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State of the Franchise: Can Texans improve without DeAndre Hopkins?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? 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 Houston Texans organization, Texans fans around the world and those of you who wouldn't mind seeing the team rock some Houston Oilers throwbacks once in a while:

The Texans have become a consistently good football team in recent years, a group that'll find its way to the playoffs seemingly every January. But there is a difference between being good and being great. And sometimes you have to dare to be great. Bill O'Brien and Co. definitely don't lack for boldness, having executed some Texas-sized shake-ups in an attempt to take this franchise to another level. Is it going to work? Let's examine.

How the Texans got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Stuffing a two-point conversion attempt to beat Jacksonville 13-12 in Week 2. After spinning away from contact at the line of scrimmage, Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette appeared to have a crease and dove toward the end zone. But Texans safety Justin Reid stonewalled Fournette at the goal line, giving Houston its first win of the season.
  • Storming Kansas City and beating the Chiefs 31-24 in Week 6. Holding that one-score lead with two minutes remaining, the Texans faced a crucial fourth-and-3 call at K.C.'s 27-yard line. Houston K Ka'imi Fairbairn had already missed an extra point and a 46-yard field goal attempt in the game, so O'Brien eschewed the opportunity of a 44-yard kick. Instead, he put the ball into the hands of Deshaun Watson and let the QB do his thing. With the pass rush bearing down on him, Watson found DeAndre Hopkins for the first down -- and the win.
  • Beating the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots 28-22 on Sunday Night Football in Week 13. Watson threw three touchdown passes and also notched his first professional receiving score off a trick-play flip from Hopkins.
  • Rallying to beat the Bills on Wild Card Weekend. Houston was behind 16-0 midway through the third quarter, but Watson carried the team all the way back for a 22-19 overtime win.

The low:

  • You know what the low is. Do we even have to discuss it here? We do. Because as much as we praise O'Brien for going for it on fourth down against the Chiefs during the regular season, that failed fake punt in the second quarter of the Divisional Round game at Kansas City helped fuel the Chiefs' epic comeback win. Don't forget: Houston attempted the fake on a fourth-and-four at its own 31-yard line. Gutsy, to say the least. Honestly, though, had it worked, O'Brien would be viewed as a genius. But it didn't. And at the end of the day, the Texans lost 51-31 -- in a game they initially led 24-0.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Bill O'Brien. O'Brien isn't just the head coach of the Texans -- he's the Football Czar, in charge of player personnel. Which always seems to work out well in the NFL ... OK, we will examine some of his personnel decisions later, but I really want to dive into O'Brien as a coach. Because he's a good one.

We all know the work O'Brien did at Penn State to steady a program absolutely rocked by scandal. In Houston, he inherited a 2-14 Texans team and went 9-7 in Year 1, barely missing the playoffs. His teams have reached the postseason in four of his six years. And he has only finished without a winning record once: back in 2017, when Houston lost eight of its final nine games following Watson's ACL injury to finish 4-12. O'Brien has posted back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins over the past two years, giving him four AFC South titles in the past five campaigns. So, he can obviously coach. And get his team to the playoffs.

But ...

This is what we talked about in this space last offseason: O'Brien is great at getting his team to the playoffs, but sticking around in the postseason is another story. He was 1-3 in the playoffs heading into last season. And the Texans did get a win over the Bills in the Wild Card Round. That's great. It was even more amazing when they held a four-score lead over Kansas City in the Divisional Round. But we all know what happened. People will question O'Brien's postseason prowess until Houston makes a run. It's something that will weigh him down. We've seen plenty of good NFL coaches get dismissed even though they were good at getting their teams to the playoffs (Andy Reid and Mike McCarthy, to name a couple). At some point, you have to do some real damage in the postseason.

Quarterback: Deshaun Watson. I sort of feel bad for Deshaun. He was awesome during his rookie season -- seriously, setting the NFL world ablaze with his play -- before a non-contact knee injury in practice prematurely ended his year. That said, he has returned and continued to be amazing. Only thing is, he's now overshadowed by not only Patrick Mahomes, but also Lamar Jackson -- the last two league MVPs. You see all of these thinkpieces asking who the best young quarterback in the game is, and poor Deshaun is often left out of the conversation. He's becoming a forgotten man, somebody who isn't being celebrated enough in his own time. It's like being Soundgarden in the early-1990s music scene in Seattle. You're at the top of the heap, producing high-level material. But then, all of a sudden, bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana steal your shine. (Still, some of us staunch Soundgarden supporters will always contend that was the best band of the era.) This is where Deshaun is today: a great quarterback who is being overlooked. Which is too bad, because he is the only player in NFL history with at least 25 touchdown passes and at least five rushing touchdowns in consecutive seasons.

