Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
What a time to be alive in Texas. Not because of Whataburger. That sounds like a drag. But how about this Texans football team? Honestly, this is the best time for Texans fans. In Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, you have the best tag-team since native son "Stone Cold" Steve Austin teamed up with Brian Pillman. And I know Pillman wasn't from Texas, but let's just move on.
How the Texans got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season:
Head coach: Bill O'Brien. "We've done some good things over the years, but not enough to be where we want to be."
But I thought it was an interesting thing for O'Brien to say, especially when you look at his tenure as coach of the Texans. Houston has won the AFC South in three of the last four seasons and went 11-5 last year. Which is good. But it was the first time the Texans cracked the nine-win barrier under O'Brien. He is now 1-3 in the playoffs and has never led Houston to the AFC Championship Game.
So, it's obviously good. But is it good enough? You wonder, with all of the changes at the GM position (O'Brien will be working with his third GM in six seasons) and such, how much longer will good but not good enough cut it?
Quarterback: Deshaun Watson. Quarterback had been a trouble spot for the Texans for quite some time before Watson showed up in 2017. The Texans would have these top-10 defenses but go to the playoffs with QBs like Brian Hoyer, T.J. Yates and Brock Osweiler. And I don't have to tell you how that worked out. I mean, they went to Gillette in the 2016 Divisional Round and trailed the Pats by just four points at halftime. I love comic books, but even I couldn't suspend reality long enough to believe the Texans were going to pull off the upset. But now you have Watson, one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. He might get overshadowed by reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes (who was in his same draft class), but Watson is just as important to his franchise. The Texans' offense scored 38 touchdowns last year. Watson accounted for 31 of them.
Projected 2019 MVP: DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver. I mean, it's really Watson. But we need to give some love to Hopkins, who has become one of the best receivers (if not the best) in the NFL. He's performed at a high level for years, despite some not-so-great QB play. But he doesn't have to do that any more with Watson throwing to him. Of course, the most amazing statistic of the entire 2018 season was that Hopkins didn't drop a single pass. Not one. And then he had this absolutely ridiculous catch right here. And while it didn't count, I felt like it really should have once I watched the replay. Like, if I was the coach on the other side, I would have declined the penalty because it was that good.
2019 breakout star: Justin Reid, safety. He kind of broke out last season when he had three interceptions, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Reid was a key contributor on special teams, as well. But the former-third round pick is going to be counted on to play a bigger role in the secondary this season. Kareem Jackson and Tyrann Mathieu are gone. So that means it's time for Reid to step up even more.
We somehow went this long without getting back to: J.J. Watt. Yep, he's still here. There were concerns that we had seen the last of Watt as a dominant force after he played just eight games in 2016 and 2017 combined due to leg and back injuries. But he's back. Sixteen sacks last year. He was second among edge rushers with 78 pressures. Led the NFL with seven forced fumbles, and was an All-Pro once again.
New face to know: Tashaun Gipson, safety. I might be crazy for saying this (and a lot of other things, actually), but I truly believe the Texans upgraded here going from Mathieu to Gipson. He's never going to be the guy he was in Cleveland when he had like 800 interceptions. But he comes at a much cheaper price than Mathieu and he's been pretty durable during his career. And don't forget, he gets two REVENGE GAMES each year against the Jaguars!
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. You have to win some playoff games if just being good isn't good enough.
Will the Texans be able to ...
Block for Watson? Listen, Texans. You've waited a long time to get a franchise quarterback like Watson. You let poor David Carr get sacked like 900 times during the first few years of his career, and now you're doing it with Watson. I feel like I need to lecture the Texans much in the same way I lecture my kids when they don't take care of their toys. I'm going to stop buying them for you if you're going to treat them this way. I mean, I blew up some of my Star Wars action figures with M80s as a kid, but still. Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times last year. Sixty. Freaking. Two. He was also knocked down 132 times. Watson was so beat up heading into a Week 7 game at Jacksonville last season that he took a 12-hour bus ride to the game to avoid any potential swelling issues caused by a flight. Seriously, if you don't start protecting him, I'm going to make you trade him to Denver.
The Texans did draft offensive tackles Tytus Howard (Alabama State) and Max Scharping (Northern Illinois) in April. And while those aren't big names to casual fans, they have a chance to be good NFL players. But they need to be good, like, right now. Look, you don't have to be the best offensive line in the world, but stop getting your quarterback drilled on such a regular basis.
Lock up Jadeveon Clowney long term? The biggest issue for the defense is the future of Clowney. He was hit with the franchise tag this offseason and didn't report to OTAs and minicamp. He's been a disruptive force for the Texans' defense, and then-GM Brian Gaine said in April that signing Clowney to a long-term deal was "still the plan," but as we mentioned, Gaine was fired in June. We don't know if interim GM Chris Olsen has been cleared to get a new deal done with Clowney during the search for a permanent GM, but it would be best if Houston came to an agreement with the Pro Bowler sooner rather than later.
Find a quality WR2 to pair with Hopkins? It's not like the Texansneed a star to play opposite Hopkins because he and Watson did lead the Texans to 25 points per game without one last season. But it would be nice for the complementary pieces around him to step up. Keke Coutee was nice when he was on the field last year, though a bum hamstring really limited his production. Will Fuller also looked great at times, but he's making his way back from an ACL tear.
Three key dates
One storyline people are overlooking:Lamar Miller is sort of good. I know my friend and colleague Maurice Jones-Drew doesn't think much of Miller, ranking him third-to-last in his recent RB1 rankings. He's not that bad. (And even MJD wrote that part of his trouble was the offensive line.) Miller was one of the best breakaway threats in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus. And if the O-line does improve, he could be something.
One storyline people are overthinking:Getting beaten to the punch on Andre Dillard. So, we will never know if letting the Eagles jump ahead of him to grab Dillard in the first round of this year's draft is what cost Gaine his job, but he certainly took a lot of flak for it. I get that it wasn't a good look, but I also know that no one knows for a fact that Dillard will ultimately be a better player than Howard, whom Houston took a pick after Philly swooped in for Dillard, even though Dillard was the more highly regarded prospect. I thought Gaine nailed it the previous year when he got Reid in the third round and Coutee in the fourth. That's pretty good value. And don't laugh, but 2019 third-round pick Kahale Warring is going to be a stud. The Texans have led the NFL in tight ends who score touchdowns but aren't starting on your fantasy team. (We call them "That Helps No One" players.) Warring is going to (wait for it) help everyone. But yeah, too much is being made of the Dillard thing.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Texans MUST ...
-- Get to the AFC Championship Game. That's the thing. You've proven that you can drive to the party, O'Brien. It's time to go inside and have some fun.
I feel like I'm repeating myself here, but it really is a fun time to be a Texans fan. They have done a great job of rebuilding the defense, which has long been the hallmark of the franchise. But now you have the quarterback who can deliver you to the promised land. And getting there would be better than good enough.