The Houston Texans have been brimming with potential for several years now, but 2011 might be the year they finally break through to the playoffs.
I know what you're thinking—that's what they said last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. But since the hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, there has been a new air surrounding the program. An air of excitement.
2010 was a lost year that saw the Texans finish a disappointing 6-10, largely due to an underachieving defense that included the NFL's worst secondary. But hope springs anew.
After head coach Gary Kubiak was spared his job by owner Bob McNair, he wasted no time in beginning repairs on the defense. He started by fixing the foundation and ended by making two big splashes in free agency.
Is 2011 finally the year for Houston to make its first-ever playoff appearance?
Only time will tell, but for the Texans, there will never be a better opportunity. All they have to do is capitalize on these five reasons.
Let's be frank—Wade Phillips is not a good head coach. Even before the 2010 debacle in which he was fired from the Dallas Cowboys, he had not been known for being a good manager.
But what you can't take away from Phillips is his defensive prowess. It's no secret Phillips knows how to stop an offense, and he showed it with the Cowboys.
The best thing about Houston hiring Phillips is that the Texans have a ton of talent that can fit well into his 3-4 defense, and with their free agent signings (more to come on that), the Texans defense may end up being as much of a strength in 2011 as it was a weakness in 2010.
Arian Foster was an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee who had a surprise breakout season in 2010. His 1,616 yards led the league, and he also scored 16 touchdowns an averaged a sterling 4.8 yards on the ground.
The bad news for Foster is that the Texans failed to make elite fullback Vonta Leach a priority this offseason, letting him sign with the Baltimore Ravens.
But if Houston can find an adequate replacement for Leach (which may come by way of Rice product James Casey), Foster shouldn't miss a beat. On top of that, Houston gets Ben Tate back from injury. Tate should be a very effective back-up and help take the load off Foster.
Now that Houston should finally have a consistent running game, defenses will not be able to key in on the prolific passing offense. Balance means effectiveness, and that should especially be the case for Houston in 2011.
Who could forget about the Houston Texans' incredible passing game?
Quarterback Matt Schaub and elite receiver Andre Johnson have teamed up to be one of the most consistently dominant duos in the NFL, and that won't change in 2011.
Young and promising receivers Jacoby Jones and Dorin Dickerson will provide strong complements to Johnson, while dangerous tight end Owen Daniels and reliable slot receiver Kevin Walter round out Schaub's deep reserve of weapons.
Houston ranked fourth in the NFL in passing yards, and 2011 shouldn't see much of a change.
Division rivals could be overwhelmed through the air by the Texans.
If there's a better reason to get excited about the Houston Texans than the splashes they made in free agency, it's their linebackers.
Now that Wade Phillips will employ a 3-4 defensive scheme, Houston will be utilizing four linebackers on the field at once, rather than three. And with all the talent they have at the position, it's hard not to be excited.
Defensive general DeMeco Ryans will play alongside the young-but-immensely-talented Brian Cushing in the middle. Those two will be joined by pass rushing specialist Connor Barwin and standout defensive end Mario Williams on the outside.
Williams, in particular, should be a big concern for offensive coordinators. The 6'6", 295 pounder is absolutely enormous for the outside linebacker position, but his athleticism allows him to get away with it.
Already a pass-rushing force, Williams will now get a running head start before clashing with the offensive tackle. Think DeMarcus Ware, plus two inches and 35 pounds.
Be scared, Peyton. Very scared.
With all the talent the Houston Texans possessed prior to the free agency period, the whole 2011 season could have been spoiled by one weak link: the secondary.
But Houston made two huge free agent signings that potentially erases those questions completely.
Stud cornerback Johnathan Joseph was widely considered to be a lock for either re-signing with the Cincinnati Bengals or coming to terms with the Detroit Lions, but the Texans swooped in and signed him for $48.75 million ($23.5 million guaranteed) over five years.
While that may seem like a lot, it was significantly less that what Nnamdi Asomugha would have cost.
Asomugha signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, which may not seem like too much of a difference. But since the Eagles are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, he very likely accepted less money from Philadelphia than he would have from Houston.
Joseph was actually a better option for Houston, though, because he is three years younger and allowed Houston to sign another significant defensive back to bolster the secondary.
That signing came in the form of a four-year, $20 million deal with strong safety Danieal Manning, who is one of the more underrated safeties in the NFL and will provide a very solid starter.
Houston's number one priority in free agency was fixing their weakest link, and they succeeded.
I don't know about you, but to me, this screams "Playoffs!"