Houston Texans Offseason State of the Union

Brian McDonaldContributor IJune 25, 2014

Houston Texans Offseason State of the Union

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    My fellow Texans fans: The state of the team is strong this offseason.

    Sorry, I couldn't resist.

    Seriously though, Texans fans should be excited about this team's future. They have a new head coach on board who seems to have brought a new attitude, they had (by all accounts) a very good draft and have key players like Arian Foster and Brian Cushing returning from season-ending injuries last year.

    I have little doubt that the Texans are headed in the right direction; the question is how quickly will their future become their present?

    The talent across most of the roster—at least on paper—is playoff caliber, but one big question mark could hold the team back: What is Ryan Fitzpatrick capable of?

    If Fitzpatrick can play a brand of football without the crippling mistakes that Matt Schaub was plagued with last year than the team could go places.

    However, as we'll discuss in further detail on the next slide, Fitzpatrick's track record is that of a guy who will cause his coach to pull his hair out with every bad decision he makes with the ball. Hopefully Fitzpatrick can at least keep his head above water this season and not drag down his teammates like an anchor.

Quarterbacks

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    Associated Press

    If the Texans had gotten even average play out of their quarterbacks for the majority of last season, they probably would have won three to five more games. That's not to say that the rest of the team didn't have it's flaws and shortcomings, but the quarterback, whether it be Matt Schaub or later Case Keenum, too often killed the team with their mistakes.

    In comes Ryan Fitzpatrick. Is he a better option than the team's quarterbacks from last season? It will be difficult to tell for sure until they put the pads on during training camp and the preseason, but my early guess is that he might be a slight improvement—but not by much.

    Fitzpatrick has only started all 16 games of a season twice during his NFL career—he threw 39 interceptions over those two seasons. Schaub's worst two-year total is 27.

    Fitzpatrick threw a total of 58 touchdowns to 54 interceptions over the other seven seasons in which he wasn't the starter for the entire slate. Does that seem like an efficient game manager to you?

    Perhaps Bill O'Brien can get something more out of Fitzpatrick than other coaches have—like he did at Penn State with Matt McGloin. But it's hard for me to predict with any confidence that he'll suddenly turn over a new leaf at age 31.

    I like Case Keenum, but I don't view him as their future quarterback like some Texans fans. Good news for the Texans is that they potentially have that guy on their roster for the first time in a long time with rookie Tom Savage.

    I had several concerns and questions about the former Pittsburgh quarterback, but there's no doubt that he has the most physical talent of any player at the position on the Texans roster.

    Patrick Starr of State of the Texans has liked the potential he's seen from Tom Savage so far through the offseason practices:

    Arriving early to the facility and not leaving until dark, he understands that work is needed to be successful at the NFL level. With George Godsey and Bill O’Brien constantly working the quarterbacks, Savage is in good hands to get the coaching he needs to push for a starting job during his career in Houston. With a strong arm, good mobility and a quick release, it is hard not to get excited for what Savage could be.

    No obstacle in front of Savage on the depth chart will be too much for him to overcome. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum are both solid quarterbacks, but neither should be considered a major roadblock.

    Whenever Savage proves to the coaching staff that he's comfortable with the playbook and is capable of playing with better accuracy and anticipation than he did in college, he'll be moved into the starting role. When that happens, who knows, but my guess is no earlier than the week after their bye when they travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns on November 16.

    Until then, the Texans will have to attempt to keep the ship afloat with pail buckets and duct tape.

Running Backs

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    Getting a healthy Arian Foster back on the field instantly improves a position group that struggled last season. However, banking on the health of Foster one year removed from back surgery and with him turning 28 before the season starts is no sure thing.

    Without Foster, the Texans' running backs had a year to forget in 2013. After finishing seventh in rushing yards gained in 2010, second in 2011 and eighth in 2012, the Texans finished 2013 ranked just 20th.

    Insert a few new gifted blockers, a talented rookie back selected in the sixth round, a veteran free agent and a hopefully healthy Arian Foster and I don't see a reason the Texans won't have a top 10 or even top five rushing attack once again.

