Breaking Down the Houston Texans Roster After the 2014 Draft
They didn't draft an inside linebacker or slot receiver, didn't take a cornerback until the seventh round and waited until the fourth round to take a quarterback. While they did well, it's hard to imagine them making the playoffs with those holes remaining.
If I had to guess right now, the Texans will finish the 2014 season with a 6-10 record. That's not a criticism of who or how they drafted; I gave them a B+ yesterday in my draft wrap up. That's just an indication of how bad the roster was when Bill O'Brien took over.
I'm sure some of you will disagree which is fine, but I would ask you how many teams with a below-average quarterback have made the playoffs in the last five years?
So where does the roster stand overall after the draft? Click through this slide show for my breakdown of each position group.
Quarterback is not only the most important position in football but the most important position in all of sports. Most assumed that the Texans would take a quarterback with pick No. 33 but they not only passed on the position there in the second round, but then twice more in the third round.
I would like to see Case Keenum be involved in the competition for the starting gig instead of just handing the job to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Keenum regressed late in the year and has several flaws that need to be corrected, but he also showed flashes of great play and has more upside than the journeyman Fitzpatrick.
If Keenum doesn't learn to recognize and beat the blitz or if he continues to hold the ball to long when an open underneath or medium route is available to him, he'll never be a quality NFL starter. That being said we need to make sure we remember the path he's taken to get to this point.
Keenum signed with the Texans as an undrafted free agent, spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad, was the third-string quarterback to start last season and then was suddenly thrust into the starting role when Matt Schaub got injured. All things considered he played pretty well, so I'd like to see what Coach O'Brien can do with him.
No matter whom the Texans play at quarterback they aren't going to make the playoffs in 2014. In my opinion all four quarterbacks on the roster are most likely nothing more than solid backups. However, if the goal this season isn't to make a deep playoff run, then the team should focus on finding out whom they want to keep among the young quarterbacks.
We know who Ryan Fitzpatrick is and he's not their future at the position. What we don't know is the long-term potential of Keenum and Tom Savage. I don't think either will be their starter in four or five years but it would be stupid to not try to find out. If Fitzpatrick gets any more than eight starts I will be upset.
The goal of this season at the quarterback position should be to find out what Keenum and Savage are capable of so they can move on if necessary next offseason.
If you're wondering why I didn't mention T.J. Yates it's because I believe he'll but cut before the season starts. To me, a process of elimination makes this an easy decision. Ryan Fitzpatrick was signed to start early in the season, Tom Savage was drafted to be a project quarterback and Keenum costs them almost nothing as an undrafted free agent. They're not going to keep four quarterbacks, so Yates will be the odd man out, unless he has an amazing training camp and preseason.
If Arian Foster is healthy, the running game will be fine. If not, then you have my permission to start worrying.
Foster will be 28 years old when the season starts and is returning from back surgery that ended his season early last year. He received a lot of carries between 2010 and 2012, so his health isn't a safe bet.
With Ben Tate having signed with the Cleveland Browns, questions surround their backup running backs as well. To address that need the Texans signed veteran Andre Brown as a free agent and drafted Alfred Blue from LSU in the sixth round.
Brown has had his own injury issues with only 18 games played over the last two seasons, so relying on him could be an issue as well. Same with the rookie Blue, who had injuries that played a role in him getting buried on the depth chart at LSU.
The good news is these backs have talent, and if they remain healthy they have a group of capable blockers in front of them that will open up some big lanes.
With Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry coming back off of injury and the selections of guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and fullback Jay Prosch; there is a lot to be excited about with the potential of the running game.
I'll talk about Su'a-Filo and Fiedorowicz in later slides, but I'm really excited about the addition of the Auburn fullback. Prosch was an unsung hero in college but was a major factor in the success of an Auburn running game that averaged 328 rushing yards last season.
The Texans never replaced Vonta Leach after he left for the Baltimore Ravens in 2011. I think Prosch can be that impact run blocker that will have us pumping our fist when they show the replay of him crushing defenders. I imagine Arian Foster was very happy about that selection.
Andre Johnson will end his career as one of the league's top-five all-time receivers if he remains healthy and produces at least his average year over the next three seasons. Currently Johnson ranks 14th in career receptions (927) and 17th in career receiving yards (12,661).
Over his 11 NFL seasons, Johnson is averaging 84.27 catches and 1,151 receiving yards per year and that includes two seasons in which he played fewer than 10 games. Johnson will be 33 years old when the 2014 season starts, but he still has been extremely productive. He's one of three NFL receivers coming off back-to-back seasons of over 1,400 receiving yards, Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas being the others.
