4 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Houston Texans
Get ready to either hate me or love me! I doubt there will be any in-between after reading these predictions, but hey, isn't the debate and discussion a part of the fun of being a sports fan?
There is a lot of mystery surrounding the Houston Texans going into the 2014 season, thanks to a new coaching staff, a new offense, several high-profile rookies on the roster and an undecided competition for the starting quarterback position. With all of those unknowns, I have nearly unlimited material with which to make a few bold predictions.
In addition, there are a few predictions that are less bold, as the headline would suggest.
Be sure to comment. Let's have fun debating these!
Bold Prediction: J.J. Watt Will Break the NFL Sack Record
That bold enough for you?
In 2012, Antonio Smith was the Texans' second-best pass-rusher, and he only finished with seven sacks. Without another huge pass-rushing threat on the roster, there's no doubt that the Texans' opponents focused the large majority of their game plan on slowing down Watt. This year, he will still be the main focus of Texans opponents this year, but reinforcements have arrived.
Who, other than Watt, worried opposing offensive coordinators last year? With the additions of Jadeveon Clowney and Louis Nix III through the draft, opponents will be forced to give more attention to other players besides Watt this season and even give him fewer double- and triple-teams.
Nix has the potential to be an impact player at nose tackle like a Vince Wilfork. If he is able to push the pocket from his spot, then quarterbacks won't be able to step up in the pocket and will have fewer options when trying to escape. Watt could benefit from a quarterback trapped inside the pocket.
Clowney has the potential to become a double-digit sack guy each season. With him lined up on the opposite side of the line, Houston's opponents won't be able to slide the line over to Watt's side or double-team him as often thanks to the attention that Clowney will command. His impact will mean more one-on-one blocks for Watt, and I expect Watt to win the majority of these matchups.
And if Whitney Mercilus takes a step forward in year three, the Texans could have the best pass-rushing group in the league. Even if he doesn't, though, Watt has never had more potential high-level talent around him on the roster than he does right now.
Less Bold Prediction: The Texans Will Have a Top-Five Defense
The 2009 Kansas City Chiefs defense finished the season ranked 29th and 30th in points and yards allowed, respectively, without Romeo Crennel on the coaching staff. The next season, in 2010, the Chiefs finished the season ranked 11th and 14th in those same stats under Crennel.
Having a defense ranked 11th in points allowed and 14th in yards allowed is nothing to brag about, but jumping up to those spots from a previous rank of 29th and 30th proved that the Texans' new defensive coordinator can flat-out coach defense.
Wade Phillips is a good defensive coach, but it was time for him to go. A pattern has emerged during every stop of Phillips' career of him greatly improving the defense in year one, with a gradual to quick regression over the following years.
In Houston, Phillips took the Texans from one of the worst defenses in NFL history in 2010 to a top-five defense in both points and yards allowed the following season. But the Texans went from a rank of fourth and second in points and yards allowed, respectively, in 2011, to ninth and seventh in 2012 and then 24th and seventh in 2013.
Over his four years with the New England Patriots, Crennel's defenses ranked sixth, 17th, first and second in points allowed.
There were several factors that played into why the Texans defense dropped off under Phillips, including the loss players like Glover Quin and Connor Barwin, but I think the biggest factor was the predictability of his scheme.
On virtually every play, fans and opponents all knew that the Texans would be in man coverage; Phillips seemed to have an allergy to zone defenses. Everyone also knew that he loved to call for the blitz. I like a coordinator who is willing to bring pressure, but any plan of attack has to be varied or it will eventually be figured out by the opponent and have its weaknesses exposed.
When the Texans blitzed you almost always knew it would be coming and that they would be playing man coverage behind the blitz.
Mixing it up a least a little with a corner blitz or a zone blitz, with a defensive lineman dropping back, would have gone a long way toward confusing opposing quarterbacks, who too often looked very comfortable in the pocket.
If there's one thing that Crennel and head coach Bill O'Brien have promised for the Texans defense, it's that they will be versatile with their scheme and formations. They won't attack each opponent the same way like a cookie cutter; they'll mix up looks, coverages and blitz concepts.
Every opponent isn't the same, so the defensive plan of attack shouldn't be the same each week. Game plans should adjust according to the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent, something Wade Phillips neglected.
Bold Prediction: Case Keenum Will Be Cut or Traded Before the Season Starts
Case Keenum loyalists aren't going to like this.
With OB hinting about "possibly" going to camp with 3 QBs. I know who Houston fans want cut and I know who #Texans fans want cut.— PDS (@PatDStat) June 9, 2014
The Texans shouldn't take all four quarterbacks to training camp and definitely will need to cut one loose before the start of the preseason; there are just not enough snaps to go around. O'Brien will need to get snaps for his starter and backup to make sure they're up to speed on the new offense before the season starts. And, of course, they'll want to have enough time left over to get Tom Savage some experience.