    What will be exciting to watch in the new offense under coach Bill O'Brien will be the use of Arian Foster's receiving abilities—which have been underutilized over the last two seasons.

    Arian Foster with his one handed catch from practice today. (Yes, he did catch it.) #Texans pic.twitter.com/k4M7XdLhkW

    — PDS (@PatDStat) June 3, 2014

    From ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio, Coach O'Brien wants to get Foster more involved in the passing game:

    He’s got really good hand-eye coordination. He’s got good hands.  He’s an instinctive player.  He has a good idea about how to get open.  He enjoys being involved in the passing game, both in protection bases and obviously on routes.  He’s had a good OTA period for us. 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.

    Foster combined to catch 119 passes for 1,221 yards over his first two full seasons—both totals near the top of the league for the position.

    Inexplicably, his role in the passing game disappeared over the last two seasons with a two-year total of just 62 catches for 400 yards. With his new role, I expect Arian Foster to break his single-season record for receptions.

    One of the players expected to see carries to help limit the wear and tear on Foster and be there in case he gets injured again is rookie sixth-round pick Alfred Blue. The former LSU back has turned heads so far during offseason practices.

    From Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, Coach O'Brien has liked what he's seen from the rookie thus far:

    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.

    Patrick Starr of State of the Texans has also liked what he's seen from Blue during offseason practices:

    He runs smooth and for his 6-2 and 223 lbs. frame he catches the ball with no issues. He will get his induction into the NFL when he has to run inside the tackles but he could be a factor in the passing game as a situational piece. Seeing him in mini-camps, he had a steady progression of improving all the way up until the final day of practices.

    Blue, to us, has everything needed to unseat Andre Brown as the second running back on the depth chart.

    With Foster, Blue and Andre Brown on the roster, I would be shocked if the Texans didn't improve greatly on their rushing performance from last season.

Receivers

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    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.

Offensive Line

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    Issues at left guard and right tackle last season were a big part of why the Texans running backs didn't see many big lanes and why their quarterbacks took too many hits. Not having Arian Foster on the field and having Case Keenum hold on to the ball for too long also played a factor, but I digress.

    With the addition of second-round pick Xavier Su'a-Filo of UCLA, the Texans may have solved their issue at left guard, but right tackle remains an issue after the sad news about David Quessenberry a couple weeks ago.

    Who then will the Texans start at right tackle? Bill O'Brien didn't keep Texans fans waiting for long when he announced that the much maligned Derek Newton would once again be starting at right tackle.

    Before you go reaching for the nearest sharp object, the play from the position could improve not because of a change in personnel but because Newton is healthier and in better shape this season.

    O'Brien: RT Derek Newton had a good offseason, worked hard. But too early to make a final judgement. #Texans

    — Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) May 28, 2014

    Patrick Starr of State of the Texans on the possibility of getting improved play out of Derek Newton who last year received a negative grade from Pro Football Focus:

    Much criticized offensive tackle Derek Newton has arrived to OTAs in great shape and it is apparent he put in much work this offseason. He moves much better than before and has a better kick step with quickness in his pass sets.

    Two positions that don't have any questions surrounding them are of course left tackle and center—manned by two Pro Bowlers considered yearly to be two of the best at their position.

    In addition to the excellent play of Duane Brown and Chris Myers, expect to add right guard Brandon Brooks to that conversation of Pro Bowl offensive lineman on the Texans. The third year player didn't start a single game during his rookie year but took a huge step forward in his development last season when he started 15 games.

    Pro Football Focus even went as far as to label Brooks a secret superstar after the Texans' Week 15 game last year:

    A second-round draft pick a year ago, Brandon Brooks (+5.4) rotated in during the latter part of the 2012 season, and has really kicked on as a full-time starter in 2013.

    Sunday marked the highest graded game of his career, but it’s worth noting that he’s had just four negatively graded games all year and currently sits as our 10th-ranked guard in 2013, so he’s not just a one-game wonder. It was a particularly impressive performance on Sunday, though, where he consistently got to linebackers either on pull blocks or just heading straight to the second level...Definitely a player who has impressed in his second year in the league.

