by Greg DePalma, Ourlads.com contributor
2016 (9-7)…Won AFC South; lost divisional round road playoff game at New England, 34-16.
Owner Bob McNair…Longtime Houston resident brought football back to Houston in 2002 as an expansion franchise.
GM Rick Smith…Hired as GM in 2006; former Denver assistant coach and Director of Pro Personnel; part of two SB teams while with Broncos.
HC Bill O’Brien…4th-year; also serves as offensive play-caller after letting OC George Godsey go in January; first-time hired as an NFL HC; left Penn State after just two seasons as HC where he replaced the legendary Joe Paterno; New England assistant for five seasons including OC in 2011; Brown Grad.
Assistant HC Romeo Crennel…Promoted in January after serving three seasons as DC; former HC at both Kansas City and Cleveland; 5-time SB winning assistant coach (3 with Patriots & 2 with NY Giants); Western Kentucky Grad.
DC Mike Vrabel…Promoted in January after serving three seasons as LB coach; played in New England & Kansas City while Crennel was DC; 3-time SB champion with Patriots; Ohio State Grad.
ST Larry Izzo…2nd-year; former ST assistant with NY Giants where he won a SB; 3-time All-Pro ST player (1 with Dolphins & 2 with Patriots); 3-time SB champion with New England; played with Patriots while O’Brien was an assistant; Rice Grad.
Assistant ST Wes Welker…1st-year; first-time coach after 12-year playing career; retired in 2015; played with Patriots while O’Brien was an assistant; lost all three SBs he played in (2 with Patriots & 1 with Broncos); Texas Tech Grad.
QB Deshaun Watson
RB D’Onta Foreman
OT Julie’n Davenport
OT Breno Giacomini
DT Carlos Watkins
LB Zach Cunningham
S Marcus Gilchrist
QB Brock Osweiler
DT Vince Wilfork
LB John Simon
CB A.J. Bouye
FS Quinton Demps
QB…The obvious question on the minds of every Texans fan this preseason is whether stop-gap Tom Savage will hold off rookie first-round pick Deshaun Watson; and if so for how long? The rookie national champion from Clemson was my favorite quarterback from this recent draft class thanks to his ability to play elite football in the biggest games against the best defenses in the land. Can you say Alabama x 2? While there’s no denying Watson needs to be a more consistent player, he does have a great teacher and several key traits including leadership, intelligence and a passion for the game at the highest level that every premier QB must possess. Meanwhile, Savage has a chance to play here for a long time as Watson’s backup if he can continue to improve his overall game under the watchful eye and tutelage of O’Brien.
RB…Lamar Miller was a solid free agent pick-up last season and provides a reliable presence in the backfield. Alfred Blue has average ability which prompted Rick Smith to grab rookie D’Onta Foreman in the third-round. Tyler Ervin doesn’t have the size or power that the other rushers do, but he had a successful first season as a punt returner and he might get a chance to play more on third-down this season. The sleeper to make the roster here is rookie free agent Dare Ogunbowale. Like Ervin, Ogunbowale has excellent hands and will need to contribute on special teams.
TE…For the first time under O’Brien the tight-end position played a steady role with the offense as CJ Fiedorowicz & Ryan Griffin combined for 1001 yards and 6 TDs on 104 receptions. The question that still needs to be answered though is whether they were a product of Brock Osweiler’s conservative approach (dead last in yards per pass attempt) or if they’ll continue to be a regular part of the weekly game plan.
WR…DeAndre Hopkins is an elite level player who needs more help at the quarterback position to maximize his talents. In the coming years a Watson/Hopkins combo should be fun to watch. Last year’s top pick Will Fuller had his ups and downs which included a record-breaking rookie start through his first four games, but then ended up fizzling out over the last three-quarters of the season. If he can finally become a more consistent pass receiver the sky’s the limit thanks to his 4.3 speed and big play ability. Unfortunately for Fuller his collarbone injury early in camp will keep him out until possibly October or even as late as November. Speaking of injuries, fellow rookie Braxton Miller was limited by hamstring and shoulder injuries before being placed on IR in mid-December. O’Brien and staff have confidence Miller will make a difference as the team’s top slot receiver as early as this season. He might even be counted on to step up earlier than expected in Fuller’s absence. This is the last shot for Jaelen Strong. Strong has dealt with a myriad of injuries and off-the-field issues since arriving in 2015. He couldn’t have been granted a better reprieve though due to Fuller’s injury. I was personally high on Strong after watching him play a physical, exciting brand of football during his final season at Arizona State. If his head is on straight and he can avoid the injury bug Strong can end up saving his career with a big preseason and more.