O’Brien said it’s truly hard to get 4 QBs reps in camp. Really only 3 get reps in a practice. Doesn’t always make guys happy, but only way— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) June 9, 2014
Per Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, Coach O'Brien talks about the situation at quarterback:
Any time you have four … I don’t think it’s easy to divide the reps. I think you can really get three guys reps in practice, which is basically what we’ve been doing. I know that’s probably not the easiest thing for those guys. But three out of four have been getting reps.
Dividing up the reps is already difficult now, but finding time for all four quarterbacks during the preseason will be impossible. Think about the second and third preseason games and how the reps are typically divided up; it just won't work.
In the second game, the starter typically plays the entire first half, with the second- and third-string quarterbacks under center for the third and fourth quarter. In the third game, the starter typically plays three quarters, with the last quarter going to the backups. Where in those scenarios will the Texans have time to play a fourth quarterback?
Ryan Fitzpatrick as the veteran leader/short-term answer and Tom Savage as the developmental rookie are absolute locks to make the roster. Don't spend time debating it, it would be a waste of your time. That, of course, means the odd man out will either be T.J. Yates or Keenum.
It's no big deal around the NFL, but it is N Houston cause Case Keenum is wildly popular. Either Keenum or TJ Yates will be gone before camp— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) June 10, 2014
The quarterback most likely to be the odd man out is Keenum, in my opinion.
Yes, he went to the University of Houston and put up record numbers in a pass-happy offense. Yes, he looked great in the first half of a couple games as a starter for the Texans.
I'm here to tell you that O'Brien doesn't care about either of those things. He's going to pick the quarterback that best fits his offense and not base the decision on hometown emotion or college stats.
My preference would be to keep Keenum, but I don't get to make those decisions, and I don't think the coaching staff agrees with my assessment. With the better size and arm strength Yates more closely fits the physical mold of a Bill O'Brien quarterback, going off the players he's picked so far, like Savage and, in college, Christian Hackenberg.
Keenum does some things very well and performed at a high level during the first half of games last year against the Chiefs, Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts, but he fell apart in the second half too often and played awful over his final five starts, with just two touchdowns to six interceptions.
On top of that, he doesn't have the physical size and tools that Coach O'Brien appears to look for.
I'm not saying the decision is correct, but that is the reality.
Less Bold Prediction: Texans Won't Make the Playoffs
At best, the 2014 Texans will finish 8-8, but most likely, they'll win six or seven games and miss the playoffs.
I can hear the arguments now, and I can see your point with most of them, but bottom line: How often do teams with gigantic question marks at quarterback make the playoffs?
Yes, Trent Dilfer's team won a Super Bowl, and Brad Johnson wasn't exactly an All-Pro player. But they are the exception, not the rule.
If the Texans had gotten even average play out of their quarterbacks last year, they would have won four or five more games—I really believe that. But, as we all saw, the quarterbacks too often made crucial mistakes and fell apart in the second half.
Some of you no doubt think that Fitzpatrick can be a game manager this season, but I disagree with that assessment.
During his only two seasons as a full 16-game starter, Fitzpatrick threw a combined 39 interceptions.
That's not a game manager; hell, that's not even better than Matt Schaub. The worst two-year interception total of Schaub's career is 27.
Maybe O'Brien can bring up Fitzpatrick's level of play like he did with Matt McGloin while he was the head coach at Penn State. But even if he does, I doubt a veteran quarterback over the age of 30 can suddenly become a different type of player. He is who he is and may be their best option at this time, but he's never been an efficient game manager.
To the positive, I think the Texans have a playoff-caliber defense, offensive line and running game if Arian Foster remains healthy. That said, depending on Foster's health and the play of multiple first-year players on the offensive line and on the defense is nowhere close to a sure bet.
I think the Texans will be improved, but they are still one year away and will return to the playoffs in 2015.
Bold Prediction: Arian Foster Will Set a Career High in Receptions
If you play in a PPR fantasy football league, pay attention.
Over the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Foster averaged 60 receptions for 610 receiving yards—outstanding numbers for a running back. His 66 receptions in 2010 ranked him second to LeSean McCoy amongst running backs in that stat.
For whatever reason, the Texans have used Foster less and less as a receiver over the last two seasons. He went from averaging 600 receiving yards over his first two seasons to racking up just 400 over the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The good news for fantasy owners who have Foster on their roster, though, is that it appears O'Brien plans to take advantage of Foster's skill as a receiver in the Texans new offense:
#Texans' Duane Brown said Arian Foster is making people miss in OTAs. Running very sharp and motivated for season, increased role in offense— Brian T. Smith (@ChronBrianSmith) June 5, 2014
Foster told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle that he likes the role he'll play in the Texans' new offense.
