For years, the Houston Texans have been everyone's favorite "sleeper" team. In fact, they have been chosen as the "team you don't expect to win but will" team for so many years now that the playoffs are almost expected.
In 2010, the Texans were third among all NFL teams in total offense and scored 24.4 points per game. Matt Schaub had the fourth most passing yards of all NFL quarterbacks, and running back Arian Foster led the league in rushing. It was a dynamic offense capable of completely dominating a game.
However, the team's defense was absolutely dreadful, and the Texans only won six games in 2010. The NFL's 30th ranked defense was the league's worst against the past and allowed 26.7 points per game.
Many called for head coach Gary Kubiak's head after this disappointing season, but the critics were left disappointed when owner Bob McNair chose to retain him. The defensive staff in Houston was not as fortunate, however, and four of the team's defensive coaches were fired.
While Phillips failed as the head honcho in Dallas and Buffalo, he has always been incredibly successful as a defensive guru. The transition would not be easy, however, and the team would begin the difficult switch to a 3-4 defense.
Despite Houston's awful defensive rankings, the Texans did have some talent on the defense. Mario Williams is one of the NFL's premier defensive ends, and DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing are an incredibly talented linebacker duo.
Though Williams was expected to play defensive end due to his 6'7" 295-pound frame, Phillips announced that the former No. 1 pick would primarily play linebacker. With 48 sacks in his first five pro seasons, "Super Mario" has lived up to the hype and should continue to dominate as a pass rusher from the linebacker position.
With Ryans and Cushing filling the two inside linebacker positions, one outside spot remained open.
Connor Barwin was a highly touted pass rusher in the 2009 draft, and though the second-round pick's season was cut short in 2010 due to injury, he was still thought to have promise. The former Cincinnati Bearcat always did project better to the 3-4 defense but was still unknown as an NFL player. He was expected to be the starter opposite of Williams.
Defensive end Antonio Smith has the size to play the 5-tech in the 3-4 defense, but he was but one of the ends needed.
That's what the Texans were thinking when the selected J.J. Watt with the 11th pick of the 2011 NFL draft. The 6'6" 290-pound Watt was a star at Wisconsin and is best utilized in a 3-4 defense like Wade Phillips'.
In the second round, Houston turned to the linebacker position and selected Arizona pass rusher Brooks Reed with the 42nd pick. While Reed may not immediately start over Barwin, he will rotate in and likely take over the starting position in 2012.
Though the Texans were obviously devoted to improving their front seven, they did not ignore the team's most pressing need: the defensive backfield.
Week after week in 2010, the Texans showed an abysmal secondary. Rookie cornerback Kareem Jackson showed some promise, but he obviously was not ready for a starting role and was often burnt. The rest of the secondary also struggled immensely but unlike Jackson, they failed to show the promise of a young first round draft pick.
Fortunately for Houston fans, the team did not leave this hole unaddressed. First they selected Miami cornerback Brandon Harris with the 60th pick of the draft. While Harris is somewhat limited athletically, he is a solid player and should develop into a quality nickelback.
But the big move for the Texans didn't happen until free agency began in late July, and the team signed Bengal cornerback Johnathan Joseph to a five-year contract worth $48.75 million per ESPN. While Joseph is not Nnamdi Asomugha, he is a top level defender capable of shutting down an excellent receiver.
All of these moves should lead to significant improvement along the defensive side of the ball. Even if the Houston defense isn't especially good, the team's offense is dynamic enough to carry the team.
Houston didn't make many moves on offense because, quite simply, they didn't need to. Andre Johnson may be the best receiver in the game, and Matt Schaub can throw the ball at a high level.
Arian Foster looks to build upon his breakout season in 2010, though a recent hamstring may hold him back some. If Foster is limited by his injury, 2010 second-round draft pick Ben Tate will likely get the bulk of carries. Tate would have been the starter in Houston last year if he had not broken his leg prior to the start of the season.
The Texans are also looking for Jacoby Jones to produce more on offense, and tight end Owen Daniels's torn ACL is further in the past.
While Houston's offensive line is not great, it isn't terrible either. Duane Brown and Eric Winston provide a solid tackle combination and the interior line isn't awful either.
This isn't to say that the Texans are a great team; they're not. They still have holes along the offensive line, and outside of Andre Johnson, the team's wide receivers aren't great. Defensive line and linebacker depth is thin, and despite upgrades, the secondary may still struggle in 2011.
But the talent is there for a winner in Houston. The team's offense should actually improve and the defense could make a complete 180-degree turnaround. Just Wade Phillips immediately improves the defense and there has been a significant upgrade in talent.
For years, analysts and fans alike have been expecting big things from the Houston Texans. In the past, these expectations have never really been fair, but if Gary Kubiak and company don't make a run in 2011, it may finally be time for a change.