    At around 350 pounds, Brooks was a bit of a surprise when drafted because he wasn't the typical smaller, athletic lineman that Gary Kubiak normally selected. Coming into year three, Brooks has cut a little weight and looks ready to cement his spot as one of the best young lineman in the league.

    At the other guard should be Su'a-Filo. The ex-UCLA player missed all of OTAs and most of the mandatory minicamp because of an NFL rule that wouldn't let him practice until his school year was over. However, he did take an iPad with him to study the playbook and didn't look lost when he returned to the team.

    While Su'a-Filo played several positions in college, I believe his best fit with the Texans will be at the left guard spot vacated by Wade Smith:

    LT, LG, RG were positions played by Xavier Su'a-Filo this year at UCLA. Rick Smith liked that. #Texans

    — Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) May 10, 2014

    Su'a-Filo was ranked either the first or second guard in the draft this year, depending on which ranking you used, and much will be expected of him. Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com also likes his potential and agrees that his best fit in the NFL will be at left guard:

    Quick out of his stance. Effective pass blocker -- can bend his knees, extend and mirror in short area. Generates movement in the run game. Can work his hips and maneuver to gain positioning...Can pull, trap, combo block and step to the second level. Durable three-year starter...Projects best at left guard, where he has starter-caliber ability in a power scheme, though he is athletic enough to appeal to zone teams, too.

    This team isn't perfect, but one position unit that shouldn't have Texans fans pulling out their hair will be the offensive line. At worst they'll be solid, but if Su'a-Filo develops quickly and a slimmer and healthier Newton plays better, the Texans could have one of the best offensive lines in the league once again.

Pass Rush

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    Obviously, the return of a hopefully healthy Jadeveon Clowney from the sports hernia surgery will go a long way towards answering the question of if the Texans will have an improved pass rush this season.

    Despite the brilliance of former Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, the Texans' pass rush was inconsistent at best last season.

    Watt led the team with 10.5 sacks last year but didn't get much help from his teammates as the Texans dropped from fifth in 2012 to 29th in team sacks in 2013.

    The play from Watt was still extraordinary, but when the opposing offense is only concerned with one player, they can focus their entire game plan on him—which will cause the production of even the greatest players to slow down.

    With the addition of first-round pick Clowney, third-round pick Louis Nix III and hopefully a step forward in year three from Whitney Mercilus, the Texans could have some impact players getting after the quarterback along with Watt. If that trio plays well then Watt will see a reduction in the amount of double and triple teams he sees—which will cause his production to rise to 2012 levels.

    No definite answer is out there, and none will likely be given by the parties involved, but I believe Clowney will be back by training camp—or at least not miss much after.

    JaDeveon Clowney says the injury is getting better day by day. He isn't sure if he'll be ready to go by the start of Training Camp #Texans

    — Paul Gallant (@PaulyGSays) June 19, 2014

    Once he does get back on the field, he has the type of once-in-a-generation-level talent to be a special player. Rob Rang of CBS Sports raved about his gifts as a pass-rusher in his evaluation of Clowney before the draft:

    Exceedingly rare combination of size, explosiveness, strength, speed and technique. Times the snap well and possesses true explosiveness out of his stance to cross the face of the left tackle. Exceptional burst off the snap with lateral agility and an array of pass rush moves.

    Simply too quick for trap blocks, consistently flashing into the backfield to beat oncoming blockers (as in the case of the famous Michigan tackle for loss, forced and recovered fumble)...

    Uses his hands well to fight through blockers' attempts to corral him, demonstrating refined hand placement and impressive strength. Does not rely on his outside speed rush, complementing his burst with an equally effective interior rush due to a terrific swim move and very good lateral agility.

    Frequently used on twists and stunts, in which he loops inside to attack slower-footed interior linemen, demonstrating the toughness and athleticism to handle inside duties...

