We continue with part two of our series on speculating the Texans’ plans for the upcoming offseason. In Part 1, we examined the team’s current cap room situation and provided a list of their impending free agents. Readers were also presented with an opportunity to channel their inner Rick Smith and come up with their own way of spending the remaining $25,611,199 in cap space on addressing the team’s needs. Today, ToroTimes would like to introduce our own approach on how to effectively utilize the available resources to improve the team’s personnel during the offseason.
Let’s begin by taking a thorough look at the team’s current roster, position by position:
+ Defensive Line:
- Projected Starters: DE J.J. Watt, NT Shaun Cody, DE Antonio Smith
- Projected Backups: NT Earl Mitchell, DE Tim Jamison
A physical and athletic defensive line capable of both stuffing the run and applying constant pressure to the opposing QB is one of the key components of Wade Phillips’ 3-4 system. And the experienced defensive coordinator got just what he wanted from this group last season. The excellent play of rookie sensation J.J. Watt and Antonio “The Ninja” Smith one of the main reasons to the Texans’ overall success on defense, as the two combined for 15 sacks and 89 tackles in the season. In addition, Watt was particularly impressive with the way he read the opposing QB and got his hands on many passes, including one that resulted in a game-changing interception during the Texans’ first ever playoff game against Cincinnati. Cody’s performance, however, left a lot to be desired. The 7-year man out of USC registered just one lone sack throughout the season and was consistently outplayed by the other team’s center. An upgrade at NT should be considered.
- Projected Starters: OLB Connor Barwin, OLB Brooks Reed, ILB DeMeco Ryans, ILB Brian Cushing
- Projected Backups: ILB Mister Alexander, ILB Darryl Sharpton, OLB Bryan Braman, OLB Jesse Nading
Arguably the most talented group of the Texans defense, the linebackers have shown their ability to make plays consistently throughout the season. Even when the team’s best pass rusher OLB Mario Williams went down with a season-ending injury, they did not miss a beat. Barwin and Reed filled in admirably for the 2006 first overall pick and registered an incredible total of 17.5 sacks. Cushing was one of, if not the best linebacker in the AFC last season; his stats line of 114 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions was nothing short of phenomenal. Cush’s constantly high level of intensity on the field also proved as a valuable motivator for the entire defense. The only starting linebacker who underperformed last season was Captain ‘Meco. He seemed to have lost a few steps following a devastating Achilles tendon rupture in 2010. Having said that, Ryans was still a solid contributor and an influential clubhouse leader. With three years left on his contract and still only 27, he still has time for a bounceback. Overall, even if Mario Williams does leave for greener pastures (which is highly likely considering his hefty DE price tag), this Texans’ linebacker core should remain one of the league’s best. Except maybe a backup coverage linebacker who can spell either Reed or Barwin on passing downs and provide an insurance for the injury-prone Sharpton, there’s not much need for upgrade.
- Projected Starters: CB Jonathan Joseph, CB Kareem Jackson, FS Danieal Manning, SS Glover Quin, CB Brice McCain (nickel)
- Projected Backups: CB Brandon Harris, CB Roc Carmichael, SS Shiloh Keo, SS Troy Nolan
Once considered the team’s biggest weakness, the 2011 version of the Texans’ secondary quickly turned into an area of strength following a couple of acquisitions and adjustments. The signing of ex-Bengal CB Jonathan Joseph was arguably the best offseason pickup last season, as he turned into a shutdown corner that the Texans had always coveted while also allowing Glover Quin to shift to safety. The acquisition of safety Danieal Manning also provided another huge upgrade to the secondary. This much-improved coverage unit allowed Wade Phillips to be more aggressive in his blitz packages, which in turn helped transform the 2010 NFL’s worst passing defense into second best in the league the very next year. However, the overall excellent play of the secondary cannot entirely overshadow the glaring weakness at CB2. Either it was Jason Allen getting burned deep or Kareem Jackson’s inability to turn his head around to spot the ball, this has been the area where opposing QBs always looked to exploit. Now that Allen is a free agent, it’s time for the Texans brass to move on from their 2010 first-round bust Jackson and look for other options at CB2 to further solidify the team’s secondary.
- Projected Starter: Matt Schaub
- Projected Backup: T.J. Yates, Matt Leinart
Barring any unfortunate setback, Schaub should be able to completely heal from his Lisfranc injury and be 100% ready for training camps. He should remain the preeminent option under center for Gary Kubiak’s offense. There has been talks about trading up for the right to draft Robert Griffin III and turn him into the franchise QB. While RGIII has tremendous upside as a Newton-like athletic QB who can both throw and scramble, he is certainly not a finished product by any means. It will take time for the 2011 Heisman winner to transition his college game to the NFL level, which is something a team in win-now mode just cannot afford. On the other hand, Schaub has established himself as one of the top QB in the league throughout the years and his uncanny ability of faking the play-action fits perfectly with the run-heavy system in Houston. So why fix something that ain’t broke? On the backup side, Yates has proved himself to be a capable NFL starting QB but still needs more time to develop; he should be penciled in as QB2. Regarding Leinart, the team can choose to keep him as an insurance plan or release him to free up $3,000,000 in cap room. Overall, the QB situation is pretty much set.