If Johnson hits his average over the next three seasons, he'll have 1,180 receptions and 16,114 receiving yards. Those numbers would rank Johnson third in receptions and second in receiving yards all time. In both cases the only wide receiver ahead of him is Jerry Rice.
He's had an amazing career. Can you imagine what his numbers would be if he didn't have to play with the likes of David Carr, Sage Rosenfels and Matt Schaub?
Lining up with Johnson at wide receiver will be last year's first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins. The former Clemson wideout had a solid rookie year with 52 receptions and just over 800 receiving yards, but the team and fans are expecting more in 2014.
Hopkins has number-one receiver talent and upside but Coach Kubiak sat him at times for making too many mental mistakes. With a year under his belt, Hopkins will hopefully have a better command of the offense, which will cut down on the errors and allow his physical talents to take over.
The big question remaining is what they'll do at slot receiver, a position that Coach O'Brien has called important for his offense. Keshawn Martin has proven not to be that guy with only 32 career receptions over his first two seasons, and because of that the team went into the draft with a big need at the position.
But the Texans didn't draft a slot receiver. So who will line up there during the season? The answer could be former Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Mike Thomas. From the Houston Chronicle, Coach O'Brien said after their veteran minicamp that the team had more talent there than he initially thought:
Before offseason workouts began, Bill O’Brien expressed concern that the Texans were lacking a receiver with suitable skills to be effective in the slot. But he has changed his mind in part because of the addition of Mike Thomas, a former Jacksonville receiver who averaged more than 50 catches per season between 2009 and 2012.
“I did say that,” O’Brien conceded. “Now, being out here for a few days, I think there are a few guys who do have the skill set to play the slot and outside.”
The Texans cut the best tight end in franchise history when they parted ways with Owen Daniels back in March. Daniels missed 11 games last year and will turn 32 years old during the 2014 season, so the move was understandable. Still, he was a popular player amongst fans.
The Texans softened that blow by re-signing Garrett Graham, who started 11 games last season and filled in well for Daniels. Graham finished the year with 49 catches for 545 yards and five receiving touchdowns, a touchdown total matched or surpassed by Daniels only three times in eight seasons.
The injury to Daniels also allowed 2013 sixth-round pick Ryan Griffin to get more playing time, and he made the most of it. Griffin wasn't used a ton as a receiver but played well as a run blocker and has the athletic ability to develop into a good receiver. With Graham and Griffin, the Texans didn't have a huge need at tight end despite the loss of Daniels.
While it wasn't their biggest need, it also wasn't surprising to see the team draft a tight end, considering how often O'Brien used multiple tight end formations while he was the offensive coordinator in New England.
The Texans used pick no. 65 to select Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz to be their third tight end. At first glance I didn't like the value of selecting a blocking tight end in the third round, but given time to think it over, I see the pick making more and more sense.
Fiedorowicz wasn't much of a receiver at Iowa, posting just 899 yards over three seasons as a contributing player, but scouts like his ability as a pass-catcher, leading me to believe it was more the Iowa offense than any deficiencies as a receiver that kept down his production.
Dane Brugler from CBS Sports assessed what Fiedorowicz brings to an NFL offense:
Well-built with good versatility. Can spring from a down block to get past defenders as a receiver. Good body control and soft hands for such a large man, traits that have led Washington junior Austin Seferian-Jenkins to earn a lot of attention as a first-round prospect. Fiedorowicz isn't as flashy as ASJ, but he's just as big and fast in a straight-line and is a much more physical and attentive blocker. Massive catch radius and the frame to drag cornerbacks and safeties after the catch.
Fiedorowicz producing as a receiver will be a bonus. If he can be a great run blocker, he'll make an impact on this team. Since his tremendous 2010 season, Arian Foster's lost key blockers like Mike Brisiel, Eric Winston, Vonta Leach and tight end Joel Dreessen—players who helped pave the way for Foster and Houston's running game. With the additions this year of Xavier Su'a-Filo, C.J. Fiedorowicz and fullback Jay Prosch, Foster has a chance to have a great season if he can remain healthy.
Plus the scouting report says Fiedorowicz has solid hands and his size should translate into red-zone opportunities. With Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Garrett Graham and Arian Foster on the field with him, defenses will not be focusing on Fiedorowicz. That and the size advantage he will have over most defensive backs make him a nice safety option underneath for the quarterback.