    Patrick Starr of State of the Texans also noticed those rare physical gifts while watching Clowney during offseason practices:

    Clowney is learning the position and seeing him understand how to drop into coverage and what to look for in routes has been a sight to see. He can cover ground in a hurry with one step and his on field speed makes the defense that much faster on the edge.

    When Clowney is allowed to work on his pass rush, his first step when the ball is snapped is unreal. Today he worked fellow rookie offensive tackle Brian Witzmann when he blew by him during a pass play before Witzmann was even able to get out of his stance. He has the speed and his technique is still being refined day to day. He has everything that the scouts have talked about, untapped potential.

    Another player in the front-seven that Texans fans should be excited about is rookie Louis Nix III. The former standout at Notre Dame is the type of massive nose tackle the Texans have never had.

    However, don't label Nix III as only a run-stuffing, two-gap player. He's capable of getting up the field as well, as Dane Brugler of CBS Sports noticed when evaluating the massive defensive lineman:

    Nimble feet with the lateral quickness to explode in any direction and chase down the action in pursuit...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.

    If Nix III can push the pocket from the middle of the line, he'll greatly impact the sack totals and production level of his teammates. If he's able to knock his blocker or blockers into the backfield then the quarterback won't be able to step up in the pocket and will be a sitting duck for Watt, Clowney and Mercilus.

    With the new additions along with Watt, Mercilus and possibly even Jared Crick at the other defensive end spot, the Texans could have their best front-seven and group of pass-rushers in team history.

Defensive Backs

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    The Texans didn't add much to the secondary that I would consider high-level talent, but they did add a few veterans that should help a unit who's production level dropped off last season. One big reason for the drop off was the Texans got next to zero pass rush up front; no secondary can cover forever.

    With a few major additions up front, that part of the equation should now be fixed.

    The Texans have talent in the secondary, but many questions remain that will determine the success of the unit once answered.

    One of those questions is the health of Pro Bowl corner Johnathan Joseph, who hasn't played in all 16 games of a regular season since 2009.

    We haven't seen much of Joseph so far through the Texans' offseason practices because he's been wisely held out. Joseph is a smart veteran who will be able to learn the new system quickly; the Texans shouldn't waste his energy until training camp.

    Another question surrounding the Texans secondary is what they'll do at the slot corner position after cutting Brice McCain just before the start of free agency.

    McCain wasn't a player talented enough to get too concerned over losing, but he is a body they need to replace and an important one considering how often Bill O'Brien has talked about playing in nickel or sub packages with more defensive backs on the field.

    O'Brien: J.J. Watt will be moved around a lot in Romeo Crennel's 3-4. But #Texans will be in nickel 70% of time.

    — Drew Dougherty (@DoughertyDrew) March 31, 2014

    One answer could be Kareem Jackson sliding over. I wouldn't expect him to play in the slot for the majority of the season or any individual game, but moving there from time to time depending on the quality of the opposing slot receiver could be a huge help.

    From Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com, Coach O'Brien has liked the versatility Jackson has shown through offseason practices:

    A slot corner has to have quickness, has to have strength, has to have awareness and has to be able to, relative to the strength, be able to tackle...Middle runs that they see they have to be able to tackle...When you have a guy like Kareem (Jackson) that is doing that for us right now, who can play outside and inside, he’s a guy that is playing inside for us too.

    Other players that could make a contribution include former second round pick Brandon Harris and rookies Andre Hal and Marcus Williams.

    Hal, a seventh-round pick, is a player that many were surprised fell so far in the draft—including the guys from the Battle Red Blog, who called the former Vanderbilt corner the best at the position in this year's draft.

    That's going a bit too far in my opinion, but Hal does have talent. That talent has shown up on the practice field after a slow start, according to Patrick Starr of State of the Texans:

    He has some work to do but appears to have a better chance on playing on the outside of the defense. He has good hips to turn and run with wide receivers, but his biggest adjustment is coming from trusting his instincts and putting his fundamentals he is learning to the field...

    His late surge of play on the field opened some eyes that things could be clicking for the rookie.

    Questions remain, but the Texans do have more talent on their roster in the secondary this season than last.

     

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