Whether it’s Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, or Tom Savage who is at the helm of the Houston Texans offense in 2015, one thing is for sure: they are going to need help. Each of these quarterbacks lacks massive amounts of experience, and so the rest of the team is going to need to step up if they hope to be successful.
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Tight end Garrett Graham, heading into his sixth season in the league, is going to be a key piece of this team, and it is absolutely necessary that he can be consistent, reliable, and productive.
Graham has been a decent tight end for several years, but has failed to play a full 16-game season to this point in his career. Last season he suffered an ankle injury and only managed 18 catches for 197 yards in 11 games.
He was, however, the most productive tight end on the Texans roster. Neither of the team’s other two tight ends managed to catch even 100 yards worth of passes in 2014. The group only accumulated a total of 316 receiving yards, less than 10% of the team’s production.
In 2013, Graham managed 545 yards and 5 touchdowns, finishing third on the team in receiving. Even that production, however, was good for only 18th among league tight ends. If Graham can see himself emerge as one of the team’s top targets this year, he could be a huge help to the offense.
Brian Hoyer has already shown that he relies heavily on tight ends, as the tight ends in Cleveland where Hoyer played last season accounted for 822 receiving yards, almost one-quarter of the team’s total for 2014. In Hoyer’s three starts the year before in 2013, he completed 193 yards worth of passes to his tight ends, good for 32% of the team’s total.
Mallett, too, has shown a reliance on the tight end position, in particular Garrett Graham, completing 6 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown to Graham in his two starts last season. In the games that Mallett started in 2014, Graham averaged twice as many receiving yards than he did the rest of the season.
These are very small sample-sizes, but they definitely point towards a fondness these two guys have for passing to their tight ends. With one of them certainly taking the starting quarterback job in the coming month, this could mean big numbers for Houston’s tight ends. Even head coach Bill O’Brien has noted their love of tight ends:
"“..these quarterbacks seem to like to throw to tight ends, so I think it’s been a productive spring for the tight end position,” said O’Brien during team minicamp (per HoustonTexans.com)."
The Houston Texans as a team have also shown an ability to support highly productive tight ends.
Tight end Owen Daniels averaged 577 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns a year in eight seasons with the team, including 716 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2012, which was the most successful season in franchise history. The Texans finished the season 12-4 in 2012, and part of that was due to the 1,309 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns contributed by the team’s tight ends.
Head coach Bill O’Brien also has a lot of experience including tight ends in his offense. When he was with the New England Patriots, tight ends were very heavily involved in the passing game. This included a 2011 season in which O’Brien, then the offensive coordinator, coached tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to a combined 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns.
While it is clear that Graham does not have the athletic ability of either Gronkowski or Hernandez, he should still be able to produce heavily on a team coached by Bill O’Brien. Graham certainly has the pass-catching talent needed to help out a learning quarterback.
Some expect inconsistency from the quarterback position however, according to Texans beat writer Stephanie Stradley:
"“I don’t see a dominant tight end on this roster who would demand lots of touches. I think impact of tight end will be very dependent on matchups, but that there will be little week-to-week consistency,” says Stradley"
I think, however, that Graham has the potential to be this dominant tight end, and that he also has the ability to help fellow tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin along as they improve as young players. Graham was his team’s leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns in his final year of college football at Wisconsin, showing a potential to be the focal point of an offense.
Luckily for him, he won’t have to be the focal point, with Arian Foster, DeAndre Hopkins, Jaelen Strong, and Cecil Shorts all being very important. Instead, I expect Graham to play the crucial role of safety valve, picking up important third down conversions and snagging passes when his quarterback is about to go down.
For relatively inexperienced quarterbacks like Hoyer and Mallett, having this reliable target to help them out of tight spots and pick up tough yards can be extremely important. Having someone open five yards upfield or out in the flat can make the difference between a successful game offensively and a series of punts.
Graham has had a full season in O’Brien’s system to learn how it works and what it takes to be productive, and I think this will be key to his improvement in 2015. If he wants his quarterback to be successful this year, he needs to be fully engaged every down and make the most of every opportunity. It’s clear that these quarterbacks and this team have been successful when they’ve been able to get their tight ends involved, and I don’t expect that to change in 2015.
No matter who ends up starting for the Texans, he will probably want to rely heavily on his tight ends, with Graham right at the center. He’ll need to have a much more effective year this year than last year if he wants this to happen. If he can show great improvements from 2014, however, he’ll be able to offset Houston’s excellent outside receiving talent with a tough, reliable option in the middle, and really help out his offense.