The Texans had needs at both left guard and right tackle going into the NFL draft. With just one selection, the Texans found a way to improve both positions at the same time.
The team decided to let Wade Smith, who had been their starting left guard, walk after last season. At right tackle Derek Newton has just been awful, though it's not entirely Newton's fault: The former seventh-round pick was forced into action after the team cut Eric Winston two years ago. Newton received a negative grade last season from Pro Football Focus.
We know Duane Brown and Chris Myers will be solid to great at their spots, and I like the potential of Brandon Brooks at right guard but the other two spots were huge question marks for the reasons I just mentioned. The Texans addressed that need with their second-round pick.
Rob Rang from CBS Sports likes Su'a-Filo's potential to make an impact in the running game:
Strong upper body with a well-proportioned frame. Nimble enough to get to the second level and looks natural pulling. Smooth body control and flexible hips to seal. Natural bend, balance and base with a strong anchor to generate power in the run game, can squat an elephant. Good anticipation and engages well at the point of attack.
Smart, savvy blocker with natural blocking instincts. Quick learner played left guard and left tackle. Durable and started every game in his three seasons at UCLA (40 starts; 20 at left tackle, 20 left guard).
With Su'a-Filo at left guard, David Quessenberry now can move over to right tackle and compete with last year's third-round pick Brennan Williams for the starting job. Quessenberry looked good last year during training camp but both he and Williams were injured before the season started and spent the entire year on IR.
If David Quessenberry and Xavier Su'a Filo hit their potential, the Texans will once again have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
The Texans lost two of their three defensive line starters from last season when end Antonio Smith and tackle Earl Mitchell left as free agents. Those departures and a bit of a scheme change made the defensive line an area of need going into the draft.
Some of you might think that there won't be a difference between the 3-4 scheme the Texans played last year under Wade Phillips and that of which they'll play in 2014 under Romeo Crennel.
As the blog State of the Texans points out, compared to what Wade Phillips used, Crennel's version of the 3-4 defense is much more traditional in what they'll ask their defensive lineman to do. Phillips lets his lineman have a bit more freedom to penetrate and get upfield than you would find in a traditional 3-4, which requires their lineman to two-gap and occupy blockers to allow linebackers to make the play.
Romeo Crennel isn't stupid; he's not going to ask J.J. Watt to only be a two gap run-stuffer. Still, his defense will want different things from their nose tackle and defensive ends.
Speaking of nose tackle, the Texans got an absolute steal when they decided to trade back up into the third round to select Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III. I was extremely excited about the pick when it was made; Nix should be a perfect fit as the nose tackle in Crennel's system.
Some scouts knocked Nix as a two-down player who will come off the field in passing situations. First off, if he dominates on first and second down, I don't really care that he won't be on the field with their nickel package. Second, when you read scouting reports like this one from Rob Rang of CBS Sports, it's tempting to conclude that the talk about his weakness as a pass-rusher was overemphasized.
Nimble feet with the lateral quickness to explode in any direction and chase down the action in pursuit. Carries his weight so natural for a 340+ pounder, shifting his weight well with the agile footwork to quickly change directions.
Plays hard with a feisty motor. Applies quick pressure by splitting gaps, using a quick arm-over swim move and bull-rushing his opponent deep into the pocket. Has the hand strength and initial get-off momentum to bully blockers on their heels, showing leverage and active limbs. Keeps his eyes on the ball and shows the awareness to anticipate and track plays.
Don't forget also that with all the attention defenses give J.J. Watt, Nix will likely see more one-on-one blocks than he did in college.
With J.J. Watt the Houston Texans have the best defensive player in the league. That point isn't even debatable in my opinion. The question is with the other defensive end position. I think Crennel will let it play out as a camp battle between Jared Crick, Tim Jamison and this year's sixth-round draft Jeoffrey Pagan for the starting nod.
If forced to guess, I think Crick will be the starter. He wasn't often used over the last two years because he had Antonio Smith in front of him, but the former Nebraska player does have the size and strength to play the position. At Nebraska Crick was very productive over his sophomore and junior seasons with 9.5 sacks each year before getting injured as a senior.
His 2011 scouting report from NFL.com suggested that Crick could emerge as an effective if not very good 3-4 defensive end.
A defensive tackle at Nebraska, Crick shows value not only in his ability to play inside effectively but also as a potential defensive end, particularly in a 3-4 scheme.
Crick possesses the size and athletic ability to play in various positions across the defensive line. He flashed the ability to defeat blocks and get to the ball-carrier in the backfield. He is active in the run game and shows great instincts. He can also run down quarterbacks with pure hustle. Off the snap, he uses his size and hands to get off blocks.