OL…Left tackle Duane Brown is the linchpin of this unit and as long as he returns from his current contract holdout the offensive line should be much better this season. There’s no reason for me to believe that he won’t be ready to go on opening day. With Derek Newton already out for the upcoming season following a serious knee injury, the right tackle position is the actual primary concern here. Right now it’s a four-way battle in camp between last year’s fill-in starter Chris Clark, free agent pick-up Breno Giacomini, fourth-round pick Julie’n Davenport and sleeper Kendall Lamm. The center spot is in good condition with last year’s second-round pick Nick Martin returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him for his entire rookie season. If Martin ends up winning the job back as expected, I expect the interior of the line to dramatically improve overnight after Greg Mancz played surprisingly well in place of Martin last season. Mancz gives the Texans depth up the middle and could slide over to guard and replace the disappointing Xavier Su’a-Filo, who has yet to justify his second-round selection in 2014. Last year’s free agent guard pick-up Jeff Allen struggled when he moved over to the right side during his first season with the Texans. Allen also struggled with a nagging ankle injury that appeared to effect his mobility. With a healthy ankle and better conditioning – he reportedly dropped 20 pounds in the offseason – look for Allen to bounce back and provide the line with a boost.
DL…If the Texans have a shot to dethrone the Patriots they’ll need their superstar JJ Watt to return to health following the back injury that kept him out for the final 13 games last season. With Jadeveon Clowney emerging from Watt’s absence the organization must be drooling over the potential of pairing these two dynamic talents for an entire season. Last year’s fifth-round pick DJ Reader and this year’s fourth-round pick Carlos Watkins will replace Vince Wilfork who retired after the season. This former Clemson duo looks like a good partnership. Joel Heath and Christian Covington did a fine job last season as part-time contributors.
LB…By adding rookie second-round pick Zach Cunningham to a trio of talented performers like Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing this has the makings of a premier linebacker core that becomes even more scarier when Clowney gets his reps here. Brennan Scarlett, an undrafted rookie from Stanford impressed enough in his limited opportunities that he might get a chance to play a bigger role this season.
DB…After losing a pair of major secondary components to free agency in cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Quintin Demps, it was a bit of a surprise that until recently 5th-round corner Treston Decoud was the only new off-season addition to the secondary. With depth possibly an issue now, the health status for one of the top cornerback units in league could ultimately dictate their success. It starts with the return of rising star Kevin Johnson, who’s coming off a Week 6 knee injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season as well as Jonathan Joseph’s ability to continue to play at a high level as he enters year-twelve in the league. But if Johnson, Joseph or equally talented Kareem Jackson were to miss significant playing time, the Texans cornerback depth will be tested even greater this season. At safety, the loss of a leader like Demps to financial restraints is the more pressing question. Andre Hal, Eddie Pleasant and Corey Moore are decent players but nothing more. Last year’s fifth-round pick K.J. Dillon is the wild-card of the group, but he missed most of last season with a torn ACL and still needs to time to develop. With chatter going around in the off-season that Jackson could end up getting reps with the deep patrol, the Texans made a wise move by adding a cheap veteran to the roster in Marcus Gilchrist. The six-year vet injured his knee late last season with the Jets and was let go following the draft. His value as the elder statesman of the safety group could end up being just what this defense needs. Gilchrist is nothing more than an average conservative player, but thanks to a deep talent pool on defense he won’t be expected to do anything special anyway.
The most experienced kicking duo in the league resides here with punter Shane Lechler and place-kicker Nick Novak. And as mentioned above, Tyler Ervin had a quality first season as a top-10 caliber punt returner.
The Texans hard-fought playoff loss at New England proved they’re a quarterback short of building a long-term winning franchise. That explains their decision on draft day to move up and take a chance on Watson. While there’s no denying Houston will require much improved play at the quarterback position to truly contend, if the offensive line situation gets worked out and players like Clowney, Johnson and Watt can remain healthy, look out for the Texans to make a serious run at the Patriots in an effort to win the AFC.