5 Positions Houston Texans Must Still Address Before 2015 Season
The 2015 NFL draft helped the Houston Texans upgrade several positions in their lineup. These include Kevin Johnson as the first cornerback off the bench, Benardrick McKinney as an inside linebacker with the potential to slide over to the “Sam” spot and Jaelen Strong playing the part of the big-bodied possession receiver.
Special teams could get a boost from wide receiver Keith Mumphery and outside linebacker Reshard Cliett. Christian Covington (6’3”, 300 lbs) has the body type and no-quit attitude defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel looks for in a 3-technique defensive end. Kenny Hilliard joins Alfred Blue as the next piece in what could become a pipeline of running backs from LSU.
General manager Rick Smith had to sacrifice his fourth-round pick along with a two-for-two swap of lower-round selections to take McKinney at No 43. Strong extracted an even higher price at No. 70: wide receiver DeVier Posey and the team’s original picks in the third, fifth and seventh rounds.
The toll for these two prospects has to pay off. Their acquisition required a net loss on the front end for a team with little proven depth. That fourth-rounder could have brought in offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings or offensive guard Tre’ Jackson, bolstering a unit that received no support at any point in the three-day talent bazaar.
Throughout the roster, the problems run deeper than individual positions. They extend to entire position groups.
The offensive line is just one of five position groups in need of assistance. The only source of hope is that the front office will find even more than the 12 free agents who contributed to the team's winning record in 2014. Here is a look into each uncertain position and what it lacks.
This is where the situation is most troubling. If any of the projected starters goes down, the only reserve who has started more than 10 games in his career is Tyson Clabo.
The combined starts of backups Will Yeatman, Matt Feiler, Bryan Witzmann, Jeff Adams, Cody White and James Ferentz is zero. To put it in a different perspective, their combined age is 148, while Clabo has appeared in 132 games in his nine-year career.
Maybe there is a keeper in the current crop of undrafted free agents who signed immediately after the draft. Jake Cotton, Kendall Lamm, Greg Mancz and Chad Slade sound like members of some alt-country band. It would be amazing if a single one turns out to be capable of sticking with this team.
This dearth of experience guarantees at least two free agents need to be signed. Spotrac lists 59 veteran offensive linemen who are looking for work, and the best ones will not be available for long. Get on it, Rick Smith!
Ladies and gentlemen, fans of all ages, the starting running back for your 2017 Houston Texans is…Kenny Hilliard!
And why not? This franchise hit the lottery when undrafted free agent Arian Foster became the second-most productive ball-carrier in the NFL during his career in Houston. Only surefire Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson has rushed for more yards per game among active players.
This time the team made a bigger investment in its future by using a seventh-round draft choice to replace the best undrafted running back in league history. Hilliard is the same size (6’0”, 231 lbs) as Foster, and lightning has been known to strike twice in the same place.
Two running backs were drafted in the first round for the first time in three years. This reversal of direction is no burgeoning trend.
The top 10 rushers in 2014 had an average draft position of Round 3.2, just over the 100th pick. Foster was excluded due to the rarity of an undrafted player being among the league leaders in this category—otherwise the position would have skewed even higher. Two of the members of this group, Alfred Morris and Justin Forsett, were chosen in the sixth and seventh round, respectively.
You can ridicule the possibility Hilliard could end up as the heir apparent to the franchise’s all-time rushing leader. It is as unlikely as Foster’s rise to stardom. What is more unlikely is his replacement is already on the roster.
There were five second-rounders and two third-rounders in last season’s top 10 rushers, which means your aim has to be a little higher than the bottom of the draft to find your man. File that away, Rick, when building your big board in 2016.
That does not imply to stop looking now. The next workhorse back could be languishing on a practice squad or playing behind a lousy offensive line. If Gary Kubiak had been given the right trade incentive in 2009, Foster could have ended up with the Indianapolis Colts.
Let’s make that the first place to look. There has to be some recompense for seeing Andre Johnson suit up in horseshoe and blue.
This entire group was relegated to milk-carton status for the majority of the 2014. When Ryan Fitzpatrick was benched in favor of Ryan Mallett, the tight ends had 22 total targets. Andre Johnson had 82 all by his lonesome.
This does not include the three targets J.J. Watt turned into touchdowns. This gimmick can best be interpreted as head coach Bill O’Brien’s assertion the Texans must emulate the New England Patriots in all ways possible.
The question is, when will Garrett Graham, C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin get some goal-to-go action? When will they get more than 10 collective targets in a game with O’Brien calling the plays? The Texans had the fewest targets (51), receptions (32) and touchdowns (three) from their group in the NFL in 2014.
Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle broached the issue after a Week 6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. O’Brien’s response sounded like an answer. The games that followed showed it was anything but.