I expect Crick along with Watt and Nix to be the Texans starters on the defensive line.
Outside linebacker for the Houston Texans is in pretty good shape.
But inside linebacker is another question.
Many including myself thought the Texans would add an inside linebacker during the draft, but they didn't pick up a player at the position until signing Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough as an undrafted free agent.
I think Max Bullough has a chance to be a solid contributor on this team as a two-down defender against the run. Bullough is a physical run-defender who led Michigan State in tackles in 2012, but as scouts like Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com point out, he lacks the athleticism to play coverage on third down in the NFL.
Average athlete. Not explosive. Tight hips (exposed in space). Limited foot speed, lateral agility and range. Can be late to the perimeter. Struggles in man coverage and is stiff dropping/turning in coverage.
Terrific football intelligence. Keys and diagnoses quickly, understands run fits and spills willingly. Physical -- good take-on/tackle strengh between the tackles. Pursues hard. Good tackler when he's able to square up ball carriers.
The Texans lost Joe Mays and Darryl Sharpton as free agents, depleting a position that was already a question mark. Making matters worse, the Texans star at the position is coming off a season-ending knee injury for the second year in a row. If Brian Cushing is healthy he's a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but his health is not something the team can take for granted.
With the addition of Jadeveon Clowney, the Texans could improve their situation at inside linebacker by moving Brooks Reed over next to Cushing. This move has been talked about by fans for over a year, and Patrick Starr of State of the Texans thinks the change would be beneficial for the team—and for Brooks Reed:
A defensive end at Arizona and an outside linebacker for the Texans 3-4 defense, Reed has really struggled to be more than edge setter in the run game. He has been non-existent as a pass rusher and for a defense that needed a real edge presence, Reed was not the player the Texans hoped he would be.
The Patriots had Teddy Bruschi who had the same issues as Reed. Went from defensive end at Arizona to inside linebacker for the Patriots, while Romeo Crennel was there as the defensive coordinator. Reed could be in a good spot this coming season to make the transition, and this could be the season to do it. The Texans played with the idea in 2013 with Reed in the middle next to Brian Cushing, but the failures of Trevardo Williams, Willie Jefferson and Sam Montgomery left the Texans no choice but to leave Reed on the outside.
Reed has done spot duty as an inside linebacker in short yardage situations, and he has the size and speed to play that position in a 3-4 defense.
If Whitney Mercilus takes a big step in year three and reaches his potential, the Texans could have the best duo in the league at outside linebacker. Mercilus has shown flashes of potential as a pass-rusher with 13 sacks over his first two seasons, but he too often looked lost against screen plays and was out of position in run defense.
In my opinion he looks like he's thinking instead of just reacting, which is causing him to be a step slow. If it clicks with Mercilus, and he becomes the player who racked up 16 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss during his last season at Illinois, the Texans pass rush will be a nightmare for opposing offenses.
Then there's Jadeveon Clowney. What else can I say about him that hasn't already been said at this point?
In my opinion Clowney is the best pass-rushing prospect to come into the league since Julius Peppers in 2002. If Clowney hits his potential he'll be a guy who averages 15 sacks a year and makes the All-Pro team every season.
He'll spend the majority of his time as the Texans rush linebacker but will also put his hand on the ground as a defensive end when the Texans go to a sub-nickel package on third down.
The slot corner position was a huge need in my opinion heading into the draft but wasn't addressed—unless you believe seventh-round pick Andre Hal can step in this year and fill that role. The website Battle Red Blog called Hal the best cornerback in this year's draft, but I have to confess that I'm a little skeptical of that designation.
It can't be overlooked the impact that an improved pass-rush will have on the Texans secondary. After adding Jadeveon Clowney and Louis Nix to their front seven, the Texans should get a quicker, more effective push, and that will shorten how much time the corners have to cover.
After cutting Brice McCain in March and not drafting a single corner during the 2013 draft, the Texans have to expect that cornerback depth will be an issue this season. Starters Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are solid, but can Houston fans have any faith in the players behind them?
Past this season, I'm also concerned about what the future of the position will look like.
Kareem Jackson is going into the final year of his rookie contract, and the Texans could save $8.5 million in base salary by cutting Johnathan Joseph after the season; Joseph will be 31 years old at the start of the 2015 season.
The hope is that former second-round pick Brandon Harris can develop into a solid starter, but his play has been mostly disappointing during his first three seasons in the league. It's not even so much that Harris has played poorly on the field, but even if he does develop, his contract is also up after the 2014 season.
