Patric Schneider/Associated Press
I have no questions about the talent of this group. The only question is if Andre Johnson will be one of the receiving threats on the roster and if Ryan Fitzpatrick can get the football into the hands of his playmakers instead of the hands of the opponent.
With Andre Johnson on board, I think the Texans would have one of the top-five receiving groups when you factor in wide receivers, tight ends and even what the running backs are capable of doing. Without him, I would question whether or not second-year player DeAndre Hopkins is ready to be their feature receiver on the outside.
Despite turning 33 years old before the season starts, I still believe Johnson is in his prime.
Over the last two seasons—still over the age of 30—Johnson has gone over 1,400 receiving yards—a feat only matched by Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas.
The Texans will need big performances from their receivers with what they have at quarterback, and that will include a step up in year two from last year's first-round selection DeAndre Hopkins. The former Clemson star had a solid rookie season with 52 receptions for 802 yards, but I expect (and the team needs) those numbers to improve.
Hopkins struggled at times with learning the offense and adapting to a higher level of competition last year, and that caused him to get benched by former head coach Gary Kubiak at one point.
Good news for Hopkins is it appears he's overcome that, and new coach Bill O'Brien has been impressed by his work through the early practices, according to Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com:
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 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.
I don't think it's crazy to expect to see Hopkins' numbers improve up to around 75 catches for over 1,000 yards this season.
With the outside receiver spots in good hands, one of the big concerns this offseason was who would be in the slot for the Texans this year.
Keshawn Martin—who the previous regime drafted to be a slot receiver—has been largely disappointing with only 32 receptions for 338 yards over his two-year NFL career.
If Martin isn't capable of stepping up and performing at a higher level then who will be the Texans slot receiver?
The answer, in my opinion, will be either Mike Thomas or Alan Bonner.
Regardless of who it is, Coach O'Brien appears to be treating the slot position as its own entity instead of just the third receiver on the depth chart. Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com discusses that change in philosophy with stats showing how little the position was utilized under Gary Kubiak:
Having a dedicated slot receiver hasn't been such a big focus for the Texans in the past couple years, so much so that Texans coach Bill O'Brien wasn't so sure there was a true slot receiver on the roster when he looked at it initially. Per ESPN Stats & Information, the Texans targeted the slot 19.1 percent of the time during the past two seasons, and more of those targets went to Andre Johnson than any other player. Tight ends Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham were second and third on the list before Keshawn Martin, who played primarily in the slot.
But it's a position that's going to matter a lot in O'Brien's offense. Consider this: over the past two seasons, the Texans only targeted the slot 214 times total, per ESPN Stats & Info. The Patriots in 2011, the year O'Brien served as their offensive coordinator, targeted the slot 266 times in just one season. Wes Welker had 130 of those targets, catching 92 passes out of the slot.
From the same article, Bill O'Brien talks about what he wants from the position:
It is a totally different position. On the inside I would say it is very important to be quicker than fast sometimes. It’s important to have good hands. It’s important to be a very tough guy, a guy that can block, run for us. Obviously a very smart and instinctive player because it moves a lot faster on the inside with different bracket coverages, one-on-one coverages and different leverages that they see, things that they see at the snap of the ball that maybe they didn’t see when they broke the huddle.
Patrick Starr of State of the Texans discusses the status of the position battle at slot receiver:
With the discussion of who could be the slot wide receiver, Mike Thomas and Alan Bonner are looking like the best fits for the position. Both bring different skill sets to the position with Bonner’s short area burst and quickness and Thomas’ veteran understanding of defenses.
I believe the leader in the clubhouse at this point is Mike Thomas. The former Jaguar fell off the map last year but had a very good season for Jacksonville in 2010 when he led them in both receptions and receiving yards.
Helping take pressure off the receivers and being a safety valve for the quarterback will be a talented trio of tight ends. Rookie third round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz joins Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin as targets for Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Graham—who signed a free agent deal to remain with the Texans during the offseason—filled in well for Owen Daniels in the second part of last season once the longtime Texan went down with an injury. Graham caught 49 passes for 545 yards over only 11 starts.
Graham's average for catches and yards per game over the eight games after Daniels went down—Graham missed the final three games of the year—would have put him near the top of the league in both categories.
Over those eight games he averaged 4.5 catches for 50.5 yards—which would have totaled out to 72 catches for 808 yards over a full season (that would have ranked him eighth in both categories amongst tight ends).
Graham will be paired up with Fiedorowicz this season, who Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com said has good potential as a receiver in his breakdown of him before the draft:
Has stature and enough speed to threaten the seam. Understands how to use his frame and physicality to create subtle separation. Makes athletic hands catches off his frame. Sizable catch radius. Shows toughness and concentration in traffic. Lowers his shoulder to deliver a blow after the catch. Can line up in-line or split out.
If Ryan Fitzpatrick—or whoever ends up being their quarterback by the time the season is finished—isn't successful, I'll guarantee you that it won't be the fault of his receiving group.