So far, I really like it. It’s very versatile.
Coach O’Brien has expressed to me how he wants to use me out of the backfield. That’s one of my strengths.
O'Brien told the media recently, via Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston, that he wants to see Foster fill the role of other receiving backs he's coached, like Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk.
In the past, we’ve had guys like Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead in this offense that have filled those types of roles and now it looks like definitely Arian will be able to do that and more.
He’s got really good hand-eye coordination. He’s got good hands. He’s an instinctive player so he has a good idea about how to get open. And he enjoys being involved in the passing game, both on the protection basis and then routes. He’s had a good OTA period for us.
What the most important thing to do is to make sure that you look at the player’s skill set and figure out how they fit your system, or our system and so what we do is when we have a back that is a three-down back as Arian is, a guy that can play on first, second and third down, then you’re finding ways to incorporate him into the passing game and the running game and it really works out well for your offense.
Given his age and the high volume of carries Foster received between 2010 and 2012, I expect the Texans to lighten his load some in terms of his carry total.
The rushing attempts were spread out between three running backs on the Patriots roster in 2011, when O'Brien was their offensive coordinator, with no back going over 190 carries; Foster averaged 319 carries between the 2010 and 2012 seasons.
I think Foster will get more carries than the 181 BenJarvus Green-Ellis received, but I hope his days of carrying the ball over 300 times are over. A running-back-by-committee strategy is my preference in most situations.
My expectation is that the Texans will increase his touches as a receiver to make up some of the difference and take advantage of his skill as a receiver and his ability to make defenders miss in open space.
Foster will excel in this new expanded role.
Less Bold Prediction: DeAndre Hopkins Will Surpass 1,000 Yards
With better quarterback play, DeAndre Hopkins might have passed the 1,000-yard milestone last year during his rookie season. Both the play from the team's QBs and spending some of the season in coach Gary Kubiak's doghouse helped keep his receiving totals to 52 receptions for 802 yards. Those are respectable totals for a rookie, but they could have been better.
The good news is Hopkins appears to have overcome the rookie mistakes and has played well during OTAs and veteran minicamp.
Per Deepi Sidhu of the team's official website, O'Brien likes the willingness that Hopkins has shown to work hard during practice:
He’s a hard worker. He’s a young player. This is a brand new system for him so it’s difficult because he had a rookie year, now he’s having to learn a new system. I think he’s working really hard. He takes the coaching well. He’s a big guy. He’s a physical player. He’s learning a new way of doing things relative to our offense and I think he comes out there and tries to get better every day.
Patrick Starr of State of the Texans also likes what he's seen from Hopkins so far:
All the attention has been pointed at who has not been at OTAs, but DeAndre Hopkins has been working as hard as anyone. He is still doing what makes him good, catching everything thrown in his direction. The way he plucks the ball out of the air is still as impressive as it what is was his rookie season. His body frame looks much stronger; he was very lean as a rookie, but this season his body looks more adapted for NFL level play. Hopkins has made it clear that learning the new offense has not been easy and it is taking more studying than last season to get the offense down.
Hopkins has the size and speed required to play the position at a high level and great hands if you remember the piece Sports Science did on him before he was drafted.
The level of quarterback play isn't expected to be much better, but with a new coaching staff and a year of experience helping him, I think Hopkins will take a big step forward this season.
Bold Prediction: The Texans Will Have a Top-Five Running Game
What changed from 2010 and 2011 when they were so successful?
They lost four of their best run-blockers and didn't do a great job of replacing them. Losing Vonta Leach, Eric Winston, Mike Brisiel and Joel Dreessen had an obvious negative impact on the production level of the Texans' running game.
Second-year starter Brandon Brooks, who the Texans selected in the third round in 2012, played well last year and has looked good during OTAs, leading some, like Patrick Starr of State of the Texans, to think the team not only found its replacement for Brisiel, but a possible future Pro Bowl player as well:
Offensive guard Brandon Brooks is turning into one of the top guards in the NFL. At 6-5 and 335 lbs., Brooks is everything you want in an offensive lineman and he has learned what it takes to be good at this level to be good. Only 24 years old, Brooks can move defensive lineman when he needs to and has improved on his pass protection from year one to entering his 3rd season.
He is a quiet force for the Texans offenses and he will be one of the staples of the offensive line.
The Texans think that Brooks can hold down the right guard spot for the next several years or more, but they still had holes at left guard, right tackle and fullback and needed to add a blocking tight end during the draft to replace the players they had lost.