Projected 2020 MVP: Watson. He's obviously The Guy. And now there is going to be an even bigger onus on Deshaun this year, because the general manager (who just happens to be the coach) traded away his best receiver. And, you know what? Let's just go ahead and jump into that ...

Why is DeAndre Hopkins gone? The trade, which involved a series of draft picks and RB David Johnson going to Houston, would be vetoed in most fantasy leagues, with the team managers banished from the league. And look, it's not unusual to trade a high-end receiver. Amari Cooper. Odell Beckham Jr. Antonio Brown. Stefon Diggs. They have all been traded in recent years. The thing is. The writing was on the wall for those guys. And unless you were a Texans insider, the Nuk trade kind of came out of nowhere. The official reason was financial, even though he had three years remaining on his contract. As our own Jim Trotter put following the trade: "Clearly this was not a football decision." But even so, when you look at what some of the other receivers fetched in deals, it seems like the Texans could have done better than Johnson and some non-first-round picks. It was as if O'Brien started calling teams based on alphabetical order and jumped on the first low-ball offer from Arizona GM Steve Keim. I truly believe that Keim threw that offer out there facetiously and was as surprised as everyone else when O'Brien accepted it. Given the way O'Brien is trading players, if I'm Bears GM Ryan Pace, I call to see if he would take Mitchell Trubisky straight up for Deshaun Watson. At this point, you never know.

New face to know: David Johnson, running back. There is a lot riding on Johnson having a bounce-back year. He just hasn't been the same running back since he won you a fantasy title in 2016, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry over the past three seasons. This play against the Bucs about sums it up:

The Texans are expecting the return of 2016 Johnson. Or at least the guy who looked great early last season against the Lions and Bengals. My biggest complaint about this trade? The Texans really could have used help on the offensive line and also needed a first-round pick. They got neither, instead settling for a veteran running back whose best days appear to be behind him. Exacerbating this was the fact that Melvin Gordon was a free agent. Todd Gurley was also going to be available, though he seemed determined to join the Falcons. Devonta Freeman is still on the market, too. And I'd even say the lead back you had last season (Carlos Hyde, who quietly eclipsed 1,000 yards, by the way) is better than Johnson at this point. You could've attacked the position in a deep RB draft class. All of these options look far superior to trading DeAndre (Freaking) Hopkins.

2020 breakout star: Justin Reid, safety. Generally speaking, the Texans struggled against the pass last year. But Reid, a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, started to really blossom in Year 2, receiving favorable grades from PFF. He is going to be counted on in the secondary even more in 2020, with Tashaun Gipson now in Chicago.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Again, with near-annual trips to the playoffs, the stakes have been raised -- simply making the postseason is no longer enough. With Watson's magical playmaking ability leading the way, this team is due to make a run. The good news for Coach O'Brien is that I hear the GM is a huge fan of his, so he's got that going for him.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Chiefs (Thursday night). I often have quibbles with the NFL schedule makers, but credit Mike North and Co. for making the Kickoff Game a must-see affair. And this is probably best for O'Brien's Texas. Face your fears! Maverick was skittish after the accident that killed Goose, but like Viper said, he just needed to get back up in the air. Likewise, the Texans need to exorcise their own demons. Immediately.
  • Week 2 vs. Ravens. What a way to open the season, eh?! Back-to-back games against Mahomes' Chiefs and Jackson's Ravens. This is kind of like WrestleMania XXX when Daniel Bryan had to open the show because he was going to be in the main event later. And while I'm here, I should point out the Texans are at Pittsburgh in Week 3.
  • Week 17 vs. Titans. This could be for the AFC South. Or the Colts could already have the division wrapped up. But no, this has to be for the division, right?

Will the Texans be able to ...

Fix. The. Offensive. Line? Why is this still an issue? Because it doesn't make sense to me. I remember when Deshaun's college coach, Dabo Swinney, compared his quarterback to Michael Jordan. Which is why I wanted the Bears to draft him. He's a dynamic individual presence. But if you spent time recently watching "The Last Dance," you know MJ wasn't able to accomplish team feats until Chicago put an actual team around him. Bringing in Laremy Tunsil last year was applaudable. He's a rock-solid left tackle, which Houston had been lacking. But the 2019 Texans' O-line still ranked in the bottom half of the league, according to PFF. There is a lot of optimism for Tytus Howard, the second-year pro out of Alabama State. He started last season at left guard, but was kicked outside to right tackle and played well before suffering a season-ending knee injury. With good health over the course of a season, Howard and Tunsil could be an imposing tackle duo. As an insurance pick, the Texans selected Charlie Heck in the fourth round of this year's draft. But if DJ is going to make an impact on the ground this season, the offensive line has to take a collective leap. All in all, I would have liked to have seen a few more tweaks, particularly on the interior.

