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State of the 2021 Houston Texans: Question marks abound as David Culley era begins

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Texans organization, Texans fans around the world and those who, despite what might be happening on the field, can at least enjoy the 8th Wonder Brewery in downtown Houston:

It wasn't that long ago that the Houston Texans seemingly had the Kansas City Chiefs on the ropes in the Divisional Round of the 2019 playoffs. And then that fake-punt call happened -- I'm not saying it was the wrong decision -- and everything has gone so wrong since then. Like, worse than the end of The Empire Strikes Back. DeAndre Hopkins is gone. J.J. Watt is gone. And who knows what is going to happen with Deshaun Watson. What else should you know about the Texans right now? Let's dive in.

How the Texans got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • A winning streak. The Texans had a rough start to the season. However, they did win three of the four games coming out of their bye week, including a victory over the Patriots that was the front end of the team's only consecutive wins of the year.
  • Moving on from Bill O'Brien. Look, I don't want to be super glib about this. But O'Brien was relieved of his duties as head coach/GM in October. He certainly did some good things, leading the team to four division titles in his six-plus seasons with the team. That said, when you look at some of the moves he made -- trading away DeAndre Hopkins and Jadeveon Clowney, letting Tyrann Mathieu walk in free agency -- well ... You don't want to celebrate anyone's firing, but it was a move that needed to be made.

The lows:

  • Opening the season with a loss. The Texans had a chance to get revenge against the Chiefs in the first game of the NFL's 101st season. But Houston lost by 14. In fact, the Texans started the season 0-4.
  • J.J. Watt's postgame comments after dropping four straight to start the year. In remarks after a 31-23 loss to the Vikings, Watt said, among other things, that "whatever we're doing isn't working," which was a pretty clear indication that O'Brien had lost one of the most important members of the organization. If you lose J.J., that's not a great sign.
  • The current offseason. We are going to jump into this in a moment. I know this is technically a 2021 event and not part of the 2020 season, but it's worth making an exception to include in this case. The sad state of affairs that led to releasing Watt and the uncertainty around Deshaun Watson's future is pretty low.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: David Culley. To say the hiring of Culley was a surprise would be an understatement. One reason people knocked the hiring is that Culley is 65 years old, which goes against the NFL coaching trend of hiring millennials. However, when you consider that the last three coaches to win the Super Bowl are Bruce Arians, Andy Reid and Bill Belichick -- all over the age of 60 at the time of their respective victories -- maybe the Texans did the right thing by going with one of the elder statesmen in the league. Sean McVay, Kliff Kingsbury and Kyle Shanahan are those dudes at the golf course who looked amazing, decked out in TravisMathew gear and ready to roll. And then the 60-year-old in a windbreaker shoots a 72. It's uncanny.

The Texans did interview Josh McCown for the job, following in the young bucks trend. But ultimately -- and this happens a lot in relationships -- they seemingly went with somebody who was the opposite of the coach they just had. O'Brien famously could be bristly. Again, if J.J. Watt ends up calling you out, things are bad. And Culley is well-respected around the league. He was never a coordinator in his 27 previous NFL campaigns, but he has worked with some of the best coaches in the game, including Reid. He's known for positive energy, fostering a solid locker room and being a great teacher. Look at Arians' career path. If not for Chuck Pagano's health issues in 2012, Arians might have never been given a chance as a head coach. Culley's hiring might have been unexpected, but he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Quarterback: Deshaun Watson? Watson led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards and posted a career-high passer rating of 112.4 in 2020. He set several franchise records last season and became the only player in NFL history with at least 100 passing touchdowns and 15 rushing touchdowns in his first four seasons. His career passer rating of 104.5 is the second-highest in league history. As you can see, he's great on the field.

But we certainly can't ignore what has happened since the season ended. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported in January that Watson requested a trade from the Texans. Then a series of sexual assault allegations against Watson were made public this spring, and his status remains very much in doubt. The Texans have a lot of question marks at the quarterback position heading into the season, which we will get into a bit more later in this post.

MVP: Mark Ingram, running back. Let's be perfectly truthful, the 2021 campaign in Houston really comes down to the availability of Watson. He's the key to the whole season. But I'm nowhere near 100 percent certain he's going to play this year. And judging by some of the fantasy drafts I've seen of late, a lot of you question if he'll be hitting the gridiron, too. I look at Ingram as a steadying veteran presence for whoever starts at quarterback this year. He served as the personal hype man for Lamar Jackson over the past two seasons. And he's the only guy I have big trust in for this Houston team. I'm not saying he's going to rush for the most yards or anything, but he will be the most important presence.

2021 breakout star: Zach Cunningham, linebacker. This might seem like a stretch because Cunningham signed a four-year, $58 million extension last August. And the dude led the league in tackles last year with 164. So, while he's one of the highest-paid players at his position and has clearly been highly productive, I never hear him mentioned in the discussion of the top performers at the position. Probably because the Texans' defense hasn't been good. Maybe that can change this season with new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. The Texans are going from the 3-4 to the Tampa 2, which is perfect for Zach. He could make a leap in recognition this year.

New face to know: Shaq Lawson, edge rusher. The Texans acquired Lawson for Benardrick McKinney in a March trade with the Miami Dolphins. This will be Lawson's third team in as many years, and he's never quite put up the sack numbers that were envisioned when he was selected 19th overall in the 2016 draft. But he did have a career-high 19 QB hurries last season, per Pro Football Focus.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: LOW. Many pundits are projecting the Texans to be a contender for the top overall pick in next year's draft. So I can't say that we are expecting much out of them.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars. I mean, if we all had the ability to peek into the future -- or a Grays Sports Almanac -- wouldn't we at least take a look to see who the Texans' starting quarterback is?
  • Week 7 at Arizona Cardinals. Hey, Texans fans. Here's a chance to see DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt one more time! I mean, they aren't playing for your team. But still. It's one more chance to see them play in your team's game.
  • Week 13 vs. Indianapolis Colts. The Texans close out the season with a daunting six-game stretch. After meeting the Colts in Week 13, they'll face the Seahawks, Jaguars, Chargers, 49ers and Titans. I expect five of those six teams to be battling for a playoff spot.

