Despite a very disappointing 6-10 season that began with hopes of a franchise-first playoff berth, the Houston Texans have reason to be optimistic this off-season.
After several years of stellar offensive play being canceled out by anemic defensive play, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak took full advantage of the pardon he received from Texans owner Bob McNair by hiring former Cowboys head coach and defensive guru Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator.
Although Phillips was an awful head coach by many accounts, his defensive prowess is known throughout the NFL.
Besides, it isn't like the Texans can actually get worse defensively.
All jokes aside, Phillips should prove to be a smart hire by Kubiak. The 3-4 defense Phillips ran in Big D was very effective, and the Texans may have some young players ready to step up and do some damage in a different system.
Offensively, the Texans are one of the top teams in the league, that is until they reach the red zone.
Pretty simple and generic game plan, I would say. But to actually execute the plan is a totally different ball game.
Here are five young players who could step up and help the Texans reach their goal.
A year ago at this time, there was speculation that rookie Ben Tate might be starting at running back for the Texans in 2010.
Then, undrafted free agent Arian Foster took the league by storm, rushing for 1,616 yards on 327 carries on his way to the Pro Bowl.
Amidst all the Foster hype, Tate was forgotten.
But the second-year player out of Auburn, where he rushed for over 3,300 career yards and 24 career touchdowns, has the talent to be a breakout candidate for 2011.
In a league that has become known for running back timeshares, Foster may be frequently spelled by Tate to conserve energy.
Tate may also come in during goal-line situations to punch the ball into the end zone, something the Texans have been remarkably bad at in previous seasons.
I think Tate has the opportunity to gather about 100 carries and 400 to 500 yards along with five or six touchdowns, and considerably more if Foster gets injured.
Considering his grand total of zero touches in 2010, I'd call that a breakout season.
Trindon Holliday was drafted primarily as a kick returner for the Texans back in the 2010 draft. He stands just 5'5", 170 pounds but burned up the track at the NFL Combine with multiple sub-4.3 40 yard dash times.
The LSU product had no stats in 2010, primarily because the Texans already have a stellar returner in Jacoby Jones.
But with Jones slowly being incorporated into a more prominent role at receiver, Holliday may have a chance to step in and start at kick and punt returner.
At LSU, Holliday averaged seven yards per carry in a running back role and also took four kicks to the house throughout his college career.
Holliday is a danger to hit the home run every time he touches the ball.
A 2010 fourth-round pick out of Miami, Darryl Sharpton racked up 244 career tackles in his college career.
With the switch to a 3-4 defense, there will now be two inside linebacker positions up for grabs. While DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing will likely hold down the two starting spots, if either one of them get injured or in trouble, Sharpton could grab a starting position.
Although he notched just 34 tackles and one sack in 2010, he ended the year on a high note, getting 16 tackles and the sack in his last three games.
I think Sharpton will get a lot of significant playing time and rack up 60-70 tackles and a couple sacks, along with a possible interception or forced fumble.
Kareem Jackson had a decent rookie season statistically, but for a first-round draft pick, he disappointed slightly.
A first-round pick out of Alabama, Jackson was drafted to lock down half the field for the Texans but was given more than he could handle at times against some of the NFL's best receivers.
In the 2011 Draft, the Texans wisely picked up some solid secondary talent to surround their youthful corner.
Brandon Harris of Miami, a second-round pick, could step in and start opposite Jackson from day one. This would allow Glover Quin to move to nickel/dime back, which seems to be his more natural position.
Rashad Carmichael of Virginia Tech and Shiloh Keo of Idaho are some solid depth selections as well.
With improved talent around him, Jackson could end up being the shutdown cornerback he was drafted to be in 2010.
Although listed as a defensive end on NFL.com, Connor Barwin was drafted out of Cincinnati as a pass rushing specialist and will likely play outside linebacker in the Texans' new 3-4 defense.
As a rookie, Barwin showcased considerable ability by notching 4.5 sacks and knocking down four passes in passing situations. Unfortunately, he got hurt early in the '10 season and scarcely saw the field.
Barwin seems like a perfect fit for the 3-4 and will be a four-down player for Wade Phillips. The Texans selected Arizona's Brooks Reed to play the opposite outside linebacker spot, and the two could make a solid tandem.
With talent like Reed, Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans accompanying him, Barwin has the potential to make an impact similar to Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Ware in 2011.