Find a suitable replacement for DeAndre Hopkins? In the wake of the Hopkins trade, the Texans first brought in Randall Cobb. He was decent last year for the Cowboys, but trying to replace D-Hop with Cobb is like trying to replace your stolen car with a toaster. The Texans must have realized this and traded for Brandin Cooks. I don't know if it's Cooks' goal to play for every top quarterback in the league (and Jared Goff), but it seems like he's on his way. The guy is just heading into his age 27 season, but it feels like he's been in the league forever. And his concussion issues are obviously a serious concern. Then you have Will Fuller, who is awesome but also misses a lot of time. So, to sum this all up ... O'Brien had one of the best receivers on the planet -- a guy who dropped fewer passes than Fuller missed games -- and traded him away. O'Brien is like the dude in your fantasy league who makes the most trades and transactions, but never finishes above fifth place. And he's now going into this season hoping the conglomeration of Cooks, Cobb and DJ can equal one Nuk. It's like the question Michael Scott asked in The Office. What is better: a medium amount of good pizza or all-you-can-eat of pretty-good pizza? You know you want the medium amount of good pizza. And DeAndre Hopkins is Alfredo's Pizza Café. Everyone knows this.

Stop people in the air? New defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver will look to address a pass defense that ranked 29th last year and was even worse on third down (31st). I mean, we all saw how easy it was for the Chiefs to throw on Houston during the playoffs, amirite? OK, not every team has a Patrick Mahomes, but this is still a big concern. Though it's not all on the secondary. It'd sure help if the Texans applied more routine pressure up front. Houston just didn't get to the quarterback often enough in 2019, tying for 26th in sacks with 31. (Side note: Weaver was the team's defensive line coach last year.) Second-round pick Ross Blacklock could develop as a force in the middle of the defensive line. Third-round pick Jonathan Greenard is an interesting edge prospect who had 9.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last year in Gainesville.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: How hard it will be to get over the playoff collapse in K.C. You wonder if O'Brien's bold offseason was just the coach/GM on tilt after that debacle in January. And as we noted above, that opening stretch is absolutely brutal: at KC, vs. BAL, at PIT. If this team gets off to an 0-3 start -- not very hard to imagine -- that could have a snowball effect.

ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: The Texans stunningly traded Hopkins for a running back -- despite already having a pretty good one on the roster. Duke Johnson has always been effective catching the ball out of the backfield, but has never really gotten the opportunity to regularly pound the rock on the ground -- for reasons many of us just don't understand. This guy was a major stud at Miami. He is the school's all-time leading rusher. Think about that for a moment. Think of all of the NFL superstars who played running back at Miami, and Johnson is the school's all-time leading rusher. Yet still, nobody thinks he can produce as an RB1 in the NFL? I don't get it. I don't want to continually harp on the Hopkins trade -- or maybe I do -- but you couldn't have swung a deal with one of those many receiver-needy teams in the draft for a first-round pick and taken a lineman? My guy Duke deserves the chance to be an every-down back in this league.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Texans MUST:

  • Get to the postseason, for starters. That's because O'Brien is a good coach and he's raised the bar in Houston. Anything less than a playoff berth is unacceptable. Especially with this quarterback at the helm.
  • Win some games in the playoffs -- like, make a pretty deep run. It took Houston a decade to earn the franchise's first playoff berth. A decade later, expectations are raised. Nobody will be thrilled just reaching the Divisional Round. The Texans need to march to at least the conference title game. Not to save anybody's job, but just to show that they're getting closer to the ultimate goal.

In closing

Again, I like O'Brien as a coach. He's not afraid to take some risks in big spots. As a GM, well ... I found the Hopkins trade inexplicable, especially given the meager haul Houston received. But in general, I do applaud when someone really puts himself out there, to shake things up and not be complacent. And if I'm a Texans fan, I take solace in the fact that winning or losing the offseason often has little bearing on outcomes in the fall. We've all enjoyed poking fun at the surprising trade. But it's not that hard to imagine Houston taking the AFC, and the ensuing Super Bowl week being defined by one question: "Hey, remember when everyone was crushing O'Brien for making that move?" We will see how it turns out.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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