direction with their choice at No. 1 overall.
Will a new coordinator and a new system turn this former first-round pick into an edge-rushing demon? Mercilus has been adequate in that department, but has yet to record double-digit sacks in either of his first two seasons.
Linebackers coach Mike Vrabel was renowned for getting the most out of his ability, and not just on the defensive side of the ball. He had 10 receptions for 10 touchdowns on offense, a ratio unmatched in the 94-year history of the league.
That does not seem relevant except in this one regard: what seemed very difficult to do one time was, in fact, repeatable. If Vrabel can get Mercilus to apply that lesson to his play on the field, he will become the Vince Lombardi of position coaches.
Left Cornerback: Kareem Jackson
Most revealing statistic: Last interception was in Week 10 of 2012 vs. Chicago Bears.
Jackson reacquainted Texans fans with his evil twin in 2013: the one that refused to spy on the quarterback and track the ball in the air. Consequently, opposing quarterbacks too often saw Jackson's name emblazoned with his back to them as the receiver he was covering gathered in a long pass (image above).
In his defense, when an anemic pass rush is consistently giving the quarterback three to four seconds to throw, it can be easy to lose track of the receiver. Until more pressure up front is generated, the evil twin will be sharing equal time with the good Kareem we came to know in 2012.
The last time Joseph was completely healthy was in 2011. He had two groin tears in 2012, and they continued to affect his play in 2013.
When Rick Smith was looking to trim some fat off the salary cap, the $11.25 million due Joseph in 2014 must have been in his sights. Perhaps everyone involved is convinced these nagging injuries have mended and the lockdown corner that was a revelation during his first season in Houston is ready to return.
He cannot return soon enough given the depth behind him is that burgeoning bust Brandon Harris, the untested A.J. Bouye and late-season pickup Elbert Mack.
Strong Safety: D.J. Swearinger
Most revealing statistic: Third-most stops among safeties (36) in 2013 per PFF.
The hunt for safeties in 2013 landed the Texans a future Hall of Fame inductee and a rookie. Contrary to hopes and expectations, it was the rookie that delivered.
The sad part is Ed Reed’s brief time in Houston did not provide Swearinger a particularly high standard to meet. Then defensive coordinator Wade Phillips also assisted the rookie in his transition to the NFL by playing a lot of Cover 1, which let him play in the middle third much of the time.
Romeo Crennel is more partial to Cover 2, a scheme that uses two deep safeties and lets a linebacker cover the underneath hole. Swearinger’s game is playing close to the box and running to the play, not backpedaling and reacting to a pass.
This explains why safety Chris Clemons was signed should Swearinger be more comfortable playing as the third safety in dime packages.
Free Safety: Kendrick Lewis
Most revealing statistic: Allowed highest completion percentage of any defensive back on the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013 (73.7).
Here is another familiar face for the new defensive coordinator, one more refugee from the Kansas City Chiefs. The troubling part is Lewis is not nearly as good as the man he is replacing.
Danieal Manning may have run hot and cold as the deep man in Cover 1, but that is one of the toughest jobs in football. Manning played a lot of Tampa 2 for Lovie Smith when he was a Chicago Bear, making him a good man to keep for the new regime.
But Rick Smith made a money decision and ditched Manning along with his 2014 cap hit of $6 million for Lewis at the league-minimum of $730,000 in salary. If the drop in pay is commensurate with a drop in execution, this will turn out to be one of the worst decisions of the offseason.