The No. 1 thing is that we win, that we move the ball and score touchdowns. In our offense, we would certainly like to have the tight ends involved every week. But each game plan is a little bit different. Some games call for more running, some for more throws to the receivers, some for more to the tight end.
The “more to the tight end” part translated to 11 targets to Graham, 13 to Griffin and three to Fiedorowicz over the last 10 games of the season. Robertson emphasized how easy it was to rely on Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins instead of the tight ends. Failing to spread the ball around sounds like a bad habit, one the head coach did little to discourage.
The fact Fitzpatrick has been replaced by Brian Hoyer would seem like a boon to the tight ends. The Browns’ Jordan Cameron made the Pro Bowl as a tight end in 2013, though Hoyer played in only three games. In the 13 games Hoyer started in 2014, he would rather throw to 5’7” slot receiver Andrew Hawkins in most games than the 6’5” Cameron.
Rob Gronkowski broke out in O’Brien’s last season as offensive coordinator of the Patriots. No tight end on the Texans will come close to matching the 90 receptions and 17 touchdowns Gronk delivered in his best-ever campaign.
Even as a trio the Texans' tight ends would be hard-pressed to approach it. The head coach cannot be so hardheaded as to hold them to such an unreachable standard.
Only O’Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey know what it will take to reinvigorate this position group. If it means choking down the $2.25 million in dead money remaining on Graham’s contract, then do it.
Even though the offseason would have been the appropriate time for such a maneuver, something has to be done. It could mean the difference between moving forward and falling back.
The game is won in the trenches, or so the saying goes. The game is also one of attrition, and the teams that can handle the inevitable injuries are the ones that make it to the postseason.
The starters on the defensive line range from the solid Jared Crick to the immovable Vince Wilfork, topped off by the incomparable J.J. Watt. The second string starts off with Jeoffrey Pagan in his second year followed by Louis Nix in his makeup year and capped off by Keith Browner in his fourth year of trying to get on the roster for a full 16 games.
Pagan arrived in town, claiming, “I would say I would play better as a 3-technique but I’m also a defensive end too, so being in the two-gap scheme kind of gave me the best of both worlds,” according to the team's website. He spent most of his rookie year finding out two-gapping Jermey Parnell and Zach Martin of the Dallas Cowboys is not the same as handling Chad Slade and Greg Robinson of Auburn.
While managing to appear in all 16 games, his primary job was to relieve Crick and occasionally Watt. Pagan is due for more meaningful playing time as he refines his ability to stop the run and get more penetration into the pocket.
Nix turned his rookie year into a never-ending test of Bill O’Brien’s patience. He arrived in training camp nursing a knee injury that cut short his senior season at Notre Dame. The surgery for that injury did not fix the problem and required arthroscopic surgery before the start of training camp.
Eventually, Nix headed to the injured reserve list, effectively ending his rookie year. Once the season was over, he decided to rehab the injury on his own, leaving O’Brien to wonder how he was doing. When asked by Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com what changes he needed to see in Nix, O’Brien answered, "I would say the ability to make it through a practice. That would be the biggest thing I need to see."
Houston may have selected Christian Covington just in case Nix is not ready to go by training camp. It would be staggering to see the Texans flame out on another third-round draft pick. Nix has a long way to regain any credibility with this coaching staff.
Browner was signed, released and then signed again to the practice squad in 2012. After three years of biding his time on the practice squad, he finally made it onto the active roster in December 2014.
This group is as green as the beer on St. Patrick’s Day. Ryan Pickett has yet to file his retirement papers, even though he played the final game of the 2014 schedule as if it was his last. The only place he would be willing to play in 2015 is Houston, and the Texans may need him sooner rather than later.
When a team is in such desperate need in one of the most important facets of the game, the draft is usually one way to address it.
The Texans were expected to take a defensive back and a wide receiver, the two positions that tend to double as punt and kickoff returners. They proceeded to select a cornerback and two wide receivers—none of whom has any return skills.
Keshawn Martin is still listed on the Texans roster as a wide receiver, a role he has never excelled in. His chief value has been as a kick returner. He is up against two recently acquired free agents and two draftees who are all accomplished receivers and is caught in a numbers game he cannot win.
Damaris Johnson is left as the only player on the roster with any experience as a returner. Special teams coach Bob Ligashesky was so overjoyed with Johnson’s efforts in the first four games of 2014 that he had the player return just two more kickoffs the rest of the season.
Chandler Worthy, an undrafted free agent from Troy State, returned kickoffs for four seasons. Two of his returns as a senior went for touchdowns. Bringing back punts is not part of his repertoire.
There must be a plan in place to tackle this glaring deficiency, because an answer is not obvious in the personnel available.