Will the Texans be able to …

Win some games if Tyrod Taylor is the QB1? Taylor is in line to start for the Texans if Watson is unavailable. He signed a one-year deal with the Texans this offseason after starting one game for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020. And we all remember what happened one year ago, with Justin Herbert supplanting Taylor as the starter under unusual circumstances in Week 2. Herbert took the job and never looked back, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Maybe, for Texans fans, the hope is rookie Davis Mills can replace Taylor at some point this season and tear up the league like Herbert did last year. Mills passed for 3,468 yards and 18 touchdowns in 14 college games for Stanford. And if you want to get technical, he is only the third quarterback in club history selected with the team's first pick in a draft. I mean, Houston selected him in the third round, but he was technically the team's first pick this year. Yeah, I'm reaching here.

Get some magic out of the Tampa 2? As noted earlier, the Texans will go from the 3-4 to Tampa 2. And honestly, I love the idea of Lovie Smith coming back to the league to do some work. And the Texans need it. They set franchise-lows in scoring and total defense last season, and they allowed more than 160 rushing yards per game, last in the NFL and worst in franchise history. That was the most rushing yards per game allowed in a season since the 49ers (165.9) in 2016. And look, I'm a huge Lovie guy. But he comes to Houston after being fired by the University of Illinois. Although, nobody is ever going to win football games in Champaign. Sorry, it's the truth. If we give Kliff Kingsbury a pass for not winning in Lubbock, Lovie gets a pass here, too. He's led five top-10 scoring defenses in his NFL career. He should have never been fired by the Bears. The only thing I hold against Lovie is hiring Mike Martz to be his offensive coordinator and ruining Jay Cutler. But it's cool. He can coach and I'm telling you, this Texans defense will surprise.

Fill out their receiver corps? I'm assuming the Texans will start a quarterback. Who is he going to throw the ball to? You do have Brandin Cooks. He led the Texans with 81 receptions for 1,150 yards in 2020. And here's a fun fact for you: DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones were traded in the last two years for second-round picks. Cooks has been traded for a first-round pick -- MORE THAN ONCE!!! How is this even a true statement? But still, Houston needs somebody else to step up. Somebody other than Randall Cobb, Chris Conley and Donte Moncrief. Like seriously, what is that lineup? But keep an eye out for Nico Collins. The big-bodied third-round pick opted out of the 2020 season at Michigan, but has some big-play potential the Texans desperately need.

One storyline …

… people are overlooking: Tyrod Taylor can play. Tyrod has always been one of the most disrespected quarterbacks. He went 22-20 in his 42 starts for the Bills from 2015 through 2017 (David Culley was Buffalo's quarterbacks coach in 2017). He won at least seven games in each season, and he was a Pro Bowl replacement in 2015, which I know might not mean much to you, but still. This should mean something to you: Tyrod is one of just five players with 9,000-plus passing yards and 1,500-plus rushing yards since 2015, joining Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Cam Newton and Watson, per NFL Research. That's not a bad list to be on. So maybe we just cut Tyrod some slack this season and give him a chance.

… people are overlooking, Part II: It might be a long road for the Texans. Houston just hasn't had the draft capital to accelerate a rebuild. The Texans have selected once in the first round since drafting Watson in 2017 (offensive tackle Tytus Howard was the pick). In fact, Houston has made just four picks total in the first two rounds over the last four drafts.

… people are overlooking, Part III: The offensive line isn't terrible. I know Watson was the second-most-sacked QB in the league in 2020. However, the Texans finished 23rd in PFF's offensive line rankings last season and are No. 20 in PFF's rankings heading into 2021. Yes, no one aims to be 20th, but hey, at least they aren't the worst.

… people are overthinking: The running-back-by-committee situation. Again, my fantasy football bias might be showing here. David Johnson wasn't that bad last season. In fact, he might have helped you to a fantasy title, going for 130.7 YPG and three touchdowns in the final three weeks. But the Texans have added Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay and Rex Burkhead in the offseason. This feels like a wrestling stable of mid-card guys who are actually pretty good at their jobs. DJ and Ingram have been top-of-the-card guys in the past. I love Lindsay because he always seems to be disrespected but plays well every time he's on the field. I mean, last season was the first time in his three-year career that he didn't reach 1,000 rushing yards (he did miss five games due to injury). Look, this RB group might pose a weekly dilemma to fantasy owners, but I could see it working out for Houston.

For 2021 to be a success, the Texans MUST:

  • This is a really difficult question to answer because of the Watson situation. Again, we don't know when we'll have clarity on his status. You'd like to see the Texans figure out their quarterback situation relatively early in the season and at least show progress over the course of the year.

In closing

I know many of you aren't expecting a lot from the Texans this season, but remember: It's usually big-budget movies that are the most disappointing (looking at you, Star Wars: Episode IX). It's the $1 theater movies that usually become the most entertaining. Like the time I took in an afternoon matinee of San Andreas. Or, as I like to call it, The Greatest Movie Ever Made. And if it doesn't work out for Houston in 2021, then maybe you end up with the first pick in next year's draft and have that to look forward to.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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