Patrick Starr of the website State of the Texans believes Harris could benefit from a position change to safety:
Here is what we know about Harris to this point, he lacks straight line speed to run with wide receivers, and he has a knack for playing physical with wide receivers. He gets flagged many of times for his physical style of play, but on the other hand he is not scared to mix it up as a tackler from the secondary.
This could be the time to move Harris from corner to safety and use his skill set to his advantage. Allow him to use his eyes facing the quarterback and be another safety when needed, very similar to the transition that Glover Quin made in 2011 for Wade Phillips.
Another little-used player who might see an increased role this season is Elbert Mack, whom Texans resigned during free agency. Mack is a veteran with six NFL seasons under his belt. Heayed well on special teams last year, but could get a shot to compete for time at cornerback during training camp.
The safety position wasn't a big need heading into the draft because of the additions they made during free agency but it remains a question mark going into the season.
The Texans spent a second-round pick on D.J. Swearinger last year, a move that at times during his rookie season didn't look a wise one. Swearinger is physically gifted and made an impact in run defense, but he really struggled in pass coverage. I think he has potential to be a very good box safety or as a hybrid linebacker-safety when they go to a sub-package.
In order for Swearinger to be freed up to play that role, the Texans will have to get more out of their other safeties in coverage.
They signed free agents Kendrick Lewis and Chris Clemons to hopefully be those players. Lewis played under Romeo Crennel in Kansas City and when healthy was solid in coverage. Patrick Starr of State of the Texans broke down some tape on Lewis and found that he struggled in run defense but that shouldn't be an issue since that role will likely go to Swearinger.
Lewis had some of his best football under Romeo Crennel in his first two seasons in the NFL. If the Texans can find the player prior to his shoulder injury, Lewis will be pushing for the third safety spot.
Lewis could also help in the slot if needed, where he showed some promise there. He could be a good piece to help install Crennel’s defense, and having Lewis around could be a decent filler for the 2014 season.
Adding Lewis could allow Swearinger use their speed closer to the line of scrimmage dime situations.
Lewis has shown success in the cover two scheme, but he has been used as a true center fielder for the Chiefs the past four seasons. His starting experience is something to take note, for as much criticism he took for his poor play, he was still starting for the Chiefs.
I'm a little higher on the signing of Chris Clemons, whom Pro Football Focus called a secret superstar after the 2012 season.
For the year he had the eighth-best yards per coverage snap among safeties at .35 and had only two legitimate coverage blunders all season. The first occurred on a 65-yard catch by Chris Givens in Week 6 where Clemons lost sight of Givens on a deep crossing route. The other was a 31-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez in Week 13 where Clemons bit on a run fake in man coverage.
While Clemons improved his coverage from 2010, he also drastically improved his run defense. This season he had 33 more solo tackles than in 2010 and his tackling efficiency increased dramatically from 6.5 (56th in 2010) to 12.3 (sixth in 2012). He did all this while playing 78% of his snaps from over eight yards away from the line of scrimmage.
The loss of Danieal Manning would have been a big loss, but I think Clemons can replace him fairly well.
Shane Lechler is still one of the best punters in the league. The native Texan and former Texas A&M Aggie will turn 38 years old before the season starts but is still getting the job done. Lechler ranked fifth last season in average yards per punt and third in total punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
That's where the positives end for the special teams last season.
Randy Bullock made just 74.3 percent of his field-goal attempts last season which was the second-worst percentage in the league; Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski had the worst percentage. Bullock was even worse during late-game situations and on field goals 40 yards or longer.
The Texans brought in former Rice kicker Chris Boswell as an undrafted free agent to possibly compete with Bullock. I don't think the plan as of now is to give Boswell the job but instead to have him push and pressure Bullock to see how he responds.
I like the idea of putting Bullock in a competition to see how he handles the pressure after he often cracked under it last season. Hopefully if he wins the competition it will mean he's become a tougher player and is better equipped to handle the late game situations. If he does crumble, then you have his replacement on the roster.
The Texans coverage and return teams also had issues last season which eventually got longtime coordinator Joe Marciano fired.
Return man Keshawn Martin had an average season but wasn't great. Martin finished ninth in yards per kick return and 18th in yards per punt return in 2013. Rookie Andre Hal is an experienced return man and may get a shot at the job.
Some of the Texans draft picks have experience on special teams which should help their return coverage. Fullback Jay Prosch and Lonnie Ballentine specifically I think will have an impact.