The team addressed those needs with the selections of UCLA guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, Auburn fullback Jay Prosch and Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Right tackle is still a question mark after David Quessenberry was diagnosed with lymphoma, according to the team's official site (h/t Patrick D. Star of State of the Texans). Hopefully he beats it soon, but until then, the Texans will have to look somewhere else.
The good news is that if the Texans are forced to play Derek Newton again, he's come into camp in better shape, recovered from the injuries that slowed him down last year, and I always thought he was a better run-blocker than pass protector. I'm not thrilled about him starting, but he should do well enough in the run game.
Besides right tackle, the Texans have potentially replaced all the missing pieces from their great running attack several years ago.
Rob Rang of CBS Sports liked Su'a-Filo's ability as a run-blocker in his pre-draft evaluation of the UCLA prospect:
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.
Outstanding peripheral blocking vision -- scans wide and locates. Generates power through his lower body and drives defenders out of the hole. Very good hip roll and explosion. Runs his feet on contact. Intense, determined competitor. Good finisher. Is fairly light on his feet for such a big, strong player. Can create a surge in short-yardage situations and power through the line.
Scouts were also high on Fiedorowicz as a run-blocker. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports called him a throwback player because of that skill:
A throwback tight end capable of dominating opponents as a blocker and holding his own as a receiver. He played a key functional role in a run-first offense with the feet to blend in at the end of the offensive line and the hands and reach to be his quarterback's best friend.
Outside of the added blockers, the Texans also drafted a rookie running back who has been turning heads so far and could fill the void left by the departure of Ben Tate.
According to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, Alfred Blue from LSU has impressed O'Brien so far during OTAs and rookie minicamp:
He’s doing pretty well. He’s a guy that came in here as a talented young player that has shown us early on — very early now, OK? So we’re not sending him off to the Pro Bowl just yet. But he’s able to learn and he’s got some instincts and he so far he seems like a good team guy. I’ve enjoyed being around him.
Patrick Starr of State of the Texans has also been impressed by Blue:
New Texans rookie running back Alfred Blue is taller and leaner than we expected. He has better hands out of the backfield than most and catches like a wide receiver. He has a nice one cut and get up field that most are accustomed to here in Houston. Blue is an all around running back which makes him a viable asset moving forward.
Foster appears to be healthy, and all the pieces are in place for the Texans to once again have a dominant running game. Considering the state of the quarterback position on the team, I expect Houston to lean heavily on the running game.
For the first time in several years, the Texans' running game looks to be ready to handle the load.
Less Bold Prediction: Jadeveon Clowney Will Be the Defensive Rookie of the Year
The first overall pick and a player called the best pass-rushing prospect in a decade will win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. I really stepped out on a limb, huh? Well, as the slide's title says, it's one of my "less bold" predictions.
I think Clowney will win the award because of his physical talent and because of the talent level of the defense he'll be joining, which will give him a chance to shine.
Patrick D. Starr of State of the Texans is among those who have been blown away by Clowney's physical gifts:
Seeing Jadeveon Clowney move is a sight to see. He ran down Alfred Blue on a swing pass where Blue had a 5 yard head start. #Texans— PDS (@PatDStat) May 16, 2014
Today was the 2nd time I’ve seen Clowney since OTAs started were he has blown by someone trying to block him w/o getting out of their stance— PDS (@PatDStat) June 10, 2014
No one doubted Clowney's physical gifts leading up to the draft, but some were concerned about his work ethic. But Starr reports that those red flags have been nonexistent so far, according to O'Brien.
He’s really worked hard. That position has worked extremely hard just like all the positions. I think he’s a guy that’s come in here and really put in extra time so far. He needs to keep doing it. He’s put in extra time in the training room to work on his flexibility. He’s put in extra time on the practice field.
Alright, so rare physical talent? Check. Better-than-expected work ethic? Check.
Another check mark in the right column is the coaching he's received from his position coach, former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. I think having Vrabel as his coach is perfect for Clowney as he tries to adjust to NFL life and the high expectations.
Vrabel played in the same system under defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, was a pretty good player who won Super Bowl rings—which will get Clowney's respect and attention—and he was also a key recruiter for Ohio State until he joined the Texans, so he has experience dealing with high-level prospects who have to adjust to a higher level of play.
From Dave Zangaro of CSN Houston, Clowney says he's loved working with Vrabel so far:
Oh my God. One of the highest I’ve ever been around. He’s just full-go. Everything he do, teaching is full-go. He’s just a high-intensity guy and he’s great to be around. If you tired in the morning, he’s going to wake you up early. I love him. I love learning from him. I hope he continues to teach me more.
My prediction for Clowney's rookie season: 12 sacks.
That will be good enough to take home the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
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