- Projected Starter: RB Arian Foster* (Restricted FA), FB/TE James Casey
- Projected Backup: RB Ben Tate, FB Lawrence Vickers
It’s quite obvious that the Texans will try their best to ensure that Foster will wear battle red and steel blue next season. Fumble issue and injury aside, Foster was able to prove that 2010 was not a fluke. 1224 rush yards, 617 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns are certainly not numbers you can get from an ordinary back. And Foster accumulated these numbers despite missing two games with a hamstring injury and saw limited action in a couple of others. Patience, vision, the ability to make cuts, No.23 possesses the perfect skillset for the team’s zone-blocking run scheme. Without a doubt, the 2009 practice squad invitee has taken no time to launch himself into stardom after two years of premium production. The other piece of the Texans’ league-best rushing tandem is second-year man out of Auburn Ben Tate, who nearly reached the 1,000 yard plateau last season despite his status as a backup. The two-headed rushing monster of Foster and Tate was the centerpiece of Kubiak’s offense, especially when Schaub and Andre Johnson were out of the lineup. They should be back next season; so are the versatile Casey and the physical Vickers. In short, re-signing Foster to keep the running game intact should be the Texans’ top priority this offseason.
+ Offensive Line:
- Projected Starters: LT Duane Brown, LG Wade Smith, C (vacant), RG (vacant), RT Eric Winston
- Projected Backups: G Antoine Caldwell, G/C Thomas Austin, T Derek Newton, G Andrew Gardner
The Texans’ success in the running game was the result of consistent play from the big five up front. Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Myers, Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston together had formed an offensive line that was excellent in run-blocking and above-average in pass protection. The departure of Myers and Brisiel to free agency leave behind two glaring holes that Rick Smith and Co. need to address. Resigning both of them is clearly the most sensible choice considering their familiarity with the system.
+ Tight Ends:
- Projected Starter: Owen Daniels
- Projected Backup: Garrett Graham, FB/TE James Casey
OD is still as consistent as ever, providing a nice, big target for Schaub/Yates in the middle of the field. Barring injuries, he should remain the Texans’ starting TE at least for next season. The Texans do lose a good red-zone target to free agency with the departure of Joel Dreessen. They may choose to bring Dreessen back or sign a cheap FA tight end like Jacob Tamme or Kellen Davis in case Garrett Graham doesn’t cut it.
+ Wide Receivers:
- Projected Starters: Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones
- Projected Backups: Lestar Jean, Trindon Holliday, Jeff Maehl
As evidenced throughout last season, the Texans are an entirely different football team with their best offensive playmaker on the field as compared to when he’s sidelined. His talent as a receiver aside, Dre’s presence alone makes the whole offense much more versatile thanks to his ability to stretch the defense, drawing attention from the safety, etc… But the talent drop-off was huge when he had to be out of the lineup. Last season, the Texans went 6-1 with Johnson and 4-5 without him. Other than “The Natural”, the Texans did not have a reliable go-to target downfield. They could not rely on Walter, who has consistent hands but lacks speed, nor could they trust Jones, who is fast, but doesn’t run good routes. Their talent levels are only that of a borderline WR2. As of now, although Johnson’s talent still puts him right up there with the league’s best, his age is starting to catch up to him. The Texans, therefore, need a fallback plan for their face-of-the-franchise receiver in case injury bug strikes again. All things considered, upgrades at wide receiver will definitely be one of the Texans’ top concerns this offseason.
- Special Teams
+ Kicker: vacant (FA Neil Rackers) Rackers connected on 84.2% of his attempts last season. He averaged over 90% in his three prior seasons, though. The Texans can choose to either upgrade by signing Matt Prater to a big contract or resign their veteran kicker to a smaller deal.
+ Punter: Brett Hartmann. The rookie averaged 44.4 yards/punt before going down with a torn ACL in week 13 against Atlanta. He’s earned himself a starting spot and should take the full-time punting duties next season should he come back healthy.
To conclude, here’s our list of the Texans’ needs that should be addressed this upcoming offseason, in order of importance:
- Resign Arian Foster
- Figure out what to do with Mario Williams
- Upgrade at WR
- Fill the holes at C and RG
- Upgrade at CB2
- Upgrade at NT
- Fill the hole at K
- Sign a backup TE
- Sign a backup passing-down LB
We will go into full detail regarding how to effectively address each of those needs within the remaining cap space in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!